By JIM SCHWANKE
Special To Collegiate Baseball
© 2009 Collegiate Baseball
HOUSTON, Tex. — On opening day of the 1999 Division Series, I watched the Houston Astros defeat the decade’s best pitcher, Greg Maddux, 6-1.
The Astros took the four-time Cy Young Award winner deep into counts repeatedly, drawing four walks and 10 hits. Maddux left after seven innings and 110 pitches.
In 1997, the Florida Marlins beat Maddux during their championship run, drawing an unheard of number of free passes by forcing the right-hander to throw extra pitches. The 1998 New York Yankees saw more pitches than any other team enroute to their World Series title.
These are major league examples of hitter discipline helping teams beat an elite pitcher and win championships at the highest level. Creating a sense of discipline throughout a lineup is one of the secrets of championship teams.
First, hitters must have an attack plan to beat the pitcher rather than worrying about what the pitcher is going to do to them. Next, the coach must show patience and understanding that developing disciplined hitters is the best way to beat the talented pitchers you face in championship contests.
Finally, a coach must have an understanding of his own players’ capabilities and the flexibility to change his team’s attack when the opponent or an umpire negates his disciplined approach.
As a ball club, hitters must have an understanding of what they are trying to do. Citing major league examples like those above reinforces the idea of getting a good pitch to hit. Discuss pitch counts, 150 or more a game, strike percentages of fastballs and curveballs, and soon players will begin to understand that even the best pitchers are not invincible.
Even Cy Young Award winners and All-Americans are going to make 10 to 15 mistakes a game and throw another 20 to 30 pitches a game when the hitter is ahead in the count.
As a team, the hitters would like to have some scouting information about the opposing pitcher.
Great Curveball Pitchers
For example, let us assume the lineup is going to face a starting pitcher with a dominant curveball. Of those 40 breakers, how many would be called strikes?
Great curveball pitchers rarely throw more than 60% strikes with their breaking pitch including swings. In this case, assume 20 are in the zone and 20 bounce in the dirt or miss the zone, roughly 50% called strikes. Of the 20 called strikes, 10 will be hangers and 10 are going to be tough pitches on the corner. That means this pitcher with the great yakker is only going to throw 10 pitches that will be really tough to hit.
As a disciplined team, the curveball becomes less of a factor because this guy is only going to throw 10 of 100 pitches that are tough curveballs. Chances are he will not be able to throw back-to-back breaking balls for strikes very often. If the team eliminates the pitch early in the count and exhibits discipline throughout the lineup, someone will pound one of those 10 hanging breaking balls and affect the game.
Skip Bertman, Louisiana State University’s former Hall of Fame head coach, often reminded his hitters to sit on the same pitch that had just retired the previous hitter.
That was a specific plan for a hitter. In the 1996 College World Series, that simple plan served Warren Morris and LSU well. In a climatic at-bat, Warren stepped into the box following a 3-2 curveball strikeout of Tim Lanier by Miami’s dominant closer, Robbie Morrison. With two outs and the tying run at third base, Warren sat on a curveball and Morrison threw a tough pitch.
With a plan, talent, and a great swing, Morris hit the most dramatic home run in College World Series history. He remembered the advice of his coach, made it his plan, and gave the Tiger fans a thrill of a lifetime.
When a team faces an opponent with a dominant fastball, they have to determine what the pitcher brings to the mound. Is the fastball straight? If it is, that is good news for the hitters. Can he throw to both sides of the plate when he wants to? If not, more good news. Can he go up and down in the strike zone? Most pitchers do not have that type of command.
All of a sudden, the guy with the major league velocity can only throw strikes on the outer two-thirds of the plate, down on their lower thighs, and turn it loose. If he locates a pitch somewhere on a corner, give him credit and move on to the next offering.
If he misses, shrink the strike zone. He is coming right back to that spot. Throwing the fastball to that location in the strike zone is where he locates 80% of his pitches. The hitter should expect a fastball right in his wheelhouse.
In the 1997 College World Series, Brandon Larson faced the No. 1 draft choice in the country, Rice’s Matt Anderson. Our plan was to hit the fastball the opposite way and work through every breaking ball. Matt threw 92-98 mph and sometimes made breaking ball mistakes.
Blair Barbier had drawn a walk and Brandon stepped to the plate with LSU trailing, 4-2. He took a first pitch ball (BB in the dirt) and a 1-0 strike (FB in the middle). He showed discipline taking the 1-0 fastball because he needed to time the fastball. At 1-1, Brandon got a hanging breaking ball, worked through the pitch, and hammered the hanger into the Omaha night. That amazing at-bat propelled us to a great comeback win against college baseball’s most talented pitcher.
As a coach, you must constantly reinforce your plan for the hitters and not chastise them when they take pitches. Fans and coaches that belittle players for taking pitches always amuse me because they think every called strike is right down the middle.
Patience Is Crucial
Patience and then more patience is paramount. If you are going to create disciplined team offense to win championships, extending at-bats and increasing pitch counts are the keys. Your players must have the freedom to take borderline pitches early in the count and not be subject to second-guessing by coaches. It is the best way to build their confidence and confident hitters give your club the best chance to beat a quality pitcher at crunch time.
Gary Ward, now coaching at New Mexico State, taught me a great deal about discipline. When I played for him at Yavapai Junior College, he would throw hours of batting practice and demand we swing at only strikes. He would end a hitter’s round when the athlete swung at a pitch on the wrong side of the plate. He only used the take sign on 3-0 pitches, and we developed a great deal of confidence in our knowledge of the strike zone.
At Oklahoma State, his teams displayed a remarkable sense of discipline and patience that became legendary. The bottom line was to get a pitch you are looking for and put a good swing on it. The results were tremendous on-base percentages, scoring records, and a NCAA record seven consecutive trips to Omaha for the Cowboys. He believed he could help every player improve himself offensively through a disciplined approach to team offense.
Many skeptical coaches fall prey to the attitude that hitting is uncoachable. They believe the skill is a God-given talent and they cannot help the hitter improve. Their idea of a good offensive scheme is to swing hard at three pitches anywhere in the strike zone and do not swing at real “bad” pitches way out of the strike zone. To help his undisciplined hitters, the coach with this approach takes control of ball-strike discipline with the take sign.
Ask Greg Maddux if he wants to face a guy who will swing at every strike thrown early in the count and a team that will be forced to take a lot of 2-0 and 3-1 pitches.
He will tell you that team is playing right into his hand. How else can you explain the 78 pitch major league complete game Greg threw last year?
You have to teach your hitters good mechanics, identify what pitch each guy hits the best, where that pitch needs to be in the strike zone, and work a plan to get into hitter’s counts.
That is the best way to win championship games.
For instance, if you have a good fastball hitter that has a 2-0 count, he has to learn to identify and hit a good pitch and take a well-located strike from the pitcher. If he has a tendency to swing at the high fastball and you fear he may chase the zone up, do not use the take sign.
Let him fail or succeed working within the team’s plan. Why do you do this?
Because when your hitter is facing the high draft choice in the playoffs with two guys on base, looking at a 2-0 count in the eighth inning, you are going to flash a take sign?
No! You want the hitter to get a good pitch to hit and drive in two runs! So, let him learn about himself all year long so he has a better chance to recognize the right 2-0 pitch and hammer it in the title game.
Many coaches have unique, one-dimensional philosophies when it comes to team offense. Most short game schools feel everybody should be able to bunt, hit-and-run, slash and steal. They believe relying on power is a sure way to lose the big game.
Long ball schools sit back waiting for the big shot and do not execute the short game. I think it is important to practice all aspects of the game and educate your players about their limitations as runners, power hitters and double play threats.
With that understanding, you ask them to execute the game based on their capabilities. It is wrong for a coach to show anguish when a slow athlete hits into a double play when a sac bunt would have eliminated an out and may have moved the runner(s).
Better Approach Needed
It is low percentage for a fast runner to stand at first base and not steal while a coach waits for a hitter with a .350 slugging percentage to drive him in from first base. It is much better to ask the slower athletes without power to hit and run, slash and sacrifice.
It is a high percentage play to use your speed guys to avoid the double play by turning them loose to steal a bag. In essence, let your players execute the game the way they are capable and not demand of them to play the game the way you feel comfortable coaching. Take advantage of their skills. Give them the best chance to win by explaining the percentages to them and encouraging them to rely on discipline and execution.
In some game situations, no amount of discipline in the world can overcome a pitcher with fastball command and an umpire with a wide strike zone. This situation should be recognized during the first six outs of the game and the coach and the team must take adjustments.
Your catcher must let you know if the strike zone is too wide in the first or second inning. As a coach, you can reduce the strike zone pressure created by the umpire playing the short game, running early, using the hit-and-run game and bunting to move base runners with outs.
Otherwise, a coach will be mesmerized watching his disciplined hitters walk back from home plate shaking their heads while the outs and the game slip away. In a long season, I think an increase in the use of the short game may help a team on the days they bump into the wide zone and a couple of other common circumstances.
Reliance on the short game may help a club overcome short-term injuries, a lack of hitting talent or power and minimize the duration of team slumps.
In any event, I do know discipline works in the batter’s box. There is nothing better than a 3-2, four foul ball walk to start a rally. It demonstrates tenacity, inspires an offense, and what often follows is a blast to cap off an inning. A team that refuses to giveaway outs exhibits an air of confidence that is tough to beat.
Teach your hitters discipline, trust and use their talents, and inspire confidence in them by allowing the athletes to fail or succeed in regular season contests.
Do everything you can to instill confidence in your hitters by praising quality at-bats and reminding them of their responsibility for strike zone discipline.
In important situations, the athletes must perform under pressure without mixed signals from a coaching staff and self-induced pressure.
Patient coaching, a consistent approach and the freedom to trust their judgement in the box will produce the most confident hitter you can as a coach. Confident hitters become tough outs and when the championship is on the line, disciplined hitters will give you the best chance to win.
In watching the 1999 World Series, Barry Larkin presented a pre-game segment prior to Game 3 about the confrontation between the Yankee patience and discipline against Tom Glavine’s command. As the game unfolded, the battle Larkin predicted played out in the House that Ruth built.
Glavine used the zone effectively through seven innings and then the Yankees struck in the eighth. Their team’s discipline reward was Chuck Knoblach’s game tying homerun on a 2-0 fastball.
That blast led to a 3-0 series lead and the Team of the Century completed the sweep the next day. Patience and discipline triumphed again in the last World Series of the 20th century.
Practical Instruction To Help Teach Discipline
1. Learn your pitch. Every drill requires the players to swing at strikes. Every toss in a soft toss drill must be thigh high over the plate. Players must learn to make a good move at pitches right in the middle of the strike zone. Use soft toss drills to find where you hit the ball the best in the vertical strike zone (up or down).
2. Get a good pitch. In batting practice, hitters must have strike zone responsibility. If they are hitting fast balls, they must be getting pitches to pull and taking the outside pitch. If they are working on going to the opposite field, they need to take the inside fastball. Hit the pitch you are looking for and take pitches off location.
3. Hammer the hanger. To learn to hit the breaking ball, hitters must recognize a hittable curveball and take the tough pitch. Hammer the hanger, take the breaker.
The hanger starts off the plate and finishes in the middle. The breaker starts in the middle of the plate and breaks off the plate.
The hittable breaking ball must start above the release point of the hand of the pitchers.
If the pitch starts above his hand and off the plate, move through the pitch and hammer it when it finishes in the middle.
4. Batting practice with counts. In batting practice, use simulated counts to force hitters to learn strike zone discipline. For example, have a hitter take rounds of five pitches with a 2-0 count. He should swing at pitches in the zone he wants and take borderline pitches.
It may take 8 to 10 pitches to get the five he wants, but that is the goal of a disciplined hitter. Handle a good pitch in your hole when it shows up.
5. Hit the right pitch. In batting practice, mix fastballs and curveballs and demand the hitter swing at only at the pitch he tells you he is looking for.
As an example, the hitter must take a fastball when he is sitting on the curveball.
6. Tough outs. In batting practice, stage a two-strike drill The goal is to win three pitches by taking balls out of the zone, fouling pitches off, and letting the ball get as deep as possible toward the hitter before he swings. The hitter should get jammed often. In a round of five 0-2 pitches, see how many the hitter can “win.”
7. Use the sweet spot. In tee work, the hitter should explore the geometry of the game. It should be evident to the hitter that the four to six-inch sweet spot on the metal bat cannot cover the inside and outside corner simultaneously. It is even more critical when using a wood bat with a two-inch sweet spot. The hitter should work at both corners so he begins to understand that when he is looking inside, he cannot handle the outside pitch. When he is working away, he has to take the inside pitch.
8. Demand execution. In the execution rounds (bunting, slashes, hit-and-runs), demand strike zone discipline and practice performance. Shrink the zone and bunt strikes. Bunt the ball to the correct side of the diamond. Avoid swinging and missing during a hit-and-run.
9. Five means intensity. Do all your drills in batting practice with rounds of five swings.
The hitter should be able to focus and monitor his own performance. Beyond five swings in the round, the hitter loses intensity. Coaches and the on-deck hitters waiting also have a chance to become distracted.
10. Cage work without coaches. Stage game situations and ball strike counts in your cage drills. For example, have a 3-1 drill and demand your throwers mix in 50% curve balls.
The hitter should sit on the fastball and take the spinner.
Even if the breaker is a hanger, the hitter should not swing at the pitch.
Remember that the drill is about strike zone discipline and not how many swings a hitter can get in a short period.