THE PITCH COUNT
The pitch count should have a direct impact on each swing you take at the plate. Certain pitch counts favor the hitter and certain ones favor the pitcher. Just as the smart pitcher takes advantage of the times he is “ahead in the count,” the smart hitter understands when he has the advantage. In these situations, the hitter must try to capitalize and give it his best.
AHEAD IN THE COUNT: LOOK FOR THE GOOD PITCH
If you are ahead in the count 1-0, 2-0, 2-1, or 3-1, you should be looking for that “good pitch to hit.” Something in your favorite area of the plate that you usually hit hard. Knowing your strong spot is crucial in this situation. These are the times when you can really look for a pitch and when you get it, really take a strong cut at it. These “hitter’s counts” are not only ideal situations to look for a ball in a certain area, but are what are known at “fastball counts.” The pitcher does not want to risk throwing another ball and falling further behind in the count. So, you will usually get a fastball in these counts. If you know you are likely to get a fastball, your likelihood for success skyrockets (“hitting is timing”.) In addition, on 2-0, 2-1, 3-1 and 3-0 counts, that fastball is going to be “fatter” (thrown more to the center of the strike zone) because that pitcher does not want to give you a base on balls. These are pitches you should be able to hit to all parts of the ballpark with authority.
On the 1-0 count, although you are ahead, it is early and the pitcher may take a chance with a different pitch. Or he may throw a fastball to a certain location. Certainly, your level of competition and age group play a factor in what might be thrown in these situations. Up to the age of 15-16 the tendencies described here are pretty steadfast. Above that, and on up to the Major Leagues, pitchers have much greater control of a variety of pitches and may be willing to risk throwing something other than a fastball on a “fastball count.” The pitch generally thrown at these higher levels is that particular pitcher’s “best” pitch (which is another good reason to study your opposing pitcher while you are in the on-deck circle). However, studies show that a fastball is still the most likely pitch. Knowing that, and remembering that a large part of hitting is timing, you should look for the fastball. If you get anything else, unless it is so nice you can’t resist hitting it, let it go by. This is called being patient and waiting for a good pitch to hit. At the very worst the umpire will call it a strike and you deal with the next count.
EVEN IN THE COUNT: HIT THE OTHER WAY
If you are even in the count 1-1, or down 0-1, you must adopt a different mind-set to be a successful hitter. Approach these counts with the idea that you are going to hit the ball “the other way.” One reason for this approach is that you will naturally track the ball a fraction of a second longer, giving you more time to decide if the pitch is going to be a strike. Additionally, this approach gives you the ability to hit pitches away from you, or on the “outside corner” of the plate. Pitchers like to nibble with borderline pitches to see if batters will chase them. If they do, the pitcher is in control. If not, he has to adjust. Pitchers generally like to nibble on the outside of the plate as that is the most difficult pitch to learn to hit. At higher levels of play the pitcher will “come inside” to set up something “outside” on the next pitch. It is imperative that you take a “battling” mind-set with you to the plate. When you have two strikes on you it is “war” between you and the pitcher. Cut down on your swing, keep your head still, and intensely track the ball the moment it leaves the pitcher’s hand. Your goal is to “get a piece of it” if it is anywhere close to the strike zone. If you hit it fair. . . fine. If it’s a real tough pitch in a tough location. . .foul it off. The more pitches you make the pitcher throw in these situations, the greater your advantage. First, the pitcher cannot remain perfect. Sooner or later he is going to make a mistake and throw you a good ball to hit. Second, the more pitches you make him throw, the more fatigued he becomes, which may lead to more mistakes.
BEHIND IN THE COUNT: KEEP BATTLING
Don’t let the umpire decide, keep battling. Many a hitter has been called out on a third strike that was “close.” Don’t risk it. Keep battling. Chances are you will get a better pitch to hit. This is “two strike” hitting or “protecting the plate,” a totally different approach than when you are ahead in the count. A good hitter understands the game well enough to adjust his mental approach on each pitch, as the count changes. It is always better to “go down swinging” than be “caught looking” at the third strike as it goes by. Every good hitter will always strike out sometimes, but the best hitters always strike out swinging.
THE FIRST PITCH: TAKE IT OR LEAVE IT?
The one pitch count I haven’t addressed is the 0-0 count. The first pitch. There are two schools of thought about this pitch. Some of the great hitters adopt the position that they want to look at the first pitch. See what the pitcher’s got. Get a gauge for his speed, etc. Their thought process is that if hitting is timing they will be in a better position to time their swing. I believe in the opposite, for two reasons: One, you should have been paying attention during your time in the on-deck circle. Or, if you are the first batter of the game, during the pitcher’s warm up. My point is this, study the pitcher, know him, he is your adversary. The second, and most important reason, is this: Pitchers are instructed from Little League to the Major Leagues (and every stop in between) to get ahead in the count! “First pitch, first strike, first out” is drilled into them from an early age. It stands to reason that most first pitches are going to be “good pitches to hit.” I believe in treating the 0-0 pitch like a 2-0 pitch. Look for a fastball in your “zone.” If you get it. . .smash it. Swing hard at this pitch. If you miss it, it’s only 0-1 and you have two strikes left. If the pitch is not to your liking, let it go by. The worst it can be is 0-1. Plus, you had a chance to “look” at one to see what the pitcher has. Rickey Henderson is the most prolific first pitch hitter that ever lived. He has more first pitch, first at-bat home runs than any player in the history of the game. Rickey is not considered a power hitter. How then is he able to hold this distinction? I’ll tell you. . .he is a smart hitter. He looks for that grooved fastball on the first pitch. When he gets it, he pounces on it! Very often the first pitch in an at-bat is the best pitch you will see. If you live by the philosophy to always “take” that pitch, guess how many times you will start out 0-1? A lot. Pitchers are not dummies. If you show a tendency, believe me they will try to exploit it. On the other hand, if you are known for crushing the first pitch fastball two things could happen. One, they won’t give you a very good pitch to hit very often. Which means you will probably be ahead in the count 1-0 (depending on the umpire, or the quality of the pitch). Or two, you will see plenty of breaking and off-speed pitches on the first pitch which the smart hitter can adjust to.
Good Luck and Play Ball!