Fire Up the Machine: How Teams Are Teaching Hitting in a Pitcher’s World

We often hear about how pitchers are overmatching hitters these days, and with good reason. In the last 10 years, teams have discovered how to develop velocity at scale. After generations of going by feel and repetition, pitchers now lean on sophisticated tools and technology to burnish their arsenals and optimize their spin profile. Catchers have chipped in too, turning subtle positional and glovework adjustments into an avalanche of additional strikes on balls near the edges of the plate.

Hitters, meanwhile, spent the decade trying to play catch up. Strikeouts have climbed 5% in the past 10 years. Alongside, the league batting average has plummeted from .251 down into the .230s over that span. An industry-wide emphasis on steeper swing planes did fuel a surge in home runs, but even these gains are somewhat superficial, buoyed as they are by the juiced ball. Even with the recent crackdown on sticky substances, pitchers remain dominant.

Nobody ever stays ahead for too long in baseball though, and if you turn toward the farm, there are signs of life on the offensive side of the game. They’re not necessarily reflected in the numbers — most minor league circuits have more strikeouts and fewer dingers than the majors — but league stats bely real differences in how teams and hitters are preparing for battle against a modern pitcher’s arsenal. These gains are not spread equally across the league. Rather, the clubs that have most successfully invested time and resources into combatting high-spin fastballs at the top of the zone and a steady diet of breaking balls everywhere else have pulled ahead from the pack.

It starts in practice. The days of a coach lobbing BP from 40 feet away two hours before a game aren’t gone exactly, but progressive teams are increasingly finding better ways to develop hitters than a traditional batting practice session. The pitching machine, long out of favor among hitters at all levels of baseball, has become a vital part of a modern training regimen.

As a general matter, many hitters don’t really like hitting off machines. The lack of arm action is a poor simulation for the rhythm hitters want to feel in the box, and it feels artificial to get a bunch of pitches in the same location. Plus, on many machines, the ball seems to behave oddly, flying higher or lower than expected.

It turns out, however, that those last two factors may be more feature than bug. Have you ever hit against a pitching machine? Did it seem like the ball didn’t dip as much as it should have? If so, you were probably just having problems adjusting to the spin. Given the perfect spin efficiency and lofty spin rate (team analysts quoted me figures spanning 2400-2800 rpm, depending on the settings) you get out of most machines, these devices are actually perfect for giving hitters repetitions against high-spinning fastballs. For one American League hitting coordinator, it’s the perfect teaching tool.

“What used to happen is when guys would use the machine in the past, they would swing underneath it and then get frustrated,” he said. “Now guys realize, ‘Okay, this is exactly what’s happening in a game. I just gotta figure out now how to combat this in a cage setting so that I’m not doing the same thing in the game.’”

The hitters themselves are responding positively. “Four years ago, if you set up a machine, you might see a quarter of the guys use it. Now, damn near everybody is getting on that machine. There’s way more buy-in.”

Another teaching tactic is to instruct the hitters to attack the top half of the ball. One of the hitting coordinators I spoke with acknowledged that it’s a bit counter-intuitive, but that the terminology is really just a mental cue: “It’s not sexy to say on Twitter but we try to get guys to lower their sights in batting practice. What we see now is balls that are hit real high in the air during BP usually equate to swing and misses or foul balls underneath the pitch in the game.”

The reasoning here is clear. In a BP setting, where the ball isn’t thrown firmly, the ball will sink. Hitters dialing in their swing in that setting are consequently ill-prepared for a fastball with carry. “If you get the barrel underneath the plane of a fastball that’s 97, that’s got some spin and carry to it, it’s not going to drop down into your barrel,” the AL coordinator explained. “The ultimate goal is to drive a ball out of the yard in the game, and what we do in practice should help us get to that point.”

Everyone I spoke with placed an emphasis on practice and increasing the rigor of pre-game work. Throughout the industry, there’s an increasing sense that the pre-game swings in a traditional BP may keep hitters loose and help them feel good about their power, but don’t offer much else. For Connor Dawson, hitting coordinator for the Seattle Mariners, that doesn’t cut it anymore. “Rather than take a bunch of swings in a very low stress environment, let’s challenge ourselves to get good reps and get as close to a game situation as possible, so our eyes and our body are trained to move and recognize the game speeds.”

The same mantra applies when it comes to preparing hitters to attack breaking balls. One source said “We try to hit breaking balls every single day. Really that’s the pitch that they’re trying to get you out with.”

It’s no mystery why, as just about every hitter posts worse numbers against off-speed pitches. Pitchers have noticed and have started throwing them a lot more often in recent years. In 2011, pitchers threw fastballs nearly 60% of the time. So far in 2021, that’s down to barely 50%. Depending on their opponent, hitters can go entire games without seeing a fastball in a location they can drive. Perhaps paradoxically, that’s made it all the more important for hitters to do damage against the heat. When I asked one major league hitting coordinator how he prepares his players for a steady diet of off-speed, he talked about the importance of being able to catch up to velocity.

“Guys struggle with hitting off-speed when they feel like they have to cheat to get to a fastball,” one hitting instructor said, noting the importance of guys with bat speed and good quick-twitch muscles. “Guys that don’t have to cheat to hit a fastball, they don’t struggle as much.”

From there, the next phase in the battle is getting players to a point where they can better recognize spin, particularly in locations where the pitch is likely to wind up a ball. “The big issue with a lot of swing and miss isn’t that they’re swinging and missing,” Dawson said. “It’s more that they’re swinging at balls.”

Another source agreed.

“A huge piece of battling breaking balls is just taking the off-speed pitches out of the zone,” he added. “The ones that are thrown for strikes are often up in the zone, and those are the ones that you can hammer.”

Beyond training, teams themselves are getting better at identifying which players are likely to thrive against contemporary hurlers. It starts with identifying players who can hit for contact, and it’s not as simple as filtering a spreadsheet of high school or college players with low whiff rates (though, of course, that often is a positive indicator). One common marker? Players who don’t already have really steep launch angles. Not only do these players often already have a good feel for the barrel, but given their natural swing path, as they start to see more high-spin pitches, they may just start naturally putting the ball in the air more.

“The thought here,” one coordinator explained, “is that when [these types of players] start to see better velocity, they’re going to have a chance of getting behind it instead of being on top of it.”

Feedback is an important part of the process, too. Technology around the sport has improved quite a bit in recent years, which has made it easier for teams to give their players actionable scouting reports. Some of the tools are pretty cool. The AL hitting coordinator explained that his organization has an internal system that grades how good each swing is, and identifies retroactively which pitches were and weren’t good balls to chase. Dawson also noted that the six-game series is actually a useful development tool, because it gives hitters a chance to face pitchers more than once in a short period of time: “The first time they face someone may not work out well, but we’re starting to see more and more that the second and third time they see those guys, they have a lot more competitive at-bats.”

In this environment, one of the challenges that coaches and instructors face is to not overload their personnel with information. One coordinator talked about mental fatigue, and how teams must be prepared for the realities of a long season, which will inherently include a lot of failure and tough lessons.

“You think about just how much the game beats you up as an offensive player… you don’t want to get beat up too often in practice either.”

With that in mind, sometimes there is a role for practice sessions with more positive feedback. Particularly if a player is struggling, it can be hard to go from a challenging practice session, to a difficult game, to a lot of negative feedback in the postgame. It’s often better for coaches to pick their moments. It’s also important for any instruction to be delivered in a way that players can relate to and understand. One obvious tactic is to provide that instruction in a language that each player can understand. Dawson made a point to mention this, noting that all of the low-level teams in the Mariners system had Spanish-speaking coaches.

Ultimately, hitters still have their work cut out for them. Hitting is inherently reactive, and the combination of increased velocity and tailored off-speed pitches will continue to challenge all but the very best batters in the sport. But hitters are increasingly getting the tools they need to fight back. They’re practicing against high spin fastballs. They’re getting more game-like reps than they would have five years ago. They’re getting real-time feedback on their swing decisions, and teams are getting smarter about how they identify future productive hitters. Pitchers may reign supreme for now but if you squint, you can see a path to a more level playing field.

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1 year ago

This is a really cool article. It makes me think of The Athletic reporting that Rocco Baldelli has made live BP optional, recognizing that it’s not representative of what players will see in the game. The Athletic also mentioned Byron Buxton hasn’t hit live BP in two years, instead focusing on honing his swing in the batting cage by the clubhouse.