Adrian Gonzalez is a student of hitting, which should come as no surprise given that he is one of the game’s premier sluggers. The left-handed-hitting first baseman has a career slash line of .288/.369/.510, and this season he’s been even better. In his first 50 games with the Red Sox, he’s hitting a superstar-caliber .337/.385/.553.
David Laurila: Is hitting simple or is it complicated?
Adrian Gonzalez: Hitting is simple. We make it complicated. We look into mechanics and a lot of different things that could be wrong, instead of simplifying everything by staying back and letting our hands go to the ball. In this profession, because of how good the pitchers are, it’s hard not to look at a lot of different things.
Getting hits is extremely hard. Swinging, just getting up there and hitting, and doing the right mechanics, that’s what I’m saying is simple. But when you put in all of the equations, like the pitcher on the mound and the defense that’s behind him, that’s what makes it complicated.
DL: What role do hitting coaches play for you?
AG: They’re there to make sure there aren’t inconsistencies. I think that the best hitting coaches are the ones that know when to say something. A lot of times an issue doesn’t have to be mechanical; it can be mental. I’m at a point where I don’t need much guidance from them. I just need them to make sure my mind is in the right place.
DL: Mark McGwire told me that it’s impossible to cover all 17 inches of the plate at the big-league level, that you have to focus on one side or the other. Do you agree?
AG: Sure. If you focus on the whole plate, then you’re going to swing at everything and you’re not going to be able to get a good pitch to drive. And looking at one side isn’t guessing. It’s game planning.
DL: What goes into game planning?
AG: You have to make sure that… for me, I watch every pitcher. I write down what I think, what I’m going to look for, what my game plan will be, whether it’s going to be to look away, look in, look up, look down. From there, I go into the game knowing that I have a game plan I can go with. Win or lose, I’m going to be prepared.
DL: How much does an individual pitcher impact your approach?
AG: Every pitcher is different, so you can’t have one approach for every pitcher. You need to make an approach off of each individual guy.
DL: Does the ballpark impact your approach?
AG: No. You’re not hitting to a ballpark, you’re hitting against a pitcher. [In a smaller park] you just know that you can mis-hit a ball and it might be a home run. I have the same approach here that I did in San Diego.
DL: How have you evolved as a hitter over the course of your career?
AG: I’ve learned a lot when it comes to staying behind the ball, and staying on top, knowing that you can’t have success against every pitcher with the same approach. You have to have different approaches. You have to know what kind of pitcher they are; you have to know what they’re trying to do against you.
DL: What do you see when the ball comes out of the pitcher’s hand?
AG: I see rotation. I can pick up on what the pitch is as soon as the pitcher lets go of it. Most of what you see is innate. If you ask some of the great hitters, they won’t all say the same thing. Some just see balls. Some guys see speed out of the hand. I can’t recognize speed, but I can recognize rotation. Some guys can recognize speed but not rotation and some guys just see a ball and swing. They just let their abilities take over and that’s not something you can teach.
DL: Are pitch recognition and plate discipline the same thing?
AG: They’re different, because you can recognize a pitch and hit it even though it’s out of the strike zone. Plate discipline means that you’re not going to swing at balls. A guy who has really good pitch recognition can hit pitches out of the zone for singles, doubles and even home runs. Look at a guy like Vladimir Guerrero. He’s got pitch recognition, whereas a guy who walks a lot might have plate discipline, but not recognition.
DL: It has been said that all good hitters get jammed. What does that mean?
AG: You’ve got to let the ball travel. You have to let the ball get deep and not be afraid to break your bat. To square up a pitch on the inside, you have to get your hands inside the ball. You can’t hit around the baseball. You have to stay inside.
DL: What do a lot of fans not understand about hitting?
AG: That hitting has evolved. It’s not the same that it was 10-15 years ago. Back then it was “go get the ball, hit it out front,” and now it’s “let it get to you, stay behind the ball, and make sure that your weight stays back.”
Pitchers are throwing more pitches now, and they’re moving the ball more. You can’t go out there and expect the ball to be straight. Very rarely will a pitcher throw a ball straight. Ten, 15 years ago, not every pitcher had four or five pitches. Now they do and you have to keep that in mind. Pitchers throw two-seamers, four-seamers and cutters with their fastball, and they throw a slider and a change, or a curveball and a change. The ball is moving all over the place and if you just go after the ball you’re going to get jammed or hit it off the end of the bat. You have to let it get deep.
David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from December 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.