Six weeks ago, Adrian Gonzalez sat down with Fangraphs to discuss the finer points of hitting, including topics such as plate coverage, pitch recognition and staying inside the baseball. Not all hitters think exactly alike, so in this week’s Q&A we’ll hear from a pair of Brewers teammates — and National League All-Stars — Ryan Braun and Rickie Weeks.
Editor’s Note: The duo answered the same questions, but in separate interviews, one day apart.
David Laurila: Is hitting simple or is it complicated?
Ryan Braun: I think it can be as simple or as complicated as you want it to be. We try to simplify the game, but ultimately it’s a complicated process. When we’re going good, everything is simple, but for us, as hitters, when we’re struggling it becomes more complicated.
Hitting is very technical. There are so many things that have to happen to put yourself in a correct position to consistently hit the ball hard. It’s not an easy thing to do.
Rickie Weeks: There’s a fine line, because you don’t want to make it too hard on yourself. At the same time, hitting isn’t simple. It’s one of those things where you can be in the league for 10-15 years and still be trying to figure out your swing and what makes you tick. It’s definitely not easy, and you try to perfect it each year.
The way you make hitting complicated is…the old adage is “see the ball, hit the ball,” If you just go off of that, a lot of times it makes it easier. Maybe. But at the same time, you know that a hitter is worrying about his hands, where his feet are positioned, what the pitcher is going to throw — things of that nature. A lot of times, it’s the hitter that makes hitting complicated.
DL: Is hitting an art or a science?
Braun: Again, it’s both, man. It depends on how you look at it. In its simplest form, it’s an art, but as it becomes more and more complicated. it’s a science. You can break the mechanics down, break the timing down, break down the bat path. There are just so many things that are complicated. That’s the science part, but while you’re doing it you try not to think about those things.
Weeks: It’s an art. You can’t say it’s a science, because it’s not predictable. You’ve got guys standing tall, you’ve got guys squatting and wide-based. I can’t say that it’s a science at all.
DL: What role do hitting coaches play for you?
Braun: As a hitter, you’re always making minor adjustments. You hope that, when you’re going through a period of time when you’re not swinging the bat as well as you’d like, a hitting coach can recognize what’s going on. And your hitting coach is basically your psychologist, trying to keep you from going crazy. This can be a frustrating game at times.
I think that everybody is different, and sometimes completely different. That’s one of the most challenging jobs for a hitting coach, figuring out how to deal with each player.
Weeks: The biggest thing is familiarity. You can go back to film, and all that stuff, but the biggest thing [for a hitting coach] is knowing each hitter — what makes him tick and what makes him good. Every hitter is different, and as you go along, the biggest thing is for them to know what you can and can’t do.
DL: Can a hitter cover the entire plate, or does he need to focus on one side or the other?
Braun: I try to focus down the middle. I think for all of us, as hitters, we make the majority of our money on pitches that are somewhere near the middle of the plate. When pitches are located on the inside black, or the outside black, you have very little chance of getting an extra-base hit. My goal is to get as many extra-base hits as possible and the majority of those come on pitches that are somewhere near the middle. I feel that if I give the pitcher too much credit, and look away or look in, I might miss the pitch down the middle, which is the one I have the best chance of doing damage on.
I basically look middle and adjust. Sometimes you have a pitcher who is really hitting his spots, and is consistently pitching to one side of the plate, so it doesn’t make sense not to make that adjustment. But more often than not, I try to look middle.
Weeks: I would say [focusing on one side] is accurate. A lot of times you have guys throwing 95 mph, [so] you can’t hit the inside pitch when you’re thinking outside pitch. You might hit it, but you probably won’t hit it with any authority.
Sometimes you go from pitch to pitch when it comes to what you expect the pitcher to do to you. You try to look at a certain location, or for a certain pitch in a count, and you might guess at it. Actually, it really isn’t guessing. Sometimes you just have an idea, in a small part of the back of your mind, of what he’s going to throw.
DL: How much do you utilize scouting reports and video?
Braun: It changes from series to series. It depends on how I’m feeling at the plate and whether it’s a pitcher I’ve faced before or not. I definitely have a routine. Prior to every game, I’ll watch at least some video of the opposing pitcher so that I have an idea of what I’m getting myself into. I’ll also look at the scouting report, but again, I try not have too many thoughts going into my head come game time. I try to simplify things and get all of that stuff out of the way early. I go into the game, see the ball and hit the ball.
Weeks: I think the biggest thing for me…I like to see video on the pitcher I’m going to be facing, to see what his release point is and what kind of pitches he throws. That’s about it, really.
DL: Are pitch recognition and plate discipline two different things?
Braun: They’re different. It’s easy, sometimes, to recognize a pitch, but not necessarily if it’s a strike or a ball. A lot of times you can recognize pretty early if it’s going to be a curveball or a slider out of a pitcher’s hand, but depending on the pitcher — and depending on the velocity and the movement — it’s difficult to decide if it’s going to be a strike or a ball until it’s a lot closer to you. In that respect, they’re different.
Weeks: Definitely. Plate discipline is just knowing what you can handle. Pitch recognition is just…you might see it out of his hand, but you just can’t hit it. They’re a lot different in that way.
DL: What, specifically, do you see when the ball leaves the pitcher’s hand?
Braun: It completely depends on the pitcher. It depends on whether he’s right- or left-handed, it depends on how tall he is, it depends on how good your vision is in a certain stadium. Can I [explain how I recognize a slider]? I don’t know, man. I just see it and hit it.
Weeks: I see a baseball. Like I said before, it’s not easy. You’re trying to pick up the seams of the ball — the rotation of the ball — but other than that, it’s see the ball, hit the ball.
You can’t always [read spin out of the hand]. Some pitchers have an innate ability to put more spin on a ball than others — maybe — and you might not see the rotation as well, from pitcher to pitcher.
DL: It’s been said that all good hitters get jammed. What does that mean?
Braun: When you get jammed you give yourself an opportunity to get a lot of hits, whereas when you roll over there is less of an opportunity to get hits. If you stay inside the ball, and let the ball get deep, you give yourself a chance to get on base a lot more.
Weeks: We most commonly say that the backup slider is the best pitch in baseball, because you see the spin on it, but it doesn’t break. You’re swinging toward where you think the ball is going to break to, and then you get jammed.
Sometimes you want to stay inside the baseball and you just get jammed. I learned that the hard way, early on, because a lot of times…early in my career, I was like, “Man, I don’t want to get jammed.” It was almost as though I was embarrassed to get jammed. But as you grow into it, you realize that it’s going to happen, especially if you’re trying to stay inside of the baseball.
DL: How would you define staying inside the baseball?
Braun: It means trying to hit the inside part of the baseball, pulling my hands inside of the ball. I don’t know how to describe it other than to say that the goal is to allow the ball get deep and to try to hit — for me — the bottom inside part of the baseball.
Weeks: Using your hands as a path to the baseball, instead of as a path to the swing. If your hands are in a certain position, you keep them there and go straight from there to the baseball instead of, when you see a pitch away, casting your hands out and trying to hit it.
DL: How important are wrists and hands for a hitter?
Braun: Again, every hitter is different. For me, they’re extremely important. I’m not that big or that strong, so for me to consistently hit the ball hard I really have to rely on my hands and my wrists. Ultimately, you hope that you basically start your swing with your hands and your body just follows suit. When I get too much of my body involved, my swing isn’t as fluid as it is when I swing with a majority of hands and wrists.
Weeks: They’re probably the biggest thing. You can’t hit a baseball without using your hands and wrists. You need good hands and wrists to be a good hitter, so [if you have a wrist injury] you kind of lose confidence in your swing.
DL: Does most of your power come from your top hand or your bottom hand?
Braun: It has to be both. If it is more one than the other, I’d say my bottom hand, but it’s both. I don’t think it’s possible to drive the ball with one hand. Not for me, at least.
You always want to get backspin; you don’t want to hit the ball with topspin. I think that when I’m going good, I’m hitting the ball with a lot of backspin.
Weeks: Like I said before, people are different. Some people have straight uppercut swings, so they might not use the top hand as much. I’m a top-hand hitter, so I think most of my power comes from my top hand.
Some people are also right-hand dominant. Let’s say you take a right-handed thrower who is a left-handed swinger. They might have a really strong bottom hand and they might be a little more uppercut than most. They might be bottom-hand dominant. It just depends on who you are.
DL: Is there anything that makes you unique as a hitter?
Braun: I think that every hitter is unique. Every hitter is unique in the way he goes about hitting a baseball, how he goes about his preparation and his routines. We’re all unique in our own way, but ultimately we get to the same hitting position prior to making contact.
Weeks: I don’t like to brag on myself, but I guess my hands are pretty quick; I have quick hands. Maybe that doesn’t make me unique, but my strength is my hands.
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.