Robert Van Scoyoc Talks Hitting

© Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Robert Van Scoyoc has diligently built a reputation as one of the best hitting coaches in the game. Hired by the Los Angeles Dodgers in November 2018 after first having served as a consultant (with a year spent as a hitting strategist with the Arizona Diamondbacks in between), the 36-year-old Santa Clarita, California native is respected both for his communication skills and his nuanced understanding of the craft. Well-versed in technology and modern-day concepts while still being an adherent of proven old-school practices, he honed his knowledge base working alongside longtime hitting instructor Craig Wallenbrock.

In the latest installment of our Talks Hitting series, Van Scoyoc addressed several philosophies and principles, including the importance of angles and the relationship between process and outcome.

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David Laurila: Since coming to pro ball, the two titles you’ve held are “hitting strategist” and “hitting coach.” What’s the difference?

Robert Van Scoyoc: “In Arizona, the strategist role was more broad. I was involved in multiple departments, along with doing some of the major league advancing work. Being the hitting coach, my responsibilities are just with the major league team. That being said, we have a very collaborative organization where all three hitting coaches — me, Brant Brown, and Aaron Bates — are all working with [player development], and will even talk with amateur scouting and some of the guys watching our players. So my day-to-day responsibilities are with the major league staff, obviously, but with us being very collaborative, I’m involved with many different parts.”

Laurila: The Dodgers have a three-headed machine in charge of assisting hitters…

Van Scoyoc: “Yes, and this year we’re going to have a couple of our coordinators around the big league team at times, too. Collaboration with player development is imperative to us having success, and to keeping the train moving. The day-to-day is a three-headed monster, but the operation itself is much bigger than that.”

Laurila: Are you, Brant, and Aaron each assigned a particular group of hitters?

Van Scoyoc: “No. We all have good relationships with the guys in the clubhouse, so what they need on a given day kind of [determines] how we divide and conquer, and how we try to come up with solutions. It’s not, ‘You’re assigned to this guy and you’re assigned to that guy.’ Again, we’re very collaborative. We put our heads together and wrap our arms around different problems that come up throughout the year.”

Laurila: Changing direction a bit, you’ve looked at film of different hitters from different eras. How do they compare to today’s hitters — the swings, how they set up in the box, etc?

Van Scoyoc: “I think the style of every era is a bit different, but with the best hitters you can see certain markers of efficiency. While the styles might change a bit, certain principles, like how the body moves and how they use the ground, are pretty steady in each era.”

Laurila: Ted Williams gets brought up a lot when people talk about the “launch angle swing.” It’s not as those he was a unicorn in that respect…

Van Scoyoc: “Yeah, I mean, look at Mickey Mantle, or even Babe Ruth. All of those guys. When I go back and watch old film, they’re in a good position. They use the ground well. They have active, independent hands. They have the good things that you want to see in a hitter today. That said, it was a little more of a high-ball game back then — in part because the umpires used to sit up higher — so maybe the swing paths were flatter. But from a principle standpoint, there are a lot of things that would translate to the modern game.”

Laurila: The top of the strike zone used to be higher, as well.

Van Scoyoc: “Right. Again, I think you’ll see some style differences, and those are based on things like the strike zone and the context of the game at the time. Players have had to adapt. But again, efficiency is efficiency, regardless of the era you’re playing in.”

Laurila: Even with a lower top of the strike zone, elevated fastballs are a huge challenge. Are today’s hitters being trained away from a flatter swing, and if they are, should they be?

Van Scoyoc: “The swing I believe in is an adjustable swing — swings that can match a lot of different planes. A flaw that you see in a lot of hitters currently is that they kind of train a grooved swing path. I think the goal should be to have an adjustable swing that can adjust up and down, back to front, in and out.”

Laurila: How does a hitter develop an adjustable swing?

Van Scoyoc: “That’s a little bit of how the sausage is made. But if there’s a problem — he has problems getting to a certain pitch, or location — that’s where you’ve got to get creative. We have to put our heads together and come up with a solution for it. How to do it kind of varies, depending on what that hitter is having trouble with.

“The capabilities, from a physical standpoint, are also going to put a ceiling on what they can and can’t do. If a guy is limited in a certain way of moving his body, then you’ve got to either manage that through how he game plans, or come up with a different solution. Generally speaking, you’re going to work within the parameters of their physical capabilities.”

Laurila: Is there a swing that works for every hitter?

Van Scoyoc: “No. I think there are certain principles that are probably true to maximize each guy, but I don’t think there’s one swing. There are different solutions. There is no one, cookie-cutter way.

“You’ve got to understand what that hitter does, and how to maximize that skill set. That’s going to impact how you message things, and how they should approach different pitchers. It’s less about how to fit them into a box of, ‘Hey, this is a perfect swing,’ and mainly about optimizing what they’re really good at.”

Laurila: Hitting is obviously more data-driven than it’s ever been. With that in mind, what data points do you feel are most important when you’re assessing, or working with, a hitter?

Van Scoyoc: “With any of our hitters, I’m going to know as much as I can, both from a bio-mechanical perspective and a data perspective. I’ll do a pretty thorough dive. As for which ones are most important… I’m not sure that I should get into that. That kind of fits into the how-the-sausage-is-made category.”

Laurila: There has been talk about banning shifts. If that happens, will anything change about the way you work with hitters — primarily what you’ll communicate to them?

Van Scoyoc: “Probably not. I haven’t thought a ton about it, but we’ll adapt to whatever. I mean, the highest-value batted balls are going to be driven over the infielders’ heads. We want to do that as often as possible, so I don’t think [banning shifts] would change the game all that much, particularly with how pitching is going. With how good pitchers are now, you need to drive the baseball.”

Laurila: You mentioned driving the ball over the infielders’ heads. I’ve had hitters tell me that they’ve gone from that approach to one where they’re looking to drive the ball over the center fielder’s head.

Van Scoyoc: “One is talking about an outcome and one is talking about process. From an outcome standpoint, we know that we want the ball hit in the air, somewhere above the infielders’ heads to above the outfielders’ heads, but not too high above the outfielders’ heads. The other one is more of a process to create the outcome. So, it’s a little bit apples-and-oranges. From an outcome standpoint, we want the ball driven in the air; there’s no doubt. There are guys who think, ‘Drive the ball really high; hit a fly ball,’ there are guys who think, ‘Hit a hard groundball,’ and everywhere in between. It’s about appreciating what process is going to create the optimal outcomes for each guy.”

Laurila: Hitters often talk about keeping the barrel in the zone as long as possible. What exactly does that mean, and how does one go about doing it?

Van Scoyoc: “Keeping the barrel in the zone as long as possible is just describing the way the swing plane and pitch plane interact. I think the best hitters in the game are the ones who are able to match their swing plane to a lot more pitches than the average hitter. In terms of training that… man, that’s just a whole can of worms. I mean, it just depends on the guy, right? There are certain hitters that are more stuck back [and] need to feel more on top of the ball. There are hitters that are more on their front side and need to feel more up and underneath the ball to help their swing plane match the pitch plane. So, how you train it is very hitter-dependent.”

Laurila: When I talked hitting with Josh Donaldson last summer, he questioned whether barrels might be overrated. You’d probably need to read the entire interview to fully digest the idea he was presenting, but does that make sense to you? Donaldson talked about how he’d been making a larger than usual number of loud outs, whereas some guys having strong seasons had lesser hard hit percentages.

Van Scoyoc: “In terms of pure exit speed, that’s not the goal. I think what he was probably referring to is, guys that are consistently hitting the ball at good angles… whether you’re hitting it 110 mph, or you’re hitting it 70 mph, balls at good angles go for hits more often. If you get jammed and you’re inside the baseball, but you hit the ball at 19 degrees, those balls fall in front of outfielders feet a lot. Then, if you hit those balls really hard, they go over outfielders’ heads. So, if you’re hitting the ball at consistently good angles, you’re going to get more hits. Conversely, if you’re hitting the ball at poor angles — whether you’re hitting the ball way too high, or you’re hitting the ball way too low — those balls aren’t going for hits consistently. So the goal, in terms of hit-collecting, is to hit the ball at proper angles. That’s first and foremost. If you combine that with exit speed, the outcome is going to be the best outcome. But if you’re only doing it with exit speed, and not combining that with good angles, what’s going to happen is you’re going to have a bunch of hard outs.”

Laurila: Do you have to sacrifice power to make better contact?

Van Scoyoc: “The answer is ‘no,’ but doing both at the same time is very difficult. Being an elite hitter that makes a lot of contact and drives the baseball is really, really hard. So I don’t think they have to be, but accomplishing it is pretty difficult.”

Laurila: Ted Williams and Joe DiMaggio hit nearly as many home runs as they had strikeouts. With the caveat that they’re all-time greats, is the relative quality of pitching one of the biggest reasons that was possible?

Van Scoyoc: “Not to take away anything from what those guys were doing, but the pitching is obviously different now. Guys are throwing 100 [mph] on a consistent basis. Obviously, what they did was unbelievable, but yes, it’s relative to the era. I’m sure that if those guys played now they’d be the elite hitters of this day and age too, but the quality of pitching right is really challenging. As a hitting coach, I need to help our guys meet that challenge.“

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Earlier “Talks Hitting” interviews can found through these links: Jeff Albert, Greg Allen, Nolan Arenado, Aaron Bates, Bo Bichette, Cavan Biggio, JJ Bleday, Bobby Bradley, Jay Bruce, Matt Chapman, Michael Chavis, Jacob Cruz, Nelson Cruz, Paul DeJong, Josh Donaldson, Rick Eckstein, Drew Ferguson, Justin Foscue, Michael Fransoso, Joey Gallo, Devlin Granberg, Andy Haines, Mitch Haniger, Tim Hyers, Josh Jung, Jimmy Kerr, Trevor Larnach, Doug Latta, Evan Longoria, Michael Lorenzen, Gavin Lux, Dave Magadan, Trey Mancini, Edgar Martinez, Don Mattingly, Ryan Mountcastle, Cedric Mullins, Daniel Murphy, Brent Rooker,, Drew Saylor, Fernando Tatis Jr., Justin Turner, Mark Trumbo, Zac Veen, Mark Vientos, Luke Voit, Jordan Westburg, Jesse Winker, Nick Yorke.





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.

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dodgerbleu
6 months ago

This was fantastic. Thank you!