The Dodgers’ Aaron Bates Talks Hitting

Aaron Bates has a dual role with the Dodgers. The 35-year-old former first baseman serves as the team’s assistant hitting coach, and he’s also the director of hitting for the minor leagues. Now in his fifth year with Los Angeles, he works in conjunction with big-league hitting coach Robert Van Scoyoc, and hitting strategist Brant Brown.

A third-round pick out of North Carolina State by Boston in 2006, Bates played eight professional seasons — he logged 12 plate appearances with the Red Sox in 2009 — before joining the coaching ranks. His final swings came with the Dodgers in 2014, the same year he was asked to help tutor up-and-coming prospects such as Scott Schebler and Corey Seager. From there he served as a hitting coach in the Arizona, Midwest, and California leagues. In 2018, he became the assistant hitting coordinator for LA’s minor league system.

Bates sat down to talk hitting when the Dodgers visited Fenway Park in mid-July.

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David Laurila: How are hitters in the Dodgers’ system taught, and evaluated?

Aaron Bates: “Brownie and Robert are both unbelievable. They have a way of communicating with players that is simplistic, makes sense, and provides answers. They can say, ‘This is why you’re making outs,” or ‘This is why you’re doing that.’ When you can provides answers to a player, it’s a breath of fresh air for him.

“It’s extremely important to be upfront with the players. We let them know there are numbers we value, as far as them being promoted, and they’re not necessary your baseball-card numbers. It could be OPS, wRC+, and their walk and strikeout rates. We let them know it’s not solely based on their batting averages.

“We let them know what we consider a good at-bat. We’re process-oriented, so if you line out, don’t get mad, and if you get a bloop single, don’t get extra happy. Over the course of the season, what we want is for them to hit the ball hard. That, and to be process-oriented.

“Another part of the philosophy is, ‘Can the manager trust you?’ If you get promoted from High-A to Double-A, will he able trust your at-bats? Are you a dependable hitter, as opposed to a reckless hitter? Do you know the game? Do you know when to take, and when to be aggressive?”

Laurila: How does that meld with teaching?

Bates: “What you’re teaching them ties in to producing better versions of the numbers. Mechanically, it’s getting on plane and entering the zone early — as far as the bat path goes — so that you’re giving yourself the most amount of time to hit fastballs. That’s something Boston preached too, just in a different way. Not so mechanically-based, but more of an approach-based version of that.”

Laurila: It goes without saying that not all hitters are the same.

Bates: “Without a doubt. How your body does it is going to be different than the next guy’s. I might have to tell you, ‘Hey, you need to swing straight down to be able to get on plane early,’ because that’s the way your body works. Conversely, I might have to tell me, ‘Hey, you need to swing straight up to get on plane early.’ So it’s not a cookie-cutter way of teaching one person one thing; it’s based on their movements. We all want to get to the same spot, we just might have to tell ourselves different things to get there.

“Our movement screens — how their bodies work, including flexibility — will indicate, ‘Are you more rotational as a hitter? Are you more linear as a hitter? Do you have a longer stride?’ Things like that will impact how you communicate to a hitter how to swing — up, down, or what have you — and that could change a little during the year. Your ‘feels’ might change a little bit. Your body might be a little tired, or you might be right under pitches. You might tell someone, ‘All right, straight down on this one and you might hit a line drive.’ But that doesn’t mean it’s the same in two weeks.

“You’re kind of always evolving a little bit throughout the season — you’re tinkering with your feels — but the principles are the same. You want to get on plane early, and maximize the number of pitches you can hit hard. You’re going to have the same end goal — getting to this spot, on plane — but I may have to tell myself one thing to do it, while you have to tell yourself something else to do it.”

Laurila: How many different swings are there?

Bates: “There are flatter swings. There are more vertical swings. There are direct swings. I mean, there are tons of different swings. Hitter to hitter… you look at Giancarlo Stanton’s swing, Christian Yelich’s swing, Cody Bellinger’s swing, Justin Turner’s swing. The way I like to describe it is that you’re playing blackjack; you’re trying to maximize the percentages. Like a professional blackjack player, you’re calculating your odds. It’s not always going to work, but what you’re doing is maximizing your chances of winning. It’s the same concept with hitting. What’s the goal? What’s the expectation? What type of hitter do you want to be?”

Laurila: I’ve asked a handful of hitters about the idea of an A-swing, and whether it’s important to also have a B-swing to fall back on in certain situations.

Bates: “I’ve talked about that for a long time now. If you look at Miguel Cabrera in 2012 — the year he won the Triple Crown — he faced Barry Zito in Game 1 [of the World Series]. They were in San Francisco and it was hard to see. He had no stride. The same game he faced Tim Lincecum out of the bullpen, and had a big leg kick. He was best hitter on the planet at that time, and he made an adjustment based on what was going on. He wanted to maximize his chances.

“Whether it’s an A-swing or a B-swing, one of the things you watch… Justin Turner, for instance. He’s so self-aware. He knows what he has that day. Whether it’s shoot a hole, or this or that, it’s based on how he feels. That’s a self-awareness that tends to come as players get older. An analogy would be golf. If you’re spraying your drives out of bounds, over and over again, you probably want to take your two-iron out and focus on keeping the ball in play. A lot of times, a younger player will keep using his driver. He’s frustrated, and keeps hitting it out of bounds. Before you know it, the round is over and he’s had a bad day. Conversely, you have the guy who says, ‘OK, my driver isn’t there today; time to take out the two-iron.’ I think there’s definitely a time and place for that.”

Laurila: How do you teach hitters to handle the high fastball?

Bates: “It depends on the guy’s swing. Does he have long levers, or does he have shorter arms? Does he really handle it, or does he just kind of manage it? If it’s 100 mph up there it’s hard to hit; can you actually dominate it, as opposed to manage it? And the more you cover that spot — worry about that spot — is that taking away from something else? I’m not saying it is, but it could. If that pitch is a weakness of yours, all you’re looking to do is manage it.”

Laurila: All of this being said, there is no ‘Dodgers’ swing,’ but there are multiple swings that fit into a Dodgers’ philosophy? Would it be accurate to say that?

Bates: “To a certain extent. You could say that there is a Dodgers’ swing. It’s to get on plane early, and to stay in the zone a long time. Whether that’s a swing or not, it’s the goal we have for our players.

“One way to look at it would be having multiple types of directives — self directives — and multiple thought processes. Instead of saying ‘multiple swings,’ it’s multiple directives. You’re telling yourself one thing to do, to get to the same spot everyone else is getting to.”

Laurila: Any final thoughts?

Bates: ”One of the strongest additions over the last two years to player development, and the overall ‘Dodgers Philosophy,’ has been Will Rhymes coming over from pro scouting as our farm director.  His perspective and viewpoint has helped continue to shape everything we do on a daily basis as Dodgers, and added to our content.”

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Earlier “Talks Hitting” interviews can found through these links: Nolan Arenado, Cavan Biggio, Matt Chapman, Paul DeJong, Rick Eckstein, Drew Ferguson, Joey Gallo, Mitch Haniger, Evan Longoria, Michael Lorenzen, Daniel Murphy, Fernando Tatis Jr., Justin Turner, Jesse Winker.

We hoped you liked reading The Dodgers’ Aaron Bates Talks Hitting by David Laurila!

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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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Jim

So whatever happened to Mitch Haniger? I know he got hit in the balls, but why isn’t he back yet?