Toronto’s Hunter Mense on Developing Good Swing Decisions

© Nick Turchiaro-USA TODAY Sports

Good swing decisions are a core component of the Toronto Blue Jays’ organizational hitting philosophy. That doesn’t make the American League East club unique — every team wants its hitters to be disciplined at the plate — but the degree to which they accentuate attacking the right pitches is noteworthy. From the lowest levels of the minors all the way up to the big leagues, swing decisions are not only a focus, they’re assigned grades.

Hunter Mense has played a key role in the practice. Now doing double-duty as the big league assistant hitting coach, the 37-year-old former Florida Marlins farmhand has been Toronto’s minor league hitting coordinator since 2019.

Mense discussed the organization’s efforts to develop disciplined hitters when the Blue Jays visited Fenway Park last week.

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David Laurila: What can you tell me about the Blue Jays’ organizational hitting philosophy?

Hunter Mense: “A lot of it has really just filtered over from 2019 and continued to build. Nothing has drastically changed. But I will say this: The things that have changed, probably — what I’ve seen up here — are some of the more important things that play in the big leagues. It’s us doing a better job of that, and learning how to develop it more in the minor leagues.”

Laurila: What plays in the big leagues?

Mense: “The one thing I’ve noticed… and it’s hard to quantify this. You’ve always heard about the professionalism of the at-bats, and that’s what you see here. Guys aren’t anxious to swing at every single pitch, because they know that 1) the stuff up here is really good, and 2) they have confidence to hit in every sort of count, in any situation, so they’re willing to take a pitch if it’s not one that they want to drive. They’re willing to wait, wait, wait, wait until they get the pitch they want. What that filters down to is the swing-decision aspect of hitting.

“That’s something we’ve talked about quite a bit over the last few years, basically the ways we want to frame and communicate it. Decision-making is so key at this level, in part because, again, the stuff is so good. They can expose you so fast, especially if you’re not a good decision-maker. They will find holes really, really fast, and are going to keep exploiting them. If you keep making bad decisions, they’re going to keep going there and expose you. Something we’ve tried doing a better job of in the minor leagues is scaling that out, so that when guys come up here they’re good decision-makers.”

Laurila: To what extent is decision-making innate, as opposed to developed?

Mense: “A lot of the really good decision-makers I’ve been around are very thoughtful. They have great recall, and often a very laid-back sort of personality. They’re calm and they’re easy. So, I think there’s probably a personality trait that is innate with good decision-makers, but I’ve also seen guys become a lot better decision-makers when they didn’t necessarily have those innate talents readily available to them. I think what usually happens is that they just haven’t thought about hitting in terms of decision-making.

“If you can frame it as, ‘You’re going to be a better hitter, you’re going to have more home runs, if you’re swinging at better pitches,’ you’re framing it in a way that makes sense to them. It’s not decision-making to walk, but rather decision-making to do damage. As guys start to learn and understand that, you’ll see the decision-making scores and numbers start to go up. We’ve seen it with guys in our organization. They start swinging less, because they’re looking more for a specific spot in their zone, as opposed to trying to hit everything that’s thrown.”

Laurila: Can you give an example of a guy for whom that’s come pretty naturally?

Mense: “It’s always come pretty natural for Alejandro Kirk. He’s always been a very good decision-maker. And if you want to talk about somebody who is very laid-back, and very thoughtful, he’s your prototypical guy. Even at the lower levels of the minor leagues, he was always walking more than he struck out. He was always getting himself into good counts.

“We have a grading-out system of decision-makers in the organization, and Alejandro was always one of the better ones, even at the lowest levels. His success has come from hitting the ball harder and in the air a little bit more, but he’s always kind of had that innate ability. You don’t necessarily talk about it a whole lot when a guy is really good at it, but you do continue making sure they keep at it.”

Laurila: How does the grading system work?

Mense: “If you’re able to take a pitch that most people are swinging at, you grade out really well as a decision-maker. And then if you’re swinging at pitches that have an expected slugging percentage that’s really good, you’re going to get high grades. Spencer Horwitz is another one in our organization that’s always been a really good decision-maker. He swings at every pitch that’s in the area where the expected slugging percentage is really good, and he takes a lot of pitches that are strike-to-ball — pitches that 75-plus percent of people are swinging at, he’s able to take them.

“That’s how you ultimately grade out. It’s not necessarily just low chases and high in-zone swings, although that does play into it. But how tough is the pitch that you’re taking? It could be a really easy pitch, a ball out of the hand that everybody takes. Conversely, if it’s one that starts in the strike zone and goes out — maybe it’s from a pitcher with really good stuff — you’re probably a pretty good decision-maker.”

Laurila: Can you share a few more specifics on the grading system?

Mense: “So, we’ve got a swing-decision score, a metric, that grades everybody out. On each pitch that you see, you get a score. It goes all the way down to negative-30, and all the way up to plus-30, based upon how tough the take was. You can get really good points or really low points.

“It’s cool, because the guys who dive into it are able to look at [the numbers] and be like, ‘This is the process.’ When everybody says ‘trust the process,’ this is it — it’s the process of the at-bat. When you go up there and the points you accumulate for the day are always plus-one or plus-two, you’re putting yourself in a position to be really good over the course of time. It’s telling you that you’re always swinging at good pitches, and that you’re taking tough pitches. Say it’s an Alek Manoah sweeping slider that starts middle and goes off the plate away on a 3-2 count. It’s a pitch where swinging at it isn’t going to do you any good, so if you’re able to take it for a ball, you’re going to get rewarded heavily for it.”

Laurila: The grading happens at all levels?

Mense: “Throughout the minor leagues. We have a little bit different of a system up here, but really, it’s all just geared to their attention towards decision-making. Again, it’s something that we find important. What I’ve always kind of lived by as a coach is, what you put in front of them, what you talk about, how you show them things, that’s the stuff they’re going to find important.

“The decision-making stuff… they don’t necessarily have to know everything that goes into the scoring system. But if they know that we find it important, and this is why it’s going to help, and how it’s going to help, they’re going to learn what good decision-making looks like.”

Laurila: You said that it came naturally to Alejandro Kirk. Can you give an example of someone who has improved their decision-making through concerted effort?

Mense: “One guy would be Orelvis Martinez. At the start of last year, he was not very good at decision-making. There was a lot of chase, and it was a lot of chase on strike-to-ball. Our hitting coach with him in Low-A was Matt Young, and then in High-A it was Ryan Wright. That was something they put a lot of emphasis on. Orelvis got hot in July — I believe he was Player of the Month — and we track trends. His decision-making scores started trending really well as he was getting hot. He’d started at a pretty low spot, but with the emphasis that Matty and Ryan were putting on it, he slowly started to get better with it.

“It was the work in the cage, too. It was doing some mix-BP. It was doing some breaking balls and some recognition. And that’s where coaching comes into play — the beauty of coaching — figuring out why the chases are happening. Nobody wants to chase. Nobody wants to be a bad decision-maker. Getting to the root cause of why it’s happening is what really good coaches are good at.”

Laurila: The root cause for Martinez was basically…

Mense: “For one, Orelvis just didn’t have that many at-bats yet. He was still a 19-year-old kid, and he’d missed out on a lot of at-bats in 2020. He was getting back into the swing of things in 2021, kind of getting his feet wet again. Two, it was an understanding of why breaking balls were giving him a lot of trouble.

“Matty Young helped him figure out where he needed the breaking ball to start for it to be a good pitch to swing at. Orelvis would see it in the zone and swing, and he’d miss it because it ended up out of the zone. Once he figured that out, his year started accelerating. The decision-making had gotten a lot better.”

Laurila: You mentioned mix-BP. What exactly is that?

Mense: “It would be somebody throwing fastballs and breaking balls, and then having a count attached to it. That’s in regular BP, but we’ll use machines, too. A lot of times what we’ll do is move the machine around so it won’t just be a fastball right in the middle of the plate. Some will be balls, others will be strikes, and we’ll attach a count there as well. We don’t want it to be just an auto-swing, because once you get in the game, it’s never going to be an auto-swing. There’s always a decision being made.”

Laurila: Any final thoughts?

Mense: “The one thing that we have to make sure of as coaches, and as an organization, is that when you’re teaching swing decisions, it’s not about taking the balls. It’s about being aggressive on the pitches you want to hit. I think that’s how good coaches teach it. They give guys the freedom to swing at every single pitch that’s in the zone where they can drive the ball. They’re working in areas where they can hit home runs and produce extra-base hits.

“A good decision is just as much swinging at the pitch that you can drive as it is taking the breaking ball that’s out of the zone. Both weigh heavily, and you could even say that swinging at a pitch that you should drive out of the yard is more important. One will get you deeper in the count and might get you a walk. The other one is going to give you a run if you square it up.”

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Earlier “Talks Hitting” interviews can found through these links: Jo Adell, Jeff Albert, Greg Allen, Nolan Arenado, Aaron Bates, Alex Bregman, Bo Bichette, Cavan Biggio, JJ Bleday, Bobby Bradley, Jay Bruce, Matt Chapman, Michael Chavis, Jacob Cruz, Nelson Cruz, Paul DeJong, Josh Donaldson, Brendan Donovan, Rick Eckstein, Drew Ferguson, Justin Foscue, Michael Fransoso, Ryan Fuller, Joey Gallo, Devlin Granberg, Andy Haines, Mitch Haniger, Robert Hassell III, Rhys Hoskins, Eric Hosmer, 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, Josh VanMeter, Robert Van Scoyoc, Zac Veen, Mark Vientos, Matt Vierling, Luke Voit, Jared Walsh, Jordan Westburg, Jesse Winker, Nick Yorke, Kevin Youkilis.





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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Michaelmember
19 days ago

Very interesting article. Obviously not a ton of details given in the article but I would be very curious to see how advanced their use of technology is to gamify these BP sessions for the hitters