Strikeout Advanced

A (Brief) More Advanced Look at the Strikeout

I recognize that there will be at least 1 person out of the 10 that reads this blog from the anti-strikeout field. A common counter to the “strikeouts aren’t that bad” paradigm shift in modern MLB is underscored by the fact that a strikeout does not contribute offensively at all. Runners are not moved, position players are not tested, etc. I don’t necessarily disagree. Statistically, I concede that there are more errors made and more base hits when a ball is hit in play than when a player strikes out. However, most coaches derive from this fact that players should avoid striking out at all costs. This derivation is fundamentally flawed due to the unintended consequences produced by its conclusion.

“Choke Up, Put the Ball in Play!”

As analyzed in a previous post on striking out, focusing on striking out or not striking out is misplaced and can cause a vicious cycle of poor performance and increased strikeouts. If this is true, why is do we place more focus on the strikeout than to any other type of out? Quite simply, when a player strikes out there is rarely a positive offensive result (unless we are discussing pitch counts, setting up pitchers, etc. which is outside the scope of this post). A batted ball can produce a hit, an error, move runners, etc. where a strikeout – generally – can not.

This leads coaches and players alike to focus on “putting the ball in play” when behind in the count. Across American little league fields, you’ll hear coaches encourage players to: “choke up” (to promote a “quicker” bat), “shorten up/cut down” (to urge a short swing in which a player can simply “pepper” a pitched ball), or “protect with two” (to promote a player to expand their zone and fight off pitches). As players progress to more “advanced” levels, common colloquials espoused are: “get your foot down early” (to urge players to use their hands and fight off pitches), “see it up” (to urge players to not chase breaking balls in the dirt), “battle and expand” (to promote players to swing at anything close to a strike) or “be short and take it to right/left” (to urge players to focus on staying “short” and going the other way with pitches).

Although the concepts promoted by the above encouragements aren’t inherently flawed, the unintended consequences of their focus far outweigh the benefits. Consequently, the contemporary approach to the strikeout is severely myopic.

Behind the Flaw

When players are young and pitchers’ tools are less effective, it is easier for hitters to simply “shorten up” and put the ball in play. Youth hitting mechanics usually aren’t sound, therefore, putting the ball in play is a fundamental measurement of “success” at the youth level. As pitching velocity, movement, and pitch types are reduced, “peppering” baseballs with a shortened swing is easy, “successful,” and therefore – in the eyes of most – justified. So if it’s “successful” and “justified” – why don’t we teach it? Why do we allow hitters to “fail” (strikeout)?

“Reduced” Swings Lead to Flawed Swings

As players advance – pitch location, pitch movement and speed differentials are all weapons used by an effective pitcher. Generally, hitters need to have their barrels on the plane of the incoming pitch for as long as possible in order to limit pitcher effectiveness. When hitters focus on simply putting the ball in play (and emphasizing “simple contact”), they consciously or unconsciously reduce their swings (or “cut down” as noted above). However, when players reduce their swings, they also shorten the time their barrels are on plane limiting their ability to make consistent contact against effective pitching.

In addition to reducing plane efficiency, when players “cut down their swings,” they are in effect sacrificing SOLID contact to promote ANY contact. As we progress in this game, position players are better, have more range, better arms; and pitchers are more advanced. Under those conditions, “any” contact is less likely to produce basehits or batted balls that would produce an error – as exit speed velocity (velocity of batted balls) and base hit/error % are positively correlated. Further, a quick look at the positive correlation between exit velocity and extra base hit % proves that strong contact should be sought. (There aren’t many doubles and home runs that are hit weakly).

To sum, when we cut down our swings with 2 strikes, we are in effect sacrificing barrel consistency and exit velocity – two of the strongest correlated components of run creation. Therefore, as pitchers and position players advance, the contemporary “two strike approach” as outlined above is no longer effective. Hitters now have to make adjustments they weren’t taught growing up – when they easily peppered balls into play. Therefore, instead of focusing on shortening up and cutting down swings from an early age, we should be focusing on the exact opposite.

The NEW Focus: Don’t Choke Up

Intuitively, the swings players take with 0 strikes or 1 strike would be the most mechanically efficient swing they can take. So why would we promote a less mechanically efficient swing with two strikes? Our focus shouldn’t be to adjust our swing to limit our strikeouts, it should be to be as mechanically efficient as we can with EVERY swing – indeterminate of the count. Because, mechanically sound swings coupled with an advanced plate approach is what generates consistent contact, hard hit balls, base hits, errors, and ultimately runs. Further, coincidentally enough, mechanical efficiency also helps limit strikeouts. So instead of focusing on choking up, getting down early, etc; focus solely on being mechanically sound while maintaining an advanced approach throughout the entire at bat. Start this at an early age – which would force us to redefine our measurements of success (sorry but I don’t celebrate swinging bunts). You may strike out (which as outlined in a forthcoming post may be for your benefit); but ultimately you’ll train yourself to optimize your mechanical efficiencies which will promote consistent hard contact – which should be the focus of every at bat.

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