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Don’t Be a Slave to Stats!

By Nate Barnett of the Pitching Academy

Baseball is possibly the most statistical game on the planet. Everything a player does is tracked and evaluated based upon some series of stats. While extremely helpful in many scenarios, statistics have a way of eating away at the minds of many athletes if not understood properly. When the swing is feeling good, stats are the hitter’s best friend; there’s no better feeling than going 4-4 at the plate with a couple doubles. On the flip side, there is nothing worse than going 0-4 with two strikeouts. Throw in the additional dynamics of youth insecurities, coach pressures, playing time, etc. and you have a recipe for a mental meltdown in any given game. My proposal is that there is another way to evaluate the offensive play that is not based on the traditional hits to at bats ratio. Instead of placing value on the number of hits each game (results thinking), I argue a hitter can do more for the improvement of his game and mental stability by evaluating the choices made (process thinking) during each game.

First, let me lay out why results thinking can be inaccurate in measuring offensive success. In any given game there are two things that are controlled by a hitter: the mechanics of a swing, and the thoughts and choices of the mind. That being said, the hitter has no control over the defense running down a ball in the gap for a long out. Additionally, he has no control over the pitcher’s ability to hit his spots and change speeds. Because of these couple inconsistencies, it makes little sense to place high value in the number of hits each game. Balls hit hard would be a better way to measure success, however, this become subjective. I remember playing a couple games where I crushed the ball four times. Two of the balls were caught at the wall, and the other two the right-fielder didn’t have to move but a few steps to pull down my line drives. In the books I went 0-4. If number of hits in a game is where I placed all my value, I could become frustrated real quickly. Frustration creates tense muscles, and tense muscles produce poor un-relaxed swings.

There is a better way; a method of evaluation which is far more accurate in determining things that are important to the improvement of the hitter. I’m referring to the choices made each at bat. I’ve written an article on how to develop a plate strategy that breaks down how each hitter can determine what I call, a hot zone. I suggest reading this article before proceeding. If you’re short on time, I’ve provided the condensed version in the remainder of this paragraph. This is the zone that spans a range over the plate where a hitter has the highest percentage of success if he swings at pitches in that zone. Each hitter will have his own hot zone, and can only be defined by becoming aware of what locations he tends to hit better than others. To determine this, place six baseballs across the front edge of home plate. The ball that is the closest to the hitter we will call the #1 ball. The baseball furthest from the hitter is the #6 ball. Next it’s important to evaluate which three or four pitch range tends to produce the most balls hit hard. For example, I had the most success when I swung at balls in the #2-#4 range. Sometimes #5 balls I would hit hard of they were up on the zone. Most youth hitters will find that the #3-#5 ball range suits them best. In the following paragraph we’ll use this model hitter who has a hot zone of #3-#5 that he is most comfortable with.

In this new method of evaluating the performances in each game, I want to walk you through the following hypothetical at bat in which we will keep track of the pitches swung at, and pitches not swung at. Each correct choice in every at bat we will assign a point to, and each incorrect choice we’ll take a point away. The first pitch comes over in the strike zone and is a #3 ball. Our hitter swings at it and fouls the ball off. One point is awarded for making the correct choice and swinging at a pitch in his hot zone. The next pitch comes across and is a #5 ball, but is a little high and out of the strike zone. The hitter lays off this pitch and now is awarded with another point for making the correct choice again for not swinging at a ball out of his hot zone. The 1-1 pitch is thrown over the inside corner, a #1 ball, and our hitter swings and hits a blooper to shallow right field and gets a hit. We remove a point for swinging at a pitch out of the hot zone. The at bat ends with two points being awarded in three attempts. For youth hitters, a 67% success rate on the choices made up at bat should be the standard of a successful at bat, regardless if he reaches first base or not.

I need to add a couple more points of clarification on this system of evaluating success. Any time a hitter is ahead in the count, that is, 0-0 (often a good pitch to hit), 1-0, 2-0, 2-1, 3-0, 3-1 then pitches only in the hot zone should be offered at. Once a hitter is even in the count or behind in a count, 1-1, 1-2, 2-2, 3-2 he must expand his zone. This should be done gradually on a 1-1 count to instead of a #3-#5 range to a #2-#5 range, or whichever direction on the plate is most comfortable to expand to for the hitter. Then, with two strikes, full plate coverage (balls #1-#6) must be taken into account.

In summary of this philosophy then, balls swung at in the hot zone (regardless if they are hit or not) count as a point. Balls swung at that are outside of the hot zone (depending on the count) result in a loss of a point. Balls let go that are outside of the hot zone result in adding one point. Balls let go that are in the hot zone result in a loss of a point.

The reason this philosophy improves a hitter is twofold. First, it keeps track of the important part of each at bat, pitch selection. Ted Williams once said, “A good hitter can hit a pitch in a good spot three times better than a great hitter can hit a ball in a questionable spot.” Likewise, Branch Rickey was quoted in saying, “The greatest single difference between a Major League and minor-league batsman is his judgment of the strike zone. He knows better whether to swing or take a pitch.” Therefore, it’s important to place high value on pitch selection, for without this, hitters are doomed to increased failure the better pitchers get.

Secondly, this philosophy is healthy for the brain. In a game of constant failure, increasing the success rate will only improve confidence and relaxation at the plate. The byproduct of this then is an increased amount of actual hits. It’s a well known fact that hitter must be relaxed and free of over-thinking to have success. The philosophy in this essay does just that; it allows your mind and body relax and concentrate on hitting the right pitch at the right time.

Implementing this philosophy takes practice, mostly the adjustment in the brain that an 0-4 day in the books can still be a successful day at bat. This mental change does not come easily, it take time and practice. Give it the time and attention it deserves and practice it diligently.

Nate Barnett is a hitting, pitching, and mental skills coach residing in the Puget Sound area in Washington State. He played in the Seattle Mariners organization and is co-owner of the The Pitching Academy.

First (and worst) coach I ever had

During my childhood and into high school I played a variety of sports and was on many teams. Through all of those teams, both recreational and school-affiliated, I had some average coaches, some good ones, and a few who were excellent. But I also had one really poor one. And he happened to be my very first coach ever.

My grade school friend, Steve, told me his dad was getting a basketball team together and asked if I wanted to play. I was eight, and I believe the league was for 8-10 year-olds. Steve, another friend, Butch, and I were the youngest on the team. There were only six of us total. The three older kids and Steve played every minute, though Steve, to put it charitably, was not much of an athlete. He and I ended up going to junior high and high school together and he never played another team sport. Coach Walt split the remaining two halves down the middle between Butch and me. Butch played a half of each game and I played the other half.

You would think that my first ever sports experience would be etched in my mind, full of positive moments. But instead I have only two specific memories and one general recollection from my time on the team. I can’t remember if we wore uniforms, where we played, if we won or lost. But I can remember Walt’s incensed, shouting face. You see, he tried to approach this team as if he were a big-time college coach. Screaming. Calling angry timeouts when a player messed up, so he could chew him out. I can only theorize that he was emulating real coaches he’d seen on TV. This was the early 70’s and we were in Indiana, maybe he idolized Bobby Knight. But I have a feeling if Knight had seen Walt coaching little kids this way, he’d have stuffed him in a trash can.

The two specific memories are these: One game, I came off the bench to start the second half and they in-bounded the ball to me. I launched up a beautiful shot from the baseline. It would have been a three if there were such a thing back then. Swish. It was by far my best (and luckiest) shot of the season. I can still recall the feeling of immense pride as I began to jog back down court. However, that sensation was short-lived. Walt was screaming for a timeout, yelling for me to get over there, red-faced, eyes blazing in anger. I realized then that we’d switched baskets at halftime and my greatest shot ever counted for the other team. As I approached the coach, our opponent’s best player jogged behind and patted me on the rear. I don’t think he was doing it to be a wiseguy, but more that he felt sorry for me; hitting that beautiful bucket that cost our team two points, now about to face a tongue-lashing.

The second mental souvenir is actually fairly funny, and came from one of the game’s halftime breaks. If you’re as old as I am, you might remember the very first “energy bars” called “Space Stick Bars”. My mom never got those for us at home so the few times I’d tasted them at someone else’s house I thought they were the best thing ever. Walt had brought some to give out to the team. Everyone but Butch and I had gotten their bars and there were two left. Walt said, “Here. You two can split this one.” He then unwrapped the other one and ate it himself.

The thought never crossed my mind to quit the team. My parents didn’t have a “talk” with the coach. You didn’t do that back then, and I doubt they even knew anything was amiss because I didn’t complain and parents never attended games. But I do know I didn’t play much organized basketball after that, choosing instead to only play with my friends on our backyard or driveway hoops. I can’t say if that’s all Walt’s fault, but I know I went through my early childhood thinking I wasn’t very good at basketball.

So why am I writing about this all these years later? Because often we, as coaches, get so wrapped up in the moment we don’t think about the future. Sometimes we can’t see the forest for the trees. Every kid on your team is going to take away memories that will last months, years…or, as I can attest, in some cases, decades. And when you’re the coach of young, impressionable kids, they won’t remember if you brought the team wins and losses as much as they’ll recall if you brought them snacks. But they will remember whether they wanted to be around you. They’ll recall how you made them feel about themselves. For youngsters participating in their first few seasons of sports these memories, not your X’s and O’s, are the legacy you leave.

Brian Gotta is President of CoachDeck LLC (www.coachdeck.com). He can be reached at brian@coachdeck.com.