By Mike Epstein
I have often been asked to crystallize my thoughts concerning two-strike hitting. This has been an area of concern since baseball’s earliest days.
The ability to “put the ball in play” when hitters’ backs are against the proverbial “wall” has tormented many from baseball’s earliest days. In this article, I’ll present some ideas that can bring both players and coaches to a better understanding when dealing with this vital part of the hitting game.
The principal reason two-strike hitting is so difficult is because it is the ONLY time a hitter must guard against every pitch, every pitch speed, and every pitch location in the pitcher’s arsenal. It is for this reason that so many hitters fail with two strikes! If you’ve followed my hitting articles, you should already know that no player can “guard” both sides of the plate on any given pitch. The beauty is that he doesn’t have to—until he gets two strikes on him. Then “concessions” must be in order.
We can really simplify this subject by saying at the outset, that if a player stays “inside the ball,” and employs good rotational mechanics, the only thing keeping him from becoming a good two-strike hitter is the mental approach he takes to the plate.
First, to be a good two-strike hitter, a player has to “know” himself. I know, I know. I sound like a broken record on this point. But to deal effectively in situations where there might not be a “next” time, we’ve got to come to grips with “who we are” if we are to achieve. What kind of hitter am I? Better “off speed” than fastball hitter? Do I like the ball up or down in the strike zone? Do “like-handers” or “opposite-handers” give me the most trouble?
Second, to be a good two-strike hitter, a player must have a “plan” when he goes to the plate, and this plan is arrived at by knowing himself FIRST. He then gets his hitting plan from watching the pitcher, from his warm-ups before the first inning to his most recent pitches to the previous batter. What pitch is he having trouble getting over? Is he an “against the count” pitcher? What pitch does he throw when he’s behind in the count? Does he have a dominant “strike out pitch?” Do I feel “comfortable” against this guy—or does he just have to “throw his hat on the mound” to get me out?
Answering these questions honestly can make the difference when the game is “on the line,” and it all starts with the opposing pitcher’s first warm-up pitch. If you’ve done your homework, you have some choices. If you’re facing a top-drawer pitcher who’s making tough pitches that day, you may not want to “let” him get two strikes on you. In this case, you would expand your hitting zones and be more aggressive trying to put the ball in play, and not have to get to a two-strike count. If you feel there’s no way that pitcher can get you out that day, you might want to shrink your strike zone somewhat and look for “your” pitch, knowing he “can’t” strike you out.
Against pitchers like Pedro Martinez, Randy Johnson, Curt Schilling, Kevin Brown, Eric Gagne, et al, very few—if any—hitters have a “dead red” area. Few, if any, feel “comfortable” against pitchers of this caliber. But everything in baseball is relative, meaning that even in your league, there are pitchers of this “caliber” relative to the others. So, in this instance, you probably won’t
elect to wait for “your” pitch—you’ll probably never see it that day. Open up your hitting zones! In other words, effective two-strike hitting implies knowing your strengths and weaknesses, who the pitcher is that day, and how “comfortable” he is to hit against. Doing your homework before each at-bat can add plenty of confidence and points to your OPS (on-base percentage + slugging percentage: baseball’s benchmark for productive hitting).
You’ve often heard me mention how quickly at-bat situations can change. This, in turn, will affect your two-strike hitting approach. If you have the potential to “go yard,” and you represent the tying or winning run deep in the game, you may not want to make any concessions with two strikes. In a situation like this, there is no two-strike hitting. Your team needs the long ball from you. It’s “outhouse or penthouse.” Other times, and if you’re not a “power” guy, or you don’t represent the tying or winning run, contact, and just “putting the ball in play,” is warranted. As a hitter, you have to be aware of these things and “hit according to your type.” (Next month: How Do You “Know” Yourself as a Hitter?)
Prior to Mike’s teaching years, he was an All-American baseball player and still holds the highest lifetime batting average of .384 at the University of California (Berkeley). He was a member of the first United States Olympic Baseball Team, leading the team in many offensive hitting categories (Japan, 1964). He was named the Sporting News and Topps Minor League Player-of-the-Year in 1966.His website is http://www.mikeepsteinhitting.com/