The batter steps in the box, digs around in the dirt, sets his feet, lifts his bat and stares out at the mound. What pitch is he about to see? If you know something about batting stances, you might make a decent guess. Here’s a fan’s guide to batting stances and how a pitcher might attack each one. What I’m about to describe is not a certainty, and there are always exceptions, but here are some general patterns you’ll see repeated.
(Author’s note: A lot of the following material comes from Ron Polk’s “Baseball Playbook.” I’ve read dozens of baseball instructional manuals and, at 520 pages, Polk’s is the most complete collection of baseball instruction I’ve ever seen. If you want to know how to maintain your field, treat baseball injuries or pitch to a batter who crouches, the “Baseball Playbook” has an answer — which is probably why it’s sold over 100,000 copies.)
A couple of warnings before we proceed: The batting stance provides clues, but the “launch position” is more important. Launch position is the moment the batter puts his front foot down, takes his hands back and is ready to “launch” his swing. If the batter starts with an open stance (front foot farther away from home plate than the back foot), but strides toward the plate during his swing, you’d pitch him as a batter with a closed stance (front foot closer to home plate than the back foot.) So you also need to pay attention to the batter’s “launch” position. And there are other factors that can change pitch selection: What the pitcher has that night, game situations and past history are just a few of the variables that might come into play, but for now we’ll concentrate on the hitter’s stance.
Let’s start with: Depth of the stance in the box: Some hitters move to the front of the box in order to hit a breaking pitch before it breaks (a theory that never worked for me). So if the hitter is up in the box, a pitcher might want to throw him fastballs; they’ll get on him quicker. Unless the hitter is, let’s say, Mike Aviles. Aviles was at the front of the box because he wanted fastballs and was challenging the pitcher to throw one by him. So the pitcher not only needs to know where the hitter is standing, but why he’s standing there.
Same thing if the hitter is at the back of the box; a pitcher might go after him with breaking pitches. A curve or a slider will have more time to move before it reaches the hitter, but the hitter might be at the back of the box because he’s trying to buy more time to get around on the fastball. Once again, knowing why the hitter sets up where he does is crucial.
Distance away from the plate: Let’s say a hitter sets up way off the plate. That’s probably because he’s trying to avoid an inside pitch. If a pitcher tries to jam the hitter, that pitch is going to be a ball and the hitter will just take it. By being off the plate, the hitter has made the inside third of the plate the middle, the middle third is now the outside and the outside third is unreachable — so that’s where you might pitch him…unless he strides toward the plate. Now everything’s back to normal and you can come inside on the hitter. Lots of hitters now “dive” to the outside corner, and pitchers are coming inside to discourage that. Both hitter and pitcher want to control the outside corner, which leads to some pretty interesting at-bats…and increased sales of elbow pads.
If the hitter sets up on top of the plate, he probably feels he can get around on the inside pitch and is trying to make the outside corner the middle of the plate. Usually, this guy has no trouble with the fastball, so breaking pitches are a good bet. With this stance, the hitter is daring the pitcher to come inside because he wants a fastball — like Aviles did by moving up in the box. And some pitchers will still take that bet.
Open stance: If the hitter stays open after his stride, he’ll have a very hard time hitting a pitch on the outer half. This guy usually likes the ball inside. Some pitchers will go inside early in the count with a BP fastball or change-up, let the hitter pull it a mile foul and then go away once the pitcher has the hitter set up for a pitch on the outer half.
Closed stance: This hitter usually wants the ball away. Pitchers can appear to give him that outside pitch, then move it out too far away by throwing a slider or two-seamer and see if the hitter will chase. A hitter who is diving to the outside corner is usually vulnerable inside.
Crouched stance: Usually a low-ball hitter. The upper body is bent over, and that puts the swing path lower in the zone. These hitters will often struggle with pitches up in the zone. Usually not a power hitter (Rickey Henderson immediately comes to mind as an exception, but as I recall, the pitches he hammered were usually low). Pete Rose is a more typical example of a crouched-stance hitter; good contact, but not a lot of power.
Straight-up stance: This hitter will usually handle a pitch up in the zone better than the crouched hitter but may have the tendency to hit the top half of balls that are down in the zone, resulting in a lot of grounders.
Definition-of-terms timeout: When ballplayers say “down” in the zone, they usually mean lower than mid-thigh. “Up” in the zone usually means above the belt, around the hands.
Bat straight up: This guy usually likes the pitch down, and when he gets it, hammers it. He’ll drop the bat head like a golf club, but that means his swing has a loop in it, and he can be pitched up in the zone.
Bat flat: Usually a contact hitter without a lot of power. This guy you want to pitch down, once again, hoping he hits the top half of the ball, producing a grounder.
OK, there are a lot more possible variations in stance and launch position. Like what if the hitter crouches and has a flat bat? (You probably ask another pitcher how they got him out). But you’re probably beginning to get the idea: figure out what the hitter wants and give him the opposite. Or make the hitter think he’s getting what he wants and give him too much of it (if he wants a pitch in, give him a pitch that moves too far in).
Remember, the pitcher matters, too: If a pitcher’s strength is movement, not location, forget hitting spots. A pitcher might recognize that a hitter wants a fastball, but if you’re Justin Verlander, you’re still going to give him one — but a great one. A slider might be the right pitch, but if your slider kind of stinks tonight, you might need a new plan. And, finally, you might give the hitter what he wants and just make sure you’ve got someone standing where he hits it.
As always, this stuff is complicated, and a lot of information besides batting stance goes into every game plan. But now when a hitter walks to the plate, you can take a look at his stance and at least try to think with the pitcher and catcher … and you might even guess right.
Spring Training I leave Sunday night for Surprise, Ariz., and I will start posting a daily column the following Tuesday. The plan is to walk around, talk to people, take notes and write about whatever seems interesting. And, yes, it is a sweet gig.
On the other hand, once this sweet gig starts, it won’t end until late October. Wish me luck.