By Mike Epstein
"While suspicion remains about his brawn, don't discount [Barry] Bonds' brain in pursuit of Hank Aaron's home run record.
Colorado Rockies' catcher Yorvit Torrealba recalled a conversation with Bonds as the two sat on the bench during a game against the Arizona Diamondbacks in 2003. Bonds predicted pitch-for-pitch how he would be attacked. A few moments later, Bonds was up to bat.
The sequence played out exactly as Bonds had predicted it would, down to the back door slider he lifted to left field for a home run.
"He came back to the dugout and said, 'See I told you,' " Torrealba said. "I couldn't believe it. I have heard of a guy guessing right on one or two pitches. But five? It was amazing.'" (Associated Press, April 30, 2006.)
Why is this "amazing?" Because he has a sound "plan" when he bats? Or, because like all good hitters, he "anticipates" certain pitches in certain counts with less than two strikes? We should spend as much time developing this skill as we do teaching hitting technique. We teach pitchers to size up hitters. Why don't we teach hitters to do the same?
"Hitting is 50% from the neck up" is a commonly-heard hitting maxim that has permeated baseball instruction since its inception. However, hitters who come to our facility for instruction in Denver, both amateur and professional alike, who have no "clue" when they go to the plate, continually amaze me. If "mental hitting" represents so much of the hitting equation, why, then, do we forsake teaching these fundamental mental concepts while spending countless hours attempting to tweak the smallest and most trivial nuances of a hitter's technique?
Having mentored under the "World's Greatest Hitter," Ted Williams, for ten years—including three more as a player—gave me insights into the importance of the "game" played between the pitcher and hitter afforded to very few. Sitting next to Ted when he was managing the Washington Senators, I can still recall his excitement "calling" pitches and location BEFORE they were thrown. Hearing him mutter under his breath, "Look for the slider down-and-in now," or, in his own inimitable way, "Boy oh boy! Don't be late here. You're gonna get a (expletive) fastball!" He was a master at this fascinating game and personally reaped the rewards of his vast knowledge. Few have had the rare opportunities to hear first-hand his method of calculating the thought process that goes into the making of the complete hitter.
Williams talked endlessly about the mental game. "Know what pitch McLain's gonna go to tonight in a tight situation, Mike?" Every day. Every game. Before the game. During the game. Before and after each at bat. He talked hitting continuously, helping everyone gain that important edge on the pitcher. Our team batting average went up 70 points that year.
However, Ted rarely spoke about hitting mechanics, focusing primarily on the magical game between the pitcher and hitter. Today, it's interesting to note how few want to reach out for this level of understanding; it has become a "lost art." Hitting is much more than just going to the plate and taking a hack at the ball. This mindset will greatly reduce a hitter's odds of "getting a good pitch to hit."
Most everyone connected in some way to baseball has seen the hitting zone chart in his book, "The Science of Hitting." It depicts his personal hot and cold hitting zones. The chart shows how drastically batting averages fluctuate depending on pitch location, from a .400 batting average in the area right down the middle, belt high, to the low .200s on the low-outside pitch. All players have areas in their hitting zones that are better and/or worse than others. But, it is important for hitters to understand that pitchers "own" the extreme peripheries of the strike zone—IF they can consistently put pitches there. Fortunately, they can't.
Often the size of a hitter's "dead red" area is determined by genetics, athleticism, and the quality of their hitting technique. As an example, Albert Pujols' "dead red" area may be defined by an 8" circle. Another hitter, not having the genetics and/or hitting technique of Pujols, may have a "dead red" area of a 4" circle. Unfortunately, few hitters are blessed with his elite talent, so the majority resign themselves to doing the best they can. Fortunately, there IS a way for these hitters to increase the size of their "dead red" area!
The next two articles delve into this intriguing and fundamental, yet seldom used, area called "mental hitting," and the making of the TOTAL 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/
Increasing the Hitter's "Dead Red" Zone (Part 1 of 3)
By Mike Epstein