As you develop an offensive approach for the season, you must evaluate the skills and talents of your players. Some offensive teams are built on speed, some on manufacturing runs, and some on power hitting. Teams with speed can create havoc for pitchers and defenses while lowering the number of sacrifice bunt situations throughout the year.
Teams with little or no speed must rely on manufacturing runs with the short game. Teams with multiple power sources can play for the big inning. If your team relies on speed and you can move runners by stealing bases, you need to gain information on the opposing pitcher’s ability to control the running game and the catcher’s ability to throw out runners consistently. When evaluating the opposing catcher, first look at the catcher’s ability to receive and catch the ball consistently. Also look at his ability to move his feet with quickness and agility in order to position himself to throw quickly (you should determine if he can throw with a pop time of 2.0 seconds or less). You also need to evaluate the catcher’s ability to throw with accuracy. Against teams that have speed and are aggressive on the basepaths, pitchers commonly elevate pitches in the strike zone, which often leads to better offensive numbers. Speed on the basepaths disrupts the pitcher’s concentration and command more quickly than anything else you can do offensively. As you evaluate the pitcher’s and catcher’s ability to control the running game, develop an alternate plan for moving runners in the event that your running game is shut down in a given inning or game.
Sacrifice bunting, using the hit-and-run, and hitting behind runners are important tools for any solid game plan. The most important overall aspect of your offensive attack is your hitters’ approach, mind-set, and ability to recognize and execute at the plate in any situation. Our teams take a middle-of-the-field hitting approach while concentrating on using the gaps and hitting hard line drives. With this hitting approach in mind, we look at the opposing pitcher and his statistics, and we work to make minor adjustments.
A team’s pitching staff will have similar tendencies throughout the staff. These tendencies may include pitching away, pitching in, mixing in and out, using the fastball, and throwing many off-speed pitches or a combination of hard and soft. Many right-handed pitchers attack right-handed hitters with combinations of fastballs and breaking balls, but they attack left-handed hitters using fastball–changeup combinations with occasional breaking balls (either backdoor or wrapped around the back knee). Conversely, left-handed pitchers employ fastball–changeup combinations with occasional breaking balls (backdoor or wrapped around the back knee) against right-handed hitters, and they use combinations of fastballs and breaking balls against left-handed hitters.
Coaching staffs and players should gather information from scouting reports and should watch in-game tendencies of pitchers and the types of pitches they use in specific counts. For instance, many pitchers fall into patterns of throwing a specific pitch in a given count, such as always throwing a fastball when behind in a count.
Pay particular attention to the change in velocity, the sharpness of pitches, and the elevation of pitches when runners reach base. With runners in scoring position, many pitchers tend to rush to the plate and lose command, velocity, and life on their pitches. It is sometimes difficult for hitters to adjust their positioning in the batter’s box based on the velocity, style, and pitch repertoire of an individual pitcher. For example, against a soft-throwing pitcher who consistently throws pitches down and away, a hitter should move closer to home plate and farther up in the box. In this scenario, the hitter is adjusting so that he has more plate coverage to the outer third of the plate. In addition, this adjustment cuts down on the amount of time the hitter must wait for a pitch. The hitter should also have a middle-to-opposite-field approach in this situation. To make this adjustment successfully, hitters must be confident enough in their abilities that they will be able to handle any pitch thrown on the inner part of the plate.
In our practices, we spend many hours working on situational hitting and bunting. Each practice begins with a bunting program, which includes sacrifice bunts, bunts for hits, and suicide and safety squeezes. We also work daily on driving the ball on the ground between the first and second basemen. This can be accomplished by placing cones in the desired area to set up a hitting lane. We also work on moving runners, scoring runners with the infield in and back, and game-winning hits.
Another aspect of your coaching philosophy will be to decide when you should slow down the game and make offensive changes (pinch hitters or runners), defensive changes, or pitching changes. You will also need to decide when to use pitching mound conferences or offensive conferences. The thought behind using a pinch hitter is to bring a fresh bat off the bench to create a positive offensive matchup. In many cases, the opposition hasn’t seen this hitter and likely doesn’t have extensive scouting information on his abilities and tendencies. A pinch hitter is often used to try to neutralize the pitcher’s out pitch in multiple situations. Many times, coaches play percentages by pinch hitting a right-handed hitter against a left-handed pitcher or vice versa. This often neutralizes the effect of a good, hard breaking ball. These changes are dictated by percentages as well as gut feelings, and they are made when a starter is not seeing the ball well or is not having good at-bats on a particular day. Through scouting reports and in-game evaluation, you may find that a given pitcher doesn’t command a particular part of the plate consistently, which will set up your pinch hitter to get a good pitch to hit.
Pinch runners, on the other hand, are used mainly to upgrade speed on the basepaths. You may do this in an effort to manufacture runs through stolen bases or to increase the probability of a runner scoring from second on a single or from first on an extra-base hit.
Mound visits are a vital part of keeping the game under control from a defensive and pitching perspective. They are used to slow down the game, refocus the pitcher and defense, and discuss a strategy against an upcoming hitter or in a particular situation. My philosophy is that on a mound visit, all players need to understand the task at hand while also being given reinforcement that will help calm the situation. If you are confident that the group on the mound understands the situation at hand, then making a joke, smiling, or saying something to take their minds off the pressure situation is time well spent in your short mound visit.
Deciding on the correct time to bring in a relief pitcher may be the most important but most difficult job of a coaching staff. When managing a pitching staff, you have to understand that you are managing to win the day while also looking at giving your team the opportunity to win an entire series or week. If at all possible, you should give your pitchers specific roles out of the bullpen. Throughout my coaching career, my best teams have had starters who consistently went deep into games and relievers who had a feel for specific and tangible roles. However, each game brings specific challenges, and great athletes and competitors will adapt to subtle changes when needed. You must be aware of how a pitcher’s legs feel, because tired legs will lead to poor performances and short outings. Tired legs may indicate when a pitching change needs to be made. When you are considering pitching changes, you must also be aware of the game situation. If you are contemplating a pitching change in a bunt situation, you should decide whether the current pitcher or the possible reliever is a better fielder. Also keep in mind that the pitcher chosen to throw the pitches in the bunt situation must throw strikes. If the situation dictates an intentional walk and you are contemplating a pitching change, you will likely want to bring in the reliever to administer the intentional walk. This will allow you to make another pitching change if the offense counters with a pinch hitter after the intentional walk. Remember that a reliever must face one hitter before you can make another pitching change.
With a lead late in games, I prefer to insert my best defensive lineup. This forces the opposing team to beat our best defense, and it also gives us an opportunity to keep multiple players involved by playing substitutes in crucial situations. This helps team morale and gives some little-used players a great sense of worth, helping to create good team chemistry.
This is an excerpt from Practice Perfect Baseball, by American Baseball Coaches Association. Bob Bennett, Editor.