Thursday, September 14, 2006

Bonds Hitting Strategy: Much Like Ted Williams

This is an answer I gave to Allfrank's question about Bonds but I realize maybe I should make it into its own post. Allfrank asked:
Have you ever thought about what Barry's strategy is at the plate? a) I am surpised at the number of 1st pitches he takes, often the most hittable pitch of the at bat, sometimes even a fat fastball; b) he seems to look for an inside pitch that has enough of the plate the he can hit into the water (understandable); c) on outside pitches, which he sees the most, seem to reveal less of a plan/pattern - a lot of them go deep to center, some go out, some get caught. I don't see any attempt to hit them out to left field. I guess what I am saying, I would think, since the pattern is to pitch him low and away, develop a strategy to take advantage of that pitch. Or does he think he will turn into a doubles hitter?

My Answer

I haven't seen Bonds hit on TV for a long time so I can't really comment on his strategy for hitting this season. However, I'm willing to proffer a guess, based on your observations and my past observations of his hitting, since I think that he hasn't changed much.

For a while now, he has been the closest we've seen in baseball of Ted Williams since Teddy-ball hit a homer and ran off the field into retirement. Even up to how the opposing defenses shifts their fielders to the right side, which was first done for Ted Williams (I think Lou Boudreau, player/manager of the Indians first did it, the Boudreau shift).

Ted Williams wrote about his theory of hitting in a book, The Science of Hitting (which I wholeheartedly endorse to anyone wanting to learn how to hit, if I were in charge of the Giants hitters, everyone would get a copy and points for applying Ted's techniques) and the basic ideas, from what I recall, would explain some of the actions that you describe Bonds doing.

I'm going to be jumping around but here goes... Williams always took pitches in his first AB. This in order to learn what pitches were working for the pitcher and the speed he's throwing them at plus to add to his pitch count. Ideally, the first few batters in the first inning do this so that the team can learn more about the pitchers repertoise. That could explain why he takes fat pitches, as Williams would rather study and understand the pitcher (knowledge of which he would pass to his teammates) in his first AB.

In addition, he zoned off the strike zone into premium hitting zones and poor hitting zones, that is, where you are most likely to get a hit. Up and in, if I remember right, he labeled in the high .300 range (with a small .400 zone or square in his diagram, he checkerboarded the strikezone, down and away I think in the low .200 range), so, in other words, not all strikes are the same. Hence why he takes some strikes and not others.

Because even if the first pitch is the most hittable pitch of the at bat, if it is in the low batting average zone, then you aren't going to have a high batting average when all is said and done. And even if it is fat, if you are trying to judge the pitcher's stuff that day in your first AB, that can be valuable in later ABs and for your fellow following batters. It is a team, afterall.

Ted also advocated hitting for homers. Thus you swing with an elevated swing so that the plane of your swing is maximized in the intersection with the plane of the pitch, and therefore maximized the odds of you hitting the ball squarely. And you pull the ball, because typically the foul line is the shortest path for the homer.

So, any batter following this hitting philosophy would lay off strikes early in the count if they are in the poor hitting zones, plus if it was the first AB, and basically try to force the pitcher to throw you a pitch to your optimal hitting zone or you'll be happy to take a walk (which after all is almost the same as a single - this was not emphasized by Williams that I recall, I'm just repeating what we've learned about OBP and the value of walks, but maybe he did, just don't remember).

Obviously, if the pitcher is good, you won't always get such a good pitch, so once you get to 2 strikes, you will have to start fouling off pitches to protect the plate. But even the best pitchers eventually throw you balls so either you get a walk or you get a mistake fat pitch into your zone that you mash for a hit or a homer, and, in any case, you made the pitcher work hard during your AB, which tires him out for the next batters and ultimately for the game.

A couple of years ago, someone noted in an article that Bonds had an incredible batting average EVEN WHEN HE HAD 2 STRIKES ON HIM. When most people suck hitting with two strikes, Bonds still had a batting line that any hitter would love to have. This result, I believe, is the residue of this type of strategy, of getting pitchers to throw into your key hitting zones or you take balls or certain strikes. If you are only willing to swing for a hit when the pitch is in the zone to maximize your chances of hitting, then of course your batting line is good even with 2 strikes, because you are only swinging when your chances of getting a hit is maximized.

That's why he has refused to swing to take advantage of the shift and get an easy hit going the other way. He has a game plan and he sticks to it, like Ted Williams stuck to his game plan. And I have found that to be true in life as well, people do much better with a plan, the old "if you fail to plan, you plan to fail" saying.

Now, to emphasize this, I don't know that this is the strategy Bonds follows, but from my observations in prior years of how he hits and his batting strategy and how teams react to him, you could have taken his stats for a season, mixed it in with Williams' and you wouldn't be able to tell the difference, particularly if you take out his intentional walks, which really was the main skewing of Bonds' hitting stats relative to Williams' (though I'm sure a number of his were IBB except that it was not officially counted until either later in his career or afterward).

Why more hitters don't adhere to this strategy, I don't know. Greatest hitter in baseball until Bonds came along and he has a system to follow and yet there are no disciples, no one showing the light. I can attest to its efficacy, I was never the greatest of hitters growing up, but I applied those principles when I was on my one and only intramural softball team in college, and I was basically my team's Pete Rose (what can I say, I was a skinny geek so I couldn't get homers but I could hit them where they ain't :^) and we went 8-1 even though we were a bunch of strangers put together into a team.

Hope this helps and, more importantly, makes sense. :^) I've been meaning to re-read the book and verify all these thoughts but this is as best as I can remember it after 20 years.

1 comment:

  1. Hello Martin -
    And thanks. This is helpful. And I do think Bonds looks for 'his pitch-' either a mistake or an inside pitch he can handle. I can't figure out what his strategy is with the low percentage pitch (low and outside), which is what pitchers are pounding him with. It seems many of these pitches result in long fly outs, when, if forced to swing becuase of 2 strikes, I would think he would be better served to foul it off or try to drive it to left.
    (and, like you, I should talk. I played semi-pro one summer. Came up against a guy who'd pitched in the Red Sox organization but hurt his arm. 4 ABs, w/ runners on. All pitches were big round house curves, 11-5. Two called strikes then 4 - make that 4 - weak GIDP to short. [This is why I am not overly critical of Feliz]).

    ReplyDelete

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