Effective methods in two strike hitting

I have always been intrigued with hitting approaches… especially those that deal with two strike situations. Early in my playing career, I would feel angered, embarrassed and/or guilty walking back to the dugout after a strikeout- a feeling I never really got over.

When I began my coaching career in 1973, I immediately began investigating techniques and ideas that I thought might be beneficial to my players. I contacted veteran coaches, went to clinics and spent time researching data and information. By the spring of 1974, I felt prepared to share my personal beliefs on the two-strike approach and mindset.

article submitted by Sam Piraro, former head coach, San Jose State University

MENTALITY 

Be clearheaded, fearless, focused and ready to compete at a high level. The flip side to that mindset is panic, anxiety, confusion and ultimately surrender.

THEORIES ON TWO STRIKE HITTING 

There are many different opinions when it comes to hitting with two strikes. One of the most modern viewpoints is that a hitter should get three full swings during an at bat. In other words, some players are instructed to never cut down on their swings. And there are several examples of elite hitters that can compete at a high level with this approach. That is what makes baseball such a great game. There are several different methods to achieve success. 

Currently, strikeouts and home runs at the MLB level are at an all-time high, but most trends in baseball are cyclical. You can already observe more and more hitters making adjustments and even bunting early in the count to defeat defensive shifts, and many hitters will cut down on their swings with runners in scoring position or to move a runner. These hitters are typically able to chase less pitches out of the zone. They have a two-strike adjustment that allows them to put the ball in play and ‘spoil’ high quality pitches. Their ability to ‘buy’ another pitch in an at-bat adds stress for the pitcher/defense and ideally results in a better pitch to hit.

ADJUSTMENTS WITH TWO STRIKES 

To be a successful two-strike hitter, a batter must make both physical and mental adjustments. Before we do this as hitters, it is important to understand what the pitcher is trying to do:

1. Add to the fastball- This can range from three to five miles per hour. For example: go from 88 to 92 mph or 92 to 96 mph. Adding velocity that you haven’t seen yet- especially to a hitter who might be sitting on an offspeed pitch (which is a mistake!)- can be tough to handle.

2. Change up/split finger- subtracts from the fastball with similar ball flight and arm action, typically 8-10 miles slower than the fastball.

3. Adding inches to a breaking pitch…. normally a curveball or slider instead of a cutter. A sharper, tighter break that forces hitters to chase and usually ends up off the plate or in the dirt.

4. Fastball location. Just off the outside corner or elevated above the belt are two common examples.

There are two constants that I have observed over the many years that I have been involved in baseball that relate in a two strike situation. One is that pitchers have a tendency to attack the outer portion of the strike zone or even off of the plate. Another is that umpires are more likely to call the OUTSIDE pitch a strike (slightly off the outside part of the plate) more often than pitches that miss on the inside edge. With these two theories in play, here are a series of adjustments that I believe assist a competent hitter in this situation:

Hall of Famer Wee Willie Keeler, who stood 5-foot-4, owns the MLB record for highest career at-bats-per-strikeout, at 63.17. In 19 years, he struck out just 136 times in 8591 at-bats.

PHYSICAL ADJUSTMENTS 

  1. Choke up on the bat 1-2 inches- helps control the bat and makes it easier to check swing, if necessary. It also becomes easier to execute the ‘emergency’ or ‘block’ swing that defends against an inside fastball.
  2. Crowd the plate- easier access to the outside pitch, makes the pitcher uncomfortable- he doesn’t want to hit you after getting you to two strikes!
  3. Hands closer to body- another way to help shorten your swing, which gives you just a bit more time to help you with recognition and whether to swing or not.
  4. Limit front foot ‘drama’- get foot down sooner than later. Can also make your stance wider.

MENTAL ADJUSTMENTS 

As we noted earlier, sitting on an off speed pitch is not ideal in a two-strike situation. It makes the fastball nearly impossible to defend against, and you are more likely to chase a pitch if it’s the one they are looking for. Sit on the fastball and adjust to the off speed. Here are a couple more mental adjustments:

  1. Look away- outer half to inner. Establish a tunnel on the outer half of the plate and be prepared to ‘block’ or fight off any borderline inside strikes.
  2. Scope of contact- drive the ball over the opposite-field middle infielder (RHH hitters over second baseman’s head, LHH hitters over shortstop’s head)- you want to hit the ball where it’s pitched, and if we are going to ‘look away,’ we must also be looking to drive (we are still trying to hit the ball hard!) the ball to the opposite field.
  3. Expand away- look to spoil borderline outside pitches. Let ball travel.
Arguably the best hitter in the modern era, Tony Gwynn struck out 434 times (just over 21 per season) in his 20 year career, and had less multi-strikeout games (34) than four-hit games (45).

BENEFITS OF BEING A GOOD TWO STRIKE HITTER

I am a strong proponent of having a method to put the ball in play with some authority in two strike situations, and believe that this approach has truly benefited many players- and therefore teams- throughout my coaching career.

Here are my main objectives in the execution plan when hitting with two strikes:

1. Put ball in play hard… force the opponent to make a play.

2. Impact the pitch count.

3. Frustrate the pitcher by not chasing out of zone and fighting off quality two strike pitches.

4. Advance runners by hitting safely or by making productive outs.

5. Driving in runs by hitting safely or by making a productive out.

6. Spoiling borderline pitches and looking to get a better pitch to hit.

7. Beating overloaded defensive shifts.

8. Drawing more bases on balls by extending pitch counts and not chasing balls out of the zone.

CONCLUSION 

It is important to note that hitting with two strikes and executing the fundamentals that are attached to it requires extensive practice, training and participation. It should be part of your pregame and batting practice routines on a daily basis. The goal is to develop or gain confidence for the hitters in two strike scenarios. The more confident that your players are in these situations, the better pitch selection and plate discipline will develop from there. Better selection and discipline early in the count is always a great skill set to possess as a hitter. I also believe your players will have less fear of hitting with two strikes. This can really manifest itself with runners in scoring position.

I sincerely hope that this article will benefit you as a coach and impact your players in a positive way. Best of luck to all!

Before retiring in 2012, Sam Piraro was the head coach at San Jose State University for 25 years. He won more than 800 games as the skipper of the Spartans, who finished with a record below .500 only five times in his tenure. SJSU won three WAC championships and made a pair of NCAA Tournament berths, advancing to their first-ever College World Series in 2000. Piraro is currently an assistant coach for his son at Los Gatos (CA) High School.