Hitters meetings: Some need them, some don't
Views on studying and discussing vary, but some, like Miggy, rely on their instincts
At the beginning of each series of the season, Tigers coach Lloyd McClendon holds a brief meeting with all of his hitters.
Well, all but one.
"I tell Miggy to stay out," a smiling McClendon said of Miguel Cabrera, otherwise known as the Best Hitter on the Planet, with a league-leading .359 batting average. "Don't even come in. Don't disrupt the meeting."
It is nothing personal or serious; it is just an acknowledgment that there is no scouting report that can be studied, no video that can be scrutinized that is going to be any more beneficial to Cabrera than his own natural instincts and abilities.
"There's a lot of information and a lot of talk," Cabrera said. "But this game is about reaction."
Is Miggy on to something -- the information age perhaps being too informative for its own good?
Or is the Best Hitter on the Planet merely a freak of nature whose approach ought not apply to the masses?
Suffice to say the majority of Major League personnel bet on the latter. Pre-series hitters' meetings, after all, are a staple of the big league clubhouse, geared toward instilling the mental preparation it takes to understand whom and what a hitter will be facing on a given night.
Yet the lengths and extents of these meetings can vary considerably among organizations. Some hitting coaches are content to provide individual scouting reports and charts and let their players make of this information what they will, while others are intent on a rundown of the repertoire of each and every member of the opposing club's pitching staff.
"By the time you're at the sixth guy," said Giants hitting coach Hensley Meulens, "nobody knows what you said about the first guy. That's my opinion, anyway."
What is true, across the board, is that the access to information is greater than it has ever been. A hitter can look at his own hot and cold charts to see the troublesome spots in and out of the zone that opposing pitchers will try to exploit. He can quickly cue up video of each and every one of his at-bats, and each and every pitch that night's starter has thrown this season. He can review detailed stats and scouts' takes on what that guy throws and when he throws it -- his first-pitch fastball percentage, his breaking ball tendencies, the degree of break on those pitches, what he tends to turn to when he gets ahead or behind.
"Nowadays," joked Indians first baseman Nick Swisher, "they have stats for stats."
And one of the first things a professional hitter has to do, if he's going to have sustained success at this level, is determine if he's going to immerse himself in that data or do as Miggy does. Cabrera said he wants to know what a guy throws and little else.
"Sometimes you have to be selfish and have your own information," Cabrera said. "You want to believe what you see and not just what everybody else tells you."
Miggy is fortunate enough to have the ability to trust his own vision, because his pitch recognition and reaction time is second to none. He is strong and disciplined enough to employ the old-school "palm up/palm down" mechanics that allow him to take the barrel of the bat to the baseball, whether it is up or down in the zone.
These are rare gifts, which is why Cabrera puts up rare numbers.
Still, his "less is more" mentality is one that even the most cerebral of hitters have discovered does have merit in a game already encumbered with mental hurdles. White Sox slugger Paul Konerko, for example, might be one of the most analytical hitters in the sport, but coaches who worked with him early in his career felt he was almost analytical to a fault. It was not until after he was traded from the Reds to the White Sox in 1999 that he began to find his preparatory comfort zone.
"There's no doubt hitters can overthink things," Konerko said. "But the fact is, even the hitters who say they're not thinking are thinking. They're just thinking about the right thing. I would say the only wrong way to go about it is to bounce around in your approach. Because with the amount of repetitions there are, that's not fair to your swing or your mind or body. You see some guys who want nothing to do with scouting reports and video. Then they have a bad week, and they want everything.
"The more you can stay consistent over the long haul, the better off you are. Any hitter can condition himself. It's just a matter of what you want to do and making the pledge to do it for a long time. It's hard to do, because you play every day and you don't get good results every day."
Konerko said he was careful not to "pigeonhole" himself into memorizing what a guy has traditionally thrown in certain counts, because that could lead to dangerous assumptions. Like Cabrera, Konerko is comfortable, at this stage of his career, with primarily knowing what is in a guy's repertoire and letting his eyes and instincts do the rest.
That is obviously not something that can be taught in a meeting, but teams are always thinking about the best and most effective ways to use that time when the position players gather.
"I've been involved in four or five different ways to do it," Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said. "We've got a comfortable way for our guys right now. We basically give them CliffsNotes, and the meetings never take more than 20 minutes. We've found that sometimes the more video you show, the less they listen to the words. So we try to separate the two. That way, when they watch the video, they're intent on the video, and we've also incorporated some highlights, some music, some fun things into it. It grabs their attention a little bit more."
Another attention-grabber: Video shot from behind the plate.
"You always see from the center-field view," Hurdle said. "Why don't we see what the hitter is going to see from the pitcher face on?"
That is a small twist that could pay big dividends.
Cabrera offers another.
"I think too many people take too much time [studying] starting pitchers," he said. "You're going to see that guy three or four times. I think you have to learn about the relievers, because you're only going to see them one time, and it could be a situation when the game is on the line. What do they throw first pitch? What do they throw with the game on the line? When I learned that, it helped me."
Still, with Cabrera, the approach will always be more reactionary than preparatory, which is precisely what sets him apart from the pack.
"He's different than most hitters in the history of the game," McClendon said. "We're talking about a freak."
Mere mortals, meanwhile, must report to the hitters meetings.