Contactball 101

I’ve written many times about “Contactball,” my term for the Angels’ style of offense. Most recently, I discussed it in the comments posted by nardtwopper in the Kendry Morales blog on February 27.

Many people on fan boards, and some sportswriters, inaccurately describe how Contactball works. They claim it means the Angels teach their young hitters to swing at bad pitches, to “hack,” that hitting coach Mickey Hatcher forces every hitter to become just like him, etc., ad nauseam.

The truth is that the Angels want their young hitters to look for a pitch they can drive. With nobody on, it’s to look for a pitch that can be driven for a hit. With runners on base, the emphasis is on situational hitting. With a runner on second, for example, they want the batter to hit the ball to the right side so that runner can advance to third. That does not mean they deliberately want the batter to make an out. A hit would be nice, but if you’re going to hit the ball, hit it to the right side (unless it’s a nice big fat pitch, but the higher you go in pro ball the fewer mistakes you’re going to see).

Some people think “patience” means taking walks. But in Angels lexicon, it’s plate “discipline,” which means learning to look for a pitch that fits the situation.

An article by national baseball writer Bill Shaikin in today’s Los Angeles Times affirmed exactly what I’ve been saying.

… The Angels have quietly revamped their minor league instructional program over the last three years to emphasize plate discipline.

“We’re starting to get some tendencies with younger guys coming through the system,” Angels Manager Mike Scioscia said. “We’re excited because we’re seeing it at the major league level.”

The Angels have not finished in the top half of the American League in walks since 2000, Scioscia’s first year as manager. He said he renewed the focus on plate discipline about three years ago, yet he insists walks are not the barometer of success.

Although some organizations demand prospects take a certain amount of pitches and walks, Scioscia said the Angels simply want their players to better distinguish between balls and strikes, to take the bad pitches and hit the good ones, to get the count in the hitter’s favor and force the pitcher to throw a strike, preferably a fat one.

“It’s a huge benefit for team offense to have people, plain and simple, not swing at balls,” said Jim Eppard, the Angels’ triple-A hitting instructor and an organizational coach since 2003.

Guerrero can swing at a bad ball and get away with it, but “most mortal hitters” cannot, Scioscia said.

The Angels, who did not play a game Tuesday, have yet to play their regulars in spring games, and the walk totals assuredly will drop as Guerrero, Torii Hunter, Howie Kendrick and Erick Aybar start to play. Yet the Angels are encouraged with the progress of such young players as infielders Kendry Morales, Brandon Wood and Sean Rodriguez, catchers Jeff Mathis and Mike Napoli and outfielder Reggie Willits.

“To have someone be more disciplined at the plate, you can’t just push a button,” Eppard said. “It doesn’t happen overnight.

“It’s something we’ve talked about, and we’re starting to see results.”

A common fallacy circulated on fan boards is that Mickey Hatcher tells the batters what pitches to swing at, that he’s making them swing at anything and everything.

Of course, anyone who knows a smidgen of what a major league hitting coach does knows this is nonsense. His job is to know his hitters’ mechanics, to monitor those mechanics to assure they don’t fall into bad habits, and to be a sounding board when necessary.

At the lower levels, when a hitter begins his professional career, a hitting coach’s job is to teach the hitter to become his own hitting coach. Coaches come and go, so it’s vital for the hitter to understand his mechanics, what works, and what doesn’t. They’re also taught to have an idea of what they’ll do when they’re at the plate; longtime minor league manager Ty Boykin describes this as, “Plan your work, and work you plan.”

In discussions over the years with many minor league hitters and coaches, I’ve been told that as a general rule a hitter at the lowest levels may see one mistake pitch every at-bat. As he rises through the levels, he’ll see fewer and fewer mistake pitches. At the major league level, he might see a mistake once every three or four games.

That’s where Contactball comes into play.

Rather than wait for the pitcher to make a mistake, the batter should look for a pitch he can drive that will either get him on base and/or advance a runner. As Mike Scioscia said above, walks are not an accurate barometer of plate discipline, although they might be a byproduct. For example, if there’s a runner on third with one out and you see a pitch you could have driven deep enough to score the runner, but that pitch wasn’t a strike so you let it go by for a ball, the Angels’ philosophy is that you probably made a mistake. Those obsessed with walks argue that the batter did the right thing, but if he walks and the next guy grounds into a double play to end the inning without scoring a run, can you still argue he did the right thing by talking a walk?

A February 28 article by Angels beat writer Lyle Spencer showed what it is a major league hitting coach really does, and how it ties into the Angels’ Contactball philosophy.

The meeting was held in June in the office of Angels manager Mike Scioscia, who did the talking and demonstrating along with hitting coach Mickey Hatcher. Brandon Wood listened, intently absorbing every detail.

“Sosh had a fungo bat in his hands and was showing me some things, and Hatch was showing me how it would benefit me to move my hands down, get quicker to the ball,” Wood said.

“At first I thought, `I’ve been quick enough to hit home runs in the Minor Leagues.’ But I have a lot of respect for their knowledge and experience, and we started working on dropping my hands from the cocked position I’d always used.

“I couldn’t find a comfort zone for two or three weeks. But by July I had it down and began to have some success with it. In September, I was playing every day and I had some good at-bats. I could feel the difference.”

Now that’s what Mickey Hatcher really does.

A March 3 Los Angeles Times article by beat writer Mike DiGiovanna noted that “Hatcher also stressed looking for one pitch to drive and laying off pitches he couldn’t hit hard.”

Hatcher found a way to tweak Wood’s mechanics, and also helped him be more selective at the plate. The advice wasn’t to take more walks, but to look for one pitch he can drive hard. The byproduct might be more walks, but I’d argue that the real byproduct will be more hits, more extra-base hits in particular. When that happens, he’ll get more walks because pitchers will have to be more careful with him. They’ll start to pitch around him. He won’t get more walks just because he’s looking to take a walk. With Wood’s power, his job will be to drive in runs.

A March 2 Orange County Register article by beat writer Bill Plunkett drew a comparison to Mike Schmidt’s early career, one I’ve made many times on this blog. He asked manager Mike Scioscia about the comparison, and Scioscia confirmed what I’ve said before — that Schmidt was given time to fail and learn because the Phillies were so bad in the early 1970s.

Angels manager Mike Scioscia points out that the Phillies indeed “were bottom-dwellers for how long?” when they handed Schmidt a job.

“Some young players just don’t get a two-year window to play at the major-league level and develop like Mike Schmidt,” Scioscia said …

“Coming up and getting playing time randomly here and there and not getting many consecutive at-bats, I didn’t put up very good numbers,” said Wood who would talk to his father during those stretches about feeling he needed to hit “800 feet worth of home runs” one day to get in Scioscia’s lineup the next.

“Playing every day, I was just playing baseball. … I had a chance to prove to myself that I had the ability to get hits and help a team win. I think that was a big hurdle for me because coming up you always have doubts. It doesn’t matter if you get two, three at-bats in a month – if you strike out all three times, you’re thinking, ‘Man, these guys are good. Can I play up here?’

“Once I got a chance to play every day and I did some things to help the team win … I enjoyed every minute of it and that was my motivation this off-season, to get back to that.”

We all saw how certain young hitters failed in last October’s ALDS against Boston because they were chasing bad pitches. That wasn’t because Scioscia or Hatcher made them chase bad pitches. It’s because they’re young and haven’t yet adapted to playing in a pressure environment.

I’m glad that the Angels’ beat writers are finally giving the world an accurate picture of how Contactball is taught in the minors. There will always be those who will lie about it because they get off on attacking a team they supposedly support. But the more the reporters write about it, and as the young hitters start to produce with experience and confidence, Contactball will be vindicated.

UPDATE March 5,2009 3:30 PM PST — The Orange County Register joins the fray with this article by Bill Plunkett about how the Angels will go about improving plate discipline.

Angels hitting coach Mickey Hatcher said the emphasis includes some directives this spring for the younger players based on certain scenarios — take a strike when leading off an inning, see as many pitches as possible in your first at-bat against a pitcher, lay off breaking balls and change-ups to “keyhole” on fastballs in certain areas.

“It’s going to take us time but this spring training we’re really going to focus on that, especially down there with those (minor-league) guys,” Hatcher said. “They don’t even know what a pitcher’s throwing and they’re swinging. We preach it and preach it and we weren’t getting anything done with it. Now we’re going to make it mandatory.”

And Scioscia validates what I wrote yesterday.

Scioscia rejects the notion that a “wail and bail” approach is part of the team’s hitting philosophy.

“That’s not a philosophy. That’s a plate-discipline issue that some guys got a little out of what they need to do,” Scioscia said. “If you look at what our philosophy is in the minor leagues, it’s very clear. It’s all about getting into a hitting count, keyholing, getting a good pitch to hit and turning the bat loose, sure. But with the plate discipline that allows you to get into counts where you can pressure the pitcher.

“Our philosophy is very clear. Some times there’s a perception out there that I don’t know how it gets created.”


  1. nardtwopper

    Boy, I really think we really were debating small details now!

    I read the Shaikin’s article and thought, letter by letter, that’s exactly – and only – what I was saying.

    Walks are a nice by-product of plate discipline. It’s a great perk.

    But plate discipline, in and of itself, brings oodles of benefits to the table, not only for the hitter but the entire lineup and is something the Angels have lacked a bit for the last year and a half or so.

    I know there are strange cats out there who preach walks at all costs. I’m not one of them.

    The Angels over the last few years had places on their roster that were left open for the express purpose of being filled by great prospects like Kendrick, Aybar, etc.

    And there was a trend with them that was mildly disconcerting. I think Kendrick is going to have a very productive major-league career. I think he will have a fabulously productive major-league career if he sees more pitches and walks a bit more. Same with Aybar at a moderately lower level.

    I didn’t and don’t think it was some sort of organizational philosophy of “grip it and rip it”. It just kind of fell that way. The spots filled by prospects in recent years tended to push a little too much.

    It’s fixable and didn’t exactly cost the Angels much. Heck, they won 100 games last year. But if the AL West ever decides to get competitive again, fixing it will be pretty essential.

    The only issue I would have with your description of Contactball would be that it’s extraordinarily similar to the new baseball hitting philosophy across the league – a blend of the old and the new.

    Otherwise, after all the words and debate, it’s a bit funny how much we essentially believe that same thing with terribly small differences.

    Anyway, nice debate, great site and thank all that is holy that baseball has arrived.

  2. jeanne

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