Batters must adapt to analysis used against them
Wealth of statistical information available to pitchers, fielders as well
Analyzing the opponent is nothing new for baseball. Since the first game of rounders, hitters and pitchers have been scheming for ways to get an edge on the other, and fielders have been trying to figure out where that next line drive will fly.
What is new is the incredible volume of information for that analysis. If a particular batter is dominating a pitcher every time he steps up to the plate, advanced statistics -- along with detailed video broken down by specific pitches, counts, and angles -- can help pitchers and coaches scrutinize hitters until a weakness is found.
"The pitcher knows that going into the game -- 'God, I can't get this guy out.' Well, that means he's dealing with him on base and another guy's going to come up," said the league's longest-tenured pitching coach, Dave Righetti of the San Francisco Giants. "You know, if we take this guy out of the equation, how much more will my guy relax and feel good about himself pitching if he knows he can get that guy out? So I'll try to use whatever I can. Is this guy weak in his box? Is he picking up [our pitcher's] pitches?"
Another advantage is that pitchers can get a firsthand look at hitters they aren't familiar with, potentially saving them some costly trial and error.
"That kind of analysis comes in handy when you don't really know a guy, when a guy comes over from another league, when a guy takes a major jump or changes different [from] what he used to," Righetti said. "Say a guy came up in an organization where they had to do a lot of taking and try to work the count. All of a sudden, now the guy's swinging early. But what are his results? Is he a better hitter, or is he doing worse? So you look at that and try to figure out what he's trying to do lately."
There's never been a time in baseball history where batters could be lackadaisical about their swings, but the ease and speed with which their weaknesses can be discovered makes constantly refining those cuts that much more important.
"Hitting, pretty much you have to do adjustments every single day," said Marco Scutaro, who hit for a .362 average after joining San Francisco last July.
To prepare for games, Scutaro watches tape from the starting picher and the bullpen members so he knows what to expect at the plate. Once he steps in the batter's box, discipline plays an important role as well.
"I think that's pretty much my game," Scutaro said. "Try and get good at bats, try to get on base, try to see pitches so that the guys that hit behind me see more pitches and what the [pitcher] is trying to do"
Hitters can use video and discipline to try to keep pace with pitchers, but they're still left with a dilemma that has plagued batters since baseball began. As D-back's hitting coach Don Baylor succinctly put it, "If they make a good pitch, they're going to get you out."
And in recent years, pitchers have been developing larger repertoires, giving them more ways to throw that third strike.
"Years ago, if a guy had four pitches and was trying to use them all during the course of the game, it's funny the old-school guys [would say], 'What's this guy trying to do? He's trying to master too many things,'" Righetti said. "Nowadays, if you don't have three or four [pitches], you find it tough to get through the lineups."
There has been a big change from when Righetti won the American League Rookie of the Year Award in 1981.
"They didn't sit down and really teach us the changeup, not when I first came up," said Righetti. "I said when I became a pitching coach that I was going to try and help each guy have one. I knew how important it was to have guys change the timing, and how if you had a good fastball, everybody kind of old-school would say, 'Use it, use it, use it' all the time."
Such an approach would not work today.
"In three years, you're done, probably," he said.
Righetti has also noticed that as a result of the developments that have been made in pitching and scouting, many batters have started to change their swings, going with a middle-of-the-field approach.
"It's a sounder way to stay in every at-bat," Righetti said. "You don't see as many guys pulling off balls and stepping in the bucket like everybody used to do years ago."
The age of information has allowed defenses to be far more precise in their shifts, leading Baylor to note that putting the ball in play is only half the battle.
"Even if you hit a ball on the line, they might catch it. ... The defense is so much more advanced now," he said.
For his part, Righetti is happy to see how more sophisticated methods of analysis have helped the fielders back up his pitchers.
"We've got it all. [Bench coach] Ron Wotus does it every night," Righetti said. "[He] tries to see not only how every guy hits normally, but how does he hit our guy? He's going to hit [Tim] Lincecum different than [Barry] Zito, or [Madison] Bumgarner different than [Ryan Vogelsong] or whatever it is, but is this guy swinging to take this outside pitch pretty much in this area all the time? That's big stuff. That really helps."
More precise information has allowed players, coaches and managers to be more efficient in trying to outsmart their opponents, but the essence of the game remains the same.
"When it comes down to the nitty-gritty stuff, with us, it's really pretty simple," Righetti said. "The guy's swing matching up to our guy's throwing."
There's not much statistical analysis can do to change that.
Nathan Humpherys is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.