Every fall and winter, assistant coach Jerry Zulli has the difficult task of preparing Alabama’s hitters for the onslaught of draftable talent that makes up SEC pitching staffs. The starting point he chooses: a war on patience.
“Especially when you get into SEC play, you can’t afford to take strikes. The stuff is just too good,” Zulli said. “When you’re facing some of the arms we’re facing in the league, you just can’t afford to take strikes.”
The way he sees it, two-strike counts are often death sentences against pitchers of that quality — especially when they are ahead in the count and free to sling wicked breaking pitches. But hitters can’t be pinned into two-strike counts when they hit one of the first two pitches they see.
Aggression has been a way of life for UA at the plate in the first 13 games of the season, enough to win all of those games and rank seventh in the nation in both batting average (.333) and slugging percentage (.552) entering this weekend’s series with Lipscomb (8-3). UA has to coach some of its players into the philosophy, but once they get there, they tend to produce.
“As pitching has gotten better — guys are throwing harder, breaking pitches have more movement — it’s turned a lot of hitters into, ‘Wait and see what he’s going to do first.’ And honestly, you don’t have that amount of reaction time,” Zulli said. “You just don’t have that much time to make a decision.”
Zulli drove his point home after the fall. He tracked every fastball each hitter took in the strike zone, then showed the hitters the numbers. Then he showed those hitters how many two-strike counts they got into.
“I showed them how many two-strike counts we can eliminate just by being aggressive on fastballs we know we can hammer,” Zulli said. “I said, ‘Hey man, look. Look how many two-strike counts we’re in that we don’t need to be in.’ Mike Trout’s two-strike numbers are not great, and that’s the best hitter on the planet. Hitting with two-strikes is hard.”
The numbers show UA has followed the strategy perfectly. Through 444 at-bats, 134 of them (30.1 percent) ended on the first or second pitch. In those at-bats, UA hit .448 and slugged .701; eight of the team’s 20 home runs have come on the first or second pitch of the at-bat. UA has even reached base without a hit by being hit with the first or second pitch of an at-bat six times.
It’s one thing to approach hitting this way to avoid two-strike counts, but UA is clearly having success on the first pitches of an at-bat. Zulli makes the case that it can mess with opponents’ game plans for individual hitters.
The example he used is left fielder T.J. Reeves. Reeves being a hitter with, “real power and real bat speed,” Zulli estimates someone like him will receive as few as 50 percent fastballs from opposing pitchers. Since the pitcher is (as always) trying to get ahead in the count and likely to throw a breaking pitch to do so, Zulli makes that an opportunity for Reeves to pounce.
“When you’re hitting that get-me-over breaking ball, that 0-0 breaking ball that the pitcher’s just trying to get over for a strike, you put fear in that pitcher and the pitching coach that, ‘I have to feed this guy a fastball, I have to find another way to get this guy out,’ and you end up getting what you want,” Zulli said.
The opposite is true for catcher Sam Praytor, a hitter who sees breaking pitches well. So when he gets a fastball in a portion of the strike zone where he hits well — another thing UA’s staff educates its hitters on — that’s his cue to take a chance.
The aggression at the plate benefits UA in more situations the just the first two pitches of an at-bat. UA’s situational hitting has been strong in almost all situations — .323 with runners on, .325 with runners in scoring position and .520 with a runner on third and fewer than two outs — and Zulli thinks aggression plays a role there, too.
“What happens with runners in scoring position, hitters sometimes don’t realize that all the pressure is on the pitcher,” Zulli said. “This group’s been good because they’re aggressive to begin with, they’re aggressive personalities and they all want to hit. They all feed off of each other.”
Reach Brett Hudson at 205-722-0196 or firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter, @Brett_Hudson