Perhaps no word in the baseball vernacular is used more often.
It’s often uttered when describing a hitter’s attempt to swing a round bat and squarely hit a round ball being hurled at them at rates of speed the average person can’t easily grasp.
Some version of “having an approach at the plate” or “working on my approach at the plate” is written and read countless times per day with the expectation that everyone outside baseball knows what it means.
But most don’t.
It’s a nebulous concept of preparation mixed with a mindset. It’s almost a philosophy, but also an evolving plan. And it seems to be different for each player.
To find clarity, 11 people with the Mariners — including eight players, a manager, the director of player development and a Hall of Famer — were asked to answer simple questions without simple answers.
What does it mean to have an approach?
Manager Scott Servais: “When we talk about approach, it’s what you’re looking for, understanding the pitcher you’re facing, what his strengths are. Obviously, we have a ton of data and information about pitchers — when he gives up damage, where is it coming from, what parts of the strike zone and what pitches are they? That’s what we want to hunt — those pitches and those parts of the strike zone that are strengths of ours as hitters. Everybody’s approach is a little bit different, but that’s kind of what plays into it.”
Tim Laker, hitting coach: “I think it’s a combination of what you’re looking to hit and where you are looking to hit it to sum it up as simply as you can. The situation will dictate that, too. If there is a runner on third and less than two outs, you are going to try get the pitcher to get the ball up in the zone, because you don’t want to hit a ground ball. You are looking for something out over the plate that you can drive it to the outfield to make sure first and foremost you get that guy in. The situation can dictate pitch to pitch or at-bat to at-bat what your approach might be.”
Edgar Martinez, Hall of Famer: “To me having an approach is being able to use the whole field, being able to cover both sides of the plate. If you can do that, your approach is to the middle of the field. If you’re late, you can hit it to the opposite field, and if you’re out in front, you can pull it.”
Andy McKay, Mariners director of player development: “It is your mental intent of what you’re trying to accomplish. Approach is a pretty broad term. And it can be a pitch that you’re looking for, a zone that you’re looking for, it can be a direction of the field that you’re trying to drive the ball toward, and kind of anything in between. Anything that summarizes: ‘I’m up at home plate. What am I trying to do?’”
Kyle Seager, third baseman: “You want to have a plan. That would be the way I’d describe it. I mean the simpler the better, right? We are there to hit a ball, and we can certainly overthink it as much as anybody. I’d say have a simple approach, stay right on the middle of the plate. That’s what I do.”
Ty France, infielder/DH: “I try and simplify things as much as possible. I try to take care of all the mental stuff in the cage and during BP. Then once I get in that batter’s box — it’s get a good pitch to hit, get in a good position and put my best swing on it. I’m trying to drive everything over the batter’s eye (large wall behind the center-field fence) and keep my body in line. That’s really all I’m thinking in the box.”
Julio Rodriguez, minor-league outfielder: “Having your mind clear, having your own plan, knowing yourself and knowing what you are trying to do — that’s what approach means to me. It’s knowing what you are trying to do and how you are going to do it and what pitch you need to do that thing you are trying to do.”
How does a hitter develop an approach?
The Mariners try help the process with daily pregame meetings going over the approach that night, writing down notes and sending each player their “16-for-16” report.
Servais: “In a normal game you’re going to get four at-bats, and you will see about 16 pitches. Were you swinging at the right pitches? A lot of times (the report) has video attached for each pitch as well. With all the technology behind the scenes to help our players and their development, it’s amazing what these guys have as resources for them to continue to try to get better. It’s all geared toward approach.”
McKay: “The challenge is finding the right one for the player. There’s 10 different ways to do the same thing in terms of what verbiage works for somebody. But for the most part, a good approach involves the middle of the plate and the middle of the field. This is where the combination of hitting, analytics and mental skills all comes together in that the data just keeps showing you the same thing over and over and over again, which is hitters make a living on the middle of the plate.”
Martinez learned his approach from manager Jim Lefebvre in 1989.
Martinez: “I was hitting .300, but I wasn’t as consistent with men in scoring position. I was trying to do too much. He told me with men in scoring position to just hit the ball up the middle. That same day, I hit a home run with men in scoring position to dead center field. After that, I was sold. ‘OK, this is what I have to do, especially with men in scoring position.’ I adopted the same approach even when there was nobody on base — just stay to the middle of the field and react to the pitch inside and the pitch outside.”
France often tells the story of hearing the late Tony Gwynn, his coach at San Diego State, discuss his hitting philosophy of “get in position, take your best swing” and feeling underwhelmed.
France: “It definitely took a while for me to figure out what he meant by that. In the grand scheme of things, he just simplified hitting. And to this day, I try and carry that with me.”
Some approaches are more self taught.
Kyle Lewis, outfielder: “Back in high school and college when I learned the game, I always studied some of the best hitters. There was a common theme that was really impressive. They would hit the ball to the opposite field by letting the ball get as deep as possible. That’s been an emphasis of mine all the way through.”
How much does a scouting report and pitcher data affect an approach?
Servais: “The numbers don’t lie. If you know a particular pitcher is throwing breaking balls at a 75% clip, typically a young player is going to go up there and say ‘OK, I’m hunting the fastball.’ Well, if he doesn’t throw fastballs, why are you hunting them? There’s a lot of information that helps.”
And yet …
Lewis: “I definitely have more information about certain things — maybe one thing would be if you are overthinking this scouting report or trying to be two steps ahead of the pitcher instead of staying with what you know how to do.”
Evan White, first baseman: “I got so caught up in trying to read what pitchers were doing. I felt like I was on the defense. That’s never good when you’re at the plate.”
Building a successful approach starts well before a player steps in the box. It’s a product of daily preparation.
White: “I’ve even told Laker that I don’t want to hit a single homer in BP. If I do it the right way, that’s fine. But if I hit one and I get under it too much and it still goes out, I don’t want that. It might be the sexy thing. That’s not what I want in my BP. I can’t try and hit homers in BP and expect to do it in a game.”
Mitch Haniger, outfielder: “Seager has a really good approach and feel in-game. He can really compete in the box. He makes a lot of adjustments with his swing in the cages — he’s always working on different things. But when it comes to game time, that’s what some players really struggle with. They’ll work in the cage, and then they take that into the batter’s box with them and they’re trying to feel it in the game, instead of it just being: ‘Now it’s a competition between you and me. You’re going throw your best stuff, and I’m just going to try and hit it.’ He does a really good job of differentiating the two.”
All the work and preparation are for the most basic of competitions: hitter vs. pitcher.
Seager: “That’s the beauty of the game. BP and cage work are hard, because that’s you vs. yourself. The game is easy because that’s you just vs. them. So it doesn’t matter what you’re working with — whether you have a good swing or a bad swing. You’re just out there trying to beat the pitcher so I mean that simplifies itself.”
France: “When I step in that box it’s more of a dogfight. I’m coming in, and I want my preparation to be better than yours and I’m going to battle.”
Rodriguez: “To be honest, when I’m in the box and ready to hit, I just see the ball and hit it — be a hitter. I know I’ve already put the work in with the swings in the cage and out on the field in BP.”
Jarred Kelenic, minor-league outfielder: “It’s just me and the pitcher — that’s who I’m competing against. Same mentality I’ve always had.”
And if the hitter loses that battle with the pitcher, they have to remember that good approach doesn’t always equal optimal result.
Seager: “When you’re going good, everything’s clear, it’s easy, and that’s when the ball looks like a beach ball. But when you’re scuffling, that’s when you do most of your thinking. That’s when you’re trying to search, and that’s when you’re trying to way overcomplicate things.”
McKay: “The bigger challenge is helping guys stay committed to their approach over a long season, and not losing trust in their approach and not getting distracted from their approach. That’s the separator of what makes a good hitter, is their ability to repeat their commitment to their approach over 162 games for an average of 16 pitches a night.”
Laker: “It comes down to committing to it, right? Like you can go in there with the best-laid plan, but if you abandon it first pitch or second pitch, then all of that work is for nothing. It’s also about having confidence in that approach, or that plan that you picked for that night, it’s sticking to it and living or dying with it.”