Guess Hitters: Aren’t They All Guessing?

guesshittersFor whatever sophistication guess hitting may require, it’s also a touchy subject. Batters hate being called guess hitters, mostly because they think the term implies that they don’t know what they’re doing.

“Pitchers eat up guys who guess on every pitch,” the Red Sox’s Carl Everett says.

Almost all batters claim they never do it, but most then go on to describe a personal approach that requires some degree of “anticipation.” Other popular euphemisms include “having an idea,” “getting my pitch” and “thinking along with the pitcher.” It’s an interesting dichotomy, according to¬†

Giambi takes a particularly analytical approach, using a technique he learned from ex-teammate Mark McGwire to break down each at-bat. The goal is to hit only strikes and to work your way into a hitter’s count. To do it, the hitter must assess the type of pitches a pitcher favors, the part of the plate he likes to work, whether he throws up or down, the score and the count.

“I usually do zones, and most of the time I’ll sit fastball,” says Giambi, reflecting the compound factors he takes into account. “But if there’s a guy I think will throw me a 2-1 changeup, I’ll sit for that. Or maybe (with) a lefthander who throws sliders, I’ll sit slider. I’ll sit those pitches and kind of let everything go after that.”

After watching Giambi hit .333 with 43 home runs and 137 walks last year, Mariners pitching coach Bryan Price knows how precise Giambi is in his approach and thinks he may be “sitting” as much as 60 percent of the time.

“I think he understands that he’s the huge threat in the offense and that particular pitchers have their way of trying to get him out and don’t stray terribly far from (what they’ve done in the past),” says Price.

Giambi, who was hitting .348 with 17 homers entering the week, asserts that half of all starting pitchers, especially young ones, work in predictable patterns.

“Veterans go with their best stuff, and they don’t give in,” he says. “When I face the Rocket, he’s going to throw me a forkball on 3-1 or 2-1. And that’s why he wins: because he’s not going to let certain guys in the lineup beat him. Where maybe a younger kid might make a mistake and say, `Well, let’s throw him a fastball here and if I make a mistake I’ll get away with it,’ that’s when you’ve got to sit and study and know your game plan.”

For some hitters, that game plan includes sitting only on specific pitches.

“I’ll probably do it about 10 times (per game), just in certain counts,” says Robin Ventura of the Mets, who doesn’t consider himself a good guesser. “I probably do it more on the breaking ball. Guys that have big discrepancies between (the effectiveness off their pitches, you have to go after one and guess for that and stay away from the other one.

“You go on a hunch. It’s not an all-out guess. You just kind of get a certain feeling about a certain (pitch), and sometimes it pans out, and sometimes it doesn’t.”

For pitchers who specialize in breaking balls and offspeed pitches, a different game plan is required because location is generally the essence of their approach. And it’s important to stick with that plan, the Cardinals’ Ray Lankford says, using finesse pitchers Omar Daal of the Phillies and Tom Glavine of the Braves as examples.

“With guys (like that), I’ll probably sit soft,” Lankford says, “because they’re going to try to finesse you. So you’ve got to sit on location. If you’re going to look for something away, I would stay that way. You can’t look outside and inside on (a finesse pitcher) and try to cover both sides of the plate. You’ve got to just set your sights and just stay there. If it’s away, just look away the whole time. If you get busted, just take it. Certain other pitchers that throw hard, you can set your sights inside and out. But guys like that, they like to try to get you to roll on a pitch (pull something that’s outside), so I’ll look for something soft, middle-away.”

For young pitchers, especially, trying to outthink an accomplished veteran guess hitter can be the route to a migraine on the mound. When the Phillies’ Bruce Chen was with the Braves, he picked the brains of two of Atlanta’s best guess hitters, Bret Boone and Ryan Klesko, the latter of whom had a reputation for sitting on breaking balls. But neither one could help him with the Diamondbacks’ Luis Gonzalez, who confounds pitchers by constantly changing his approach.

“Sometimes he just sits for fastballs in if he wants to pull you. Sometimes if he knows he can hit your breaking ball, he just sits on that and waits for you to throw it,” says Chen.

Sometimes Chen will throw him a fastball away, thinking Gonzalez will go for that. “He takes it, and then you’re like, `What happened?'” Chen says. “And then you’re like, `What am I going to do? Am I going to throw him the same fastball away? What if he’s looking for a fastball?’

“Sometimes for a whole at-bat he’ll look for a curveball. Sometimes he looks curveball first pitch, sometimes fastball in. With guys like that, you’ll throw a pretty good pitch, and they hit it, and you didn’t show them that for a long time. You say to yourself, `How did (he) hit it that good?'”

Veteran pitchers, though, tend to stay with their strengths. The Mariners’ Aaron Sele has grown into the role of staff ace by learning to disregard hitters’ mind games, some of them based on his tendency to rely on his curveball.

“I don’t care if a guy guesses right,” says Sele. “As a pitcher, my mentality is if I locate my pitch anyway, it doesn’t matter. If he’s guessing fastball away, that’s great. If I’m locating my fastball, he’s going to have a hard time hitting it anyway. But if I’m throwing it away, and I don’t get it where I want it, that’s where you’re going to get hurt. That’s where you get in trouble.

“When you’re trying to think what he’s thinking, you’ll mess yourself up .and throw the wrong pitch anyway because all you (should) worry about is location.”

The way batters guess within the strike zone has been changed to some extent by the high strike, which hinders hitters who used to sit low, but the rides are changing constantly, with every at-bat, for this game-within-a-game played by pitcher, catcher and hitter.

“You’ve got to try to pick up certain things on guys,” says Lankford. “If you’re not cheating, you’re not trying. That’s the way this game is.”

What they look for

Guessing by any other name smells discreet. Call it sitting on a pitch, anticipating, what have you. It’s really not such a bad thing because it’s anything but a crapshoot. Any denials by hitters are a bunch of bull.

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