Player’s View: Is Hitting More of an Art or More of a Science?

I recently posed a question to 10 players. It was a question that doesn’t have an easy answer. Given the subjectivity involved, it doesn’t even have a right answer.

Is hitting more of an art or more of a science?

The question was phrased exactly that way. It was up to the players responding to interpret the meaning of “art or science” and to elaborate accordingly. Their responses are listed below in alphabetical order.

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Chris Denorfia, San Diego Padres outfielder: “Hitting is both an art and a science. With the science part of it, we definitely put our homework in. There are also some physical capabilities that are different for every guy. Mechanically — how your body works — you’ll see different types of hitters. There are home run hitters, line drive hitters, softer hitters and guys who hit the ball harder. Art-form wise, everybody kind of has their own personality with the way they hit and how they go about the game.

“At a certain level, it’s hard to differentiate between the art and the science. The two blend into each other, so I don’t think it’s possible to say it’s one more than the other.”

Stephen Drew, Boston Red Sox infielder; “It’s both. When you look at everybody in the big leagues, when they get through the hitting zone — when the pitch is coming in — everybody is pretty much the same. That’s science. But it’s also an art, because it doesn’t matter how you start or how you finish. It just matters that you get to that contact point.

“When you look at where guys are when they hit the ball, they’re pretty much identical. But like I said, it doesn’t matter where you start. People hit different; it’s just their natural stance and what feels comfortable. Getting to that same position is science, and how they get there is art, so I can‘t say it‘s one or the other.”

Sam Fuld, Tampa Bay Rays outfielder: “I think it’s more of a science, because the nature of science is figuring something out. That’s what hitting is all about. You’re constantly figuring things out, not just with your own swing, but also what the pitcher is throwing, your mechanics, and what you’re swinging at.

“If you ask guys who are more just see-the-ball-hit-the-ball, and don’t think too much, it’s more of a feel for them, and they would probably answer that it’s more of an art. But to me, it’s a science.”

Brett Gardner, New York Yankees outfielder: “I’ve never thought of it like that, but I guess I would say it’s more of a science. You’re looking into the way different pitchers you’re facing are throwing. You’re looking at the percentage of fastballs they throw versus what percentage of changeups, and in what counts. Like I said, I’ve never thought about it, but I’d go science.”

Travis Hafner, New York Yankees designated hitter: “It’s a little bit of both. I mean… I would say a lot of hitting is having a feel at the plate. You’re always kind of looking for a certain feel. But it’s also a science. There’s everything that’s involved with mechanics, and studying your swing, studying pitchers, and all that stuff. It’s a combination of both, but I guess I’d say it’s more science than art.”

Kelly Johnson, Tampa Bay Rays infielder/outfielder: “It’s more of an art. It’s an athletic thing; it’s hand-eye and being an athlete. It still kind of comes down to being an eight-year-old kid in a cul-de-sac, and being the best one out there. You don’t know anything other than see-it-and-hit-it, and that’s how you got to where you’re at. Other stuff comes into play at some point down the road, but it’s basically an art.”

Evan Longoria, Tampa Bay Rays infielder: “For me, it’s probably 50/50. I think the art form part of it comes with time — understanding pitchers, understanding how you‘re going to be approached, and understanding yourself. The scientific part is all the information we have on the computer and in the reports we get on paper. A lot of that is stuff that wasn’t there 30 years ago.

“I try to rely on both. I’m gifted naturally, but I also work toward becoming a better hitter and understanding the game better. I want to use all of the information that’s out there to my advantage. If it was 30 years ago, and we didn’t have that, I’d say hitting was more of an art form, but we do have that information. It’s not a question that can be answered one way or the other.”

Daniel Nava, Boston Red Sox outfielder: “It’s a bit of both. The science part is that you have to be mechanically sound, for the most part. The art part is that everybody expresses that mechanical side in a different way. But for the most part, things are pretty similar for everyone at a certain point. How they go about it from that starting point is everyone’s interpretation of what feels natural.

“I don’t think about hitting from that perspective — I’ve never had that thought go through my head — but maybe I’d say that on given days it’s more of an art, and on given days it’s more mechanical. It’s split pretty even, but if I had to say one or the other, it would be art by just a hair.”

Shane Victorino, Boston Red Sox outfielder: “Both. It’s an art, and it’s a science. I’m not a big science guy, but they say the hardest thing to do is hit a round ball with a round object. As far as art, if you look at a guy like Robinson Cano, it seems like whatever he does makes it look so easy. Miguel Cabrera, Dustin Pedroia, Big Papi — some of the great hitters in the game — make you see it as an art. They’re all different in the way they do it. Sometimes I try to hit like Ichiro. I’m not mechanically like him, but I try to do the way he twists and gets his body going. So it’s a definitely an art, but I also can’t say it’s more of an art than it is a science.”

Vernon Wells, New York Yankees outfielder: “It’s more of an art. I think the science part of it is somewhat difficult, especially in this day and age. There are so many different sabermetrics, and things like that — that side of it has changed. But the art of it, from a pitcher’s standpoint, is that they’re trying to make a ball move and be as efficient as possible. It’s a skill that very few people have. Combating that pitching, and trying to figure out what he’s trying to do — what pitch is he trying to get me out with? — and trying to be one step ahead of him, isn’t easy.

“I think the science part of hitting is what takes place beforehand. You’re watching video and trying to be mentally ready for what to expect once you get out there. But once you’re out there, it’s all just natural ability. At that point it becomes art.”

——

FINAL TALLY

More of an Art: three votes (Johnson, Nava, Wells)

More of a Science — three votes (Fuld, Gardner, Hafner)

Neutral — four votes (Denorfia, Drew, Longoria, Victorino)




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David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from February 2006-March 2011 and is a regular contributor to several publications. His first book, Interviews from Red Sox Nation, was published by Maple Street Press in 2006. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA

20 Responses to “Player’s View: Is Hitting More of an Art or More of a Science?”

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  1. Rippers says:

    Loving this series David! Thanks for the insight.

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  2. triple_r says:

    9 AL East guys? HOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOMMEEEEEEEEEEEEEEERR

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  3. Darrell Berger says:

    It’s neither and a bit of both. That is, more precisely, it is a craft, requiring some natural ability but it also takes place within a very proscribed set of procedures, unlike an art. It is more like carpentry than fine art painting, more like plumbing than chemistry.

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  4. Luis Matos says:

    my favorite quote on the subject

    “Everybody tries to make hitting like a science, which it is. But you can’t treat it like a science, you have to treat it like an art.” – George Brett

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  5. Ryan says:

    I do really love this series and the player quotes and insight. It is a bit frustrating that there seems to be a HEAVY AL East bias. I’d love to get some perspectives from the rest of the league. I’m not implying anything nefarious, I’m sure those are the players most readily available to the author, but the lack of variety is immediately noticeable.

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    • rustyspatula says:

      Maybe we can start a Kickstarter to get the author a travel budget?

      That said, I’d much rather see these in-person off-the-cuff responses from players passing through Boston (where the author resides) than the responses we’d see from an email or phone exchange. And if that means more AL East teams, blame MLB’s scheduler.

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      • cass says:

        There’s an NL team in New York too, right? Or is Laurilla based in Boston? Either way, I think it’s understood that the author goes to a local game and interviews players on a subject and then presents the results. FanGraphs doesn’t have the revenue to send people all over the country, but they have different writers with credentials in different cities. I like the creative stuff they’re doing combining analytics with first person narative.

        My favorite team has never been covered in these articles, but it’s not really a team thing, it’s more of a baseball thing. Keep ‘em coming.

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        • Ryan says:

          It was just a suggestion that perhaps a heavier focus on visiting players in Boston (or wherever) would be enjoyed among the national FanGraphs readership than talking to the same players over and over.

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        • I’m fully aware that the A.L. East has been overly-represented, and as surmised, the primary reason is my location. Going forward I will do my best to cover teams from other regions.

          Regarding “talking to the same players over and over,” the last 20 responses have come from 19 different players/coaches. Overall, 31 players/coaches have contributed to the four sets of questions.

          As always, I welcome feedback and suggestions.

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        • Well-Beered Englishman says:

          Laurila’s in Boston.

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  6. Evan says:

    I think it’s a science until I see Buster Posey swing, and then it’s pure poetry.

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  7. DNA+ says:

    As a scientist, it is interesting for me to see what people think science is. The popular perception seems to be that science is precision and information. To scientists, science is a process of defining what you know is not true to better understand what you think might be true.

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    • cass says:

      People seem to have some interesting ideas about art, too. It seems like they judge the standard “art” to be abstract painting. But art is about making things – carpentry is just as much an art as oil painting. And the idea that there are no rules or that it’s not precise, or that it’s based only on having a feel for something – I would imagine artists would tend to disagree.

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  8. Stephen Hawking says:

    Definitely an art. If it were a science I’d be Mike Trout.

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  9. Simmy says:

    I am a huge math/sabr guy (as most of us reading this site probably are) but I really like Kelly Johnson’s thoughts. To expound, the fundamental driver for the success of probably every player is by doing what comes naturally to them, constantly beating inferior competition who are just naturally less gifted. Until finally, they make it to the big show, in a league of peers, and science is introduced to improve and gain small tactical advantages.

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  10. Patrick says:

    In order to qualify as a science you have to use the scientific method. I would agree that some hitters do indeed come up with hypotheses and then test them and analyze the data.

    I think it is safe to say the majority of guys do not approach it that way.

    Perhaps they are slightly scientific in guessing what pitch is coming, but I would bet it is rare for a guy to document things the way Moyer did when he pitched with his little black book (true science) or the way Edgar Martinez approached swinging a stick. Nope, most of these guys get by on pure physical talent.

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  11. boomer says:

    Victorino said ‘I’m not a big science guy, but they say the hardest thing to do is hit a round ball with a round object.’

    To further accentuate the thought…HOF’er Willie Stargell said ‘The idea of hitting is like this, to hit a round ball with a cylindrical object, squarely so that it lands safely within a diamond shaped field.’

    Hitting a baseball is a gift especially when you have pitcher’s throwing the ball in the high 90′s. Hitting a baseball is an art when you have guys who hit to the situation of the game and for the benefit of the team. Hitting a baseball is a science when you understand the physics of a ball pitched that moves due to the rotation and the batter is able to compensate for those movements to put the ball in play.

    That is what makes Baseball such an intriguing game…I Love It!!!

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