Rocco Baldelli knows what it’s like to be a promising young hitter. Drafted sixth overall out of a Rhode Island high school, in 2000 by the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, he was viewed as a potential superstar. He reached the big leagues at the age of 21, and despite three solid campaigns was still a work-in-progress when his career was derailed by injuries and illness.
He is now entrusted with helping other young players reach their potential. Still just 30 years old, he is working for the Rays as a special assistant to baseball operations. Baldelli shared his thoughts on the art of hitting — or is it a science? — at the MIT-Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, earlier this year.
Rocco Baldelli: “As a hitter — a former hitter — I’ve always been enamored of just watching guys and seeing who has success and who doesn’t. I’ve seen guys who look as though they should be able to hit and can’t. I’ve seen guys who struggle early in their careers and then figure out a way to become productive major-league offensive players.
“You look for separators, but it‘s not that simple. You start looking for commons traits in good hitters, and common traits in guys who struggle, and you think you’ve found them. Then you see some of the best hitters in baseball doing things you wouldn’t necessarily expect good hitters to do. To me, the amount of questions is endless. There are so many variables that go into the process of hitting at the highest level.
“Pitchers can reinvent themselves. For instance, say you have a big guy with a good arm and he can spin the ball a little bit. He can progress and change the type of player he is. But hitters and swings seem to be so ingrained. It’s a reactionary process. You have so little time to react that you do what comes naturally. That’s your swing.
“Psychology can come into play. Suddenly you’re not just reacting anymore — you’re thinking — which complicates the difficult physical act of hitting a baseball. Sometimes your mind can cause your problems to snowball.
“In Tampa, we spend a lot of time talking about, and thinking about, that. The number of absolutes you come up with at the end of the day are very few, if any.
“There is always that thought where if a guy is having success, you leave him alone. But then you get to the question of whether he is the best player he can possibly be. If you stop trying to look for ways to improve, are you happy being that player? Sometimes, yeah, you are happy. The risk-reward is that someone might go from being a good player to a great player, but he might go from being a good player who is trying new things to a non-major-league player. That’s a question you have to ask yourself before you start suggesting things to hitters who are having success.
“As a group, we’re careful about demanding that players do things. There’s an allotted period of time where guys are allowed to do what they came in doing, without suggestion. At the low levels, there is a high attrition rate, and when players start to struggle, then we start to suggest certain things. A lot of times the suggestions are very obvious. Other times they’re not.
“The truth of the matter is that a lot of good hitters are good at making the adjustments themselves, without suggestions. Or they’re just really talented at the act of hitting a baseball, which a lot of hitters are, especially major- league hitters. A lot of guys come in and struggle and then improve. A lot of guys come in as pretty good hitters and just maintain. Hitters come in all shapes and sizes.
“There are a lot of good hitters in the major leagues that do unorthodox things that you don’t really see anybody else doing. You don’t demand that they change. You can look at two guys’ swings — say they’re in Double-A — and they both look pretty good to you. You look at their numbers at the end of the year and one guy hit .295 with a pretty nice on-base percentage and slugging percentage. You look at the other and he hit .230 with a low on-base and an okay slugging. Both of them look like they can swing the bat. They have strength, they have bat speed, their path doesn’t look too bad. At the end of the day, one guy is a productive hitter and the other guy is not. The question is: Who are these guys and why is one succeeding when most of the other players aren’t?
“There are so many variables, and so many pieces of data that you’re looking at. Sometimes it can almost clutter your mind and clutter what you’re looking at. I don’t have the answer. The best mechanical hitting coaches in the world, and some of the best baseball minds, don’t have it.
“I think about whether hitting is more of an art or more of a science. I think about that question a lot. And I go back and forth on it. I do as much research as I can do, and I watch a lot of baseball, trying to pay attention to what the hitters want to do, but it’s such a complex question and such a complex answer. To me, some days it seems like an art, and on others it seems like a science. That’s another answer I don’t have.
“When I played, I kind of approached hitting the same way I approached it when I was 12 years old. I did what came naturally to me. When I came to pro ball, I had to make some mechanical adjustments, but my general approach didn’t really change. The way I learned to hit was by swinging a lot and trying to barrel up as many balls I could, as opposed to looking for the appropriate pitch to barrel balls up on. That was how I hit when I was 12 and it was how I hit when I was in high school. For the most part, hitting is a reactionary thing where guys are going to do what comes natural to them. It’s hard to truly make guys change the way they swing the bat.
“When I came into pro ball, I had the bat speed and could hit the ball really hard, but I couldn’t manipulate the barrel. There were things I didn’t understand. I didn’t hit the ball up the middle or the other way. I pulled everything as an 18-year-old kid. One of the biggest things I learned was to hit the ball hard the other way. I never lost my aggressiveness, or changed my general approach at the plate, but I had to change the way I swung the bat.
“One instructional league, I started tap-stepping. That kind of gave me better balance and allowed me to let the ball travel a little bit more. I figured out a way, athletically, how to hit the ball hard to right field.
“When you tell a young kid to do something… For me, instead of trying to do different things mechanically to hit it the other way, I simply knew that I had to do it. Instead of thinking about how I was doing it, I just wanted to know what the final outcome needed to be. I wanted to drive the ball hard to the right-center-field gap, and that didn’t come natural to me. But I was going to figure out a way to make my body do that. I worked with the hitting coaches and put in a lot of hours in the cage, but “outcome first” was the way I had to figure it out. That was me, but not all hitters are the same. Some learn differently than others.”