There are many factors that go into a batting slump. Coaches and players are quick to make changes and adjustments when an individual is slumping, but sometimes you have no control over it. Baseball is a game built on failure, even when things are going well. Good hitters can fail seven out of 10 times. Some people will say that batting average is not everything, and you should not get caught up in statistics. If that were the case, we would never have slumps, right? It is easy to tell someone not to worry about it, but everyone who has ever played baseball wants to have a high batting average.
Some coaches focus on quality at-bats (QABs), and they are helpful. In my opinion, they do not hold much weight with players and people who follow baseball. I have never seen a player who hit .230 but had a .300 plus QAB average earn All-American honors or make the Hall of Fame. Like it or not, batting average is the first thing people look at when they check offensive stats. Slumps are part of the game, and some of its ingredients are controllable, and some are not. Let’s discuss some common reasons for slumps, and what we can do as coaches and players to help combat them.
I feel slumps can be broken down into four categories; two of which we have some control and two we do not. Sometimes it can be one of these, other times more than one:
1) Facing a string of tough pitchers:
Hitting a baseball is difficult enough; now throw in the X factor, a pitcher with great velocity, movement, and three or four different pitches. You have no control over this. Sometimes you just tip your hat to the pitcher and say “you got me.” How would you have liked to have been a National League hitter in the mid-1990s, going to play a series with the Braves seeing Smoltz, Glavine and Maddux for three games? That has 1-for-10 or 1-for-12 written all over it. Hard to call that a slump when you face three Hall of Famers in a row. After that series, of course batters will be frustrated and see the average dip. The word “slump” naturally starts creeping into your thoughts. Remember, you will face good pitchers on occasion who will shut you down.
2) Bad luck:
Ever had one of those days when you barrel up some good swings, yet the ball goes right at fielders? This is another example of what you cannot control. All you can do is take the best swing you can but sometimes the result is an out. Mix in a few consecutive days of bad luck and you have a slump. I once had a player deal with bad luck for nearly an entire season. It seemed like every game he got robbed or smoked one right at a defender. We tried to make light of it and laugh it off, but eventually frustration set in. All he could see for his efforts was a sub-par batting average. Your batting average does not go up for well hit outs. Yet you get a “Texas leaguer” or “dying quail” to drop in and your average goes up and things look better. They say they all even out in the end, but sometimes they do not! Simply put, there are times when you are snake-bitten.
3) Poor decisions at the plate:
This is something we can control. Review your at bats, counts and the pitches you swing at. You need to be 100% focused and concentrate on each at-bat. When you start to struggle and “wear a few collars,” you start pressing and trying to do too much. Next thing you know, you’re chasing pitches out of the strike zone and causing your at-bats to be unfocused and unsuccessful. You only get so many at-bats in a season, so you cannot afford to waste any. We try to avoid “fog out” at-bats. These are the ones you waste or throw away by making bad decisions or due to a lack of focus. To see how fragile at-bats and an average are over the course of a typical season, consider these numbers. Over 100 at-bats, say you get 30 hits. Your batting average is .300. That is solid. Most would consider that a good year. Now, consider these additional possibilities. Say once in every ten at-bats you have a “fog out,” or just don’t give the AB total concentration. What if you could get to re-do those 10 at-bats? This time, however, you give total focus and concentration. You turn three of those outs to hits. Now, your batting average increases to .330. That could be the difference between a good year and an “All-something” year. Furthermore, what if you got another one or two to fall in? Now, the average jumps to .350. That is a huge jump from .300, and the result of focusing and making better decisions.
Mechanical issues are the least probable of the four factors but far too often, it is the first thing players and coaches want to blame. Chances are low, but it can happen. If a player has been hitting well, then begins to struggle, look for physical causes. Mechanics can change due to a slight injury, change in body type, or sometimes just fatigue. When one of these things occurs, players resort to making a change to compensate for their physical state. What they think is helping them has thrown a monkey wrench into their normal mechanics. This change throws everything out of order. Even the slightest of changes can be catastrophic to a good swing. So, before you go making drastic changes in a swing or your mechanics, dive deeper into possible reasons why they may have changed.
Tips and helpful hints to fight a slump
Even with uncontrollable factors, there are things you can do to help yourself dig out of the hole of the slump. Facing a hot pitcher is not easy. As I said, some days you just tip your hat. Advanced scouting of a pitcher or reviewing video of a pitcher (if you have the capability) will always help you prepare for the coming challenge. See if anyone has faced him before and ask teammates after at-bats what they saw when they were hitting. Any little bit of information you can get will be helpful.
There is not much you can do about bad luck. All the funny superstitions and attempts to break curses are just that (funny), but they do not work. Do your best to stay positive when good contact does not get you the results you want. Coaches, I’m not asking you to fudge results, but if you control the scorebook, give him one if it’s 50/50 error/hit. Trust me, most everyone is already doing this! Certainly you do not want to break up a no-hitter or affect a pitcher’s ERA, but if you find a spot, give him the knock! The smallest of gifts could be the positive step needed to climb out of the slump. The fielder involved in the play will thank you for it too!
Avoiding “fog out” at bats and poor decisions at the plate is between the ears. As a coach, take the pressure off the hitter. Maybe move him down a few spots in the lineup, taking him out of the high-pressure spots in the lineup. There really is nowhere to hide, but the thought of hitting lower in the lineup can sometimes help. Put your hitter in where he has the best chance to be successful. A tough lefty on lefty matchup might be the best time to give a slumping player a rest. As a coach, you know it could be another real tough day, adding fuel to the slump fire. Lastly, prepare for the at-bats. Talk about what to anticipate and attack. For example, suggest the hitter sits on one pitch he hits well until he gets it. Sometimes put on a hit and run. When the hitter does not have to think and just make contact, that might be all he needs to break out. Even a sacrifice bunt might work. Knowing he did something positive for the team’s benefit can often help.
Video is the best tool to identify mechanical problems. Always take videos when things are going well. You can compare good swings to poor swings if/when a hitter starts to struggle. Major changes are not recommended. In fact, most of the time all the video will tell you is that you’re swinging at “pitcher’s pitches” instead of mistakes in the middle of the plate. Sometimes the smallest of changes can help, both physically and mentally. The thought of the change instructed by a coach will give a hitter confidence he has fixed the problem, leading to increased confidence at the plate. Lastly, avoid having too many “cooks in the kitchen.” Everyone has the answer, everyone has an opinion. I cringe when I see multiple people surrounding a slumping guy to give him tips. Stick with your head coach, hitting coach or instructor. He, along with you, know your mechanics best. Too many suggestions inevitably make things more confusing.
Live at-bats in a game may be the hardest thing to do in sports besides reading defenses and checking off three wide receivers for a football quarterback. You must hit a round ball with a round bat. You have no idea what path the pitch will take. Once the ball leaves your bat, it must avoid nine fielders to yield a positive result. It’s something to think about. Poor hitters from year to year are just that, poor hitters. They do not have the mental capacity or physical mechanical ability to be successful. These may be your glove guys or burners on the bases. They can get hot for a while, but eventually they end up back at .220. They do not have slumps; they are just not good hitters. Good or great hitters are just that. It’s expected and they deliver every season. So, remind your good hitters of this. If you were not a good hitter, you would not be in a slump. This reassurance may not help his batting average, but it does have the possibility of changing the hitter’s perspective. Batting average is important. It is a huge factor to measure a hitter’s success. So, combatting slumps is a big part of the game. Your players are playing a game where they fail seven of 10 times and it's still considered good. It is a hard pill to swallow. You need to be mentally strong to deal with the failures. We really do learn from them, so stay positive.
This article was written by Johnny Susi, head baseball coach at Western Connecticut State University and a 29-year ABCA Member. Additional editing was provided by fellow 29-year ABCA Member, Frank Leoni, head baseball coach, Mount St. Mary’s University (MD).