pitch sequences in baseball

how to pitch to an ambush hitter

How to Pitch To An Ambush Hitter

An ambush hitter is one who often swings at the first pitch of an at-bat, and swings hard. These guys take whiffleball hacks at pitches over the plate, taking a free chance at destroying one.

Ambush hitters typically put pitchers on alert, because there is a certain level of comfort in a non-combative first pitch of the at-bat: it sets the tone and pitchers typically aim for more of the plate to get ahead in the count. It’s almost like the at-bat hasn’t begun until pitch #2.

So, If we know a hitter is going to swing for the fences on the first pitch, it makes us a bit nervous.

But – we can’t let these ambushers hurt us on the first pitch. In reality, they hurt themselves – and we can punish them for their aggressiveness if we’re smart about it.

How should we pitch to an ambush hitter? Let’s discuss. 

#1: Let’s Talk About The Poor Logic of the Ambush Hitter

Smart hitters only swing at pitches they can drive.

And for the most part, hitters get an equal distribution of quality pitches to hit across all counts. Pitchers aim for the middle more when behind, and for the edges of the strike zone when ahead. It’d be wrong of me to say hitters get just as many hittable pitches 0-2 as they do 2-0. But, considering how often pitchers miss their spots, these numbers probably average out and aren’t miles apart. What pitchers intend to do – versus what they actually execute – is very different.

Over thousands of pitches and at-bats, a hitter likely gets drivable pitches a somewhat equal amount across all counts. And even if the numb

Let’s say a hitter wants to hit fastballs middle-in: that’s his pitch.

Let’s also assume he gets this pitch about 10% of the time across all counts. This is a number I’m making up, but let’s use it as an example just so we can look at the habits of an ambush hitter. So, the time he gets a pitch to drive would look like this:

How Often A Hitter Gets His Pitch:

  • 0-0: 10%
  • 1-0: 10%
  • 0-1: 10%
  • 1-1: 10%
  • 2-1: 10% 
  • 1-2: 10% 
  • 2-2: 10% 
  • 3-2: 10%

I think the stat is that MLB pitchers hit their spot within 4 inches about 20% of the time. Not a high percentage.

Now, if a hitter is smart and only swings at his pitch (middle-in in this example) then he’s only swinging 10% of the time in any given count. Right? Right.

But if he’s an ambush hitter, his percentages look like this:

How Often An Ambush Hitters Swings:

  • 0-0: 40%
  • 1-0: 10%
  • 0-1: 10%
  • 1-1: 10%
  • 2-1: 10% 
  • 1-2: 10% 
  • 2-2: 10% 
  • 3-2: 10%

What’s Wrong Here?

If he only gets his pitch 10% of the time, why should he swing such a higher percentage of the time – 40% in this example?

Well, he shouldn’t. He probably cannot justify this behavior except by that he’s swinging at more poor-quality, not-drivable pitches. The numbers show that, over a big enough sample-size, first-pitch strike percentage is nearly identical to the overall strike percentage a pitcher throws.

So, a pitcher isn’t throwing more strikes on the first pitch than other pitches. 

But yet, the ambush hitter swings a disproportionate amount of the time. Why?

Because He’s Undisciplined and Swings at BAD Pitches

This is what an ambusher is – a hitter who mentally chooses to attack more often on the first pitch than other pitches.

But since he’s not getting his pitch any more often than in any other count…he’s not smart in doing this. He’s simply being overly aggressive, and committing early to swinging at whatever comes before he actually realizes what it is and where it will end up.

How We Should Pitch To These Hitters

During my career, pitchers were constantly on alert for ambush hitters. It was relevant information to know – can we safely groove a first-pitch fastball on the outer half to a guy? Or do we run the risk of him taking us deep?

A lot of pitchers seemed frantic about it, and got mad when they got ambushed – almost like it was cheating.

Approach #1: Flip in a Breaking Ball

This approach makes sense, right? Hitters should not be swinging at first-pitch off speed stuff. When a hitter swings and grounds out on a first-pitch slider, his entire team collectively groans at how stupid he is. It’s a mental error and an easy out for the pitcher.

Depending on the hitter, this can be a good strategy. But – it does run the risk of him not swinging, at which point you are faced with catching up with a 1-0 fastball…which is likely even riskier than an 0-0 fastball.

Approach #2: Force Him To Go Oppo Taco

I like the approach of simply challenging these guys with an outer-third fastball.

If they want to swing for the fences, go for it – good luck hitting an oppo-taco on the first pitch (that’s an affiliate link to a pretty solid T-shirt right there).

Odds are, I’ll get a roll-over groundout if I execute and he swings.

Approach #3: A Cutter or Sinker

This was my favorite approach when I threw a cutter. I just threw a cutter.

Now, sometimes my cutter didn’t, uh, cutter. When my cutter didn’t cutter they usually smashed the ball, because it just came in straight, without any life, and 3-4mph slower…not good.

But, when my cutter was a cutter, I got lots of groundouts on first pitches – it’s a special pitch that looks and feels like a fastball until it takes a short, jagged turn as it gets close to the plate. It’s a fantastic pitch, but useful mostly for hard throwers.

Same goes for the sinker – if your sinker is actually good, then it’s great weapon. Huck it down the middle of the plate, let them swing, and collect the ball back from your third baseman after they throw it around.

Approach #4: Throw It Right Past Him

I also took this approach. I had a good fastball in my day (combination of velocity, spin rate and deception), so if all else failed, I just threw it as hard as I possibly could on the first pitch when I expected an aggressive swing.

The result was usually that I threw it up or up and in – my typical aggressive miss – and these guys typically couldn’t their barrel on top of it to do anything meaningful.

This approach worked for me, but won’t work for every pitcher – knowing your own strengths and weaknesses is important.

How Do You Approach An Ambush Hitter?

If you don’t know and have never thought much about it before, great! I hope this article gave you a spark to think about it.

The mental game of pitching is fun, and most hitters are painfully stupid, so manipulate them and take advantage of them when you can.

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