Nuts and Bolts of hitting in the big leagues with Morgan Ensberg

I’m always eager to read interviews with real, big-league baseball players. They are the best of the best and play at a level most of us cannot even imagine. If anything, I think that those of us stats-oriented types lack the “reality check” that big league experience offers. Since we don’t often get to interact with these guys any information we can get is golden.

I’m sorry to say that most of the time these interviews leave me mildly disappointed. They never ask questions about things I want to know about. Well, I finally decided to do something about it.

Morgan Ensberg, former right-handed hitting third baseman for the Houston Astros, was kind enough to allow me to interview him, and I finally had the opportunity to ask all those questions I’ve been dying to ask.

Matt Lentzner: There seems to be two basic approaches to hitting. There are the “see the ball, hit the ball” types that go on pure reactions and those that “guess” and try to anticipate what the pitcher will throw. Which type of hitter were you?

Morgan Ensberg: I was a see it and hit it. But when I was going really badly, I changed into a guess hitter and that was not the correct move. It would have been better to just attack. Of course that is hindsight.

ML: Could you elaborate on how trying to guess on pitches was a bad thing for you?

ME: Guess hitting was bad for me because I never guessed correctly.

ML: There are also two types of swing philosophies. There’s the Ted Williams back-hand, rotational approach and the Lau front-hand, translational approach. Did you subscribe to either of these?

ME: My swing is probably more Williams. My right hand was very dominant in my swing.

ML: Can you describe how being a back-hand dominant hitter affected your hitting style?

ME: By having a dominant right hand, it caused me to “roll over” on balls that I needed to stay through on. Basically, my bat will be coming out of the zone early and it will cause me to go get it out in front of the plate which causes hooking.

ML: Where on the pitched baseball did you aim? Did you try to hit it center-of-mass or did you aim higher or lower than that?[1]

ME: I just tried to hit the ball. I didn’t say above or below. Just hit it.

ML: Did you ever see a “dot” on a pitch and if so, which pitches did you see it on? What other, if any, visual clues were you able to pick up from a pitched baseball?

ME: I saw dots on sliders all the time. I could see seams tumble on changes. We see everything.

ML: Was you ability to identify pitches affected by where the pitch was located? For example was it easier to see a pitch that was low or high? Was it easier to see a pitch that was inside or outside?

ME: It is easier to see pitches that are high and inside because of proximity to your eyes.

ML: How did the handedness of the pitcher affect you ability to identify his pitch? Many batters claim that a pitch from a same-handed pitcher is harder to “see.” Can you explain why?

ME: It isn’t that the same side is hard to see, it is that off-speed pitches start at you. Against a lefty, you don’t have any ball coming at you.

ML: How often were you fooled by a pitch?

ME: You are fooled a lot. If the ball moves just an inch from where you think it is going to be, you will hit the ball softly or just miss it entirely.

ML: How often does a typical MLB pitcher tip his pitches and how much of your hitting “game” involved picking up “tells” from a pitcher?

ME: I saw a guy tipping his pitches once. I struck out swinging as hard as I could at three balls at my chin.

ML: How much situational hitting did you do? Most hitters change their approach when they have two strikes. What did you do with your approach to improve your results with two strikes? Did you try to hit behind the runner with a man on second? How is that accomplished? Are there any other situations that deserve mention?

ME: I already hit choked up, but I would take another half inch. With two strikes I would get my front foot down very early and I wouldn’t move it. I tried not to move my body and just use hands.

I always tried to hit the ball on the ground to right with a man on second and no outs.

With the bases loaded and no outs you are never allowed to strike out. Of course I did, but your thought process is to get a run across.

With a man on third and less that two outs I would try and get the ball up in the zone unless the infield was back, in which case I looked to hit a ground ball in the middle of the field.

ML: Since you didn’t aim for spots on the ball, how did you purposefully hit a ball on the ground? Was it just a question of looking for a low pitch to swing at?

ME: When you try and hit the ball on the ground, you focus on the barrel of your bat and not the ball. Of course you will hit the top of the ball, but the focus is on your barrel.

ML: Did you ever try to hit a home run? Say it was the bottom of the ninth of a tie game and the count was 2-0, would you be looking to hit a homer on the next pitch?

ME: I have never tried to hit a home run in my life. I don’t know what I would even do to do that.

ML: When you were hitting against a pitcher you had never faced before how did you approach that?

ME: I would just make sure I knew what pitches he threw and the speed of the fastball. We always had a video playing in the clubhouse before the game that would show his last start. But, when in doubt I would want to attack.

ML: How did knowing the speed of their fastball affect your approach?

ME: If a pitcher throws 100 mph then you know that he is probably a fastball pitcher and you have to gear up for that.

ML: In 2006, the year after your All-Star year you had more walks than hits – a pretty unusual stat in baseball. Why do you think this happened? Did pitchers stop challenging you in the strikezone after your 36-home run season?

ME: Those pitchers didn’t have to pitch to me at all. They just said I’ll try and hit a corner and if I miss then I’ll face the next batter.

ML: How often did you play at less than 100 percent due to fatigue or nagging injuries?

ME: The last time any player was 100 percent they were 12 years old.

ML: Just wanted to sneak in a fielding question since it’s something we’ve argued about on Tom Tango’s blog. Based on his analysis of the difficulty of fielding positions, he has second base and third base being equal in difficulty. I agree with that conceptually, but I feel that those two positions have vastly different requirements. Can you comment of what skills a third baseman needs and how that compares with a second baseman?

ME: Second base is much easier than third base. You can base the majority of that on the throw and having to read bunts. I am not saying that because I played third; I am just saying that there is less “reading” at second.

References & Resources
A big “thank you” to Morgan Ensberg for his generosity and forthright answers.

For those of you who don’t know by now, Morgan has started a blog called Morgan Ensberg’s Baseball IQ. There’s a lot of interesting stuff there already. Morgan is also trying to start a career in broadcasting. I wish him the best of luck. He’s already got my support. For any TV executives who might be reading this I can only say, “Hire Morgan Ensberg!”

[1] In case you think this is a weird question, this is discussed in Ted Williams book, Science of Hitting

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Comments

  1. Mike Fast said...

    Excellent interview, Matt!  Just outstanding.  Thank you, Morgan, for your willingness to answer questions.

  2. RMR said...

    Interesting to consider that the up the middle positions are more about physical ability and less about skill or “reading” as Ensberg put it.  We usually think about the defensive spectrum as a function of speed/quickness and thus age.  But I wonder if there’s a mental component as well.

  3. Matt Lentzner said...

    RMR,

    I’m sure there’s a mental component. Third base is probably the most difficult position to play mentally next to catcher. Also, as Morgan mentions, the throws are much more difficult.

    Second base is much more straightforward and the throws are easy, but the expectation as far as covering ground is much greater. Plus, there’s taking a the DP pivot which IMO is on the most athletic things done routinely on the diamond.

    So they may be roughly equivalent value-wise, but the skill set is much different. That doesn’t mean that a player can’t play both positions, but that they need to be well-rounded to do so.

  4. Patrick Lagreid said...

    Outstanding interview—this is the kind of knowledge that the baseball world needs more of. I would love to see this repeated with all types of players.

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