Twenty-one outs. Twenty-one guaranteed opportunities to impact a high school baseball game. Numerous ways to approach those at-bats, and several outcomes that are positive.
Unlike most sports, in baseball the percentages always favor the defense. That fact alone makes the individual at-bat a precious commodity, so it's no wonder prep coaches stress getting the most out of them.
Hits are the most obvious positive outcome, but sometimes even a strikeout can be viewed as positive.
"We have seven or eight things we feel like make up positive at-bats," Ringgold coach Brent Tucker said. "It's not scientific, but the basic idea is we want kids to battle through the at-bats. Don't give them away just because a pitcher is throwing well. Most people see a strikeout as a bad at-bat, but if the batter makes a pitcher work hard during the at-bat, it can make a difference."
The Gordon Lee Trojans are putting patience to good use. Off to a sizzling 10-1 start, the Trojans have scored double-digit runs in five of those wins. The key isn't a murderers row of sluggers. It's more about working the count and accepting that a walk is a good thing.
"Every team is different, and this one we haven't had to say much because most of them have been here for a while," Gordon Lee coach Mike Dunfee said. "The guys will take a walk, and we are good -- batters one through nine -- at putting it in play. When you get guys on base and put the ball in play, good things will usually happen."
Tucker's Tigers had a power-laden lineup the past two seasons, but most of the home-run ability graduated. This year's team stresses the good at-bat even more, and when his players get on base Tucker is putting them in motion more. A walk to leadoff man Slade Dale or No. 2 hitter Logan Baldwin usually is followed by a steal or hit-and-run.
On-base percentage always has been important -- as per "Moneyball" -- but putting runners on in high school has a double benefit. The great majority of prep programs rely on starting pitchers for the bulk of work on the mound. Work the count, make the innings more stressful and that starting pitcher won't be long for the game.
"Let's face it, in most every case you want to get into that bullpen," Tucker said. "If you can get a guy to 70-80 pitches by the fifth inning, that's usually going to happen. That's one of our goals every game. That's why, even with two strikes, you can't give up on an at-bat."
This isn't to say early swings are taboo. A pitcher trying to get a first-pitch fastball over the middle of the plate is often at his most vulnerable. The lesson, according to one area coach, is to know the situation, the pitcher and what's happened earlier in the game.
"We want our guys to have an idea depending on the situation," Ridgeland coach Scott Harden said. "If they do, nine times out of 10 they will at least put it in play or have a better chance of getting a walk. My philosophy is to not be a defensive hitter. We want them to be aggressive but be smart."
Different approaches with the same goal in mind: Turn the odds in your favor.
Lindsey Young is a sports writer at the Chattanooga Times Free Press who started work at the Chattanooga News-Free Press 24 years ago. He covers the Northwest Georgia prep beat and NASCAR. Lindsey’s hometown is Ringgold, Ga., and he graduated from Lakeview-Fort Oglethorpe High School. He received an associate’s degree from Dalton Junior College (now Dalton State) and a bachelor’s degree in communications from UTC. He has won several writing awards, including two Tennessee Sports ...
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