ALTOONA, Pa. – In his first year in the big leagues, Kansas City Royals outfielder Jon Nunnally found himself in a 3-0 count against the Seattle Mariners.
The next pitch was one he hit off the wall.
“I hammered this ball, and I top spun it,” Nunnally said.
The next day, Nunnally recalled talking to his hitting coach when Ken Griffey Jr. walked out of the opposing dugout with his hat on backwards.
“Hey, that ball you hit yesterday?” Nunnally recalls Griffey saying to him. “That can’t happen.”
“What do you mean?” Nunnally responded. “I hammered that ball.”
“Yeah, you did. But that ball is supposed to land in that tank,” said Griffey Jr. “You’ve got to spin that ball out of here. You got too good of a pitch to hit that wall like that. You’re supposed to hit that ball out of the ball park.”
Nunnally was trying to hit the ball in the tank, and as a result, top spun the pitch. Griffey gave Nunnally his bat, and Nunnally used it the next few weeks to spin balls all over the park.
The lesson is one that Nunnally carries today as the hitting coach for the Altoona Curve.
Hitting has always been difficult in baseball. It might be one of the most difficult things in all of sports.
It’s reached a new level of difficulty with all of the improvements pitchers have made, with added velocity and ridiculous spin becoming more prevalent throughout the game — even down throughout the minors.
“They have so much movement,” Nunnally said of the pitchers today. “They had movement back then, too. You’ve just got so many people with hard velos, and certain spins, and they’re just letting it eat.”
The key, Nunnally says, is being able to control the strike zone.
“If you can control the middle of the plate, you can control the game,” said Nunnally. “They’ve got to throw strikes. We’ve just got to control that portion of the plate that if we get in there, we can hammer something.”
A challenge in today’s game is that modern pitchers have learned the skill of “tunneling” their pitches. This allows a pitcher to throw two pitches that look like they’re going to end up in the strike zone, only for one to break at the last second and fall out of the zone. The similar looks and late breaks make it difficult to evaluate what will actually be in the zone.
The Pirates have their hitters responding by targeting specific zones and attacking multiple pitches inside that zone. This starts in batting practice, where they have a new school approach.
Rather than sending their hitters in the cage to crush home runs, the Pirates use batting practice for their hitters to practice attacking in their zones. Instead of swinging at every pitch, a hitter might only swing at two of ten pitches, because those were the ones in his zone. The idea is for the players to practice the approach they would have in the game.
“When you do that, hitting becomes a little more simple,” said Nunnally. “And hitting is hard.”
What makes hitting difficult is that each at-bat is an elaborate battle between the pitcher and the hitter. Each count carries a different set of possibilities that the pitcher can throw, and each count leads to a different level of aggressiveness from the hitter.
“On 1-1, I’m going to hit the center field wall,” said Nunnally. “I don’t know if I’m going to hit a breaking ball or a changeup. I get to 3-2, you don’t know if you’re getting sliders or changeups, but I’m hunting heaters, center field.”
Nunnally described a 1-1 approach, where you can either go ahead or behind from that point.
When the hitters are ahead, the Pirates want them to take stock in what the pitcher is showing them, where they want to go with the pitch, and then just getting aggressive. It’s not that the Pirates aren’t trying to do damage in pitcher’s counts.
“You start figuring those things out in how you want to go about your business when you get in that box,” said Nunnally. “And then you can use the counts to help you when you get on that field, to give you the best chance possible to hit. You teach them a lot of that, then over time they learn to grasp over the course of the year.”
The Pirates are stressing the normal aspects of hitting, including keeping the barrel in the zone longer (a problem for Nick Gonzales), using the entire field, or just learning situations, which is what Blake Sabol has been doing, working close with Nunnally.
A big thing that Nunnally is stressing is that lesson he learned from Griffey Jr. on spinning the ball. The idea of “lifting” pitches has some players swinging up on the ball, generating top spin, rather than swinging down on the ball and cutting under the pitch.
“I can see it now,” said Sabol, who wears number 24 as a Griffey Jr. fan growing up. “I’m watching other hitters on other teams, and I’m like ‘Nuns, he’s going about it the wrong way. He’s going this way. He’s trying to lift it this way.'”
Sabol went 1-for-4 on August 17th. The one hit was a single, where he came up out of his legs, and couldn’t do the most damage against the pitch. As Sabol returned to the dugout, he lamented the single to his coach.
“Nuns, he threw me a homer pitch and I missed it,” Sabol said of the hit.
“Oh, I know,” Nunnally said.
Jon Nunnally ended up in Cincinnati a few years into his MLB career, where Ken Griffey Sr. was “like dad” to him.
It was definitely tough love.
“He used to throw balls at my face and say ‘Hit it,’” Nunnally said. “I ducked out and he’d say ‘Get out of the cage. You ain’t ready.'”
Nunnally realized that Griffey Sr. wanted him to swing at every pitch, even if it was coming for him. The idea was to be ready for anything.
Swinging at everything isn’t the approach the Pirates carry in batting practice right now, but there’s an important lesson that Nunnally learned about the extreme approach. It’s hard to know what you’re capable of hitting if you don’t swing the bat at everything at some point.
“Over time, I started to see people who don’t really realize why you would do certain things,” said Nunnally. “You do certain things, overexaggerate certain things to get exactly what you want.”
The Pirates haven’t had the best offensive results in their system this year. Altoona rates well on the year in the Eastern League. They are currently tied for first in average, third in OBP, and are middle of the pack in slugging.
The fact that some of their top prospects are struggling hides these numbers.
Nick Gonzales, for example, has some of the quickest hands in the system. He also has outstanding hand-eye coordination. The result is an extremely fast bat that can often make contact. The problem? Gonzales doesn’t keep his bat in the zone long enough, which has led to poor contact rates this year.
“That’s the whole key in trying to get him working through the baseball, instead of in and out of the zone, especially with off-speed pitches,” said Nunnally.
That is a contact issue at the plate, and some players beyond Gonzales are dealing with a similar need to keep their bat through the zone longer.
Nunnally is also stressing a different view at the plate, to allow for a better outcome.
“He’s a type of guy who always used right-center field really well,” Nunnally said of Gonzales. “I said get used to use the middle of the field to go right-center. Even left-side of the batter’s eye. Take the left-eye of the batter’s eye, and you hunt and drive things through there, and you may get something that you can drive into left-center.”
I’ve heard pitchers describe using different points on a catcher’s body to target where to throw their pitches. I’ve never heard of a hitter targeting a specific area in the field to get a desired result. Nunnally had similar things to say for other players I brought up.
On Liover Peguero:
“He’s young, and he’s got a lot of power in there. It’s just a matter of him understanding in your work, start working more middle of the field to right-center a little bit. Middle of the field to right-center. His natural tendency is to pull the baseball. To keep him on the pitch that he wants to pull, you’ve got to work in a different lane, so you can do the things you want to do more consistently. Just keep you on that baseball a little longer.”
On Connor Scott, who was pulling the ball to right field a lot when I saw him:
“Scott normally is the type of guy who is center-left center all the time. That’s normally what he does. When he’s going really, really well, he uses the right-center field gap over to the left-field line.”
Scott, pictured above, was acquired by the Pirates in the Jacob Stallings trade. He’s a tall, lanky outfielder with a lot of room for added muscle. He has great hands, doing well against off-speed stuff, but struggles against inside fastballs.
“Scott has great hands, good eye, barrel awareness,” said Nunnally. “He handles himself pretty well. He just has to make sure he’s staying middle of the field, and stay through the ball more.”
Nunnally wants his hitters to use the middle of the field, rather than targeting one patch of grass. The ultimate goal, though, is to combine the entire hitting focus.
“When you get confident in knowing what your zone is, and understanding barrel awareness and knowing what you’re going to do, you can go anywhere you want to go on the field,” said Nunnally.
One hitter in Altoona who doesn’t appear to have any issues is Endy Rodriguez.
My takeaway from Rodriguez this trip is that there’s no challenge that he would back down from. He shows no fear.
“None,” Nunnally confirmed. “That’s the key to hitting. No fear. I want to do the best I can to scare pitchers out of the zone. If I can scare them out of the zone, we’ve got a good shot. If you can’t scare them out of the zone, then you’ve got a battle on your hands.”
Once a hitter knows his zone to attack, and knows where he wants to hit on the field, and knows which pitches he prefers — he still has the mystery of the opposing pitcher. Nunnally acknowledges that there are some pitchers where, at the end of the day, you just need to celebrate whatever you could get off of them.
“There’s a lot of pitchers out there that you can’t [scare],” said Nunnally. “They already know what they want to do and they know how to do it and they’re consistent at it. Those are the days where you battle and you go I went 0-for-2, but I got a walk and I scored a run from that walk.”
As for the rest of the pitchers?
“Then the other guys who aren’t as good as those number ones and number twos,” said Nunnally. “You go ‘Alright, this is where I’m going to make my money right here.'”
THIS WEEK ON PIRATES PROSPECTS
Tim started Pirates Prospects in 2009 from his home in Virginia, which was 40 minutes from where Pedro Alvarez made his pro debut in Lynchburg. That year, the Lynchburg Hillcats won the Carolina League championship, and Pirates Prospects was born from Tim's reporting along the way. The site has grown over the years to include many more writers, and Tim has gone on to become a credentialed MLB reporter, producing Pirates Prospects each year, and will publish his 11th Prospect Guide this offseason. He has also served as the Pittsburgh Pirates correspondent for Baseball America since 2019. Behind the scenes, Tim is an avid music lover, and most of the money he gets paid to run this site goes to vinyl records.