PITTSBURGH – When I was in Altoona last week, I spoke with hitting coach Jon Nunnally, as well as many of the hitting prospects on the team. What I heard the most was a different approach to hitting that I hadn’t previously heard in the Pittsburgh Pirates’ system.
Jon Nunnally Discusses the Hitting Development Approach in Altoona
The easiest way to describe the approach is that it turns hitting into a game of cards, where every count brings up a different set of possibilities. The Pirates are also setting their sights on different areas of the wall, in order to maximize their offensive output.
I was at PNC Park yesterday, and talked with Ke’Bryan Hayes to see if he was taught the same approach. I didn’t mention Nunnally, but the first thing Hayes mentioned was that he worked with Nunnally at the alternate training site in Altoona during the down time from COVID.
“That was the first time I worked with him a lot,” Hayes said.
The focus was the same, and the way Hayes described it adds some clarity to the concept — for those who aren’t currently or haven’t been a Major League hitter in the past.
STATEGIZING THE COUNT
When I talked with Nunnally, he mentioned adjusting the focus at the plate based on the count.
“As the count goes on, start learning what you need to do,” said Nunnally. “On 1-1, I’m going to hit the center field wall. 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.”
The approach is about anticipating what a pitcher might throw you. If a pitcher is behind in the count, he’s less likely to throw a risky breaking pitch, and more likely to throw a fastball. The Pirates are teaching their hitters to anticipate the fastball in that situation, while still being able to hit the breaking ball.
Hayes said that in an 0-0 count, Nunnally would tell him to try to hit a home run to the center of the batter’s eye. On hitter’s counts — 1-0, 2-0, 3-1, etc. — Hayes would focus on the left side of the batter’s eye. The change in focus allows Hayes to work the middle of the field, while still being able to adjust for an off-speed pitch.
“Say I’m in a hitter’s count, like 1-0, 2-0, and I’m thinking left side of the batter’s eye,” said Hayes. “I’m still thinking I want to be early on this pitch, but it also keeps you middle of the field just in case for offspeed.”
The approach makes sense. Hayes is right-handed. If he’s in a hitter’s count, he would be expecting a fastball. By focusing on left-center, he’s preparing to be early on the pitch, which is a good way to time up a fastball. If he is a bit late, the ball just goes to center or right. And if it’s an off-speed pitch, he has more time to adjust without being really late.
Hayes said that when he was coming up through the minors, his focus would just be using the middle of the field, or trying for the left-center gap in hitter’s counts.
In 2020, Hayes could look at the middle of the batter’s eye and hit the ball to right-center. His tendency is to hit the ball right-center, so by focusing more to the left of the field, he keeps more balls in fair play to the right, while targeting a bigger area of the field.
The key for each player is finding a target that maximizes their output. The target isn’t necessarily where they want to hit the ball. It’s just where they need to focus.
“Everyone is different,” said Hayes. “When I was in Triple-A, an older guy Trayvon Robinson, a lot of times he would think hit a ball off the pitcher’s feet. He’d hit a home run to right field.”
Hayes said that he likes the approach, and still uses that thought process when he’s hitting in the majors today.
“I think it helps with keeping you middle of the field, making sure your body is in a good position to be able to adjust to outside, middle, and inside,” said Hayes.
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.
Idk anything, but I see no mention of hitting the ball where it’s pitched. I’ve also never heard a coach promoting to hit a HR on 0 – 0 count (or on any count). This sounds likes some bogus advice……we better wait and see if Nunally is still with the org over the off season! I mean, who are his actual pupils who are having success in MLB?
Love the interview Tim, but Hayes is the poster boy for underperforming at the plate with a dysfunctional swing. The past few weeks I am seeing some changes as Key himself has stated he’s made some changes. Of course, those are likely without Nunally since he’s with Altoona.
So far, the approach hasn’t quite kicked in for Hayes, has it? It must still be a work in progress? Hopefully, something will click.
We’ll see, but there’s certainly reason to think there won’t be much of a high ceiling here.
I agree….see NMR’s comment below. When Hayes was having that great Sept, I was telling everyone about his insanely high BABIP. Hardly anyone listened.
New subscriber but previous subscriber with an old email and long time reader. Curious if you’ve ever heard anything about the Pirates working with Hayes to get his launch angle up to something that would be more useable like 10%? His 2-5 range the last two seasons is taylormade for groundballs and at-ems.
Remarkable how well Eric Longenhagen at FanGraphs nailed Kebryan’s scouting report back in November of 2018:
“A flat-planed swing and conservative hitting footwork are stifling the in-game power production. For Hayes, that’s fine. He does everything else.
It’s possible the Pirates will try to coax more power of out him by tweaking either his footwork or by moving his hands, the latter of which feels riskier. Even without further offensive evolution, Hayes projects as an all-fields, league-average offensive threat with plus-plus defense.”
Aaron Judge – 95.6 EV and 14.2 LA
Kyle Schwarber – 93 EV and 18.7 LA
Paul Goldschmidt – 91 EV and 16.3 LA
Yordan Alvarez – 95.5 EV and 12.2 LA
Austin Riley – 93.1 EV and 14.8 LA
Hayes – 91.5 EV and 5.8 LA
I noticed this while looking over his numbers. He hits the ball among the hardest in the game, but doesn’t lift it. I haven’t heard if he’s working on anything specifically for this, and we only spoke for a few minutes yesterday.
My plan is to study his swing over the years to see how it has progressed. I’ve got more on this subject tomorrow in P2Daily.
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Here’s an interesting look at the company Ke is in wrt launch angle, EV and Top% https://baseballsavant.mlb.com/leaderboard/custom?year=2022&type=batter&filter=&sort=6&sortDir=asc&min=q&selections=on_base_plus_slg,xba,xslg,exit_velocity_avg,launch_angle_avg,barrel_batted_rate,poorlytopped_percent,groundballs_percent,&chart=false&x=xba&y=xba&r=no&chartType=beeswarm
I have no doubt that this will be an offseason project if it isnt already! With how hard he hits the ball, he could literally become arenado with a better launch angle
I don’t like bringing negativity into the world, but I feel really bad that Trayvon Robinson’s name is butchered in that Hayes quote. If Hayes really did say it wrong, I doubt he’d mind if you fixed it or just did the old bracketed “[Robinson]” thing. It makes Hayes look bad and is pretty disrespectful to Robinson. While you’re at it, you might want to add an “r” to “stategizing” or maybe add some statistics to the article so you could pass it off as a pun. Sorry for the negativity. End of rant.
Thanks for pointing that out. I actually haven’t written about Robinson before, and was kind of away during his time in the system, thus I spelled his name wrong and never went back to check.
I would never expect the level of detail paid by me on anyone else, but there’s a reason I run every name in every article I write through a Google search.
I don’t want to be “McCutcheon” person.
There’s literally no downside to making mistakes. I’ve been making them successfully for years. It’s easier to make them and correct them than avoid them and make them anyway and get frustrated that you can’t be perfect.
Feels like this is one of the first times a reporter has gotten much of any detailed thinking behind their actual developmental practices, beyond just overarching culture.
Curious how they work pitch identification into this strategy.
Sorry, I’ve been busy.
Isn’t the hit the ball in the middle of the field philosophy very outdated? Thought the new approach is to meet the ball out in front of the plate and pulling the ball whenever possible? Did that change? For a player who has serious issues pulling the ball, this feels disappointing. Not that I’m an expert but I did play high school baseball, so I mean, it’s a pretty exclusive club.
I think telling people to use the middle of the field is dated.
Teaching players how to hit to the middle of the field is a different monster, and something that they seem to be doing here.
It’s about how can you prepare to meet the ball out in front.
Good stuff Tim. Appreciate the look behind the curtain of how a hitter thinks.
Personally, I’m hoping Hayes uses this winter to implement a swing change which produces more fly balls. He definitely hits the ball hard enough to produce more HR’s. If he were to become a 20+ HR hitter, he would be our Arrenado.
Looking at his numbers, he makes some of the hardest contact in the league. If he ever figures that out, I think you’re right in that he’d be a star level player.
Wonder if his rookie year heater actually set him back a bit. Scouts have long raised concerns over his swing and have inarguably been proven correct. That power binge might’ve given those within the org the impression he was on the right track anyways.
It’s possible. I also think there are a lot of moving parts here. This stuff should be taught at the lowest levels.
I’m doing a look at Gonzales tomorrow for P2Daily that shows how this process is evolving for him. Maybe I’ll look into Hayes eventually.