On a recent afternoon, a leadoff hitter swung wildly at a 0-2 pitch, striking out on a curveball that he never saw coming. Now it was the No. 2 hitter’s turn. In the on-deck circle, he took one last practice swing and made his way to the plate.
Moments later, on a 0-2 count, he swung desperately at a breaking ball, virtually an instant replay of his teammate’s at-bat.
“Afterward I asked him, ‘What did you think was coming on that pitch?’” said Scott Vatter, formerly a University of Northern Colorado and minor league player, and currently an assistant coach at Regis High School (Englewood, CO) and owner of HitStreak.
“You saw the guy in front of you. It was the exact same situation, and he threw the exact same pitch.”
Located between both dugout and home plate, the on-deck circle is often thought of as a place where hitters waiting their turn take a few practice swings and chat up teammates and fans. But there’s much more to it than that. For a player seeking an edge, it’s a strategic way station, a place to loosen the knots, observe pitchers and fine-tune timing and thoughts.
“It’s a place to physically and mentally get ready for an at-bat,” Vatter said.
According to Vatter, a player should focus on the following areas in the on-deck circle:
“Make sure you’re physically ready,” Vatter said. “Some players could be sitting in the dugout for a long time without moving or it would have been a long inning in the field (without much action.) You’ve got to get the blood flowing, so you’re not ice cold. Make sure you’re loose and confident.”
One of the keys to hitting is timing; so time your practice swings to actual pitches.
“Get in your batting stance, watch the pitcher and act like you’re up to bat even though you’re not,” Vatter said. “Depending on whether he’s throwing hard or much softer, you have to change your free swing movement to make sure you’re not way out in front of the pitch or way behind.”
The hitter’s research should start long before the on-deck circle, Vatter says. It’s important to study the pitcher during pre-game warm-ups and from the dugout. The on-deck circle gives a hitter one last up-close view. It’s important to pick up the pitcher’s release point — it will help the batter pick up the ball better from the batter’s box. The earlier a player sees the ball, the better chance he has to hit the ball.
“It helps you feel more comfortable instead of going in blind,” Vatter said.
An observant player also picks up on what the pitcher throws in certain counts, the break on his off-speed pitch, etc.
“If you’re in the on-deck circle and you see a guy struggling to throw strikes, you don’t want to go up and swing at the first pitch he throws,” Vatter said.
The hitter might be walking into a perfect hit-and-run scenario. He should realize that.
If there’s a runner on first, nobody out and the score is tied, he should know that chances are good that he’ll be asked to bunt.
The busiest a player in the on-deck circle gets is when there is a close play at home plate.
“You have to be able to coach home plate — to guide runners on whether to slide or not, and which direction to slide.” Vatter said.