[Ed. note: This piece was originally published on July 1, 2007, when David interviewed him while Bates was still in A-ball; we’re republishing it in light of Bates’ promotion to The Show.]
Aaron Bates epitomizes the Red Sox hitting philosophy. Boston’s selection in the third round of the 2006 draft, Bates has Youkilis-like plate discipline and enough power to rank second in the California League in home runs. A 23-year-old first baseman for Boston’s High-A affiliate, the Lancaster JetHawks, the 6-foot-4, 230-pound North Carolina State product is hitting .317/.449/.590, and has already gone deep 19 times. Bates made California League history on May 19 when he belted four home runs in the same game.
David talked to Bates about his hitting approach, his opposite-field power, and his dreams of World Series glory.
Aaron Bates: I haven’t heard anyone compare me to him, but I’d be flattered if they did. I know that he has a tremendous eye and a great approach to hitting. I’ve always drawn a lot of walks, and recognize the value of getting on base. On-base percentage is important to me, because if you can find a way to get on, you’re helping your team.
DL: You’re second in the league in home runs. Do you consider yourself a power hitter?
AB: I have some power, but I consider myself a hitter first–I look at myself as a disciplined hitter more than a power hitter. You won’t see me taking wild swings. I feel that I have good bat control and a good idea of what I want to do at the plate.
DL: How much of your disciplined approach is innate, and how much of it is learned?
AB: I feel like over the years my approach has become more refined. Plate discipline is more than simply laying off balls and swinging at strikes, it’s recognizing which pitches you handle well. A disciplined hitter knows how to stay away from balls he’s likely to roll over or pop up. Even if it means taking a strike and getting behind in the count, you’re better off waiting for a pitch you can do something with. You need to understand when you have to expand your strike zone. So, in that respect, I guess it’s more learned. Hitting is a lot about being patient and controlling your emotions.
DL: Is your approach always the same, or does it vary because of the pitcher you’re facing?
AB: It definitely changes. What kind of movement a guy has plays a role. You’re facing right-handers and left-handers, maybe a side-armer once in awhile, and some guys simply approach you differently. My overall plan doesn’t change, but as a hitter you need to conform to who you’re facing. Not all pitchers are the same.
DL: What do you consider the toughest pitch to hit in baseball?
AB: I think that everyone would have a slightly different answer to that question, but for me it’s a guy who commands a good fastball. That’s what gets pitchers to the big leagues, and it’s why Michael Bowden was so successful here in a good hitter’s park.
DL: As a hitter, how do you approach a pitcher with good fastball command?
AB: It goes back to what I was saying about discipline. You have to understand which pitches you can handle, and you have to wait for them. Baseball is a game where if you go one-for-three you’re having a good day, and you have to be able to accept that. If a pitcher throws nine straight quality pitches to you, you have to just tip your cap to him.
DL: It has been said that Ted Williams could see the stitches on the ball as it was being delivered to the plate. What do you see?
AB: I have pretty good eyesight–it’s 20/10–and I start by looking for the release point. What I look for is the rotation, to recognize the pitch, and from there you have to let your natural reactions take over. You have to almost play like you’re a little kid, just enjoying the game and doing what comes naturally when the ball is delivered.
DL: You mentioned release points. Some pitcher’s deliveries are harder to pick up than others.
AB: Every pitcher is a little different in how he hides the ball, but I think I pick it up pretty well against most guys. Of course, I’ve never experienced an at-bat through someone else’s eyes, so I don’t really know from that perspective how well I read pitches. But one thing I do find is that balls coming out of the shadows–you know, on a day where the shadow crosses in front of the plate and the mound–don’t affect me as much as a lot of guys. They’ll be behind pitches, while I tend to be out front. I’m not sure if I know why that is.
DL: What is your approach in batting practice?
AB: [In] the first round, I’m mostly just trying to get loose. My effort level is fairly low, and I’m basically looking to hit line drives up the middle. Overall, what you’re doing in BP is getting your hand-eye coordination ready for the game, so I try to be as meticulous as I can with my approach, which is to make solid contact. I stay away from things like trying to see how far I can hit the ball. As we get closer to game time, my effort level increases.
DL: Which hitting drills in your pre-game routine are most important to you?
AB: I’m a big tee guy. I have a routine I use every day, getting 20 to 25 swings, and if I get that in I feel I’m ready for the game. Even if it’s a show-and-go day, where we don’t have time for batting practice, I feel ready. It’s a comfort thing for me, really–almost like stretching before you run.
DL: Many hitters say that hitting is all about the hands and wrists, while others point to their core or to their head. Which do you feel is most important?
AB: My legs. I’m a bigger guy, height-wise, and it would be a shame if I didn’t use them to my advantage. In a way, I guess you could say that’s part of my core, because I’m really talking about from my knees to around my belly button. Everyone has a different trigger, and if I use my legs right I can get to balls in different locations pretty well.
DL: In talking about your power earlier this year, you said, ‘It really depends on where they’re pitching me. It depends on where the mistakes are.’ As a hitter, how do you define a “mistake,” and do you feel that the majority of pitches that a hitter squares up and drives can be categorized as mistake pitches?
AB: I think a mistake is different for every hitter–each individual player has different pitches that he can handle or drive well. A pitcher can throw a pitcher’s pitch, and the hitter can hit it out of the ballpark, yet he can hang a slider over the plate and strike a guy out. I think the mistake starts with what pitch is called in relation to the situation and the person up to bat. It’s kind of like a chess match between the hitter and the pitcher.
DL: You have excellent power to the opposite field. Where does that come from?
AB: I’ve had it since I was younger. I hit the ball well the other way when I was in high school, and it’s a thing where I was taught to have an ability to do that. I went to a school with a good baseball program, and when I was a freshman that’s one of the things that was stressed. They expected everyone to have well-rounded games. Now it comes natural to me. I like to pull the ball too, though.
DL: It has been said that good hitters get jammed. Do you think that’s true?
AB: Not that you want it to happen, but in a way, I think it is. Mike Wright, who coaches at San Jose State, talks about that. What he means is that you want the ball to travel–you want it to get deep so you’re not too far out in front. If you wait on the ball well you’re not as susceptible to curves and sliders away. That means you might be late on good fastballs inside–you get jammed–but overall you give yourself a better chance on more pitches.
DL: You hit four home runs in a game earlier this season. How meaningful is that to you, and will it impact you in any way going forward?
AB: It was definitely special for me. Hitting one home run in a game is a wonderful feeling, but I never imagined I would hit four. After the game I had to take a second in the dugout to soak it all in. I felt our team played with a lot of emotion that day after we had lost by 30 the night before. [Editor’s note: Lancaster lost to Lake Elsinore 30-0 on May 18, the worst defeat in franchise history.] I was just happy we were able to come back and win the game. The magnitude of the night didn’t set in until I got into the locker room and people started calling for interviews. As for the future, I don’t think it will affect me one way or another. I approach every game the same way, and I just try and play as hard as I can every day.
DL: If you found a magic lamp, and a baseball genie gave you three wishes, what would they be?
AB: For one, I’d love to run like Ichiro, because my batting average would go way up. With a weapon like his speed, your margin for error when you hit the ball is a lot different. Great hitters like Albert Pujols don’t beat out many infield hits, but Ichiro does. Second, I’d like to have the discipline of Barry Bonds. His ability to identify balls, and lay off pitches, is unparalleled. That’s a part of my game that is pretty solid, but he’s in another world. My third wish would be to have a long career with the Red Sox. I’d like to play for them for 15 or 16 years and win a couple of championships.
DL: Let’s say that someday you’ll deliver a game-winning hit to win a World Series for the Red Sox. Against which team will it come?
AB: You know what? I’ve actually thought about that a lot. It’s something you daydream about when you play this game, and I believe in visualization–I believe that you can make things happen by imagining them. I’d love for it to be against the San Francisco Giants. That’s who I grew up with, and I’d love to be part of a Red Sox team that played them in the World Series.
DL: I understand that your dad snuck you into Little League before you were old enough. What are your thoughts on cheating in baseball?
AB: My thoughts are that anything illegal, or anything that’s against the rules, is wrong. For one thing, the better you can evaluate players as a fan–and I’m a fan–the better you can appreciate the game. If you cheat, it’s dishonest to yourself, your teammates, and the fans. And the fans are important, because they’re the ones who come to see you play and ultimately pay your salary. The last thing you want is for a kid to love you, and then come to find out that you’re not what he thought you were.
DL: What about your dad sneaking you into Little League?
AB: To be honest, I don’t think he looked at it as cheating. The age limit was seven, he signed me up when I was five, and I turned six on opening day. I was big enough, but it wasn’t like I was too old–I was too young. To use an analogy, when Kirk Gibson had the big home run against Oakland in the World Series, the A’s had no problem with him doing it on one leg. I was starting off at a disadvantage, not an advantage.
DL: You lost your dad a few years ago. What did he mean to your development as a baseball player, and to your love of the game?
AB: My dad and I were extremely close. He drove me to countless practices and was always there watching me play. When I was 13, I played in two baseball leagues. One of the leagues was an hour away, so he would drive me to the first game, watch the game, then drive me to the next game right after. I also lived an hour and twenty minutes from my high school, so he would usually drive me to school in the morning and pick me up at night. We would use that time each day to talk about life and baseball. It was throughout those years that I truly started to understand by watching him what the word dedication meant. He would work at night so he would be free during the day to watch me compete. As for my love for the game, it has been just as strong since the day he snuck me into Little League when I was five. I am very grateful my parents always supported my dreams and aspirations. Although, I was only 20 years old when he passed away, I am very lucky to have had a role model like him growing up.
DL: If you were to meet someone who had never heard of Aaron Bates, nor had they heard of the game of baseball, how would you explain each one to them?
AB: I’d describe myself as a laid-back back guy who’s also a baseball player. As for the game itself, I’d tell them that it’s a form of entertainment for fans. It’s a game. But it’s also a great game that’s exciting to watch. I wouldn’t recommend it as something they’d rather see on TV, though–I’d tell them to come out to the park to watch it. That way they’d get to see just how great the atmosphere can be.