An extra fraction of a second has been all Mark Skelley needed to become the leading hitter on the Sycamore baseball team.
The senior third baseman used to be focused on driving the ball up the middle. But when Sycamore coach Jason Cavanaugh urged players throughout the summer and offseason to drive the ball to right field, something clicked for Skelley.
He waited a little longer before a swing and suddenly he started to collect more hits. Breaking balls didn’t have the same sharp movement. They were done with their break by the time he’d swing. Even fastballs found the barrel of his bat more often.
When Sycamore has used the approach Skelley has embraced, Cavanaugh has noticed one of the top offenses in the Northern Illinois Big 12 East.
“When we hit the ball to right field we are a potent offense,” Cavanaugh said. “Sometimes we get homer happy. That’s all they show on SportsCenter. There’s even a highlight reel based just on the day’s home runs. It’s glorified. There’s no glory in singles to right field or a double to the gap.
“But there are hits. There are lots of hits because there is so much space to the right side. We understand that we need to hit the ball to right field to be successful. We just need to do it more often.”
Because he has a better idea of what pitch is coming and has been on base more consistently, Skelley has been moved the Spartans’ leadoff spot. Rather than get consumed by the mechanics of his swing, a thought process that can often paralyze a hitter, Skelley said he only seeks to be patient.
“This year I’ve waited a split second longer,” Skelly said. “My approach is to be patient. It allows me to see pitchers longer. The longer I see a pitch the less chance for me to get fooled by it. I get to see offspeed pitches longer and then can hit them out to right field.”
The field’s dimensions don’t change. The bases are still 90 feet apart. There is more room for a ball to find a hole on the right side of the field, a strong argument Cavanaugh has made in his 17-year tenure as the Spartans’ skipper.
If a first baseman in holding on a runner, there’s more room for a ground ball to find the outfield grass. It’s also harder for a first baseman to turn and run after a pop-up down the left field line.
A second baseman plays a few steps deeper and pinches towards second base. Further increasing the hole for a hitter to find on the right side of the field.
These conditions don’t exist on the left side of the field. The third baseman is most likely behind the base, the shortstop is playing deeper at double play depth. Both can range well into the hole or the outfield to help the left and center fielders with any shallow pop-ups.
Which furthers Cavanaugh’s desire for hitters to wait a split second longer, like Skelley has done, before they swing.
“Hitting to the opposite field has to be the approach,” Cavanaugh said. “It can’t just be an effort to guide the ball to right field. That will just be a ground out to second or a pop-up to right. You’ve got to block the swing off or let the ball get in deep on you. Driving the ball starts with the legs and just hit it through the right side. You have to be willing to hit the ball to right field. By doing so you give up some of the inside corner, but pitchers all throw outside anyway.”
Even though Skelley has given up the chance to hit a few extra home runs because as a right-handed hitter he hasn’t embraced his pull field – left field, the results have been a higher batting average, increased on-base percentage and more runs scored. It’s also verified his perception on how to hit a home run.
“A batter doesn’t hit a home run,” Skelly said. “A pitcher throws one.”
While he waits for the next thrown home run, chances are Skelley will be on first base, with a hit through the right side.