WOODSTOCK — Central coach Scott Mongold considers junior Chloee Burton part of a dying breed in high school softball.
Standing about 5-foot-3, Burton isn’t a physically imposing presence when she steps into the batter’s box. And she certainly isn’t a longball threat.
Burton is a slapper, meaning she’s already on her way up the first-base line before she ever makes contact with the softball. She’s more of a nuisance at the plate than anything else, and with a batting average that has floated around .500 this spring, she’s become one of the hardest outs in the local area.
“In today’s game of attack angle and all the metrics that are used, there’s not many kids that can do it,” Mongold said of slapping. “I know of two girls in the district off the top of my head that are absolutely great at what they do. It’s like they’re playing the game with a tennis racket.”
Slapping is an art form, one unique to fastpitch softball.
Burton, a natural right-hander, was around 8 or 9 years old, she said, when she first turned around to hit from the left side and give slapping a shot at the request of a Little League coach and her father. Even in her younger years she was never a power hitter. Add in her tremendous speed, and it made sense for Burton to give slapping a shot.
“It took a while to get used to, about a year to get the feel for just swinging lefty,” she said. “Now I can’t even swing right-handed very well. It’s pretty rough.”
Slappers are always left-handed, and they’re always fast. The idea is that the hitter has all her momentum moving toward first base as she makes contact, cutting down the distance between home plate and the bag and putting pressure on the defense.
To do that, Burton begins her footwork in the batter’s box as the pitcher starts her wind-up in the circle.
“There is a technique that we use,” said Burton, who noted that she doesn’t often run into fellow slappers during high school games. “You’re always keeping your bat close to you and when they pitch the ball you have to be able to read how fast it’s coming at you and when to move your feet, when to start up your footwork and then adjust to the ball.”
Making contact can be harder for a slapper than a more traditional hitter, Burton said, particularly against pitchers who throw harder. But Burton, the Falcons’ leadoff hitter, also isn’t asked to do too much. Her job is to put the ball in play and make the defense work on a short clock.
All of Burton’s 23 hits this season are singles, and she estimated that about half of those are infield hits.
“I’m not looking to hit it over the fence. I’m looking for just a base hit or a bunt,” Burton said. “If the third baseman’s back, I’m gonna bunt it towards her. If she’s up and the first baseman’s back, I’m gonna bunt it to the first baseman. I just work where they’re positioning themselves.”
The mind games that Burton plays with opposing defenders is what makes her so dangerous at the plate. Her goal, she explained, is to do the complete opposite of what the other team thinks she’s going to do.
Burton’s lethality at the plate was perfectly summed up in Monday’s 9-4 win over Strasburg.
On the second pitch of the game, Burton dropped a bunt that died in the dirt just a couple feet from home plate down the third base line and beat the throw to first. She stole second on the next pitch, moved to third on an error and scored on Ivy Mongold’s groundout.
In her next at-bat in the top of the second inning, Burton pulled the first pitch into right field for a line-drive RBI single. In her third at-bat she fouled off the first pitch swinging away and dropped another bunt to the left side on the next pitch. Burton pulled a sharp grounder through the right side of the infield to drive in another run in her fourth and final at-bat of the game.
“That’s the thing with her,” Scott Mongold said of Burton, “is you get some of these kids and they’re bunters. They lay a bunt down the first-base line and 70 to 80 percent of the time they’ll beat it out to first base. Where this one, she’ll lay a bunt down in the first inning and now your corners are playing up when she comes back up again, and your outfield’s up and she’ll drive a ball right over their head. Same thing, she’s still slapping, but she has the power to beat you deep too if you’re not paying attention.”
Burton’s plan of attack during an at-bat is generally predetermined before each pitched based on the defense’s alignment, she said, though she does sometimes adjust her swing on the fly if defenses make late shifts.
Regardless, Burton has the freedom to make her own decisions at the plate as to whether she’s bunting or slapping, much as she has the green light most of the time on the base paths. Burton led the area in steals in 2017 (11) and 2018 (22) and sits atop that list again this season (15).
She’s also scored 60 total runs over the past three seasons.
“You take that away from your lineup and you’re kind of hit or miss, man. You’re digging around for runs,” Mongold said. “Where you put Chloee out there and even her outs are productive outs because now you put it in the defense’s mind that these guys bunt. It just sets everybody on edge.”
Burton, who plays travel ball with the Virginia Legends, has become increasingly more dangerous at the plate each high school season. As a freshman in 2017, she batted .362 (17-for-47) for Central, and in 2018 she bumped her average up to .389 (28-for-72) while scoring 25 runs.
Burton, who is batting .489 (23-for-47) and has scored 21 runs this spring, is well on her way to posting another career season at the plate in 2019.
“She has done a better job of hitting the softball as opposed to just laying down bunts and beating stuff out. Now I have the confidence in her this year, as opposed to last year, where I will say ‘Chloee, swing the bat. Slap. It’s your field, you read it, you see what you want to do,’” Mongold said.
“To her credit, I don’t know whether she made a conscious effort to do that or whether it’s just through the games that she’s played through the summer or her winter workouts, whatever she did with the Virginia Legends, it’s upped her game. It has.”