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January 29, 2013

Out of Left Field

Teaching Myself to Hit

by Matthew Kory

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[Disclaimer: This article may give the impression that I’m passing myself off as an expert on hitting. If I’m the hitting expert, it’s only by default as there is nobody else in this article. If this were called Teaching Myself And A Rabid Hyena To Hit then the hyena, despite its medical issues, would be the expert.]

I love baseball. Maybe that’s obvious, since I write about it all the time (Seriously, dude, like, get another topic!), but I don’t just love it as a writing subject. I love playing it, too. I’ve been fortunate enough to play baseball almost straight through my life, from Little League to high school, a smidge in college, and up to last year in an adult league here in Portland, Oregon. There were breaks for the normal things in life, like marriage, having children, that cannibalism phase everyone seems to go through*, and work, but most of my life I’ve been on a baseball team. During most of that time I’ve never been able to hit.

*Cannibalism: it’s just not worth it, kids. The more you know…

My senior season in high school my team had a hit-a-thon to raise money for some local charity. The idea was that people would pledge money by the foot for the longest ball you could hit in 20 swings. An 18-year-old high school senior with a coach lobbing the ball up there, I should have been able to hit it pretty far. Nope. I hit the ball 200 feet. That’s a pop up to the outfield. The outfielder is going to have to trot in to get it. That was my farthest by about 200 feet, too.

That was 100 words I like to call Matt Can’t Hit. All through high school I couldn’t hit. The number of hits I got in my four years could have been counted on my fingers had I been through several industrial accidents.

Flash forward a decade. There was a batting cage a few miles from my office. Instead of using my lunch hour for something traditional, like eating, I decided I would teach myself to hit.

Lesson 1: Don’t Fear The Ball
My first problem with hitting was that I felt about a pitched ball like most people feel about, say, pitched bears. I don’t have any but if pictures of me hitting exist they would show a skinny guy in a baseball shirt who looks to have just smelled a dirty diaper. My face would be scrunched up, my eyes would be smashed closed, and my head would be in the midst of jerking as far away as it could get while still remaining attached to my neck. Nine out of 10 hitting coaches agree that is bad technique and the 10th was too busy recommending brands of gum to his patients who chew gum.

Part of my fear of pitched baseballs was fear of pain, but maybe more of it was fear of the unknown. I couldn’t solve the first part but I could take a stab at the second. I went into the slow cage and, like something out of an Adam Sandler movie, stood on top of the plate. The pitch came and hit me in the stomach. It hurt. The next one hit me in the thigh. That one hurt too. That was enough to teach me that getting hit with a ball isn’t fun, but my fear was out of proportion to the pain it caused.

Lesson 2: Make Contact
In order to teach myself to make contact with the ball, I decided I should simplify my batting stance. The fewer movements I made in the box, the fewer mistakes I could make. So copying Julio Franco was out. Instead, I copied Mike Lowell. Lowell moved some before the pitch, but once the pitcher came to the plate Lowell’s body was mostly still. (See Lowell here or here.) I avoided the small stride he took toward the pitcher or his pre-pitch arm movements, but otherwise I straight up aped him. I planted my feet slightly wider than my shoulders, kept my upper body straight, bent my knees slightly, held my bat up, turned my head toward the pitching machine, and waited. When the ball came, I didn’t stride. I dropped the bat head into the zone and pulled it through as flatly as possible.

As a hitter, if you can discern the correct plane of the pitch (we’re just talking fastballs now) then the longer your bat stays in the zone the higher your chances are of making contact. If your swing has an upper-cut to it, then it won’t be in the zone for very long and the chances of contacting the ball drop. Staying in the zone longer means weaker contact, but you don’t have to supply much of the power to line a single to center with most fastballs. As long as the barrel hits the ball, the pitcher's effort can be borrowed for your benefit.

Lesson 3: Hit The Fastball
Most adult league pitchers I’ve seen have two pitches, a fastball and some sort of off-speed pitch, usually a curveball. Some might have three or even four, but if so you don’t have to worry about the extras for two reasons. First, the third pitch isn’t a good pitch. If it were, the pitcher wouldn’t be in an adult league. Therefore if he throws it, it won’t be in the strike zone. Second, in a given at-bat, every pitcher will throw at least one fastball. The key to hitting in an adult league is being able to hit that fastball.

Lesson 4: Practice Hitting Off-Speed Pitches
But sometimes you miss the fastball, and you find yourself down in the count and need to be able to react to the change of speeds. Even if you have the plane of the pitch correct, with a decent off-speed pitch there’s a good chance you’ll have finished your swing by the time the ball crosses the plate. As a hitter, I found I was susceptible to the difference in speed because of my weight transfer from the back leg to the front during my swing. But, as I discovered, if I have no weight transfer (or not much of one) then, ah ha! All you have to do is keep your hands back and wait.

Since most pitching machines don’t throw off-speed pitches, the ones you see often come in game situations, and that makes them extra difficult. The way I practiced was using the pitching machines at the cages and moving around in the batter’s box. To simulate a fastball followed by a change-up, stand three feet in front of the plate (i.e. shorten the distance between the pitching machine and you). Hit that pitch, and then before the next one comes, move a few feet behind the batter’s box. Practicing that forced me to keep my weight centered and my hands back and react to the pitch rather than falling back on timing the ball.

There’s more to it at the major-league level, but in a wooden bat adult league, pitchers fool hitters with off-speed pitches because the hitter is trying to time the pitch. Watch two fastballs go by and you expect the third pitch to arrive at the same time as the first two. When it doesn’t your swing is early or late and you miss. Avoiding this pitfall requires immense concentration and body control. It’s almost like you have to re-teach yourself to hit before each pitch, because it’s very easy to start subconsciously timing the ball.

Takeaways

1. Hitting is hard.

2. Hitting for power is really hard. I can’t do it. I didn’t even try to do it.

3. Hitting for average and power is impossible. Anyone who can do it is a cyborg.

4. Hitting off-speed pitches at all requires amazing concentration, and body control, neither of which I possess.

5. Cannibalism is bad. Don’t do it, kids!

6. Hitting is really hard.

Matthew Kory is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Matthew's other articles. You can contact Matthew by clicking here

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