I love my job. When I’m not writing for Baseball Prospectus or at the ballpark in standard issue jeans, polo shirt, and Accusplit, you can find me in a batting cage. Specifically cage four of the facility I’m lucky enough to work at ECBA (cage 4 is the one closest to the fans— got to stay cool). First thing you’d notice is that I’m probably already hitting off a tee. No you’re not late, but hitting off a tee is my yoga and has kept my sanity intact. Whenever I start working with hitters I have them run through a quick stretch then get about 10-20 practice swings off the tee.
During this initial warm-up I’ll talk with my hitters about everything but their swing. Even though we might be talking about whether Bryce Harper’s homer showed up on radar, my eyes will be scanning the swing. I’m looking for if there are any easily correctable movements, or a constant pattern of hits off the tee.
Here’s a secret, I don’t have a “system” for hitting. Each of my hitters is a special snowflake, and we need to work within their own swings to find the best plan of attack. Are there certain drills I go to all the time? No doubt. But I don’t force these drills on everybody. I'll get to some of those specific drills later. My job isn’t to teach a good swing, my job is to get my guys to learn a good swing. The end result of all the work we put in is for you to walk out the door knowing you are a better hitter than when you walked in.
While I don’t have a system there are 3 things that I end up working on with 99% of my hitters:
· How to start the lower half.
· How to launch the lower half.
· Vision and neurological cues.
Obviously we do tons of work on the upper half of the swing, but there is much more variability in how to best improve the upper half on a hitter-to-hitter basis.
When I say “start the lower half,” I mean the movements that occur from the waist down from the time the stride foot first moves to the moment it hits the ground. I love asking my hitters what is the point of a stride. The correct answer would have something mentioning both timing and generating energy, but I’m more concerned with how a hitter answers it.
If they have no clue— awesome we got a blank slate, so let’s get to work. If they only know one of the points— no worries, let’s work on refining that one while introducing the other. If they know both— let’s maximize the movement and start raking.
My go to drill for stride is called the wall drill, it’s a drill where we use a wall – I saved my creativity for the drills and not the naming of the drill. Anyways, for this drill I’ll have hitters stand about 6-12 inches away from a (preferably) padded wall without a bat. From there I’ll ask them to pick up their leg like they are starting a stride and drive their hips forward into the wall. The catch is only their hip – not their leg, knee, foot, shoulder, or head – only their hip should be touching the wall at the end. It’s the batting equivalent of the Hershiser drill.
What this does is isolate the feeling that getting weight transfer initiated creates. This is an exaggerated drill, but it’s all about feel.
Before heading back to the tee I will then have hitters take some practice swings without their bat. I’ll take their bat and hold it 6 inches in front of their hip. Then I’ll have them take their swings asking them to have their front hip hit the bat when their foot hits the ground. This method has a key advantage over the wall drill in that the front knee isn’t forced into a position behind the hip. The wall drill is more about isolating forward hip movement, while using the bat allows hitters to incorporate that movement into their overall striding pattern.
Once it looks like they have a good idea of how to get the hip moving, I’ll keep having them take practice swings but challenge them to have the front of their waist flush with the bat at the end of the swing. At first, contact with the bat teaches forward hip movement, and making sure hips rotate is ensured by their waist ending up flush against the bat.
Joey Bats is a good example, in terms of getting the lower half started:
Some common flaws would be kids hips continuing to move forward after their foot hits the ground. That’s no bueno. That’s why using the bat is a solid guide. If the hips continue to slide forward they will see and feel the bat move forward. Another problem would be hitters coiling inward too much, but this can be fixed by reminding them to keep their front shoulder pointed mostly straight ahead.
Now it’s time to launch the lower half. These are the movements that occur between the time the front foot touches down and contact is made with the ball. Most everyone knows the advice of squishing the bug is bad advice, and I don’t run into that problem with hitters all that often. The new problem is kids are so eager to get to the toe of the back foot or do the cool Bryce Harper back foot in the air thing they miss out on actually using their lower body.
The movement of the back foot shouldn’t be an active movement. The back foot should move because it is being forced into action by the bigger muscles above it. Let me explain. The ending position of a hitter’s back foot is based on what happens with the muscles through the hips and knees.
It’s an established fact that human hips are awesome. Shakira really hammered home this notion, but baseball players missed the memo. One of the biggest flaws I see in hitters is their back foot and hips rotating at the same time. You can rotate your hips while keeping your feet stationary. In hitting, we should aim to use this anatomical fact to our advantage.
When executed properly, this movement allows hitters to use their big muscles to drive the lower body rather than just turn the back foot. To achieve this goal, I’ll have hitters take their same swing but tell them to keep their back heel glued to the ground. This can be done with tee or soft-toss. If they can’t feel it, just put a bat between their feet. Tell them to hit with no stride and keep the bat flush against the sides of their shoes. You can literally feel the hips engage when done properly. Make sure they are working up the middle or to their pull side so their hips are forced to fire.
Once they get that idea down pat I’ll have hitters alternate their swings between “normal” and keeping the back heel down. Then I’ll ask them to find a happy middle ground between the two and this is when the ball starts flying. With older hitters, I’ll finish this sequence by asking them to hit the ball while keeping their heel down as long as possible but be more aggressive with the back leg itself by trying to finish with that knee straight under the back hip.
As a take home message, I’ll tell them their back knee should never feel like it's moving toward the first base dugout (3rd base for a lefty). It should only move toward the pitcher and down. You have to work through the middle of the foot to accomplish this, so it’s a solid visual for kids who aren’t quite grasping the concept.
Here are two guys who demonstrate this complete movement pattern. The hips move forward, and the hips and back knee begin to drive before the foot ever turns, rotates, etc.:
Let’s talk about vision. This is one aspect of hitting that is criminally neglected. If you had a perfect swing, you would still never get a hit if you had your eyes closed. So how do you work on vision? First thing I’ll do is stand outside the batting cage while holding my arms outstretched. I’ll ask a hitter to look from hand to hand using their head. I’ll ask them to do it again, this time keeping their head centered and only moving their eyes. When they only moved their eyes, they were able to shift from hand to hand faster and with less blurring of the net. The small muscles that move your eyes can move them much quicker than the muscles in your neck can move your head.
When I’m throwing BP, I’ll remind my hitters to imagine me as Kate Upton tossing to them. They’ll laugh, widen their eyes, get both sets of eyeballs out to the pitcher, and this is exactly what you want. Don’t focus hard; you want a soft focus that’ll allow you to pick up motion better.
There is some other vision work we can do, but the main idea is keep the eyes wide and soft. If you end up moving your head to track the ball, that’s fine, but you never want to feel like you are forced to move your noggin.
Now, on to the neurological and psychological stuff, which is fun because I can never utter the phrase, “neurological and psychological stuff” in the batting cage. His name was Babe Ruth, not Dr. Ruth, so I can’t get too technical with hitters. I got my degree in psychology, so let’s start there.
Why is this neuropsych information relevant? Learning a good swing is like building a car. Once you have a great swing it’s like having a Ferrari. What use is that Ferrari if you can’t drive the hell out of it? All this mental work is teaching you how to best use your mechanically improved swing.
Hitting is a skill. So while there hasn’t been a ton of research done on hitting a baseball, there has been loads of research about skill acquisition. You can improve any skill by repetition but only to a point. The best way to acquire skill is do introduce proper challenges or struggles into your training.
Off a tee, you can do this in several ways:
· Call out a target down the cage and try to hit the ball there. Change your target after every hit.
· Try and hit everything to the center of the back of cage but change tee height and/or position each time.
· Go through the swing at half speed, really feeling the whole movement.
These challenges help in another significant way. In any physical skill the experts not only show the highest-level movement pattern but also anticipate necessary changes when things don’t quite line up. For example, an expert tennis player can still pull off a killer serve even if they make a bad initial toss or the wind moves the ball or something.
Hitters will naturally work on this if they are moving the tee around because eventually they (or a teammate or a coach) will put the tee in a place that it’s hard to take an ideal swing at. They might put the ball low and outside but way in front of the plate. Your body is going to have to get creative to still produce hard contact at that spot. It’s the same story if the tee is set up high and inside but very far inside the hitter’s front foot.
Hitting .300 isn’t just killing mistakes. Elite hitters have the ability to produce hard contact even when the circumstances would suggest otherwise.
You might be thinking these drills encourage kids to recklessly swing at everything. In a vacuum they would, but all this work is part of a bigger progression.
Hitting off a tee is great, but you need to able to hit a thrown ball. You can do some of the same work you did off a tee with a partner throwing. You can try and place your hits. This gives your swing purpose and teaches you how to manipulate your movements to achieve a desired result.
This next part is so cool. You can begin to craft a hitter’s approach within the cage. This is great for hitters who are physically talented but unrefined at the plate. When I say approach I mean learning their own zone in terms of what pitches they can really drive.
While throwing BP, ask your hitter to call out the location of the pitch as they swing or take. They can only use the words high, low, inside, or outside. Doing this will force them to make a split-second decision if you throw a pitch that fits multiple descriptors (High and outside, low and in, etc.)
This will tell you how the hitter first picks up the ball. Do they read the vertical or horizontal aspects of the pitch first? This will help hitters refine their zone in hitter’s counts. Some guys want to see the ball up, some want something away from their body, etc., and this shows the player how to best approach that situation.
You can do some basic strike zone stuff with your hitters. Have them call strike or ball when taking pitches. That’s great for a foundation but plenty of hitters will go after obvious balls. The player might correctly call a pitch a ball but thinking in his head he could crush it, so he’s getting conflicting messages from the drill.
Instead of approaching pitch selection as a strike or ball paradigm, approach it from a results angle. While throwing BP, tell hitters to only swing at pitches that they can produce a desired result. The result should start off broad. Like only swing at something you can hit for a line drive. Then get more refined. As in, only swing at something you can put in the air to left field.
This will allow the hitter to learn their own zone without cluttering their mind. You only have .3 seconds to hit a fastball, and in that time you have one decision to make: swing or don’t swing. With all these drills with a moving ball, you never want to introduce more than one decision. Give your hitters a goal (get an extra base hit), and refine the processes that will allow them to achieve that goal.
Hitting is tough, y’all. That’s why I love it. Your body needs to be moving right, your eyes are tasked with tracking a white blur, and your brain has to coordinate everything. All the time and effort put in behind the scenes is worth it. As a player I loved that feeling of nailing one on the sweet spot, and as coach I’m filled with the same joy watching my hitters succeed.
Thank you for reading
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Yes a thousand times. Power comes from using the hips properly.