As a full-time coach, I spend 6 evenings a week in the cage with my students, which leaves me little to no time to watch my students play. Unfortunately, I rely a lot on video taken by parents and family members to see how their at-bats go (thank goodness for HD). On the rare occasion I do get to catch a game, or when I turn the sound up on a video, I hear a lot of common phrases that are yelled out from the camera-person and fans, most of which are just "word vomit", things that have been said for years so we just repeat them hoping something will stick with the player up to bat. I, myself, have been guilty of this back when I was coaching a team. I had phrases I liked more than others that found their way out of my mouth often, without requiring much thought. I want to address some of these phrases, what they actually mean, and if they still apply to hitting in its current state. I will also tackle some common hitting myths here as well. Here we go.
-"TAKE YOUR HANDS TO THE BALL!"
This is one of the most, if not THE MOST common phrase I hear at the ballpark. As parents, coaches, and fans, this one seems the most simple. Just take your hands to the ball and you'll make contact. To my knowledge, this phrase was first used by Dusty Baker, former pro baseball player and current MLB manager, over 20 years ago. Dusty is known for simplifying things to make them easier to understand, and it seems it was his intent with this phrase.
WHY ITS BAD - We don't hit the ball with our hands. In fact, if we have a 33" inch bat in our hands, our hands are anywhere from 5-8" wide, with the center of the sweet spot being 3" or so from the end of the bat, our hands should actually be 22-25" away from the ball to hit the bat on the sweet spot. If we take our hands to the ball, we increase our likelihood of getting jammed if we are just a tick late, or wrapping the ball foul if we are a tick early.
WHAT TO SAY INSTEAD - "Take your hands INSIDE the ball." Sure, as we rotate, the knob of the bat will inevitably point towards the ball for a split second, and you find this a lot in still pictures, and it seems to prove that hitters do in fact take their hands to the ball. However, you can see, as the player rotates through into bat lag, the knob points towards the pitcher/short stop area before the barrel is released through the zone to contact. Here are some pictures of Manny Ramirez taking the same swing, both side view and back view. You can see at contact that his hands are, in fact, INSIDE the ball, not going to the ball.
Oh, where do I start with this one. First of all, whenever I hear a parent come to a lesson and say "she's dipping", my first question is always: "What do you mean by dipping?" Usually the response is that she is dropping her back shoulder, and she is popping the ball up. It is of the opinion of most that hitters who drop their back shoulder swing underneath the ball. However, when we say this so matter-of-factly, we are failing to recognize one giant piece of the puzzle: THE PITCHER. When we hit, we tend to internalize everything, thinking that if we just would have done this, or wouldn't have done that, we will hit the ball every time. Unfortunately, there is a girl in the circle, and she's pretty good, and she practices a lot, and more often than not, she is going to beat you. If you pop the ball up, you simply missed and hit the bottom of the ball. Not every fly ball is caused by a "dip".
WHY IT'S BAD - The phrase itself is open to interpretation. All good hitters, whether big or small, male or female, power hitters or not, drop their back shoulder, meaning their back shoulder ends up lower than their front shoulder. ALL GOOD HITTERS. In fact, without this "dip", we would not be able to hit low pitches well, outside pitches well, or hit for much power. When we tell hitters to "stop dipping" we create stiffness in the back leg as well as the torso as they try to stay upright, and this encourages us to pull off the ball and our extension ends up sky high, so our bat doesn't stay in the hitting zone for very long.
WHAT TO SAY INSTEAD - "Attack the ball." It is true that we can "dip" too early, causing us to sit back and spin on our back leg. What we want to do before dropping our shoulder is to attack and get into what we call the Launch position, which is when our foot comes down from our stride (or our heel comes down for those who do not stride). In the Launch position, our front shoulder should be lower than our back shoulder while we shift our weight to the front side. Once our foot lands, however, and we do begin our launch, it is fair game for the back shoulder to angle downwards below the front shoulder, as long as it is moving forward in an effort to pass the front shoulder. So, instead of telling your hitters to "stop dipping", tell them to ATTACK with their stride, and shift their weight towards the pitcher. Here are some pictures illustrating proper shoulder angle at the Launch position, as well as through contact. As you can see, the back shoulder does indeed drop, even on hitters like Megan Wiggins (NPF) and Ichiro (MLB), who are extremely tough to strike out, as well as have great power. In both softball and baseball, there really isn't much of a difference.
-"JUST PUT THE BALL IN PLAY!"
This is a MAJOR pet peeve of mine, for a lot of reasons. I have players who come to me and tell me their coaches have them take a "two strike approach". While they all vary, they usually involve choking up, crowding the plate, shortening the stride, and just sticking the bat out to make sure we don't strike out. In short, an ENTIRELY DIFFERENT SWING than the one we practice, the one we pay to make perfect, and the one we have performed millions of times.
WHY IT'S BAD - This phrase encourages mediocrity. There is a reason you get 3 strikes in an at bat: BECAUSE HITTING IS HARD. Failure is not only likely, but extremely likely. Strikeouts are PART OF THE GAME. Remember how I talked before about that girl in the circle? She is still pretty good, and will rack up strikeouts from time to time, no matter how good the hitters are. When you tell someone to just put the ball in play, what you are telling them (subconsciously, of course) is that they are incapable of doing something great, so they should just try to do something that's "good enough". Let's not forget, we have a mechanism for putting a ball in play to move a runner or to avoid strikeouts, and it's called a BUNT. If your only goal is to put the ball in play, put the bunt sign on. But if you are going to swing, SWING. Get your cuts. Why should our entire swing change just because there are 2 strikes? Yes it is better to not strike out than to strike out. That is very clear. However, a team with a "just put the ball in play" mentality that runs into a team that plays good defense will struggle to score runs. We need to try to hit the ball hard. After all, isn't that why we all take hitting lessons? I ask my hitters on the first lesson every single time to give me 3 things that they want to get better at. I have never heard anyone tell me they want to learn how to put the ball in play. They always tell me they want to hit it harder. Encourage your players to do so.
WHAT TO SAY INSTEAD - "Battle until you get one you like." We can take a good, quality cut and still battle and foul balls off. However, we need to actually practice this. At least once every few weeks, I try to make my hitters practice fouling balls off within the framework of their normal, everyday swing. This helps create consistency throughout their swing, as well as increase their ability to recognize the edges of the strike zone. Remember this, with every pitch thrown at you, you increase the likelihood that the pitcher throws you a mistake. If we can waste pitches and foul them off, there's always a chance we can get a mistake to drive. FOUL BALLS ARE NOT IN PLAY. A weak ground ball in play is an out over 90% of the time. A foul ball buys you another pitch 100% of the time. Teach your hitters to foul balls off, not settle for putting the ball in play. A 2-strike swing is just a swing with a bigger zone to select from. It should look no different than your 0-strike or 1-strike swing.
While these are only 3 phrases that we need to alter, there are many more that we can dissect as well. My point of this article was simply to make us aware of what we say, how our players perceive these things, and how we can help hitters have a better mindset when up at the plate. Also, remember that our failures as a hitter don't always fall squarely on the hitters' shoulders. Sometimes, we need to give credit to the pitcher for beating us. After all, the pitcher knows where the ball is going and we don't, which always means the advantage is in her hands. She will beat us more than we beat her, and she deserves a lot of the credit. Not every at-bat or swing needs to come with an adjustment just because you didn't get the result you like.