Beyond Mechanics: Teaching Hitting Between the Ears
As most of the country embarks on the college and high school seasons, it is important that we switch our focus in practice from mechanics to live, situational hitting. During the winter, we fine tune the mechanics of our swing with a goal of making our swing repeatable and habitual, so that we don't have to think about our bodies when a pitch is thrown at us. Everyone swings great in practice. So the question becomes, how do we get our practice swing to look the same as our game swing?
I hear it all the time. Each week, a student of mine will walk in and I will ask them "how did your games go this week?" They respond "good" with no detail and then their parent chimes in "she isn't finishing her swing" or "she isn't swinging like she does in here". If I only had a dollar...
When I first began coaching, I taught mechanics over and over again until the swings of my students LOOKED good, but they weren't producing great results. At the time, I was still a player in the NPF, and I began to sit down and think about what made great hitters great. When thinking of the great hitters I ever played with or against, I realized what made hitters like Crystl Bustos, Kelly Kretschman, Stacy May (Johnson), and Sam Findlay (four of the greatest hitters ever) came down to three basic principles: TIMING, PITCH RECOGNITION, and DISCIPLINE. How do we teach our hitters these things?
In my opinion, every single hitting session should incorporate timing in some way. Tee work is great, and essential to success, however there should be a moving ball in every practice. The exception to this is a pitching machine, which I believe should not be used for hitting, but see my previous blog post for that. One way to increase our ability to be on time is to slow the load (negative movement) down.
One common flaw I see with hitters is that they load very quickly, and it makes it very difficult to change directions to shift their weight positively towards the pitcher. This usually results in the hitter spinning on their back leg, hitting the ball too early, and hitting the outside of the ball. These hitters are also very susceptible to change-ups and off-speed pitches.
Another common flaw I see is a hitter not having a negative movement at all. These hitters usually load only with their hands and often cover too much positive ground. They are often late and get jammed, while also being susceptible to change-ups and off-speed pitches as well.
To teach our hitters how to have proper timing, start by having your hitters have a RHYTHM while they stand waiting for the pitch. The rhythm can be small or large, as long as the weight is evenly distributed between the front side and the back side (50/50). This helps the hitter stay loose, allowing for freedom of movement when the pitcher begins her motion.
Remember the song "Row, Row, Row Your Boat"? Replace that song with the words: LOAD, LOAD, LOAD, EXPLODE! This helps our hitters understand that the load, or negative move needs to be 3 things: SLOW, LOW, and READY TO GO. We load slowly to make it easier to change direction to shift our weight back to the pitcher. We get lower as we load to increase our potential energy so we can be explosive. We load to get ready to go, keeping our weight in between our feet so we don't go too far back. After all, we are moving negatively to increase our momentum as we hit. Going backwards was never our goal, it was just to get ready to go forward again during our stride/weight transfer/positive move phase.
If we load early and slowly, we put ourselves under control and increase our ability to recognize the pitch that is coming. The load should ALWAYS be slow. If the pitcher speeds up, we just need to start our load sooner. To help hone this skill at practice, make your hitters LOAD, LOAD, LOAD, EXPLODE on slow front-toss, medium front-toss, and fast front-toss. Mix it up, don't just throw one speed. Also, you can create great timing drills during side-toss. Have the hitters begin loading as you lower your hand that is holding the ball. Then have them shift their weight forward after you release the ball. You can control the speed of a hitter's load this way, thus making them slow down or making sure they are loading at all.
Let me ask you a question. Let's say you had to take 100 at bats, and I give you two choices. Choice #1: You know what pitch is coming 100% of the time. Choice #2: You know what pitch is coming 0% of the time. Which choice would produce a greater rate of success? Obviously the answer is choice #1, and it is also the reason coaches go to such great lengths to hide their pitching signs from the opposing team. So how do we increase our rate of success when it comes to recognizing what pitch is coming?
The first way to increase your ability to recognize the pitch is to guess. Yes, GUESS!! Of course, the guess needs to be an educated one, but if you can guess the pitch, why wouldn't you? Sam Findlay, one of University of Michigan's greatest hitters, once hit a rise ball up at her eyes out of the park. I asked her how she hit that, and she told me "she struck me out on that pitch last time, so I knew it was coming. So, I just went up and got it." Sam used info from her previous at bat to take an educated guess as to what was coming next. Of course, the hitter could be wrong or the pitcher could miss her spot, but the point is that the hitter put herself in the BEST POSITION POSSIBLE to be successful on the first pitch. If a pitcher has a tendency or a pattern, exploit it. The best predictor of future success is past success. A knowledgeable and prepared hitter will be more successful than a hitter who simply reacts.
Another way to increase your ability to recognize the pitch is to look for visual cues. Pitchers have an advantage over hitters: they know what pitch they are going to throw and the hitters do not. That alone will put the pitchers at a greater advantage than the hitter just about every time. However, because the pitcher does know what they are going to throw, sometimes they will give something away that indicates what pitch is coming. The possibilities are endless, from the way a pitcher grips the ball, to the way she leans when she is about to release the ball, to how her foot slides on the rubber or the length of her stride. Pitching is a science of a thousand details, and each detail is another opportunity to give away what pitch is coming. I remember watching Stacy May (Johnson), my former teammate, hit drop ball at her shoelaces for a double. When I asked her how she hit that pitch, she responded "I saw her stride shorten, so I figured it was a drop".
To build the skill of early recognition, have your hitters stand in as pitchers are throwing their workouts. Also, have live hitting practice whenever possible. This skill is taught mostly by experience and hard for coaches to recreate during front toss. Encourage your hitters to watch pitchers from the dugout to see how they grip the ball as well as where they stand on the rubber for each pitch. A hitter should seek to gain any advantage they can over the pitcher, even if it is the smallest, slightest detail. Again, if you can know which pitch is coming before it is thrown, the rate of success will increase.
It is one thing to be on time, and recognize a pitch early, but entirely another to be able to recognize if you have the ability to hit that pitch. Discipline is the art of knowing your strengths and weaknesses, and adjusting accordingly. Discipline is not only recognizing a ball from a strike, but also recognizing a pitch you should hit from a pitch you can't do much with. If you don't hit inside pitches well, for example, try to lay off of them and attack outside pitches instead. I watched an at bat from Alex Rodriguez early in his time as a Yankee. It's an at-bat I show to a lot of my hitters. In the at bat, Alex takes two fastballs right down the middle to go down 0-2. Then, he fouls off a few pitches, takes a few balls, and works his way to a 2-2 count. Then, he sends a 2-2 slider into the seats. What I love about that at-bat was that he took two GOOD pitches, battled, and then hit a GREAT pitch into the seats. Great hitters like him will take a good pitch to get a great pitch, even if it means going down 0-2.
I remember playing against Kelly Kretschman and Crystl Bustos. Both of them are two of the greatest hitters period, male or female. Both of them had a knack for baiting the pitcher to throw certain pitches. Kretschman would take the first pitch in each of her first two at-bats to get you to throw a meaty pitch the third time. If you did, she'd put it in the bleachers. Bustos would swing 100 years too early on a pitch just to get you to throw a change-up or off-speed pitch next. If you did, she would give the outfield crowd a souvenir. In both of these cases, hitters wore strikes ON PURPOSE to get pitchers to throw what the hitters wanted. Sometimes discipline means sacrificing the count for an opportunity to hit something hard. A walk, although useful, doesn't always get the job done the way a hard hit ball does. These hitters understood this.
To work on discipline, one of my favorite things to do is a 2 round batch of front-toss. In the first round, I call it the 0-2 round, make the hitter swing at EVERYTHING. If it is something that can't be hit hard, encourage them to foul it off. This is important because it teaches the hitter to foul tough pitches off instead of putting them in play. If a hitter learns to foul a ball off, they buy themselves another pitch. If they put a ball in play weakly, the at-bat is over. EVERY PITCH IS ANOTHER OPPORTUNITY FOR A PITCHER TO MAKE A MISTAKE. Teach your hitters to foul the ball off instead of putting a tough pitch in play. They will see more pitches and increase their hard-hit percentage.
The second round is what I like to call the 2-0 round. In this round of front-toss, have your hitters take pitches until they get something they can CRUSH. This teaches hitters that just because a ball is a strike, doesn't mean they need to swing at it when ahead in the count. With this drill, hitters will learn to take a GOOD pitch in order to get a GREAT pitch. With the count in their favor, no harm will be done if a player takes a pitch on the corner at the knees. NOT ALL STRIKES ARE HITTABLE, and NOT ALL HITTABLE PITCHES ARE STRIKES. Teach hitters how to recognize the difference.
Mechanics are important. They help hitters keep their bat on the plane of the ball longer, increase power, and help hitters have a reliable and repeatable swing. However, mechanics will only take a hitter so far. If given the choice between a hitter with great mechanics who simply reacts, or a hitter with terrible mechanics that has great timing, pitch recognition, and discipline, I will take the latter every time. As coaches, it is our job to create good HITTERS, not SWINGERS. Hitters use their eyes, brain, and instincts (as well as their bodies). Swingers use only their bodies. It is of the utmost importance that we incorporate live hitting and moving ball drills in practice everyday to increase our ability to have timing, pitch recognition, and discipline, the true marks of elite hitters.