We have all had players who rake in practice, but have trouble putting it together in games. They have a great swing, they are coachable, and they have all of the physical attributes we are looking for in a player but they can’t hit. It’s this way from little league to the big leagues.
So, what exactly is the problem? I wish there were an easy answer, but there are probably a multitude. It could be anything from perception (the ability to see, hear, or become aware of something through the senses), eyesight, decision-making ability, timing, adjustability, or all of the above. This is where coaching is tough, because it could be any or all of the above. We, as coaches, also have to keep in mind how hard it is to hit. In a matter of .10 of a second, they have to observe visual information, evaluate their options, make a movement decision, and then react physically. Therefore, the greatest ability of any hitter is being on time and being able to adapt.
So, where do we start?
Well, it depends on the time of year we get to work with them. If we get to work with our players several months before the competitive season, we can spend more time on mechanics. If we don’t, then timing, adjustability, and enhancing their decision-making ability all have to be at the forefront of our training. There is still an opportunity to develop in-season, but when you are playing every day, it’s hard to make substantial mechanical changes. There are a few examples of professional hitters who have done this and it’s truly remarkable. Imagine how hard it would be to try to hit 95+ when you don’t feel completely comfortable in the box. Therefore, in an effort to be able to train swing mechanics and the ability to hit, this is how we are breaking down our off-season.
Block 1- Mechanics (First 6 weeks. August 26- Sept 30)
Block 2- Blending mechanics and timing. (Second 6 weeks. Oct 1- Nov 4)
Block 3- Game Ready. Timing, adjust-ability, mentality and competition. (Nov 4- Season)
I’ve written about what we have done with block 1 and I will write one over blocks 2 and 3 shortly. We all understand that training a more adjustable swing will help with timing but let’s talk specifically how we can create better problem solvers in the box.
One of the biggest things I’ve tried to do this off-season is find things that transfer to the game. With such a limited amount of time, we don’t have time to spend on things that will not help them perform better in games. A big realization for me this year has been to try and couple perception and action not just perception or action. There are times in practice we do one without the other. We do stand in bullpens (perception) with no swing. You will always have limitations in practice and this may be the best option for you at the time, it will be the same for us. However, as often as we can, let’s try to use perception (our ability to see and time in space) with action (our body’s movement and swing).
One of the best ways we can couple perception and action most closely to the game is to…make it game-like. We hear this all the time but what are some examples and how can we use them in practice? The closest we can get to the game environment is scrimmaging. But for a variety of reasons (time, space, weather, reps) we wont be able to do this often.
So here are some different ways we can challenge our players in practice.
Picking up release windows.
Start by asking them what they look for when the pitcher is about to release the ball and progress from there. Some won’t have an answer at all, so just prepare yourself to give them a few cues to look for. I actually reached out to a few pro guys and here’s what they said.
When I’m first looking at a guy throw in warm ups or even during the inning I’m looking to see where the ball is coming out from. Then when I’m in the box I’ll be soft focused/almost zoned out on that until he starts moving. Then I’m locked in on just that spot. For me, on time means earlier than I think. Personally, I can kind of hang and make adjustments if I’m early but if I’m late its never good. When the pitchers arm starts coming back behind him in the throwing motion, I’m moving. Think of it as his leg coming down too. That’s my default spot. When everything’s going well I’m not thinking about when to start, just locked in on wherever his release point is and my eyes tell me its time to move.
The picking up release points and soft focus/hard focus is something I’m going to try and work on this off season. It’s something I’m not real conscious of exactly what I’m doing. This is something I want to figure out a little more for myself. I used a toe tap this year. Not sure if that’s something I want to continue doing for timing purposes. But I want to be into my backside and going ready to move forward by release point.
I try to start on hand break if not earlier. Obviously too early is better than late, because if you’re late you have no chance. I usually just look to the right or left (depending which hand they are) of the pitchers head I would say to pick up the release point.
Here are a few ideas I’d suggest to the players if they’re having trouble. Soft focus on the pitchers cap then find the ball up or you can use the pitchers armpit, which is close to where they will be releasing the ball.
Ask them when they get started. This is a revealing and a surprising exercise because there will be guys who have an idea and some that have no idea. Most coaches will agree that we need to start “slow and early” but that means and feels different for each player. If a player back shifts or toe taps (like Tulo with the Rockies), they’ll have to start quite a bit earlier than someone who just has a forward move like Cody Bellinger. Start by helping them to find their optimal timing point and we can work from there.
Dry work, go on ball up
- This one is great when you have a lack of space, but it’s also something isn’t sexy at all. Have a player work on his dry work pitching mechanics and have the hitter practice “going” on his cue (in this instance, seeing the ball up, right before release) and picking up his release point. Have him mix in some Marcus Stroman pauses, if you’re feeling dangerous.
Verbal with flips
- This is another one I picked up from Doug Latta. Many of our players go too late on flips and get away with it. Right before you flip, tell the player to “go”. It cleans up a lot of extra movement and allows them to feel proper timing. We do the same thing with machines.
Verbal with machines
- We say, “GO” right before we drop the ball in the feeder. It is especially good when you are working on sliders, because they can’t sit slider when they have to “GO” on fastball timing. By doing this, they have to adjust their body and timing just like they would in a game. It’s also important to hear the audible voice in your head. The more we do it in practice, the more they will start to do it on their own.
Have them start off time, to feel what on time feels like.
- Having the players feel off time can help them hone in on the feeling of being on time. Rounds would look like this.
- Round 1- Go when it’s about to hit the catcher’s mitt. (Way too late)
- Round 2- Go when the pitcher picks his knee up. (Way too early)
- Round 3- Go on pitch release and see if you were closer or further to being on time. Adjust as needed.
This helps them to understand the concept of timing by helping the player to understand how their body is moving in space, but also what super early and late feels like. When they are super late, they’ll feel the fight or flight stress and immediately get into their shoulders. Super early they have no rhythm. I love this teach because it gives them an idea of what their body feels like, so if we feel this replicated in an advantage count, we need to shut down our swing. This is also a great practice because we can turn it into an on deck feel. Let me give you a familiar situation.
Coach to player- How are you seeing it?
Player- Great coach! I’m about to take this guy yaya.
Coach- Getting your body on time?
Player- Oh yeah. I’m all over this guy.
Flash forward to this first pitch of the AB.
Player gets a fastball down the middle of the plate and rolls over to the SS. He is so late the catcher tells him to pick up his thumbs on the way back to the dugout.
We’ve been there as a player, and we’ve seen it many times as a coach. The hitter wasn’t on time. There will always be times this will happen, but training it in practice is paramount if we want them to get better at it. It’s also one reason we require everyone in the lineup to be using the pitchers warm-up pitches (between innings or a new pitcher) to make sure each hitter gets their body on time and their eyes to pick up his release window.
Swing through’s on the machine
- If we’re training off a machine, what is the first thing players say? … “Let me see one.” Ok, cool. So we’ve been using the first round as a sort of “lets see if you are on time” round by swinging through every pitch we see and trying NOT to make contact. We want to see of we are on time, seeing the baseball clearly, and staying through the baseball while actually swinging a bat. This will help them relax and see the ball much better. The first thing most do when they see stressful velocity is try harder, instead of relaxing and letting the game come to them. Below is an example of what I mean. Trust me, it’s good.
- Slider Swing Throughs
Stand in bullpens
- A great first step to test timing and picking up release windows is getting a game like look from the batter’s box against a live pitcher. We all have used stand in bullpens in one way or another, but making it a priority and helping them to understand the importance is a major key for amateur players to buy in.
- We can also make it a game for pitch recognition, with the player telling the catcher as soon as possible “yes” or “no”. I like to stick with this verbiage just because I want those words to be stuck in their head every-time they’re hitting. “Yes, Yes, No.”
- I’ve mentioned several times before that we want to try to couple perception and action as often as we can, so we will be trying swings with this same model this season. If we can’t get into the cage and have live at bat’s, I want afford them the opportunity to practice timing and pitch recognition with a swing, even though they won’t be hitting a ball. We will be experimenting with bat handles, short PVC pipe, and interlocked hands. I’ll let you know later what the kids like best. Or if you have any ideas, feel free to shoot them my way.
There are so many different opinions on how each player gets “on time”. It may be the hardest aspect of hitting to teach. A lot of it will come with experience, but if we can cut down the learning curve by training it in practice and making them more aware of how they’re moving in space, they will only get better, faster.
Have a great week.