One of the greatest abilities that humans possess is adaptability. In addition, I’m a firm believer that the most important part of hitting is if a player can be on time consistently and if they can adapt their body with the incoming pitch. These two skills are under taught with mechanics being the focus on most practices or hitting sessions. Mechanics are very important and if we have more efficient mechanics, we will have a better chance of seeing the ball, being on time and have the ability to adjust. We also need to keep this in mind that changing any motor pattern, especially during the season, is hard. We probably won’t have the time to help a player make huge swing overhauls. If the goal of the season is to be their best in games (it should be), timing and adjustability has to be at the front of our mind at all times.
After all that and I start with setup? Well, before we do anything as a hitter, we need to be in a good setup. This includes starting from a position that we can see the pitcher/incoming ball and that we can easily make moves from. It’s hard to be on time consistently if you are fighting your body’s moves and if you cannot see the pitch well. Starting with a good setup and landing in a balanced/athletic position can help us immensely with our body’s ability to adjust. A couple things I look for.
- Are they relaxed in their set up? Take a deep breath and relax.
- Can they see the pitcher with both eyes without straining? They may not be able to move their neck enough to see the pitcher with both eyes and not strain to do it if their shoulders are pointed toward the RF (RHH). This also could be a neck or upper spine (c-spine) mobility issue. It’s hard to see the ball well with any neck or trap tightness. And it’s hard to hit if we can’t see the ball well.
Let me give you a few examples.
Three very familiar faces, but also three of the highest swing and miss totals in MLB. Does their setup hinder them from seeing the ball? Maybe. I have never spoken with them or anyone in their organization, this is just an observation.
Here’s three guys that were in the top 5 of least swing and miss this past season.
Much cleaner, right? Easier path to see the ball? I think so. Take into account both groups are phenomenal, established big leaguers and that this is one of the many things that both groups do differently, but it is something to be conscious of as well. Just for fun, group 1 swung and missed 1205 times and group 2 swung and missed 344 times. (in/out of the zone swings) What about WRC+? Group 1 had an average of 120 WRC+. Group 2 had an average of 133 WRC+. Fletcher was at 99, so the lowest of both groups.
This is why we spent 6 weeks on learning to move better before we started to blend in pitch velocity. So, specifically, what are some ways to train this in the practice setting?
Decision making in practice
(Eric Thames) began to remedy the poor habits, the swinging-at-everything approach that had exiled him to the minors in 2013 and then the second-best pro league in Asia in 2014. He began a practice of visualization, of imagining a pitch of a certain type, in a certain location, approaching home plate. He would balance a tablet on a counter or tabletop in his apartment and watch video of pitches, trying to decide whether to swing or lay off of them in real time with bat in hand.
Hitting is a decision, and ideally, we want them to make one decision, “No”. If we are teaching the “yes, yes” mentality, then we’re going to promote more aggressiveness at the plate. We all have players who want to read and react to each pitch and then they get blown up by velocity because of indecisiveness. Step 1 would be making sure they understand that they are swinging until the ball, or their posture tells them not to. Step 2 would be to have them make this decision repeatedly during practice and doing it in as a specific context as possible.
This is probably the most popular form of decision making in practice. A coach mixes pitches to give the hitter a better representation of what they will see in a game. Some of our favorite rounds include.
- Decision BP- 2 seam vs 4 seam. This one is tough, but it does help them to pick up the difference in pitch spin and shape. I teach it by showing them what a two seam looks like slowly coming off my fingers. Then I show what the four seam looks like the same way. They’ll see a much more solid color and tighter shape with the 4 seam, and more of a wobble with the 2 seam. One way I’ve taught this is you see more red = four seam and more white = two seam but after having a conversation with a successful local hitting coach, he teaches the opposite. So be aware of the perception of the players and how they’re interpreting it. No matter how they see it, they will be able to see a difference with reps. A typical round would be “hit the 4 seam and take the 2 seam”.
- FB/CB BP- This is a similar concept, but I’ll always mention to look for the pop out of hand, which can be a tell if the pitcher is throwing a curveball. The first few times, I try to make it obvious, and then I’ll start to tighten it up the longer we do it. A typical round would be “Hit fastball, lay off CB” Or if they hit the CB hard, I’m fine if that’s the result. When a pitcher tunnels well, it’s really hard to tell the difference, but it is something we can always look for first. One cue that has stuck out to the players during these rounds is “If you see funky spin, spit on it.” Meaning, they see what the fastball spin is doing, and if they see something different, take.
- FB/SL BP- Same as the above, but red dot instead of pop out of hand.
- “I’m throwing 1 CB this round”. The goal with this is to help them pick up pattern recognition and anticipation. If we throw it first pitch, then they’ll be sitting fastball the rest of the round. Or if I wait to throw it until the last pitch, they can sit on it. The pro move it to not throw it every now and again to keep them honest, haha. Be prepared for griping.
- If we are timing for the pitchers best fastball, hitters will have to adjust their body and timing for any other pitch. Essentially, they will have to create a slight delay in their swing to adjust to the time difference and they will have to make posture changes as well. This is why it is vital to land in an athletic/balanced position. We use this drill for players who land too stiff and extend their hips early, because they can’t account for the slower timing.
- Ride drill is fantastic for players who lack the adjustability with their lower half. Start the player in a “fooled” position. Bent front leg, body weight sunk into to the ground. Then have them take swings from there, trying to stay through the ball.
Over training machine work with a 4% harder fastball.
Author of “Rise of Superman” Steven Kotler suggests making training new skills 4% harder than comfort level. So here are some numbers we’ve used based on level. There will be days that we just want to see what we see on average, which is 81 at the varsity level. There are also days where we scale it back because most teams struggle with thumbers who pitch backwards.
- Round 1- game like takes or swing through’s (talked about in part 1)
- Round 2- be on time and find barrels.
Tennis balls in the machine.
- This gives the feedback we want with overtraining, but without the consistent pounding on your wrists/thumb. It also will result in a dramatic decrease in broken bats, lol. Make sure your set it up fairly close, tennis balls don’t travel very far.
Machine with mixed balls
- This one is similar to the above drill. If you have a machine that’s accurate, this is for you. We have these soft baseballs that are used for indoor defensive work. We mix them into the machine bucket and it can give players a different look because they drop about halfway to the plate. They look the same as regular baseball but are extremely light. The goal is for them to mimic a changeup, but they move life wiffle balls from time to time.
Different bat weights and lengths
- There aren’t many more drills that promote more adjustability than changing a bat every round and making the player adjust to a different length, size of barrel or weight. They have to consciously think about the implement they’re using. This also provides a great learning opportunity while promoting engagement.
3 plate drill
- We’ve all seen this one. Three plate’s setup and every few swing the players move from the front place to back or the back plate to front. Most do back to front (slower to fast), but front to back is good to adjust to slower speeds which many of our players struggle with. I usually put the plates 2 feet apart.
Live Bullpens in cages
- Besides hitting in games, this can give us most realistic look at what we’ll see in a game. Make it as game-like as possible with counts, consequences and competition.
Machine work into a screen with a swing
- The emphasis on this is see the ball early, anticipate where the ball is going, and track the ball well. This also promotes over-training with a slightly less stressful environment, and it will help train better decisions. Put a strike zone and a “hot” zone on a screen, and put a few feet front of the players. I use the nine square net above, but you can also make your own out of colored twine.
- Then set up the machine as if they were about to take rounds of BP. Have the machine dialed with whatever pitch you want and directed into the screen strike zone. Have the players take a realistic dry swing if they think the pitch is in their zone. It can be either in the “hot zone” or in the strike zone. This can also be useful with counts. When you are ahead, swing at a smaller box or hot zone. When you’re behind or have 2K’s, swing at pitches in the strike zone. It takes a little pressure off of the result and puts it more on the process of being on time, seeing the ball well and making good decisions. It’s also good for distinguishing balls and strikes sliders at the bottom of the zone.
Swing Decision Competitions (with themselves or their group)
- I wrote about this one in Data Driven part 1- In Game Data. Do we know what we are hitting well? In addition, how often are we swinging in that zone? Using both of these, we can setup BP rounds that curtail to that specific player and you get a point for each ball you swing at in those zones. A simple chart with + or — for whatever is important to you. Such as, fastballs in the middle of the zone, + for swing, — for take. We can also track whether or not they made a good decision based on the count. For damage counts (0–0, 1–0, 2–0, 3–1, 3–0) we don’t want to be swinging at pitchers pitches. I have gotten frustrated at our players inability to master this, but if we aren’t training it, I cant expect them to master it.
Final thoughts- Mentality
Clarity of purpose and thoughts
- When our thinking is clear, we’re able to make better decisions. I talk about this in Psychology with Daniel Kahneman’s book Thinking fast and slow. It’s a great book but in an effort to simplify, our brains work in two systems. Aptly named, System 1 and System 2. System 1 is our ability to react and make quick decisions. System 2 is our logical thinking and creative process but it takes a long time and isn’t very efficient. A majority of time in sports is spent in System 1 which relies heavily on past experiences and the ability to make quick decisions based on the information given. The more we can re-create game conditions in practice and the more repetitions we can give our players, the more efficient our System 1 will work. The more we have to think and rethink in games the more System 2 will be doing a bulk of the work and it can lead overthinking and slumps. Therefore, we need to clear up their thinking as much as we can to allow them to flow in games.
Stress and perception
- The final thing I want to discuss is allowing stress in practice. They’ll be put through varying stress levels and working in and out of stress during games. A great way to do this is raising heart rate and then working to slow it down before they hit. Such as, do five burpees and then hit. The goal of this is work on controlling the breath. I include this because when our heart rate gets up its effects our vision and our ability to make the best decision. After all, here is Ian Kinsler, Bryan Holaday, and Daniel Norris talking about the ability to adapt and think under stress.
Understand that this is all situational. If we’re playing 5 days a week or 150 games a year, have some feel for your team on when to implement this. We have to link everything back to the game, it’s what matters most. Therefore, the last thing we want to do is have them mentally or physically exhausted during games.
Have a great week.