Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Hitting Off-speed Pitches

I always laugh when I hear a scouting report that says a hitter “can’t hit a good slider.” No kidding.  Most of the time, neither can Miguel Cabrera. What coaches likely mean to say is, “this kid has no clue how to look for an off-speed pitch, analyze what tunnel the ball has come out of, decipher if this pitch will be a good pitch to hit, and put an aggressive swing on it.”

To be a strong hitting team against strong pitching, our hitters must understand when, how and why to look for an off-speed pitch. Bat speed is a talent that can be maximized. Hitting a curve ball is a skill that can be mastered.

We have to practice, daily, hitting breaking balls on the field, in the cage and visualizing off-speed pitches when hitting off of a tee.  If we expect our hitters to improve a skill, we must work SMART. Give them the toolbox from which to draw the proper tool.

There are several misanalyses in coaching jargon. Let’s take a look at two of them.

OFF-SPEED COACHING MISANALYSIS #1: “He can't see spin.”

First, as coaches, we are responsible for knowing whether our players have good eyesight. Do they wear contacts? What type of vision do they have? Making assumptions often makes…well you know.

Secondly, most hitters can see the spin of the ball. They can describe what each pitch looks like. Developing this awareness starts with dialogue, with questions, and an open conversation of what the pitches looked like, and what they did. Having hitters stand in on bullpens is a terrific way to develop this dialogue and for them to practice rhythm and timing.

Make a game out of the bullpens by having hitters call out “1” or “2” for fastball or off-speed, or “strike” or “ball” as soon as they recognize tunnel and spin. Keep a chart. Measurement of a skill equals motivation to improve the skill.

OFF-SPEED COACHING MISANALYSIS #2: “He only wants to hit fastballs.”

Loosely paraphrasing John Wooden, “there are no bad students, only teachers who don't reach them.”

Every thought, every choice, every decision a human makes is either in pursuit of pleasure or in avoidance of pain. Many athletes spend more time avoiding pain than seeking pleasure. Hitters will avoid swinging at off-speed pitches early in counts because they do not know how or why to look for them, or how to stay in sequence while the ball decelerates towards the plate with downward movement. You have to TEACH them how to hit off-speed pitches.

Front toss is the simplest way to teach the timing of hitting a breaking ball or change-up. We teach our hitters to front toss to one another at two different speeds. When we are front tossing, we are hunting fastballs and adjusting to slower pitches that are elevated, or we are hunting slower pitches that are elevated and taking all fastballs.

We teach our hitters, when “aggressive to off-speed,” to slightly delay the timing of the load and the stride. Watch a big leaguer, and you’ll see how their timing on some off-speed pitches is impeccable, like they “were looking for it.” That’s because they were.

When you see a big leaguer with fastball timing, keeping his hands in a loaded position, he has retained separation between his load and his stride, creating a tension or resistance in his posterior core that creates stored energy.

When our hands or “load” float forward, we lose early-swing bat speed and can only pull the baseball with authority.


We want our hitters able to drive the off-speed pitch to the middle and slight-oppo side of the field.

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