Sunday, March 23, 2014

Vision Training

Before we discuss seeing the baseball, watch this video:

Don’t you love sports science?!

Let’s talk about training the eyes.

As John Brenkus mentioned, we have approximately .44 seconds from the time a pitcher releases a 90 mph fastball until it travels 60’6”, crossing home plate.  How can we best train the eyes to be good at this drill?

We love to have our players, particularly in January, use these drills:

1.) Stand in on bullpens. Our pitchers’ bullpens in January will all be at 100% intensity, creating terrific realism. 

We wear helmets, preparing to hit just as we would in a game, both physically and mentally. Hitters go through their routines, release, refocus and master the timing of taking pitches with commitment (the back leg begins to fire and create separation and the back elbow begins to slot).

2.) Spin recognition. This can be done a multitude of ways. We like these:
a.       Have players throw alternating or random fastball/breaking balls to one another at 50-60 % intensity. The batter stands behind a square screen and has no threat of being hit.
b.      Use a pitching machine to work on hit and runs (barrel control) off of curveballs only. This requires hitters to minimize fear and maximize intent of the swing. Timing is always a major issue with pitching machines (this is why we do not hit live off of them). To improve our timing, we encourage them to be early on this drill. This also reinforces our desire to retain separation and keep our barrel loaded as long as possible.
c.       We hit curveballs in live batting practice. Usually we alternate FB/CB/FB/CB.
d.      We have coach-pitched simulated intra-squads where we utilize breaking balls.

3.) We use a drill called “super-BP” where the BP pitcher throws very firm (45-48 mph) from a very short distance (22-25 ft.). Hitters must be ready to attack fastballs- the decision making process is more similar to facing 90-92 mph, instead of what the 75-80 mph batting practice normally simulates.

4.) We use a whiffle ball pitching machine that fires golf whiffles up to 55 mph. While hitting off of this machine is challenging outdoors with even the slightest breeze, we have found this to be a terrific tool for vision training. We have colored whiffles and white whiffles and ask our players to catch one and let the other go.

Hitters must shift their eyes from a soft focus, further away, to a sharp and hard focus right in front of them, just as in hitting.

What drills do you use for vision training?

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Dugout Culture

Dugout energy is contagious. It builds trust, generates positive feelings and can be the difference between a win and a loss.

When the second nine practice with the energy it requires to be first nine All-Stars, teams accelerate.

To be so committed to a baseball game that you hang on every pitch, athletes must value the competition and feel the fear of what might happen if they don’t give every ounce of focus and attention to detail.

Certainly, this type of intensity can be lost over the course of 162 games. Major leaguers are encouraged to jog, take it easy and generally try not to get hurt or burn out too soon.

It may be cliché for a college coach to revel in players buying in to hustle and attention to detail but over the course of a 60 game season, with only five games each week, intensity should be second nature.

We get paid to develop young men. Period. When they develop, games will be won with energy, toughness and intensity. It’s against the rail, with squinted eyes, hearts pounding and blood rushing through the veins that we learn the most about who we are.

You must practice with intent to play with intensity.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Hitting Approach, with former big leaguer Lance Zawadzki

Lance Zawadzki was an an All-American switch-hitting shortstop at Lee University. He helped direct the Flames to the NAIA World Series in 2007 and later was drafted in the fourth round by the San Diego Padres. He reached the majors in 2010 and singled in his first plate appearance.

Battling injuries during his six-year professional career, Zawadzki has been with five different organizations and continues to pursue his dreams. 

I asked Lance to speak about hitting approach. Thanks to Lance for sharing with us all. Enjoy.

No matter how much talent a hitter has or doesn't have, there are two things that separate a good accomplished professional hitter and everyone else. It simply comes down to their mindset and approach. After going to the big leagues the first time I immediately took notice to the fact that I wasn’t even surrounded by the most talented players I had played with. However, the separator was that everyone there knew the type of player they were, they all had routines, and they all had a plan every bp, every game, and every at bat.

You can have all the talent in the world but without a solid approach there will be no consistency in your at bats. After all, consistency is the name of the game, especially when it comes to hitting. We play a game in which we can fail seven out of ten times and be considered a “Hall of Famer”. We have hundreds of at bats every year (over 500 to 600 in pro ball) and when you go up to the plate 3-5 times a night, you want the most consistent approach possible. Even when everything is clicking, we can hit a ball right on the nose as hard as possible four times in a game and still be 0-4. Consistency in our swing and, even more importantly, consistency in our mental mindset and approach is what takes a player to the next level.

What kind of hitter are you? That is the first realistic question you need to answer before knowing what your hitting approach must be. Are you a gap guy, a slappy leadoff, a dead pull "all or nothing", are you there to work counts deep or do you prefer being aggressive and jumping on something? Now after you answer that question realistically, let's look at the second question; how are you going to be pitched? How is this team going to pitch you? What does this guy throw? How is his control? What is his best secondary pitch (watch him in his warmups, it's usually the pitch he will throw right after his fastballs). WHATS THE SITUATION?

Two quick stories of guys who had an impact on my figuring out my mental approach, the first one is “A-ROD”.  Alex Rodriguez stood over home plate and tapped his bat on each corner, nothing special there. He said, "The difference between an accomplished big league hitter and everyone else is, everyone else tries to make their money between 17 inches (the width of the plate).  We make our money here (pointing to the fat part of the plate right down the middle to maybe slightly middle in to slightly middle away)." You don't need to cover the whole 17 inches of the plate and the black, you are going to get a pitch to handle on the fat part of the plate if you don't give in and give your at bat away. The best pitchers in the big leagues can only hit the spot they wanted around 20% of the time.”

Well where does that leave high school, college, and minor league unaccomplished pitchers? I'm going to have to say under 20%.

The second story is Adrian Gonzalez. Adrian was facing Jamie Moyer one night in Philly. Jamie Moyer was MAYBE throwing 80. Adrian, as one of the top hitters in the Bigs, went 0-4 with 3 Ks. The next day while watching video in the clubhouse I started talking to him about hitting and all he was talking about was approach. He said “Hats off to Moyer, he got me last night and had pitched me differently than he had previously, but if he would have gone where I was waiting for him to, I would have got him”. this a guy who is covering up for an 0-4 or was that the kind of approach that a true big league hitter has? Sticking to his approach, even after the 0-3 and sticking with it for the fourth AB, believing that if Moyer missed his spot and had thrown it where Gonzalez had been looking without having a doubt in his mind.

Well if I had any doubt, it was answered the next night when Cole Hammels faced off against Matt Latos, both guys unhittable their first time through the lineup, including Adrian who was 0-1. The second time through he got the pitch he was waiting for and didn't miss it. Homer to left 1-0 Padres lead. Couple more times through the lineup and few hits on either side when Adrian got another pitch he had been waiting on for the last two at bats, homer again to left center, off one of the best pitchers in the game at that time. Was this just a weird coincidence? Or was that just one of the best hitters in the game trusting his approach through the thick and thin of strikeouts, fly outs and walks and then there it was, the pitch he had been waiting for and he didn’t miss it. That has to be my favorite hitting story, period.

If we were to be honest in talking about our hitting approach, what I’ve learned and what has always gotten me into trouble and still continues to, is having a little power. Getting away from my approach and trying to do too much with a given at bat. It's a constant battle I have faced since I began playing. I get away from my approach of trying to stay down and through the ball to hit a line drive somewhere and try the Tin Cup “Grip it and Rip it” swing. When this mindset takes over it not only takes me out of an at bat before I'm even into the box, but is synonymous with sending a batting average and power numbers into a dead spiral down without warning. 

For me personally, I am a gap-to-gap hitter, so my approach comes down to staying within myself and looking to drive the baseball to the big part (middle) of the field. So now that I know what I need to do, the struggle becomes am I going to BUY IN and TRUST IT?