Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Recruiting Hitters Begins With Recruiting Character

When we hit the trail to evaluate players there are numerous concerns we must consider. We want to find hitters who are athletic, talented, skilled, projectable, durable, consistent and represent the type of character we want to embody.

All of this must happen within budget, competing against numerous other schools that have interest in the same player.

Of course, there are ideological questions. Should we sign the player who is more talented defensively but has less power? What about the hitter who has yet to show the ability to hit breaking pitches? Does he have a vision problem, an approach problem or has he just never learned how to get aggressive timing to a breaking ball?

And I really like this catcher offensively, and he receives well, but his arm is average. Can he be a number one catcher?

When we recruit, we have to look at the big picture, working to improve upon weak areas and build a well-rounded club. To do this, we need well-rounded players. Of course, it is impossible to have every player with every attribute, and we put a premium on defense and pitching. Still, there is something more important to learn about recruits than if they can play great catch.

We know we must score to win, but it is our confidence in an ability to take talented and gifted hitters and develop their approach and skill set that allows us to have this defensive-minded approach.
To recruit this way, we must bring in coachable athletes with strong work ethics.

We whole-heartedly believe that recruiting talent is imperative, but there is a price that is paid for signing uncoachable talent. We want a team of self-less players.

While this may sound obvious, we work very hard to minimize the number of risky people in our program, and this gives us greater consistency at the plate.  

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Measurement Equals Motivation: What Are You Saying?

Think for a second, what do you measure in your program? Do you post fall statistics with batting average as the first viewable stat?

Do you keep a barrel chart for batting practice? Do you get after your hitters each time they swing at a fastball outside the strike zone?

While it is imperative to keep charts, regardless of personnel or resources available, what we verbally measure creates a desire in our players to do what we ask of them. They are motivated by what we do and say, even when we coaches are unaware of what we are communicating.

If you give hitters a verbal pat on the back for getting the big hit in an intrasquad, despite their duck fart falling just beyond the grasp of the first baseman’s over-the –shoulder attempt, then guess what they will value- getting base hits, which they cannot control.

As humans, we attach emotion to nearly every experience, and then seek pleasure or avoid pain in all future experiences. If you have ever listened to Tony Robbins speak, you know all about what he calls the “Pain-Pleasure Principle.”

Our players want to please- they want to please their parents, their teammates, their coaches- this is human nature. 

If you show them why OPS is important and has a greater correlation to run creation than AVG or RBI, you empower them. Instead of trying to get hits and knock runs in, things they cannot control as a process, they work to become better at reaching base (OBP), which requires plate discipline, and driving the baseball (SLG), which requires committed swings and approaches. 

Thus, valuing or verbally "measuring" OBP will increase plate discipline.  In turn, this will improve SLG, as hitters will swing at fewer fringy strikes or at pitches they are not committed to, increasing barreled balls which have higher exit velocities and result in more extra-base hits. 

When it comes to charting, few coaches have the resources to chart as much as they would like while still feeling effective as a coach in regards to time management. SEC, ACC, PAC12, and BIG12 teams have multiple managers, student assistants and an operations director, all of whom are capable of keeping charts. Most schools have two or three paid personnel, at best.

Certainly, we must teach our players how to manage these charts, and it is not difficult to assign a player or rotation of players to keep track of charts. Many times, fortunately or unfortunately, there may be an injured player capable of assisting. Make them an asset to the program by giving them ownership in the measurement process.

When charting games, we value quality at-bats, barrels (part of the QAB equation) and pitches per plate appearance. We also keep a barrel percentage (barrels divided by plate appearances).

Our qualifications for a QAB are: barrel, BB, HBP, successful bunt, 8 pitch AB, 2 strike hit, RBI out, advancing a runner to 3B w/ 0 outs.

What do you measure in your program?

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Want to Win More Games? Make Practices Like Games

Do you want to win more games? I thought so.

Often, it is the missing link of realism and competitive nature between games and practices. For hitters, batting practice is easy. It's fun. It's relaxed. Hitters can have success without competing or focusing at a high level.

Games are hard. Why? Because that dude on the bump sixty feet away wants to shove that pearl down your throat. He wants to watch you walk back to the dugout, muttering, cursing and losing your competitive cool.

Let's let go of the excuse that, in games, pitchers are throwing off-speed pitches. Often, hitters are jammed by average fastballs for eight innings. In the ninth inning, a team may begin to compete at a higher level, and success can be found, hitting missiles all over the field. What changed?

Hitters spend so much of their time focusing on the physical aspect of the game. They work on their swing. They lift weights. They hit off the tee. They do mirror work. They hit curve balls off of a machine. They buy protein powders and nitric oxide boosters. They get Evoshields for every joint on the body.

Then with a runner at third and one out, a hitter swings and misses at three off-speed pitches....

Another hitter is given the bunt sign, shows bunt, pulls back and watches a fastball go by for strike one...

Yet another hitter, running at first base, forgets how many outs there are and gets doubled off on a routine fly ball, disallowing the runner at third to score...

We need to get better at practicing being in control of our emotions, and in control of our thoughts, while in competitive win or lose situations. Are you challenging your hitters with situations, consequences, rewarding them for positive things they can control?

Hitters that work on their swing in batting practice, day after day, lose an element of competition, of realism. Really, what they lose, is an opportunity to flush the negative. Overcome a bad round. Get tough. Grind out a quality at bat.

Coach pitch, game-situation BP is so much more productive than the pre-game, hit the ball here, hit the ball there variety.

Have your hitting groups compete as two or three teams, working to achieve process-based goals.
Players expect to get jobs done in batting practice, but truly only have pressure from themselves. This creates a system by which their only to their own expectations.

When a group of hitters is accountable to each other, to the betterment of the group, individual success becomes a less stressful part of the process, and the team flourishes.

Look, setting up a process-based practice takes up more of your planning time. You said you wanted to win?

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Front Toss...from A to Z

Many of our hitters make important improvements to their mechanics and approach when they properly utilize front toss. We station our typical front toss cages 15-17 feet away from home plate. When the pitcher gives a firm underhand toss (23-25 mph- use your stalker gun to get a feel), the batter must do much of the same that are required of him in a game.

A batter must use the mechanics of the pitcher, similarly to in-game, to judge when he should initiate his load sequence and prepare to attack the baseball. A batter must judge speed and location of the pitch, as well.

When we work normal front toss, our goals are to 1.) Be on time 2.) Attack the center of the baseball.

Next we add off-speed pitches. All pitches are either a fastball or a change-up.
Primarily, in 'advanced' front-toss, we are working on timing and/or approach. Secondarily, our objective is to work on our mental game. Adding a wrinkle to the front toss can easily get a hitter off-balance, even from fifteen feet. With expectations of perfection extremely high due to the slow nature of typical front toss, hitters frustration levels can often be elevated.

In evaluating the results of a front toss swing, it is important for hitters to understand that a ball perfectly squares, and with backspin, should hit the back of a 90-foot cage at relatively the same height that it began (assuming we are talking about high school skill level and above).

Hitting a ball that lands near the bottom of the net, though fairly well struck, is likely to be a two-hop ground ball. Balls that result in line drive singles and extra base hits usually have a 10-20 degree upward angle. Squaring a ball up perfectly into the back of a net is teaching the body to make contact with the ball in an effort to hit a one-hopper to the back of the infield. 

While occasionally we manage front toss on game days, I prefer for our players to front toss during practices. We also communicate with them daily about being a good front tosser and managing the time between pitches properly.

Players frequently pitch to each other too quickly, creating a tempo that is too fast to allow hitters to physically and mentally reset. Hitters lose the realism and flow that a normal at bat would have. Players also can frequently throw too many strikes and hitters fall into ‘swing mode’ where they are no longer processing information- they have predetermined their swing.

Many hitters like to ‘get loose’ on front toss. I am against this. We encourage our hitters (vehemently), to do tee work prior to front toss. As the baseball is not moving at them on the tee, they naturally feel less of a need to compete, and will take swings that more resemble those of ‘getting loose.’

Front toss is a great opportunity for video work while also working on approach (aggressive off-speed, 2 strike, situational, etc.). When we want to do more detailed video analysis and review, I use our Casio Exilim HD camera, which sees their swings at 240 frames per second in HD (the human eye normally sees around 20 frames per second). When we want the players to get quick feedback, I use my iPhone or iPad. There is a terrific App called "Coach's Eye," that allows you to view video forward and backward, and also allows you to mark or draw directly on the video with different colors and tools. 

Another form of front toss we frequently have is 'separation’ front toss where we begin the swing with lower body commitment and a scapular load. This allows hitters to feel the stretch that creates bat speed and concentrate on loading with their scapula (think shoulder blade) rather than their hands, allowing their rear elbow to 'slot' near the rib cage more quickly and the barrel to become flatter in the zone earlier.

We also have an ‘everything’ front-toss where we challenge our hitters to swing at everything. They must be on time for the fastball and work to retain separation while hitting every pitch near the zone. The goal here is barrel control and manipulation.