Saturday, May 24, 2014

Being On Time, Part One: Stop Evaluating a Pitch Out of the Hand

Anyone around the game long enough will tell you that hitting is the art of being on time and pitching is the art of jacking that timing up. Pitchers clearly want to force weak contact...or no contact at all.

As a hitter, your job is to put your body, and your mind, into a position to attack the baseball aggressively out in front of the hitting zone. Why out front? Well, that is where your bat has achieved its maximum bat speed, an ideal place for contact.

The next few blogs will explore different hitting and coaching concepts that can assist and detract from a hitter being on time.

Today: Stop Evaluating a Pitch Out of the Hand

Imagine you've just dug into the box, twisting your cleats through the hard clay and dirt. 3-1 count, runners at second and third. Your mind is fast, your heartbeat slow. You're ready.

You point your barrel towards the pitcher as if to say, "Bring it."

He lifts his leg, arches his back. Here comes the pitch. Fastball.

You swing the bat, fast, true and the barrel heads right for the ball. Center cut.

Foul ball. You hit it down the opposite field line, the ball disappearing into darkness.

What happened? How were you late?

Watching tournaments, games I've coached and even big league games on TV, too many times are hitters LATE on fastballs in fastball counts.

There are so many possible reasons for why our barrel could be lagging by mere centimeters, keeping us from destroying the baseball, accelerating through a gap and meeting our teammates, dancing around home plate in walk-off jubilation.

 Many hitters try to evaluate pitches out of the hand. This is something that must happen and something that will happen, certainly, if our vision is any better than that of Mr. Magoo.

Still, hitters need to be committed to the pitch they believe is coming. This isn't guess hitting. This is hitting. What pitch is he most likely to throw? What are my risks if I am wrong? What are my rewards if I am right?
Make a decision and get body and mind ready to attack that pitch where you can drive it.

Waiting to see a pitch out of the hand is foolish. Even the best hitters in the world cannot recognize spin until 10-12 feet out of a pitcher's hand. At this point, a 90 mph fastball will be on top of you in less than three tenths of a second. That's the amount of time it takes for you to blink. To then take the barrel to the baseball with an aggressive swing is nearly impossible. We end up with a lot of near-misses, or in reality, near-hits. Weak contact. Foul balls. Strike two. Ahhh, just missed. Yes. Yes, you did just miss. And that is all you are going to get in this at bat.

Baseball is hard, folks. Hitting a baseball is really tough.

Pre-determine what the pitch is going to be...not always where it is going to be (we'll talk more about that later.)

Understand the amount of time it takes for that pitch to get to the plate then get your body ready to attack. A proper take should look like a full load and stride with a short, aggressive movement to the plate with the back leg, hip and possibly rear elbow and hands, depending on how long you waited before shutting down the swing.

Think of this concept as a "yes, yes, YES," on a swing, and a "yes, yes, NO," on a take. Pre-determining a swing is only dangerous if you will swing at anything. When you learn to practice this mental technique in front toss and BP, game time discipline will increase rapidly.

Hitters that evaluate pitches in mid air can hit a breaking ball backside but get roasted inside. So many hitters wait to evaluate, and teach themselves a linear, handsy swing to stay "inside" the baseball. This swing fundamentally supports the middle-backside singles hitter.

Look at that kid's stats: He's batting .400, but his ISO power is .050 ? He has 4 2Bs in 30 games ? PITCH HIM INSIDE! He's waiting to evaluate pitches, and he is a linear, handsy hitter who stays on all of your offspeed pitches and hits middle-inside fastballs to center field.

Let's progress in how we teach hitting.

Future blogs will address these concepts, and how they aid or impair a hitter's timing:

1.) Holding the bat properly.

2.) Balance, stance and using the legs.

3.) Creating a "flat" swing.

4.) Timing pitches through visualization and sound.

5.) Fear.

Please send me a note and let me hear what you're thinking.

Monday, May 12, 2014

The Tools of a Hitting Coach

Remember the first Batman movie with Michael Keeton and Jack Nicholson? During one scene, Nicholson’s character “the Joker” quips, “Where does he get those wonderful toys?”

Well I suppose if you want to be a super-hero hitting coach you have to have some toys, right? Here are some of ours:

The Personal Pitcher Machine. Cost: $150

Pitches golf wiffleballs. We purchased multi-colored balls and white balls and use this toy for vision training more than hitting. The strike-throwing consistency outdoors is average with the elements making some pitches dive and slide out of the zone very late. However, if there is little wind, this machine is effective for hitting FBs, and it also throws a pretty good left or right-handed slider.

Eli’s Springback Hitting Tees. Cost: $110.

Tees are an imperative part of individual training. The ball is stationary, competition is low, and hitters can work on mechanics with immediate feedback. The Eli tees have a metal coil or spring between the base and the tee head that allows a transfer of energy that keeps your tees from getting quickly destroyed by improper swings or reckless use. Best tee we’ve ever had. Period.

CamWood Trainer. Cost $80.

This is a modified wooden bat, a training tool, that has a large wooden knot between the handle and the barrel, slightly closer to the handle. You can choose which size bat you want: we purchased the 33”, 45 oz. bat. Yes, 45 oz. However, the weight distribution makes it feel like a 30 oz. bat when swung properly. The physics of the bat encourage a shorter (not necessarily more linear or ‘handsy’!) swing path. When the swing path is tight, and the hitter slots the back elbow tight to the body, the feeling is that the bat is lighter than it actually weighs. When the knot of the bat takes a longer route to contact, the weight lags outward, pulling against the force of the swing, creating a feeling that the bat is very heavy.

To simplify, when hitters create EARLY bat speed by slotting their back elbow and getting the bat head flat, the bat feels normal. When length is added to the swing, the bat feels extremely heavy.

Coach’s Eye App. Cost: $4.99 (iPad Air was $600).

I’ve always been a huge fan of the swing mechanics and analytics system Right View Pro. We installed the system while I coached at Ole Miss, and the feedback that program gives to players is infinite and indispensable. Right View Pro costs upwards of $15,000. On a wonderful but perceptively smaller D2 budget, I decided to purchase an iPad (for personal and professional use). A close coaching friend told me of an App he uses called Coach’s Eye. More or less, it is Right View Pro except it's cheaper and just as accessible with it’s portability! Coach’s Eye allows you to easily scroll forwards and backwards through swings with high quality resolution at over 150 frames per second.  There are tools for drawing and quickly erasing on the screen, like a coach analyzing football film, and you can e-mail the videos to your players from the App. Also, I found that many hitters would rather see their swing in an informal setting, not sitting in my office looking at a computer. Now, I can give them visual feedback AT the cage, or in the locker room, or on the road, with little effort.

Casio Exilim EXFH100 Camera. Cost: $400

Last year, I purchased the Casio Exilim camera to record swings in HD quality at over 250 frames per second. The shutter speed is incredible, and the ease of use is terrific. You have to figure out how to use it on your own, because it is a Japanese product sold only in Japan, and all of the instructions are in characters that might as well be wing-dings to this uncultured eye.

Despite purchasing the Coach’s Eye App and iPad, we will most definitely still use the Exilim on the road because the zoom feature and clarity are superior, and it is easily mounted on a tripod, all of which are necessary for consistent in-game use. Again, we don’t have $15,000 to buy Right View Pro and the six cameras the get mounted in your stadium when you purchase that program. Still, we have made purchases that have empowered us to give our players daily feedback on what they are doing well and can still improve upon.