Sunday, July 20, 2014

Being On Time, Part 5: Visualization and Sound.

Today I want to talk about how hitters can use visualization and sound to improve their timing.

In the on deck circle, hitters use the movement of a pitcher's body and the tempo of his delivery to time the speed of the pitch. What is the gap between his fastball and breaking ball?

Some hitters use music or sound as a key to honing in on the timing and quickness of a pitch. How?

Imagine the sound of a fastball, hissing towards the plate. Ssss-sst. That was 85. Ss-sst. That was 90. There is a rhythm to a fastball, something almost musical. A hitter can visualize a pitch and a location while simultaneously imagining the sound it makes.

A breaking ball makes a different sound, depending upon the pitch and the speed. Hitters can hear the sounds and file those in their memories of what to look and listen for out of the hand when getting aggressive to fastballs or off-speed pitches. Hitters that are advanced are always ready to hit the pitch that they are looking for at that moment, but can take the pitch when they hear or see a different pitch OR if they recognize that the tunnel the pitch has come from is different than that required of their hitting zone.

Sound complex? It is. Just like every other aspect of hitting, these idiosyncrasies become intuitive when they are practiced over and over again.

Visualization is not nearly as helpful when it is not lifelike. If you were trying to imagine what a lemon tastes like, you would not visualize a watermelon. You also would not visualize a lemon the size of a basketball because your mind knows that is a fantasy.

Using the mind to visualize pitches is no different. Practicing this skill means creating a still and quiet environment for the mind. This must be practiced in the cage, with front toss, and tee work. To increase difficulty and make more game-like, increase distractions i.e. music, noises, radio, TV, teammates talking, etc.

Being On Time, Part 4: Creating a "Flat" Swing

Our next series in being on time is a dissertation on creating a "flat" swing.

First, it is imperative that we get on the same page. A flat swing is about the BARREL PATH to the ball, not about the angle of the swing. The best swings that produce an elite contact percentage and power have a slight upper-cut to the arc and trajectory of the barrel path. Slight. As in 6-10 degrees lift.

Swings that look like THIS one create high contact ratios with low power. This dude is enormous. Lots of strength, good bat speed, and the worlds most handsy swing.

Don't hit like that.

Can't tell what he's doing? Too fast to see with the naked eye? Go to 1:10 of the video feed, and keep clicking on that swing.

The knob of the bat should not point towards the pitcher BECAUSE we used our hands to do so. The rear elbow slots first, then the hands take over the direction of the swing.

When the rear elbow slots first, the barrel immediately flattens out, parallel to the ground. This is what we want to achieve. The paralleled nature of the bat and ground IS WHAT CREATING A FLAT SWING IS ALL ABOUT.

From there, our hands will create a tilt or lift angle on the ball. A hitter may also tilt his chest and legs in an effort to lift; this,we wish to avoid, as it creates massive holes in the swing with elevated and elevated inside pitches.

Hitters that are "low ball hitters" often have very handsy swings and cannot hit elevated pitches that have higher velocities. The reason for this is that a handsy swing pushes the hands forward, but the bat stays high above the hitting zone until the hands release the barrel out in front, always lower in the hitting zone.

Hitters who hit for a high average AND for power....what we all seek to achieve...slot the rear elbow early, creating a flat barrel and maximizing contact points. These hitters can hit pitches that are high, low, inside or outside...all with power. When their approaches are good, their results are elite.

Watch this video from the HR derby.

Yoenis Cespedes has approximately a 25 degree lift. This explains why he is a perfect candidate, in combination with his bat speed and strength at contact, to lift dozens of balls out of any yard, even Target Field. HOWEVER, this is batting practice. Sort of. This is HR Derby BP.

A typical BP is 38-43 mph and his BP from Mike Gallego was approximately 33-35 mph: big ol' beachballs coming in there with their own downward plane. He can easily get away with such exaggerated lift in BP.

When Yoenis takes that swing into a big league game, he has to commit sooner, is exposed by elevated pitches, and ends up with a slash line for his career that looks like this : .261/.318/.464, for an OPS of .782. Above average offensive production for a big league outfielder, but certainly not the .264/.382/.530= .913 OPS Jose Bautista has put up since arriving in Toronto, or the .270/.361/.538 numbers that Giancarlo Stanton has. All 3 are freakishly strong, despite different body types. All 3 have very strong and consistent approaches at the plate (watch them hit for a couple of games). This is where swing plane, i.e. creating a flat swing, is a difference maker!

Lastly, it is important to understand that their are outliers. We should not mimic them.

Derek Jeter...

... was extremely handsy. He has a .311/.379/.443=.822 stat line. Realistically, he could have had significantly more power had he had a flatter swing. His average may have been 10-15 points lower, but his OPS (which has a significantly greater statistical correlation to runs created) would have been markedly higher.

Miguel Cabrera....

... is a magician at altering his swing. Sometimes he gets slotted early, sometimes his approach is to punch one through the right side to get a free RBI with a shift on. He's smart. If you attempt to take one of his backside HR swings and mimic it as a hitter, you'll be trying to mimic what a 6'4 240 lb. athlete does. He is freakishly strong. Are you? If you have his strength and can alter your swing from pitch to pitch, you are likely a first-rounder next year- congrats!

Lastly, Mike Trout...

... is a notoriously terrific low-ball hitter. However, he gets slotted very early. Watch again. What he does differently is he dives- a posture tilt to reach low and outside pitches. To beat Trout, you must come in and you must elevate. Big league pitchers try to do this to him. Problematically for them, the big league strike zone is 17 inches wide and about 18 inches tall. So anything elevated that most hitters swing at, is often called a ball...and Trouty just takes those pitches. His approach is FIRST CLASS. He knows his swing and knows what pitches he can and can't hit. This is, perhaps, the most important skill a hitter can have.

Saturday, July 5, 2014

Being On Time, Part 3: Balance and Using the Legs

Recently, we have been exploring the fundamentals of a swing that is consistently on-time. This blog is dedicated to the use of the legs in creating consistent timing and barrel contact.

The best lower body mechanics in a swing allow the hitter to be both aggressive and "on time." Many professional hitters gain aggressiveness with a leg kick. Often the leg kick is mis-taught or misused at the amateur level; hitters often land with their weight disproportionately on their front foot, creating a break in the swing's synchronization and causing hands to drift forward away from separation. This immediately impacts both maximum bat speed and direction of the swing.

The avoid becoming a 'front foot' hitter, many amateur coaches react to this lack of balance by preaching "STAY BACK" and by cajoling their hitters to become inefficient lower-body rotators with very linear hand paths who lack explosiveness and have lessened their bat speed potential.

Watch these elite hitters:

Notice mainly two things:
1.) Their center of gravity at heel strike: low.
2.) Their head, centered directly between their legs.

Focus on the same items, while watching Mike Trout:

Now Barry Bonds:

Now, recalling what we have preached about gaining separation between the load and the lower body, think about those swings you just saw.

Now, recall the concept of elbow slotting to flatten the barrel out, allowing for 1.) Enhanced contact opportunities with the plane of the ball 2.) Early bat speed 3.) Late commitment.

Watch the videos again, focusing on separation and slotting.

Now, MOST HITTING COACHES spend 75% of their time coaching the upper body, when nearly all breaks in the swing's synchronization began in the lower half.

Focus on these mechanical breakdowns:
1.) If a hitter's head comes front of center, separation will be lost.
2.) If a hitter gets his heel down late, the ball will beat him to the ideal point of contact. He is beat.

So, the conundrum is what to do when the foot gets down too early? The answer: SINK. When a hitter gets his foot down too early and the ball is elevated, it is easy enough to retain separation or "keep the hands back." However, when the ball is away or down, often the hitter will roll over the top or swing and miss. SINKING the hips, lowering the center of gravity beyond normal allows the hands and load to remain separated longer. Often this is long enough to barrel the ball up, despite a break in the kinetic chain.