Saturday, December 31, 2016

Your Off Season Advantage: Mental ABs




A mental at-bat is a simulation, a visualization of an actual at-bat, and may include any number of real or imagined stimuli: bat in hand or imagined, uniform on or street clothes, in the dugout during a game or in your living room on a Tuesday night.

Mental ABs use the power of imagery, visualization and the mind's eye, to enhance confidence and emulate the experience gained of having a live at-bat. The power in this practice is in the power of imagery. In relation to confidence from experiences, the mind cannot separate what is real experience from what is imagined.

At Lee University, our lineup card has our game lineup on the left, and our "Mental ABs" lineup on the right. Non-starting hitters practice and go through their in the hole, on deck and pre-AB routines just as they would live in the game.

If a hitter is a part-time player and only gets four at-bats this week, he does not have but four opportunities for focused thought, approach planning and adjustment making. If that same hitter got 16 mental ABs from the four games he in which he did not play, he now has 20 at bats of experience.

Cold outside? Hitting facility closed? Got to the field earlier than anyone else? Tired of studying for your business finance test? GET YOUR MENTAL ABs IN.

Here's an explanation of what imagery is and how to best use it:
http://www.appliedsportpsych.org/resource-center/resources-for-athletes/sport-imagery-training/

And here's a great article on Olympic athletes and their experiences with imagery: http://www.nytimes.com/2014/02/23/sports/olympics/olympians-use-imagery-as-mental-training.html

Sunday, December 18, 2016

What the Elite 1% Know About Hitting


(photo credit: mlb.com)


The elite hitters, I'm talking the top 1% in any league, know something most don't admit. Becoming the best hitter at your level takes unrelenting, insatiable, purposeful work ethic. 

The top hitters pay attention to, and work habitually on:

  • pitcher tendencies
  • scouting reports
  • weather elements impacting ball flight and fielding
  • swing mechanics
  • pitch to pitch approaches
  • weight room strength and stamina
  • flexibility
  • nutrition and supplementation
  • recovery, improving quality of their rest
  • mental focus, ability to concentrate on a task
  • vision training, ability to focus on fast moving objects
Ok, you get it, the best hitters in the world work the hardest. Most of them, yes. Those who sustain success, absolutely. 

So many players "work hard." What's the big deal? What's so special about 1%?

At 212 degrees, water boils. At 211 degrees, you have really hot water. At 212 degrees, that boiling water produces steam. Steam can power a locomotive. Locomotives powered the industrial revolution, changing the course of the United States' history. America's ability to harness steam had the same impact on the 19th century as computers did on the 20th century. 

(photo credit: Pintrest)

So, why is the extra 1 degree, or the extra 1%, the main subject of this post? 

Because it is completely controllable! You are in control of your work ethic. Decisions shape our lives. In every moment, we decide what to listen to, how to prioritize, and what things mean to us. 

You can maximize your ability to RAKE. 

We all know we can plan, prepare and maximize our abilities and skills. To get more, we must become more. Here are some strategies for getting off of your anatomy:


  1. Listen to less talk radio. All those folks do is argue and complain, filling your brain with negatives. Instead, buy an inspiring audio CD. Perhaps something from Jim Rohn, Tony Robbins, Carol Dweck, Steve Springer or Brian Cain).
  2. Make your bed when you wake up. There is a reason the military service men and women make their beds, and it isn't simply attention to detail. Making your bed is a cause set in motion, an energy giving accomplishment that states: I'm going to win today. 
  3. That thing you don't want to do: do it. Build emotional muscle by doing what you should do, when you should do it.
  4. Take a notepad with you to the cages. Write down your planned attack hitting, and keep track of your mental notes. Log the successes of your rounds, just as you would in the gym.
  5. Take a notepad to the gym!
  6. Plan your day before you go to sleep, and pack tomorrow's food before you hit the hay.  Failing to prepare is preparing to fail. - John Wooden
  7. Surround yourself with accountability. Write your goals on your bathroom mirror. Get an accountability hitting partner. Print a photo of the person you admire most and plaster it in your locker.
  8. Go to darrendaily.com and get an A+ positive video message sent you every Monday-Friday.
  9. Call Dr. Rob Gilbert every day and listen to his voice recording! He has a different story every day. Put him on your favorites list! 973.743.4690. 
  10. Whatever it is you are thinking of doing...DO IT. DO IT RIGHT. DO IT RIGHT NOW!

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Have a Plan: Hit Smarter This Winter

                                                                                                      (photo credit: youtube.com)

Many hitters do not hit with an organized plan. They know they are going to hit today. That is their plan.

To be a good teacher, you have to have an organized plan. To become a stronger athlete, you have to have an organized weight training program. To become more fit, you need an organized nutrition plan. To rebuild a car, you need an organized plan. You get the point.

So, why do so many hitters hit with no plan and expect success? We call hitting the hardest single task in sport, and then show up to the gun fight with a sword.

To be a better hitter, we must practice intentionally.

We know the swing is important. A great swing maximizes bat speed, contact opportunities and assists good approaches. And no hitter can be consistent without a strong approach and ability to make adjustments. So, off to the cages we go to work on our swings, out bat speed, our contact and our approaches.

First, the average hitter gets loose with four or five swings, mixed with a couple of awkward half-stretches and back twists. Ah, there we go. After one hard contact and a couple of 6-4-3s, we're ready to really start hitting.

Let's back it up and start throwing to each other. Now is the time when many hitters "get on time for the fastball." Which one? One fastball velocity can have a relative velocity difference of up to 12 mph in the strike zone. An 85 mph fastball thrown down and away has a relative velocity of 79 mph while the same 85 mph fastball up and in has a relative velocity of 91 mph. Think you can sit on 85 and handle 91 and 79 in locations opposite to each other in the strike zone? Good luck. You may make contact, but you won't hit many balls hard. {For more information on relative velocity, see my previous posts "Box Positioning" (4/25/15) and "I Hate Slow Pitchers" (7/16/15).}

These types of cage hitting philosophies (or lack there of) are prime recipes for meddling in mediocrity and frustration. Don't be average, folks.

Let's create a plan. Every hitter should have a plan for what he is going to accomplish in the cage that day. That plan should be a progression from fundamentals to more challenging aspects of hitting, and can include mechanical focuses, varying approaches, changes in velocity, adjustment making, mental game training, strength training and vision training.

Quality of Swings

When you step into the cage, preset how many swings you are going to take. This innately makes the round competitive. You know how many swings you are taking and you will focus more on each repetition. The quality of the work immediately improves.

To start, cap a round at 12 swings. Elite hitters will take so much time between pitches to go through their routine, that they may only take one swing every 10 seconds. Most hitters take one swing every four seconds. This is an enormous difference in ability for the body to physically reset, and for the mind to refocus. Hitting is an anabolic movement. It's explosive. If you're swinging every four seconds, you must be trying to lose weight while you hit.

Instead of getting tired and pushing through, hoping to finish your round on a swing that makes you feel good, set parameters and goals for each round. When each round and each swing is competitive, the thought process and adjustment making between swings should become more intentional and game-like.

Approach 

Rather than just seeing it and hitting it, know whether you are looking for a fastball or an off-speed pitch. What are you sitting on? Then hunt one side of the plate or the other.

You cannot cover the entire plate. Sure, you can hit the baseballs thrown anywhere on the plate, but that shouldn't be your goal, should it? Desire to hit each ball with energy and aggressive flight into a gap. Let your misses be hard contacts that find holes.

Don't seek to make contact. You'll achieve that goal too easily, and create a manipulative, handsy swing that lacks bat speed, and commits to pitches at the same instance that it generates bat speed. Your outs will be pull-side on the ground and opposite field in the air. Sound familiar?

Making Changes/Level of Difficulty

If you are seeking to improve your swing, work off of the tee, and progress no further than front toss. If you can't master front toss with a swing adjustment, you will struggle against a live arm.

Once you have success against a live arm, increase the velocity to one that feels increasingly more stressful each round. Move the L-screen closer to the hitter, or have the BP pitcher throw harder. Eventually, we can work on the most challenging elements of hitting that mimic the most difficult game moments: high velocity/high spin fastballs, low and away fastballs, aggressive off-speed approaches and two-strike approaches.

If you have access to a pitching machine, this transition can be easy. If not, don't settle for the same old easy, feel good BP. That isn't building your swing, and it isn't challenging enough to truly build your confidence.

                                                                                                            (photo credit: mlb.com)
Note Taking

Many MLB hitters take notes. Some of them even do it in game. Taking notes allows hitters to retain more information, and to create a thesaurus of at bats, approaches, pitches, emotions, etc.

When you hit, take a note pad with you. This is Josh Donaldson's tweet from November 13th of last winter. Did he end up having a good season? What's an MVP?

                                                                                                       (photo credit: @BringerOfRain20) 

This holiday season, be a giver. Give the gift of intelligence. Help your teammates work smart.

Be creative, be intentional, be prepared.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

QABs

                                                                                                                                                                 (photo credit: mlb.com)

Most coaches and players have heard of quality at bats. Why are they so important? Focusing on QABs is about controlling what you can control, with a team-first focus, rather than a me-first focus.

Hitting is challenging, which is why we love it, but when a hitter is consumed with stress about his own stats, fearful of future performances repeating past failures, or distracted by expectations, hitting has become nearly impossible.

A focus on QABs allows a hitter to stay focused on simplifying the game.

No one on base, first inning? I should be focused on reaching base, nothing more. Get a good pitch to hit, and I will maximize my chances of making a HARD CONTACT.

Developing toughness in practice, and the mechanical savvy to hold your ground on an inside pitch, allows a hitter to react appropriately in-game and take an HBP.

Acquiring plate discipline in front toss and batting practice allows a hitter to avoid weak contact more often, see more pitches, and improve his chances of coaxing a BB.

After a foul ball and a close call for strike two, we find ourselves down 0-2. Battle your way from 0-2 to seeing 4+ pitches! You have just flipped the script on the pitcher! Now, many pitchers are begging to get any ball put in play, as they don't want their pitch count to continue to skyrocket.

Any executed bunt, slash, hit and run or run and hit is a QAB! These are huge skills to master. Executing these skills keeps an opposing defense, pitcher and manager on the defensive, and alleviates the pressure to get hit after hit by only swinging against good pitchers.

                                                                                                                                                         (photo credit: The Full Windup)

With a runner at second base and 0 outs, it's great to advance the runner from second to third, but this is situational. I should not give away at-bats in an effort to manipulate and push the ball back side. Our offensive goal is to score as many runs as possible each inning, not just one run, unless we are in a "tight and close" scenario.

Any time you get an RBI while making an out, that's a QAB. Let's not focus on perfection. An RBI ground out may not be ideal, but it's quality. These aren't called Perfect At Bats! Of course, hitters must be taught which situations ask for them to potentially sacrifice a more aggressive approach for something simpler that more consistently gets the run home. Most situations with a runner at third and less than two outs create this QAB opportunity.

Hits aren't QABs, but 2-strike hits sure as heck are. To get a two-strike hit, a hitter must take advantage of a mistake or fight his way to getting a pitch he can handle to score the run.

Lastly, any at-bat that ends with 8+ pitches is a QAB, regardless of the result. The average number of pitches per plate appearance in MLB in 2015 was 4.30. Having an 8 pitch AB has a similar impact on a pitcher to having faced an extra hitter. The more of these high pitch ABs we can put together, the faster we can get into the bullpen. And with the exception of at the big league level, bullpen pitchers are their because they aren't as skilled as starters!

Be a great teammate! Focusing on ways you can help your team win will undoubtedly free you up emotionally to have more aggressiveness, confidence and commitment at the plate!

Of course, we can't just succeed in the game, unless we practice how the game will challenge us. Compete with your teammates in the cage by envisioning and communicating what situations you have!

Sunday, October 9, 2016

Linear Hand Paths: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly


                                                                                               (photo credit: worstswingever.com)

The linear hand path swing, long believed to be the "short swing," is actually the longest possible route to the ball. You heard that right.

Derek Jeter's hand path is a poor teaching tool to young players. Sure, it maximizes contact...much of that contact is weak contact. A linear hand path causes a steeper swing path that is most effective on pitches down in the zone. Pitches up in the zone, those that should be easiest to drive for extra base hits, are often swung through or fouled off.

Hitters with linear hand paths cannot achieve their maximum bat speed until the barrel releases at contact, rather than achieving max bat speed prior to contact, on a flat plane that enables multiple hard contact points, particularly on elevated pitches. Hitters that have linear hand paths must commit sooner to swinging at pitches than do hitters with flatter swings. Those flatter swings are just as "short." We shall explain.

THE LOAD

First, let's start by establishing a truth: a good load does not mean you will have a good swing, but a bad load all but guarantees you a bad swing or poor contact. The load is the most important part of the swing. It empowers balance, enables separation, creates momentum and maximizes bat speed and swing plane. That is the load.

***Note: for the purpose of this blog post, the term "load" is a simplification of both the load and stride. All movement before the front heel plants should be considered the load.

THE SWING

Let's define a "short" swing. A short swing has a tight path to the body. Envision your car driving on the inside lane of a NASCAR track vs. the outside lane. The outside lane has a further distance to travel. It is a longer path. The same physics concept holds true for the swing. However, somewhere in the last century, a misunderstanding of swing-analysis created a pervasive and improper teach of the hand-path.

A linear hand path is a swing in which the hands pull the handle of the bat, tight to the body, leading the knob to the pitcher. Envision your bottom hand playing a violin, pulling down and forward towards the pitcher. This is a similar hand movement to the linear hand path swing. This hand path can maximize contact on pitches inside or outside, ensuring I hit the ball more frequently when not knowing, pre-swing commitment, if the pitch will be inside or outside.

Unfortunately, a hand-path that maximizes contact does not make a short swing. The back elbow staying tight to the rib cage does not guarantee a short swing, if said hand path is linear. Making contact is not the goal. Read that again. Making contact is not the goal.

Making hard contact is the goal.

To make hard contact, we shouldn't create a swing that maximizes contact not knowing where the pitch is going to be. We should learn approaches and situational hitting, and teach myself a swing that maximizes hard contact. This is where Hitting Twitter has recently helped so many young hitters begin learning the proper mechanics to become an elite hitter.

Great follows on twitter for swing info:
@HyattCraig
@SaberCoach
@TewksHitting
@BringerofRain20
@CoachJeffLeach
@DavidRing4
@JWonCatching



                                                                                                     (photo credit: m.reddit.com)

SWINGING AT TUNNELS

The concept of "swinging at tunnels" means that the flight path/plane/angle the ball is thrown from is the plane/angle at which I am trying to meet the baseball at contact.

This is simple when pitchers are throwing an average spin, four-seam fastball. There is a flat, somewhat gradual downward descent to the hitting zone. However, every other type of pitch offers a path/plane/angle that is different at contact than originally perceived by the eyes at release. Obviously, this is due to spin. Even a high-spin fastball, albeit a fastball, will stay at an angle more true/less steep than an average fastball, creating the deception of rising towards the hitting zone. Of course, off-speed pitches often have sink, cut, run, etc. and must be met at a different anticipated path/plane/angle that which they left the pitcher's hand.

I hypothesize that the creation of, and belief in, the linear hand path swing, stems from maximization of hitting pitches that change path/plane/angle from their original release point.

Hitters with this type of hand path will hammer fastballs middle down, middle in, middle away, and "zone" breaking balls that are elevated. These same hitters usually learn to "hit the ball up the middle", "stay gap to gap" and look for fastballs down the middle, trying to "adjust" in and out by staying through the ball or pulling their hands tighter to their body. This approach is the approach that matches the linear hand path. Approach matching a swing path is a good thing.

The bad thing about this dynamic duo of middle/middle approach linear swing path is that the majority of their outs are found pull side on the ground and opposite field in the air. These types of outs do not produce quality outs.

The ugly thing about this matched approach and hand path is what we discussed before in regards to lacking maximum bat speed, susceptibility to elevation, susceptibility to inside and outside corner pitches. The middle of the plate is covered, but these hitters are only mistake hitters. The holes in this type of a swing/approach combination are glaring. When facing a pitcher who can truly pitch, they have nothing with which to combat his pitchability. Fastballs on the inside part of the plate are impossibly tough to keep fair without getting beat, popping up or grounding out, and the early commitment caused by the swing path make these hitters extraordinarily susceptible to change ups.

Well, that's true for facing any great pitcher, you say? Au contraire.

The proper swing path hammers elevated pitches, and still hammers pitches down. It hits inside and outside pitches by having approaches/or timing and rhythm, that allow for coverage of those zones. Their approaches and swing combination allow them to better cover the elite pitchers. This is why the best hitters of each era, of all time, and those who maximize their personal talent, all have similar swing path mechanics. Look them up on YouTube: Babe Ruth, Hank Aaron, Barry Bonds, Miguel Cabrera, David Ortiz, Josh Donaldson, Russell Martin, Kevin Pillar. If you don't know who those last two are, turn on the the Blue Jays. They're pretty good.

And all of this isn't to say you can't be successful with a linear hand path swing! Dozens of Hall of Famers had linear hand paths, most notably: Tony Gwynn, Derek Jeter, Rod Carew, Lou Brock.

Notice these are all high contact hitters with average, below average power. Each of these hitters could have had above average power numbers with a different swing, thus improving their hard contacts, OPS, WAR and general offensive impact on their teams. They were GREAT hitters. GREAT! But this does not mean they could not have been better. This does not mean we should teach their swings to all the little boys and girls in Little League, high school and college baseball.

Hitters who are extremely physical, with superior strength for their level, can get away with linear hand paths. They have the strength at contact to produce maximum ball carry while still hitting the ball deeper, or steeper, in their swing.

To read about the proper flat swing mechanics, read my blog post from July 20, 2014.

Keeping all of this in mind, approaches are more important than swings. Toughness and commitment are more important than swings. Yet, if we work so diligently at our craft, should we not pursue greatness in all areas?

We'll see you on the diamond. Be excellent.



Sunday, September 4, 2016

Planning to Hit

                                                                                                  (photo credit: probaseballinsider.com)

"Failing to prepare is preparing to fail." - John Wooden

Wooden nailed it when it comes to hitting, too. Whether you are a college, high school or travel ball coach, or a hitter working on his craft during the summer or winter months, you better have a plan.

Imagine a body builder wandering around the gym, deciding in the moment what to lift and how much to lift. Without a precise plan that can push today's limits while maintaining a month's perspective, Schwarzenegger and Pujols would both be up a creek without a paddle.

Great coaches, and great hitters, have a plan.

"Most people over-estimate what they can do in one year and under-estimate what they can do in a decade." - Tony Robbins

When you think about how to create a plan, think about your goal for the year, the semester and the month.

When we plan for the fall, we plan in segments. Over the course of a fall season, we have a skill work segment, team practice segment, and then more skill work. Our first set of skill work is three weeks, with one hour each week to work with a hitter, divided into two, thirty-minute sessions. Without a distinct focus and direction, we couldn't optimize the time allotted to help our hitters improve.

The first two weeks of fall are focused on rhythm, tempo and timing. We introduce our bunting technique and hold players accountable for execution. We hit on the field with front toss for quick application of approaches, and move to the Hack Attack for competitiveness and execution of what the hitters have learned. During this segment of skill training, we get to work with our hitters in groups of four, twice per week for thirty minutes.

The last week of skill is spent incorporating the competitiveness of at bats, count hitting and integrating approaches. We have three weeks to get hitters ready before they see the first live bullet in an intraquad.

Our plan also includes side work (next to the main BP cage) of exit velocity testing, forearm/grip strength development, mental game training, breathing techniques and mirror work. In the cages, during those two weeks, hitters throw to each other, work tee drills, overload and underload train, front toss, do mirror work and hit mini wiffle balls with a taped broom handle.

We begin video work of their mechanics, though we chat very little mechanics in the first three weeks. Our plan is to develop rhythm, tempo and timing (our approaches) first. We believe that when a hitter implements these, there are fewer mechanical adjustments needed.

The fall is also a great time for getting to know our hitters. My wife and I have our hitters over for dinner in small groups over the course of the first several weeks, grilling out and opening our home to them. Building trust and understanding our players is part of our plan.

Just as a coach needs a plan for his hitters, a hitter needs a plan for his personal cage time.

Hitting off a tee for 75 swings isn't hitting, it's swinging. Hitter's must practice hitting more than swinging. Learning timing and practicing hitting where timing is required, is where hitters make jumps, improve and become better hitters.

Does your plan include taking 15-20 swings in one round? That's called cardio. Take rounds of 8-10 swings with 12-15 seconds between swings. This best replicates the cadence of your duel with the pitcher, and will challenge you to work on your routines and self-talk.

Have a plan and go hit, hit, hit!




Sunday, August 7, 2016

Breathing: You Should Practice This More


                                                                                                     (photo credit: gettyimages.com)

Have you ever seen a movie with an epic plot-twist, and the clues were so subtle that you overlooked them? Think the Usual Suspects. Kaiser Soze.

Have you ever been looking for your keys, but failed to check the most obvious place?

The mental game is a hot topic because it is important, clearly has value, and the depths and understanding of how to best apply continue to grow and shift. It seems that coaches and professionals talk so frequently about their training regimen, their work ethic, their visualization.

How many of them spend time talking about their breathing, and explaining how they practice gaining control of themselves in tense moments?

The human body's response to pressure is an elevated heart rate, priming us for fight or flight. When your body increases the heart rate, our ability to manage thoughts significantly decreases.
It's so important to practice breathing in game-like repetitions as part of our hitters' training.

We teach our hitters deep stomach breathing by speeding them up in practice. On field BP? Each hitter has 10 jump tucks before they execute their on deck routine. Tee work on the side? You have 10 push ups first.

We communicate with them to importance of, and reasons behind, how a deep stomach breath can alter their stress hormone release, and allow them to feel more loose and see the ball bigger.

Intentionally stressing their bodies out by elevating their heart-rate (and doing something they likely wouldn't choose to do), forces them to practice gaining control of their heart-rate, thought process, and re-center their breathing. They learn how to gain control.

Here are some great techniques for breathing, and gaining control of yourself at the plate:

1-2-3-4-5-6

The most effective mechanics are to inhale through your nose and exhale through your mouth. Inhale for one second, exhale for two, inhale for three, exhale for four, inhale for five, exhale for six. This exercise is terrific for when you are really stressed and don't physically feel like you can take one deep breath. Often the tightness in our chest when stressed makes us subconsciously not want to take a deep breath. This is a technique that slowly releases the diaphragm.

 Mental Workout (from the book "Organize Tomorrow Today," a great read)

1.) Centering breath: Breathe in for six seconds, hold for two, breathe out for seven.
2.) Identity statement. Say a preconceived personal mantra to yourself that reflects your strength and desire for success.
3.) Personal Highlight reel: Spend 30 seconds visualizing three "done-wells" from the previous 24 hours, and then spend another 30 seconds visualizing three things you want to do well in the upcoming 24 hours.
4.) Repeat your identity statement (same as Step 2)
5.) Centering breath: Take another centering breath to prepare yourself for the upcoming performance. Again, breathe in for six seconds, hold for two, breathe out for seven.

Box Breathing 

(Seal Fit's Mark Devine show you how in this YouTube video. )

Enjoy breathing!



Sunday, July 24, 2016

Imagery: Mental At-Bats (redux)


                                                                                                (photo credit: adoramatv.com)

A mental at-bat is a simulation, a visualization of an actual at-bat, and may include any number of real or imagined stimuli: bat in hand or imagined, uniform on or street clothes, in the dugout during a game or in your living room on a Tuesday night.

Mental ABs use the power of imagery, visualization and the mind's eye, to enhance confidence and emulate the experience gained of having a live at-bat. The power in this practice is in the power of imagery. In relation to confidence from experiences, the mind cannot separate what is real experience from what is imagined.

At Lee University, our lineup card has our game lineup on the left, and our "Mental ABs" lineup on the right. Non-starting hitters practice and go through their in the hole, on deck and pre-AB routines just as they would live in the game.

If a hitter is a part-time player and only gets four at-bats this week, he does not have but four opportunities for focused thought, approach planning and adjustment making. If that same hitter got 16 mental ABs from the four games he in which he did not play, he now has 20 at bats of experience.

Cold outside? Hitting facility closed? Got to the field earlier than anyone else? Tired of studying for your business finance test? GET YOUR MENTAL ABs IN.

Here's an explanation of what imagery is and how to best use it:
http://www.appliedsportpsych.org/resource-center/resources-for-athletes/sport-imagery-training/

And here's a great article on Olympic athletes and their experiences with imagery: http://www.nytimes.com/2014/02/23/sports/olympics/olympians-use-imagery-as-mental-training.html

Monday, July 18, 2016

Success in Summer Ball


                                                                                               (photo credit: photos.oregonlive.com)

It's July 18th, and summer ball is all around. I mean, it's everywhere. Travel ball has 18u, 17u, 16u...heck they go all the way down to 8u. Little Johnny and Tommy are getting shuttled all around the country to play the best teams their tournament fees can buy.

At the collegiate level, summer wood bat leagues are knee deep into the hot summer grind. While some hitters try to continue their hot streak from their spring seasons, others were happy to have a second Opening Day.

Let's get this straight: the summer is about development. 

No matter what age you are, it's not about as much about winning a summer championship (those are nice, too), as it is about personal development of your skills, your craft and developing committed hitting approaches.

Summer ball often provides an opportunity to see better pitching. Whatever league you are invited to play in will have an assembly line of pitchers who were among the best on their respective high school or collegiate teams. If you're a travel baller or high school hitter, you're likely seeing pitchers who have been bused or flown in just to face your team in pool play.

Facing pitchers that you have no scouting report on, in sizzling hot and muggy climates where exhaustion can creep in, with new teammates and coaches to prove yourself in front of, and a high school or college to represent...can create a lot of challenges and pressures. And as a collegian, your coaches have asked for you to improve on a skill or approach over the summer. Whew.

If you want to dominate this summer, heed this advice.

1.) Show up early. Earlier than everyone. Every day. Get better in the cages before the coaches ever show up for BP.

2.) Be process oriented. Focus on seeing the ball well and getting good pitches to hit.

3.) Play aggressively. No one plays well when timid or passive, especially against better competition.

4.) Develop self-awareness. The summer provides a more relaxed atmosphere for focusing on your thoughts, making adjustments and finding a way to improve. No one has homework in July. Become your own best teacher. If you can teach a skill, you can master it.

5.) Invest your time. Buy a couple of good books. Buy a notebook and take notes on your at bats, pre-game and during game thoughts, etc. There are a lot of long road trips in the summer, and an iPhone, Xbox or Men's Fitness magazine are really just a short-sighted waste of time. Everyone should have some down time, but summer ball provides an enormous amount of down time. Invest that time into something that will give you dividends upon your return to school ball.

6.) Work out. Hard. So many players waste their opportunity to improve their strength, flexibility and athleticism because they are afraid of playing sore or just flat can't get off the couch. You should be sore while playing in summer ball, that means you're lifting hard, too. Great achievement requires great sacrifice. Set a plan into action with an aggressive growth goal and attack the weights or yoga !

7.) Have fun! Everyone wants an opportunity to play pro ball, and this is as close to playing every day as many will get. Enjoy the opportunity to play in front of big crowds at night, meet new teammates, invent new rain delay antics and learn more about this beautiful game and about yourself!

Saturday, July 16, 2016

Solving Problems: Focus on Rhythm and Tempo


                                                                                                         (photo credit: m.mlb.com)


So many hitters focus on their hands, their hips, their posture, their stride. These are integral chains in the kinetic function of the swing. However, often these problems are not problems, rather they are symptoms of the problem.

When you have a cough, the cough is not the problem, it is a symptom of the problem. You have a virus or perhaps even allergies, and your body responds by producing mucus that drains into your throat. Gross.

A doctor knows he can help you manage the symptoms of the virus, but ultimately, you cannot get rid of a virus with cough syrup or throat lozenges. A doctor would tell you to eat well, exercise, and wash your hands frequently.

To best avoid viruses (or weak contact), you have to focus on the first step in the chain of events, your body's inability to fight the virus efficiently.

The same is true of hitting. We must attack the problem, which often requires understanding a body's ability to operate as efficiently as possible. That is, we want to maximize power (force and acceleration) translating into the ball. Sounds complicated.

You want complicated? Check out this swing.

Fangraphs recently had an intriguing article on Jason Howard's inefficiency. The article clearly showcases his weaknesses, and how they have actually shifted, though they are exacerbated.

Heyward has attempted to make adjustments to his approaches and swing. It seems as though he is attempting to hit more pitches that are elevated in the zone (a positive concept), without creating a swing, and most importantly, a rhythm, that will allow for him to do so efficiently. The Fangraphs article presents symptoms of the problem.

Regardless, Heyward has always had a problem: he has poor rhythm at the plate. His pre-swing movements are short and quick, violent almost. His hands move quickly away from the pitcher and snap forward with average control. While I am not a fan of Heyward's swing path, he could immediately make himself a better hitter, with more consistent barrel contact, by only changing this load rhythm and tempo.

                                                                                                   (photo credit: chronicle.augusta.com)

RHYTHM

Rhythm: a strong, regular and repeated pattern of movement.

If you watch highlights of Heyward hitting, he has problematic rhythm. His load and stride conclude at the same time. This is bad. When the front foot HEEL lands, a hitter must hit. For Heyward, his load rhythm is the first place the kinetic chain breaks down.

Great hitters finish the negative motion of their load (while continually moving, allowing the barrel to turn) prior to their stride foot HEEL hitting the ground.

Watch these dudes:

Josh Donaldson

Barry Bonds

Andrew McCutcheon

Miguel Cabrera

TEMPO

To have the ability to consistently square the ball up, we must have consistent, regular and repeated patterns of movement. Secondarily, we must have excellent tempo. Few hitters pay attention to their tempo.

Tempo is speed or pace and usually is related to music.The tempo of a hitter's load is the speed of movement between when hand or arm movements change direction. Many hitters have a circular load, while others bounce up and down. The speed with which those movements cycle is the tempo of the load. Within a swing, we want our tempo to be more Jack Johnson than AC/DC.

We can pick apart any hitter, including Jason Heyward, and find faults in their stance, grip, stride, slotting, barrel turn, hand path, etc., but first, we must evaluate the speed of their load.

Learn a consistent load rhythm and tempo, and you will be amazed at how many of the problems found in the kinetic chain of the swing stay in sync.

(photo credit: baseball-cards-and-collectibles.com)

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Hitting Off-Speed Pitches (redux)


      (photo credit: hubpages.com)


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 mis-analyses in coaching jargon. Let’s take a look at two of them.

OFF-SPEED COACHING MIS-ANALYSIS #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 MIS-ANALYSIS #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.

Most hitters can pull an off-speed pitch down the pull-side line, way out in front. We want our hitters able to drive a good off-speed pitch to the middle and slight-oppo side of the field.

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Major League HItters Make Impressive Adjustments


                                                                                                      (photo credit: kpay.com)


I’m constantly impressed by what big league hitters do at the plate. Perhaps the most impressive skill big leaguers have is their ability to execute approaches to a scouting report, and to adjust to an opponents’ scouting report on them. 

Colleges have lots of information on opposing pitchers, hitters and defenses. Companies like “Inside Edge” and “College Spray Charts” give teams crystal clear information on what hitters’ and pitchers’ tendencies are. At the professional level, these players play every single day, so the information is even more consistent and accurate. In the show, there are cameras, algorithms, Statcast, QuesTec and numerous sabermetrical data, video and endless analysis, available at the touch of a button, for any hitter, pitcher or coach at any time.

Baseball players are creatures of routine, and thus, creatures of habit. These habits are evident in the data. General managers hire advanced scouts and mathematicians to dissect the information and create pitching sequences, offensive approaches and defensive shifts to stymie the opposition.
With all of this information and advanced planning going against hitters, they still hit, and many of them hit very well.

Great hitters know that pitchers must pitch inside on them to speed up their timing. Great pitchers know they cannot live in or live away on any big league hitter; they must mix locations and speeds. Hitters know this same information. With so much shared information, and so much talent on the mound, what does the pitcher-hitter battle come down to? Toughness and execution.

Watch a Sports Center highlight of a big league game, and pay attention to where all of the hard hit balls are. Nearly all of them are over the middle of the plate. Mistakes. Big leaguers crush mistakes. The elite of the elite can cover more pitches than others. They handle the ball a few more inches in, away, up or down, and they know which pitch pitches they personally handle well. Miguel Cabrera can hit whatever he wants to hit when he’s going well. He’s an outlier. Bryce Harper and Mike Trout are similarly un-pitchable if they are locked in.

Big league hitters play nearly every day: 28 days a month; and they don’t wake up and drive a nice short commute to work every day. They take several flights each week, across states, across country, through the night. Then they get ready, get prepared, get focused, and rake.

When a pitcher knows your weakness, and a defense knows your spray chart patterns, and you adjust to hit hard the pitches you get, that is impressive. It takes trust, confidence and emotional security to do something different than you are wired to do.


When a dead pull fastball hitter sits on a breaking ball and hits a sacrifice fly to the opposite field, that is impressive. Of course, it’s easy to say that’s what he should do. The game isn’t that simple though. 

Big league hitters have swings that they fine tune, though many are imperfect, and they mostly swing at pitches that work within their swing planes and approaches. When they know they will get something different than what they are good at, and make the change to attack that pitch or that side of the plate, that is good hitting. That is mature hitting. 

Sunday, March 27, 2016

Hitting Emotion: What is Your EQ?


(photo credit: bamboo-inspiration.com)


Baseball is a sport whose athletes thrive on emotion. Those who control their emotion win, those who let it control them, lose.

A hitter’s IQ is important, but not as important as his EQ: emotional quotient. This is the mental game.

Acquiring a strong EQ means maturing as a person, as a leader. Hitters that complain, pout or show negative body language are focused on recent and past failure, and are scared that the future will hold more of the same. Hitters that throw equipment or shove their helmet into the rack might be worried that they aren’t good enough or cannot make an adjustment.

Know this: the moment that a human definitely commits one’s self to a growth mindset, everything changes.

When that commitment comes, three concepts will be applied.

It takes patience to trust the process. It takes serious passion to work hard enough to trust that process will pay off. If you don’t have patience, passion AND a work ethic, you will likely be a roller coaster ride of success.

So, how high is your EQ?

Nothing is more common than unfulfilled talent. It takes a high EQ to fulfill your talent. So many hitters have average ability, and top notch EQ, and they get the job done at a high level. They are always on base and execute big swings. So why does talent fail? Talent fails when it listens to fear, doesn’t work hard enough, doesn’t trust the process, and doesn’t hit with passion. We need all three.

Lots of hitters try to hit well. They show up. They hit a lot. They work on their swings. The best prepare their minds to be relentless, aggressive and confident while they prepare their bodies. When the game challenges them, their minds are ready, and they are in control of their bodies to put their best swing on the ball.  

The difference between preparing well, and preparing well enough to win, is small. When cooked to 211 degrees, water is simply very hot. At 212 degrees, that hot water produces steam that can power a locomotive. One degree is the difference.

Perhaps the greatest example of patience and process can be found with the giant timber bamboo. It must be watered daily and requires lots of water to grow. In the first three years, a planted giant timber bamboo seed does not grow one inch. Then, in the third year, it will grow 90 feet in 60 days. One must be passionate, process oriented and patient to grow giant timber bamboo.


You see, it’s not just what we do, it’s how we do it that matters. Tee work, drill work, mirror work, video work, machine work, live throwing, soft toss, front toss. If we do not prepare the mind during each of these activities, we miss out on our extra one degree. 

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Adjustment Making

(photo credit: sportsrants.com)


Hitting success is not about doing one thing well. Great hitters fine tune their swings, work relentlessly in the cages, and they play with confidence. Most importantly, they make adjustments quickly.

One of the greatest compliments a coach can pay a hitter is that he makes quick adjustments. Adjustment makers at the plate know what they do well, and know how the pitcher will attack him (dependent on the pitcher's stuff). When you are struggling at the plate, or get out with a certain pitch type or location, expect to see that pitch again. Did you get roasted on a fastball in? The first or last pitch of your next at bat will likely be the same pitch. Popped up on breaking ball away? Expect to see that same pitch early or late in your next count.

Conversely, once you establish a track record of high level success, smart pitchers and pitching coaches will try the opposite. If you're Miguel Cabrera, and the pitcher roasts you inside in your first AB, you may sit on a fastball away your next at bat. That pitcher expects a great hitter to make an adjustment, and works to confuse him by throwing the opposite.

This isn't over-thinking. This is simple human behavior.

Bad hitters get themselves out the same way over and over. They are fearful of missing a pitch. They are distracted by much, so they are committed to nothing.

These hitters don't know who they are. To be the best hitter you can be, you must be real with yourself. Sure, you want to be a doubles, triples guy...but you aren't...yet. So, understand that pitchers are going to attack you with fastballs, particularly in, until you show the ability to hit that pitch hard.

Many hitters don't know who they are, and no one has helped them identify who they are, so they simply look for what they want to hit (usually a fastball down the middle). Hitters who don't know who they are often have been taught or have learned to have an approach that actually minimizes success by maximizing contact, albeit weak. Envision the compact, linear hand path mechanics with an approach that says hit the ball up the middle. Stay back. Hit the top of the ball. Vomit.

Coaches must help hitters understand their physical limitations (if any) and help that hitter, encourage that hitter, to have swing mechanics...and approaches, for goodness sake, that match those mechanics.

This is adjustment making of a different variety. Truly, doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result, that's idiocy. I say this not out of cynicism, but rather from a perspective that we can and should work smarter than this.

Here are a lists of types of adjustments that hitters can and should think about making:

1.) Grip: so many young hitters simply pick the bat up incorrectly.

2.) Separation: a Porsche 911 Turbo GT cannot accelerate from 0 to 60 in 20 feet. Acceleration requires space. Create separation to allow for the creation of bat speed.

3.) Load and stride tempo: If you load quickly, you will hit inconsistently. If you load too slowly, your body will stop movement at the furthest most point of separation, and you will struggle to re-accelerate your bat. A body in motion stays in motion.

4.) Pre-at bat body language and self-talk. No one wants to coach or be an energy vampire: they suck.

5.) On deck routine: establish one that promotes positive energy, a cohesive and committed plan, and swing mechanics that will actually be used in the at bat.

6.) Box position. Standing in the same place in the batters box every pitch is as brainless as never swerving to avoid an accident. In life, we must position ourselves for success. Pitchers make the ball sink, run, dive, they attack us in, they pitch up in the zone, they pitch down in the zone. Make adjustments.

7.) Track your at bats. If you don't take notes in class, you won't do well on the test. Our memories are very, very poor at recall without practice.

Saturday, January 23, 2016

How to Win Opening Day


(photo credit: 965thefox.com)

Opening Day is a beautiful thing. The grass is just the right height, the sun seems to always peek out from behind the clouds, and the heartbeats of hitters everywhere echoe throughout ballparks. 

Hitting is hard, but it is simple. Opening Day is no different. Here's a short take on how to hit your best, from the very start of the season. 

1.) Prepare every day like it's Opening Day. When you practice fast, practice with energy and crank the pulse up every day, you learn how to be in control of yourself when the game gets quick. 

2.) Hit what you are going to get. You're the 4 hole hitter. You hit 15 jacks last season. Sitting on first pitch fastballs all day doesn't make much sense. Understand how you would pitch yourself, and commit to those approaches. 

3.) Aggressive under control. Everyone with a pulse gets fired up for Opening Day. Many are so jacked up, they look like the Ultimate Warrior in Wrestlemania VI. Breathe. 1-2-3-4. One in, two out, three in, four out. Simple. Controllable. Now your body can attack the baseball without tension.

4.) Hunt elevation. So many pitches on Opening Day are left over the plate and elevated. Don't be in such a rush to do damage that you swing at the first fastball you see. Get a good pitch to hit.

5.) Stay committed to your approach/ get into that bullpen. If the pitch you are hunting isn't there, grind out a 5 or 6 pitch AB. Starting pitchers' stuff will wain quickly on Opening Day, and almost everyone's middle relief has lesser stuff than their starting staff. Get into that pen.

6.) Be early on any fastball you anticipate. Most hitters don't find themselves out in front of fastballs on Opening Day. We "just miss" and fly out to center field, foul it straight back or pop out to second base a mile high. Don't give away at bats because you miss good fastballs to hit.

7.) Visualize today as the 20th game of the season, and you are hitting .350/.450/.550. Envision the ball jumping off of your bat with extra-base-flight. When you feel like you've been swinging it well, you're much more likely to be in the present moment. Everyone loves the clean slate that Opening Day provides. Get a leg up on the competition by visualizing that you have already had a great start.

8.) Be TOUGH: hunt free bases. Early games are often won with BBs, HBPs and errors, not three-run homers. Toughness to stay in the box and toughness to get down the line on a routine ground ball or pop up can often mean one more run in any game, particularly early in the season.

9.) Seek to bunt. Defenses are most rusty in the first week of the season. Some teams haven't even been outside yet! Everyone has practiced catching weak fly balls. Challenge the opponent's defense.

10.) Routines: set them and stick to them. 

What will your routine be when you show up to the field on Opening Day? Do you plan to show up to the locker room at 9:50 when you need to be ready at 10? Create good habits that will allow for you to be in control and adjust to adversity. Those who are rushed create excuses. 

Be early, not on time. What about your pre-game hitting routines? How will you get loose? Shouldn't it be the same every day?

Think about your on deck routines. Does what you do create mental and physical preparedness for what will actually need to do in your AB? Do you take half-hearted swings that don't get you prepared. 

Work smart. Confidence will come from your preparation and your routines.