Hitting a baseball is arguably the hardest feat to do in all of sports - and teaching it is even tougher. At our most recent baseball roundtable discussion, we tackled the subject of hitting and dissected it from several different angles. With everything we have to offer, there is still quite a lot we don’t know and having conversations with players and coaches from the area is a great way to create a collaborative learning environment. These discussions really push our organization forward and it is a great joy to be able to share our experiences with others while also learning from theirs.
Being in the private sector has given us the opportunity to see different swings, work with different kinds of players, absorb different ideas, and experiment with various tools, cues, and drills. Through this, we have ultimately learned that there is no “cookie cutter” model when teaching hitting. As a coach, it is crucial that you learn how to work with different athletes by building a large toolbox. Certain athletes are going to respond to different cues, drills, or implements you use with them. Your effectiveness as a coach is going to be minimal if you don’t have the ability to find something that works for several different athletes. Speak multiple languages with your hitters. Know how they think, what they feel, and what they need to be successful in the box.
From a player’s perspective, it is imperative you understand one language - your own. Know what helps you feel good in the box and what you need to do to create those feelings. Understand your strengths and use them to compensate for what you don’t do so well. Know your routines, mindset, and approach down to a tee. Know the bad habits we tend to fall into and how we can make adjustments from game to game. You’re going to experience different coaches, training environments, and situations throughout your playing career. If you want to be able to navigate these with consistent success, start to take ownership of your training. With all the information out today, there is no excuse for you to become a victim of your circumstances. Do your homework, know thyself.
A quote Carmen always comes back to is: “You either like it, love it, or live it.” You as a player are the only one that can answer that question for yourself. To play this game at a high level requires discipline, sacrifice, and an uncommon commitment to greatness. For you to get to the levels you want to go, you need to be honest with yourself. You need to know exactly where you are as a player, where you want to go, and what you need to do to get there. This is why it is crucial you have the right coaches around you. Don’t seek a coach that tells you how good you are - find someone who can be honest with you and tell you things you don’t want to hear. If we lie to kids because we want them to feel good, we are doing them a disservice. Be honest with your kids and be willing to have difficult conversations. It’s only going to help them in the long run.
As talked about before, one thing we always come back to when training hitters is putting a premium on your practice. An idea Carmen brought up from Bobby Valentine to reinforce this was Bobby’s 6 P’s: “Proper Preparation Prevents Piss Poor Performance.” The success - or lack of - that you have on the field is going to reflect the quality and consistency of your training. If you aren’t having the success you think you should be in games, it’s worth revisiting how you’re preparing for competition. As Abraham Lincoln once said, “Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharping the ax.”
With the conclusion of the World Series happening this week, we decided to tie in the Nationals impressive series victory by bringing up a recent article talking about Juan Soto’s unique approach in the box. The thing that really stuck out to us was how his father Juan Sr. trained him to become a big league caliber player. Check out this excerpt from Juan Sr. in the article below:
It's like I always told him -- when you get into the batter's box to hit, you own that space. Nobody can intimidate you. On the contrary, those guys [the pitchers] are the ones who should be afraid of you. And you have to show them why.
We love this approach because it emphasizes the importance of competing with confidence. If you don’t have a strong belief in yourself and your abilities as a hitter, you will crumble when faced with adversity. Confidence is something Soto never lacked growing up - and it’s a big reason why he’s been able to have success at the MLB level in some of the game’s biggest stages.
Another theme that drove our conversation was the idea of “mechanics cure all.” If players aren’t having success on the field, most coaches jump right to the mechanics part and try to make tricky mechanical adjustments in the middle of the competitive season. While most of these coaches are well intentioned, we don’t agree with this approach at all. We believe there is a checklist of boxes you need to go through before you try to change a player’s movement patterns. We do this because:
- It is very hard to make meaningful mechanical changes.
- Our thoughts are going to have a direct correlation to our physical movement patterns. Think about how your swing is going to look like when swinging for the fences vs. trying to hit a ground ball.
- Everyone is different. How do you know the changes you’re trying to create are optimal for that athlete?
- Research consistently shows players with an external focus of attention (over an internal focus of attention) perform better in game situations. Making mechanical changes creates a tendency to focus internally as opposed to externally.
There is a time and place to focus on movement patterns, but this cannot be your only tool as a coach. Kids need to learn and practice tools that help them compete in the batter’s box. If a player is struggling in the batter’s box, we suggest you go through this checklist before even thinking about touching their mechanics:
- How is the player seeing the ball? Visual misreads can account for a large array of physical mistakes which include timing, pitch recognition, premature weight shift, wrist roll, poor direction, and knowledge of the strike zone. If you have kids struggling with vision, make sure they’re getting two eyes on the pitcher in their stance. Kids who really close off their front shoulder will have a difficult time doing this. There are seven muscles in each eye - use them to your advantage. Sandy Koufax illustrated this idea best when he said the best hitters he ever saw all picked him up with two eyes.
- Do they have a plan/approach at the plate? How are they managing the strike zone? In the article from above, Juan Soto talked about hunting one pitch in one location. If hitters are looking for everything, they’re not ready for anything. A lot of the “funks” we get ourselves into are because we’re lost our ability to manage the strike zone. The strike zone is to baseball is what the line of scrimmage is to football - teams that win both win games. See our previous blog post for more information about how to build an approach in the box.
- How are they breathing? The belly breath does a multitude of things to help get us in a state of mind where we can relax and trust in our training. If you have an athlete who can’t control their nerves, teaching them how to breathe is a great place to start.
- What are their thought patterns when playing? The best athletes in the world think very little in competition. Considering the reactionary nature of sports, players simply don’t have time to think. Confident players play with their eyes. Players who lack confidence become victim of their negative thought patterns. If you have an athlete struggling with this, it’s worth developing some positive self-talk.
- What do they see/feel when they’re having success? Some simple awareness can provide players with a strong foundation for how to get back on track. If you can reconnect with times where the player was at their best through visuals (pictures/film), helpful cues, or drills, you can get them back on their feet much quicker without any mechanical interventions.
- Are they feeling any external pressure from coaches, parents, teammates, or scouts? The last thing you want to do is turn games into a three-hour timeout. Games should be exciting for kids - it’s their opportunity to show the hard work they’ve put in to refine their skills. Give them the freedom to compete, make mistakes, ultimately be themselves on the field. Players will never be able to let their abilities shine if they’re constantly worried about screwing up.
When looking at movement patterns in athletes, it’s important to understand principles vs. styles. Principles are key movements that all high level hitters share while styles are slight variations in swings that help different hitters be successful. For example, a principle for hitters would be the front leg firming and bracing after landing while a style would be a leg kick vs. toe tap timing mechanism. As a coach, you want to be able to teach the principles of the swing while allowing for room for individualization. You don’t want to try to teach styles as if they’re principles - you’re more likely to coach athletes out of beneficial patterns. We all have a unique fingerprint as to how we move - don’t coach kids out of these movements.
Two positions we try to put a premium on with hitters are the stance and foot plant. In a hitter’s stance, the athlete should be in a position of balance where their head is over their belly button and they have a slight bend in their knees. They should have two eyes on the pitcher and be in a position where they can get a clear visual of the ball coming in. Athletes should also have some sort of movement/rhythm in their stance whether it be their barrel or feet. We don’t want to stand still like a statue in the box - we want to match the movement the pitcher is creating.
Stances allow for quite a bit of variation between athletes. Some examples include the width of your base, standing taller/lower, starting open or closed, the position of your hands/bat, and the angle of your back foot. Give kids the freedom to experiment with different things, but always make sure the big rocks are in play when trying new moves. As for common faults, we see a lot of athletes who are very still in the box, start with their weight heavily on their backside, and close off their front shoulder quite a bit. A helpful cue we like to use to help create good head/eye positions is “try to watch your favorite TV show in centerfield.”
At foot plant, athletes should again land in balance with their head over their center of mass (belly button). They should be in a hinge position where their glutes are behind their heels and their chest is over the plate. Both heels hold the ground and knees stay between the athlete’s feet. Visual field for the athlete is in front of the ball. Hands are inside elbows with the top hand angled slightly in front of the bottom hand. The hands remain down the line of the pitch and do not get lost far behind the athlete’s torso. The barrel is angled over the athlete’s center of mass and roughly shares a vertical relationship to the ground.
The shoulders are going to be in an attacking position where the back shoulder is slightly higher than the front shoulder and the back elbow is up (some guys slot a little sooner than others). The shoulders are also going to remain closed while the hips slightly open - creating hip/shoulder separation. This gives the athlete the ability to store energy just the way you would when pulling a rubber band back. The anchor point to pull back from would be the lower half and the rubber band pulling back would be the upper half.
While these are some general rules of thumb, there are plenty of athletes that do things differently (see below). While we wouldn’t necessarily teach some of these positions, we definitely wouldn’t coach them out of kids if they had a lot of success with them. Some moves are going to be easier to get away with when the velocity isn’t as demanding, so keep an eye on how patterns fair against better competition. Adjust accordingly, but don’t jump to make changes if they don’t look aesthetically pleasing. Mechanics don’t win baseball games - competitors do.
Kyle Tucker "keeping his knob to the catcher"
As for some common flaws, we see kids over rotate their shoulders, lose balance and get stuck on their backside, dive into the plate and lose their hinge, land with their torso vertical to the ground, and lose angles with their upper half. As for teaching points, we like to start with the lower half and see how everything organizes itself from there. Teach kids how to hinge, create a positive move forward, get a bigger base, and work the hip line into the ground while keeping weight distribution in the middle of both feet. Kids will seek to create tension in bad places (ex: counter-rotating the shoulders) if they can’t create it with the lower half.
As for the upper half, give kids a general rule of thumb and let them experiment by picking up different bats and getting a feel for how the hands and barrel want to work. For example, long bats can help guys who lose angles over the plate and short bats can help kids who lose their hands behind their torso. Take note of what works and be as creative as you’d like. The less verbal cueing the better.
Below are some other thoughts about the swing that were brought up throughout our discussion:
- Get kids to work on creating a slightly uphill swing plane. A lot of kids that we see come in with really steep attack angle (hands directly to ball) that makes it very difficult to square up pitches in the air. A lot of this can be cleaned up in kids with good cueing (ex: hit it high and hard).
From The Science of Hitting by Ted Williams
- Be careful when teaching kids to “keep their weight back.” Our intention is to move forward. The load is not going to be a move where the athlete shifts their weight towards the catcher. Get kids to gain ground and create a positive move towards the pitcher. See our past blog post for more information about this.
- Where your head goes, your body will follow. If the head cannot stabilize after foot plant, the athlete’s body will continue to drift forward and out of contact. After foot plant, you want athletes to rotate around an imaginary steel rod that runs from their midsection out through the top of their head. If the torso rotates above this line, athletes will have the tendency to “pull off” the ball.
- Contact should come out in front off of the lead leg. When working on the tee, make sure it is set up in front of the athlete so they can catch the ball out in front. If you have an athlete that can’t get the ball off the ground, give them a visual in front of the plate where contact should happen.
- The back knee should create an inside move after foot plant where it works down and in as the rear hip starts to rotate forward and the front hip firms/braces. The ground is your best friend as a hitter - use it to your advantage.
- Beware of “one plane swings.” Athletes are going to have to make adjustments to a multitude of pitches in games. Don’t just let them tee off on a pitch middle-middle belt down - get them to learn how to drive a variety of pitches.
Posture varies based on the location of the pitch
If you want the itinerary or full sheet of visuals from the event, reach out and we can send those to you!
Feel free to reach out with any questions or concerns. Keep learning, growing, and doing damage in the box.