By Jacob Garsez, Head Coach, University of Antelope Valley
Coaches are always looking for ways to prepare their hitters for game success. I have learned throughout my years of coaching that the implementation of hitting is more important than the information. Although our approach is always evolving, we have found a way to teach hitters to improve their swings bio-kinetically and prepare them to compete at game speed.
Developing the Fundamentals of the Swing
The foundation of our hitting philosophy is developing rhythm and timing natural to each hitter. If a hitter doesn’t create consistent rhythm and timing that allows them to get to their launch position on time, then there are no other physical aspects of the swing that can be addressed. Hitters that are late and get in a poor position to hit tend to demonstrate hitting flaws such as reaching for baseballs, pulling off the ball, losing posture and other inconsistencies at contact. A hitter that is on time with a strong base can initiate their swing with the lower half, which paves the way for a bat path that stays in the zone most efficiently. It also allows their hands to be last, which puts the hitter in a better position to adjust to varying pitch speeds and locations.
We spend a significant amount of time improving our ability to control our center of mass as we stride towards the pitcher. It doesn’t need to be a large movement like a leg kick, but during the load, the arms/bat and front leg should be in sync, thus creating optimum separation. That separation allows the kinetic chain to start properly, ultimately improving our chances of controlling our center of mass into our plant foot and through rotation.
How we practice this:
- Walk-in tee to create the proper rhythm and sequence of the linear part of the swing. Most do this tee drill, but we make it a staple of what we do.
- Hop forward/Hop Back tee to help athletes feel the weight on the inner part of their back leg, which is a major part of controlling their center of mass.
- Balance Tee- start with your stride leg at the peak of your load and your arms/bat at the bottom of the load, creating the feel of maximum separation. Land softly, balanced, and not in a hurry; athletes with a small stride or no stride might have to exaggerate to get to ‘balance,’ but this helps improve their ability to control their center of mass into a launch position.
- Balance front toss is the same as balance tee.
Most importantly, we never give a player hitting instruction if they do not get in a good position consistently.
I believe that hitting is a rotational movement. During rotation, the longer hitters stay connected with their arm angles and the more separation they create between their lower and upper halves, the more torque they can create through rotation, resulting in better extension through the ball and more swing adjustability.
One way we practice this is the no stride drills series- from the tee, front toss or during BP. This is our bread and butter when teaching this portion of the kinetic chain. Although hitters create linear energy through the momentum of their stride and the proper sequence of separation allows the energy to transfer from linear to rotational, they still need to know what it feels like to continue to create energy rotationally and not through momentum. Because the no-stride drills take rhythm, timing, and momentum away from hitters, they are forced to create their power through rotation alone, while using connectivity to be efficient to and through the baseball. Another tool we use is exit velocity tee/soft toss/BP, which encourages our hitters to feel how their bodies naturally work to create the most power.
Separating swing development from competing
Competing is the most important aspect of hitting. It is difficult to compete without a clear and focused mind; therefore most the time we take BP we do it with a clear and focused mind on one thing…COMPETING.
Teaching Hitters to Understand Different Approaches
We design our batting practice to challenge hitters by teaching them to hit in different counts against different types of pitchers. Most of our BP rounds consist of four swings and involve a mix of fastballs and breaking balls. We vary our rounds to teach our hitters to attack certain pitches, while reacting to those they can handle- we put a lot of emphasis on quality takes.
Sometimes our BP rounds are just focused on game execution and other times on approach, pitch selection and recognition. Eventually, we will combine everything, which helps to make BP more realistic to in-game demands. Oftentimes a hitter just needs a ground ball to the right side or a fly ball in the outfield, but they always need a plan!
We have BP stations that help prepare our hitters’ minds to compete in these moments. When they exit the cage, the first station is a quick evaluation of their previous round and release. The second station is the visualization of the proper ball flight, pitch selection, and execution of the next round. The last stations are their ‘in the hole’ and ‘on deck’ routines. During the actual round, it’s just about trusting their bodies to work and execution.
Sometimes we’ll put a twist on this and have the in the hole hitter perform some kind of conditioning to elevate his heart rate, or by not giving them an approach and instead telling our BP pitcher to establish how they’re going to attack the hitters and while they wait their turn, they communicate and create their own plan to execute.
We also have a “2 Strike Drill” where our BP pitcher throws an array of two-strike pitches that keep hitters off balance. The team must work together to execute two strike contact ten consecutive times to complete the drill. Each time we strike out, we perform a different type of conditioning. Not only do players compete under pressure as the conditioning demands increase, they compete with an elevated heart rate. This teaches them to control their breathing, trust their plan, block out distractions, and ultimately improves their ability to compete while working together as a team.
In addition to our coach pitch BP, we hit off a machine often, typically with a plus fastball or breaking ball, gradually increasing the difficulty level of each pitch all the time.
The separation of swing development and competition is important. Brain research shows it is impossible to multi-task, so why would we ever ask our hitters to do so? Therefore, hitting with one specific goal in mind allows our hitters to concentrate better in the moment. As coaches, the better we can simulate live pitcher hitter interface the more prepared our hitters will be. Concepts such as those mentioned in this article not only provide an alternative to live hitting, when pitchers have a day off, they also provide an increased amount of repetitions in a similar game like mindset. A hitter might walk away from a scrimmage with four plate appearances, but can walk away from our BP competing in a similar mindset, with four times the repetitions.