Do baseball hitting coaches teach what they really see?

Player development is a huge topic currently and a lot did change due to the statcast numbers. Many players have improved their swings and became starts out of nowhere. The most famous examples of this are probably Josh Donaldson, Jose Bautista and JD Martinez but also many other guys like Daniel Murphy and Justin Turner.

However when listening to broadcasts you will still hear many of the old cues or the broadcasters will speak in a derogative way of the what they call “launch angle swing”. They will call players selfish and not caring about Ks but of course the term launch angle swing is stupid because every swing has a launch angle and it has been proven that launch angles of about 10-30 degrees are ideal. https://community.fangraphs.com/evaluating-statcast-hit-type-boundaries/

And even for the softer hitters an angle of about 5-20 degrees is most productive, only balls at 20+ degrees are extremely exit velocity sensitive.

Now here are some cues we are hearing daily in broadcasts and also still by many coaches although there are more and more “new style” coaches even in pro ball like for example Jason Ochart at the Phillies or Jeff Albert at the Cardinals (formerly Astros).

Cue 1: Squish the bug

This is a quite common cue. The idea behind it is that the squishing motion (turning the leg inwards on the ball of the rear leg) drives the hip turn and allows the hitter to stay back.

https://imgur.com/VwuioG7

However this is not really what we see with elite hitters. Elite hitters often have their back foot off the ground and their weight against the inside of the front leg. You don’t want to climb too much on the front leg and still stay behind the front side but the weight does transfer with the swing. Force plate measurements have shown up to like 1.5 times the body weight of force on the front foot.

https://imgur.com/eSmft0B

Cue 2: Extension at contact

You often hear after a homer “he got full extension at this one”. A common teach is to extend the arms to move the knob of the bat to the ball while keeping the bat lagged and then like a whip throw the bat head forward.

https://imgur.com/kxszitA

But when watching pros this is not really what happens.

With many homers the arms are still bent a lot. On pitches middle in the arms often form a „box“ with both elbows bent and on outside pitches the front arm tends to be more extended but the back arm still bent.

https://imgur.com/WrEKvMe

https://imgur.com/PQ9G9dv

The hands are not really pushed forward as the bat turns down in the zone.

You essentially want to turn the bat to the ball without pushing the knob forward and then extend through as you make contact reaching extension well after the ball has left the bat.

https://imgur.com/WuKz3f0

There are still hits with more extended arms but this is usually when the timing is early for example on an offspeed pitch. Because of that the deep contact with following extension works as a „timing reserve“ in case you are fooled by a pitch.

Generally the hands will maybe start slightly down but then level out quickly and go forward to slightly up (kind of like a “J” laying on the side)

Cue 3: Swing down

The shortest line between two points is a straight line, right? The bat starts higher than the head and makes contact below the waist. This means the shortest path is a diagonal line down.

https://imgur.com/F8Bf10o

However that is not what we see with the pros. Their bat turns down like a „C“ behind the body and then goes slightly up. This path is longer but since the pitch comes in a downward plane the slightly upward path means your bat is on plane longer and can hit the ball even if timing is off. This is not a new concept, Ted Williams described that in his book the science of hitting but this approach was replaced by the more linear direct path in the 70s and 80s in teaching and yet it is not what the best do so Williams was right. The best hitters in the game have a positive attack angle of like 10-15 degrees. More uppercut can help power production but might cause some more swing and misses while a lower attack angle of like 8-10 degrees might be ideal for conistency but not ideal for power output.

Early “online hitting guru” Jack Mankin already noticed that in the late 1990s

Cue 4: Don’t drop the back shoulder

Traditional teaching says don’t drop the back shoulder and make contact with level shoulders and a level bat.

https://imgur.com/dllfjtv

This is actually kinda correct on the high pitch at the letters. If the pitch is high dropping the bat too much indeed can be a flaw and this makes some good low ball hitters struggle against high heat. However on low pitches the back shoulder and bat head should actually drop. What you can see is that the bat is always about perpendicular to the spine (level to the top of the shoulders) and this whole axis tilts like a clock hand through the zone.

https://imgur.com/9KeI3yo

BTW even on high pitches the bat is usually not completely level. On high pitches the vertical barrel angle usually is at around negative 15-20 degrees and like 45 degrees on very low ones (numbers from DK Williardson’s book „Quantitative Hitting“.

Only on extremely high pitches you will see a level bat.
https://imgur.com/HlP9tsA

Players with a too flat vertical bat angle on lower pitches will often have trouble lifting pitches in the bottom half of the zone especially to the pull side. I talked about this in https://community.fangraphs.com/finding-keys-to-elevate-the-ball-more/ article and analysed Arenado’s swing in that regard. https://community.fangraphs.com/how-nolan-arenado-avoids-the-ground/

Cue 5: Keep the lead shoulder in

It is true that the lead shoulder shouldn’t rotate before foot plant. You actually want to keep the shoulders still while you start to open the hips into foot plant to create some separation but then the shoulders do turn well before contact.

Studies have shown that hip turn speed peaks slightly before trunk turn speed. Both peak relatively early in the swing (about 60 ms before contact with the swing taking 150m ms) and then slightly decelerate to allow the bat to accelerate past the trunk. This is called the kinetic chain (Forthenbaugh 2011).

Cue 6: Hit the ball on the ground

Many coaches like to teach backside grounders because the fielders need to make a play and youth hitters don’t have the strength to hit homers. However at the highest level launch angles of 10-30 degrees are the best. Those guys are strong but even for low exit velocities angles of 5-20 degrees play best.

Here are angles marked in a cage:
https://imgur.com/LT24zWC

We usually teach hit the L-Screen waist high in the cage and for preteen kids I do teach that too but for 12 and older kids I think it is ideal to hit the ball over the L-Screen because that zero degree cage liner is going to be a grounder in a game due to gravity pulling it down.

I’m not advocating swinging for homers but I think the goal should be to hit high liners with an apex height of like 15-30 feet (5-10m) at least for advanced youth players. Those hits have a very high chance to b e a single (over .500 BABIP) but also a good chance to be a double. Teaching to hit high liners thus is a good compromise between the „launch angle“ teaching and traditional hit for a base approaches.

Cue 7: Stay back

Before you swing you need to load the body up to generate maximum force. Many teach to go back and then forward. Some players indeed go back but it is important that the actual load occurs on the forward move. The head is not really staying back (see point #8) but after loading on the back hip it indeed goes forward and slightly down, but the weight tries to stay in the back hip until just befoe foot plant. While this forward move happens the body very slightly counter rotates and the hands go back some. It is very important that the hands load on the forward move and not while going back so the body can create stretch between the lower and upper body. Here is a good video of the load while going forward.

Staying back means keeping the weight on the back foot and keep the head still to wait better on soft stuff. However if you watch almost any pro hitter the head will actually move forward (and slightly down) but once the front heel is planted the head doesn’t move.

However while the head does move forward in relation to the ground it shouldn’t move ahead of the hips. The hips and trunk is very slightly coiling in and the head moves over the inside of the rear hip and stays there until foot plant. Some call this move forward yet back because the body is moving forward but with the rear hip and head going forward at the same rate. The body is essentially riding on the rear hip and then after the hips start to open the weight is transferred to the inside of the front foot.

Training hitting the modern way

In my last article http://batspeedfitness.com/?p=133 I promised writing a collection of swing training methods. While the first article was about correcting swing pattern deficiencies this is more about improving hit ability and power with training methods.

 

A good swing pattern with a well timed hip dissociation, a good load, good deceleration patterns and good swing path already does help batspeed and hitting ability. There is a movement in hitting coaching to worry more about intent and moving fast than moving well but I’m not in 100% agreement with this. It is certainly right that getting too anal about mechanics and especially styles is bad and the body has good self organisation abilities but I do think that certain movement foundations need to be laid at a sub maximal speed. For example some martial arts styles do practice punches and kicks in super slow motion so that a punch takes 20 seconds and only if the sensei is satisfied you are allowed to move faster. I’m not that extreme and some movements only work at a high intensity (like throwing arm layback) but I still think some moves need to be practiced at lower intensities first. That doesn’t mean you need to worry about every little detail before you can swing hard but not a fan either of just giving a kid a stick and tell him to crush the ball and the rest will be fine.

Yes it is true that hitting middle middle balls off the tee won’t make you a good hitter but if you have a kind who sucks off the tee busting him inside with 90 won’t make his body magically self organize into a good swing. Because of this I will asses mechanics and do a movement/mechanics block before I start with the following advanced training methods. You shouldn’t force a certain style (leg kick/hitch vs slide step/more direct load…) and worrying about little details won’t make you a better hitter either but certain movement basics just need to be there before you can worry about moving faster.

 

However once you have a certain proficiency in your movement and also a good base strength there are ways to improve your hitting which haven’t always been used by coaches. While I think some take the “challenge hitters” too far traditional practice has been too easy on hitters.

 

So here are some things you can do.

 

  • Making BP more game realistic

 

Driveline has written a lot about this. Here is a good article https://www.drivelinebaseball.com/2019/04/randomized-blocked-training-balancing-different-types-hitting-practice/

 

Basically, those method means you challenge hitters in BP by mixing in breaking balls and throw hard and well located instead of soft down the pipe. Reaction time is a critical factor as hitters have less than half of a second on 90+ MPH fastballs and really much less if you factor in decision time.

https://www.google.com/search?q=reaction+time+pitch&source=lnms&tbm=isch&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwio2N_a7dLiAhUILVAKHQl3AfwQ_AUIESgC&biw=1440&bih=818#imgrc=SsBbHND6pGRkQM:

This means both bad reaction time and pattern deficiencies can cause batters being late and you need to practice that. The best practice is obviously live at bats against elite pitchers like they do on driveline but there are alternatives if you don’t have that like the good old pitching machine or simply throwing from a shorter distance. For example at driveline they are doing short box hitting against a pitcher throwing like 70s from 50 feet.

 

Here is a conversion chart for reaction time. Just measure how hard you can comfortably throw and then calculate the right distance

https://cdn.shopify.com/s/files/1/2103/6709/files/Conversion_Chart_baseball.pdf?6526148161168650030

 

It should be noted that some studies suggest that there are other factors at work than reaction time so a short box equivalent 90 is not quite the same

https://twitter.com/dan_aucoin13/status/1122884323957334017

 

This means it is probably better to throw harder if you can and not just shorten the distance.

 

You also need to work on different locations. Pitches in games don’t just come down the pipe to practice all 4 corners. It is best to do so in a randomized manner but it is OK to work on a single location exclusively first but then make sure that you don’t cheat. A common cheat is to adjust stride direction, which is something you don’t have time for at 90+.

 

A beginner drill is for example the Tee 4 corners drill which you can use in warm up. Instead of just hitting balls down the pipe you place the ball on the corners (low/away, low/in, up/in, up/away) and then you hit 4 or 5 balls of each location. To make it tougher you can also locate the ball an inch or two out of the K zone to improve your bat path variability. Don’t go farther than that though or it can hurt mechanics. The progression for this would be front toss (ideally overhead) with the batter knowing what is coming and finally in a randomized manner.

 

  • Decision making

 

Plate discipline is very important. Swinging at balls creates more swings and misses and weaker contact. However while the focus of plate discipline for a long time was patience and seeing pitches it is equally important to not take mistakes by the pitcher. Against MLB pitching a hitter might see one mistake pitch per at bat and if he takes it or fouls it off he might not get another chance.

 

Improving plate discipline isn’t easy. It isn’t really about patience or a good eye but about the ability of your brain to project the second half of the pitch flight based on visual cues of the first half. This is because due to the speed the decision needs to be made a little past halfway.

 

There are some ways to train this. I would suggest to work at one edge at a time. For example if a hitter chases high pitches work on high pitches and ask him to pay great attention how a too high pitch comes out of the hand. The too high pitch for example will come out of the hand a little more horizontal while the high strike will have a gentle downward angle. Work until you master that edge and then go to the next one. Start with fastballs then breaking balls.

 

What you can also build a frame or ring that is standing halfway to home plate and if it passes it is likely a strike. This works best for fastballs and you have to do some angle calc to make it work (if you have a rectangle a little smaller than the zone (because of the widening pitch angle) the lower edge must be like 1.5 to 2 feet higher than knee height to account for the downward angle. Peter Fatse has created such a device https://twitter.com/fatse_baseball/status/1051833974811779072

Carlos santana for example mentioned that he imagines a circle halfway home in games and it worked for him. Those devices help you to see the correct tunnel of a strike. For breaking balls it is a bit more complicated though. A good way to go about this is to only swing at breaking balls that are in the upper half of the imagined circle. A good curve drops about a foot compared to a fastball and the average zone is like two feet high so this should be about correct. So if a fastball has to be about 3.5 feet off the ground to be a strike on the lower end at 30 feet a curve needs to be at least 4.5 feet high. You don’t really have to swing at any low tunnel breaking balls but the hard thing of course is to recognize them.

 

So a way to practice this would be to put a 4 feet high or so bar halfway to home plate and let a pitcher or machine throw curves or sliders so the batter sees the necessary height of a  breaking ball. The numbers are of course only an approximate example and not exact numbers.

 

https://twitter.com/dominikkeul/status/998950952186073088

 

Another way to practice pitch recognition with less effort is using vision apps. A good app I have tried is the uhit app https://decervo.com/ You see a virtual pitcher throwing and you need to tap the screen if it is a strike before the ball crosses home plate. After some time you learn the vectors out of the hand.

 

  • Power and batspeed

 

Batspeed is extremely important. It is directly correlated to power but it also helps the hit tool along with swing quickness to get around good heat.

 

A good way to improve is getting stronger. I won’t get into that much but you should do heavy compound lifts and also some explosive lifts. A good resource is for example the book “starting strength” by Mark Rippetoe https://startingstrength.com/ or for more advanced athletes the westside barbell system. For younger athletes BWEs and some lower impact plyometrics also work well.

 

Another method that is very effective is overload/underload training. It really was made famous by driveline but it was used in track and field by the soviet union since the 1970s at least. I have actually created an OL/UL program before driveline hitting was out http://batspeedfitness.com/?p=31 and I personally went from 65 mph batspeed to low 80s within like  2 months or so (it was zepp and swing speed radar though so likely it was 57 to 73 mph in reality?) but I would recommend the driveline program as this is much more sophisticated than my system.

https://www.drivelinebaseball.com/2017/01/training-hitters-overload-underload-implements/

 

Good drills are also med ball drills like this one at baseball rebellion

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SnxpIwvdzMo

A personal favorite of mine is the tire drill which I have created myself. You can see it here, it works on separation and power generation

http://batspeedfitness.com/?p=40

 

Hammer throw releases with a Kettle bell are great for turning and hip extension

https://twitter.com/dominikkeul/status/861597850874118144

 

A good drill to work on dissociation and elastic energy is this drill where you stand backwards and then first open the hips and then the upper body

http://batspeedfitness.com/?p=59

 

 

  • Improving launch angle

 

LA is a big topic in these days. It has been widely accepted that angles between 10 and 30 degrees produce the best results. EV is still more important but good angles can maximize your output for your athletic talent.

 

Some say there is a contact cost of LA but I couldn’t really find a strong effect.

https://community.fangraphs.com/is-launch-angle-having-a-contact-cost/

 

To improve LA and especially good EV at optimal LAs it can help to improve attack angle. I won’t go into the mechanics that are behind this in this article (have done so in other articles or maybe will in the future) but at sensors like blast or zepp can help to control for AA. Most believe an AA of around 10-15 degrees is ideal.

 

Also important especially for low pitches is the vertical bat angle. VBA varies from like 15-20 degrees to 40-45 depending on pitch height. The best low ball hitters have a VBA of around 45 degrees. I talked about this in this article https://community.fangraphs.com/finding-keys-to-elevate-the-ball-more/ but basically a too flat VBA can cause roll over and topspin on low pitches even with a positive AA (for higher pitches a lower VBA is slightly better though).

 

It can also help to mark LAs in a cage with ropes

https://twitter.com/dominikkeul/status/795318878368858113/photo/1

 

or build a wall out of screens in on field BP.

 

This are some methods to train for hitting. Again you of course need to asses the athlete and  see what he needs  whether it is flexibility, strength, mechanics or specific power and then train the athlete accordingly.

 

Drills for a modern swing

 

There are a lot of bad drills in baseball that promote bad patterns. Because of this I want to make a collection of drills that I think promote good patterns or at least not create bad patterns.

Some of the drills have been created by me, others by other coaches in the hitting community. If the latter is true of course I will give credit to the inventors. I will only show drills that I have tested personally.

 

Drill(s) 1:

A very good series of drills is the baseball rebellion rebels rack progression. It works on separation, posture and the turn. Here you can find the drills which are essentially dry turns.:

https://baseballrebellion.com/the-movements-that-made-the-rebellion/

 

If you don’t have a rebels rack you can also use a bat or a pvc pipe across the chest.

 

For a good hand and bat path I like those two one handed drills.

Rear arm: clamp a connection ball between forearm and upper arm and don’t release it until just before contact. Promotes a good elbow slotting and getting on plane early.

Drill 2:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SNWcvOQNBhg

Variation: if you tend to roll over stop with the arm extended and the bat pointing to the pitcher.

Drill 2b:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aW8vzo_mIio&feature=youtu.be

Drill 3:

Here is a lead arm drill. Clamp something between chest and biceps to promote “connection” but make sure the elbow is not down but away from the body (don’t clamp in arm pit but high on chest).

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vqzm9zcNXuU

 

Drill 3b:

Make sure the elbow and shoulder work up before the bat works down. This creates a better posture and attack angle. Finish over the head. To work on this you can provide resistance with the back arm like this

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ng54P0hx-O0

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GqmtkmoHT-o

You can also use both constraints https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qpvlT70ABHs

 

Drill 4:

This drill can also help with swing plane

https://twitter.com/dominikkeul/status/848213318015778817

 

Drill 5:

Here is a more detailed progression for the hand and arm movements. Not everyone needs it that detailed but for some you need to build it from the scratch.

https://twitter.com/dominikkeul/status/1128310460309282816

 

To get to different pitch heights the vertical bat angle needs to change. Around 45 degrees for very low pitches and 15-20 for high pitches.  Here is a check swing turn drill for different pitch heights. It is important that shoulders and bat tilt at the same angle. Can also be done very good against a gymnastics mat. Do it to all 4 corners to increase path variability.

Drill 6:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MzQs1wT-h28&list=UUP_COKERLxTNoCOwPOWmJRg&index=12

 

https://twitter.com/dominikkeul/status/995971519774937088

Drill 7

This BR drill can help rotating the shoulders on a steeper plane for low pitches:#

https://baseballrebellion.com/1-simple-drill-to-crush-the-low-and-inside-pitch/

Drill 8

This is a drill for the load

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BgYyG_-OQ1E&feature=youtu.be

Drill 9:

Here is a drill for the transition from load to “entry in the zone. The elbows move a bit like a seesaw with the front elbow going up and rear elbow going down.

https://twitter.com/dominikkeul/status/1130848124820262914

Make sure the rear elbow doesn’t drop before the body is launched

https://twitter.com/dominikkeul/status/1132706879417868293

https://twitter.com/dominikkeul/status/1090280260363538432

 

Here is a constraint drill for guys who have trouble with losing being in the rear hip and maintaining head over rear hip posture

Drill 10:

https://twitter.com/dominikkeul/status/1133751749762854913

This is a dissociation drill. During the stride hips and shoulders usually slightly counter rotate, then just before foot plant the hips open under the body while the shoulders don’t move before the shoulders start to turn after foot plant.

 

Drill 11:

https://twitter.com/dominikkeul/status/1133752760518598658

Drill 12:

This stop swing drill is great for guys who lack direction and roll over on outside pitches. Set tee outside and stop about a foot after contact with the bat below the hands and pointing towards the oppo gap (stay over tee and not pull inward).

https://twitter.com/dominikkeul/status/1012399644549185536

https://twitter.com/dominikkeul/status/996789277504823301

Drill 13:

This drill helps maintaining VBA on low pitches and not rolling over

https://twitter.com/dominikkeul/status/969958365186150400

Drill 14:

For guys having trouble with inside pitches the Cano fence drill can help. Make sure the fence isn’t too close or it can hurt the swing mechanics.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C5hQdQ2UtJQ&t=47s

Drill 15:

Deceleration drill: the shoulders reach peak speed about 60m MS before contact and then  decelerate in a good swing. This is a deceleration drill that can help hitters who overspin, especially on outside pitches. Peak turn speed early and not after contact:

Drill 16:

“Stretch and fire” drill. This drill is hitting with an open stance. You stand feet facing forward, then you coil into the back hip and swing forward. Not a drill for everyone but it can help with separation and swing direction and also help with guys who have too much slack in the swing. With the open stance and coiling back you take the slack out so the bat really starts turning immediately when the back hip begins to move. Done correctly you should feel a tension down the rear body side  into the rear hip and and on the opposite oblique then start the swing with rear hip extension to the pitcher which then immediately starts the bat. It is kinda like starting the swing from after the “dissociation” position.

 

It can also be good to do drills with a pvc pipe since the lighter weight causes less fatigue

I realize those are a lot of drills. I try to use mostly constraint drills that don’t need a lot of words by the coach. You don’t need to do all drills, the most important rule is don’t fix what is broken, if an athlete does it naturally don’t try to change it and work on something else. I have more drills but this is a collection I like. The most important is an assessment of the athlete so you know what really needs change. Thus I will first asses the athlete and then give him the drills he needs or make up a new one that fits him better. Those are drills to correct mechanical problems. Later I will also write an article about drills that help batspeed, power and game adjustability.