We have all seen the young player who swings hard and finishes with their feet flat, their heels having never left the ground, without any good hip rotation. We ask them to look down after their swing, and they see their feet pointing into the opposite batters box. But how do we fix this?
Some players simply use all arms and fail to generate much of any power from the ground and their hips and legs. In our first practice, I have already seen this in a few of our 13 year olds, and I knew I wanted to try and teach this in a new way.
Last winter, my son trained with Jamar Hill in Anchorage, and Jonny Homza was working out with some of his fellow White Sox organization teammates. They were working on coiling into their back hip and launching into balls, hitting them with some serious torque, high into the Dome netting. Jamar also noted that my son’s swing could benefit from more lower half “coil”, so I started to ponder the idea of “hip coil” in the load portion of the swing.
Coach Cathcart (Baseball Doctor) does the best job I have seen, online, demonstrating how to practice a good “coil” and load. We will be incorporating these drills into our cage sessions, emphasizing sinking into our back hips during our load, without closing our front shoulder to the pitcher, while minimizing head movement, and leaking out on the back knee.
Justin Stone is a master of explaining / diagnosing swing flaws and, in particular, how to properly address the issue of failing to get the most out of our lower half. His continuous pitch drill does a great job of addressing this issue.
Now that the winter program is starting up again, I wanted to share some of the lessons I have learned over the past season, and some of the adjustments to my approach to coaching in the off season. This past year I had the opportunity to travel with a group of talented players from Sitka to the USA Baseball National Team Selection Tournament in Phoenix with Jamar Hill’s Alaska Gamers team. We traveled with great players from all over Alaska and learned a lot seeing our kids struggle at times, and compete well at other times against some of the best competition in the country.
Perhaps the biggest lesson learned is the importance of putting a larger emphasis on strength and conditioning in the off season especially for the rising Freshman (13-18) year old age group. Kids in this age group are all at different stages of development and one of the singular most important separators is physical strength and speed. Both of which can be improved with a proper strength and conditioning / agility training program. Fortunately, here in Sitka, we have Jared Rivera, who got his degree at Oregon State University in this specific area, and who played for the Wolves Baseball team in highschool, and even got to work with the OSU baseball team when he was getting his degree.
At SBC, we will be incorporating our own strength routine into our cage sessions, but will be encouraging parents to get their kids enrolled with Jared’s Sitka Grind Fitness center this winter.
One of the other important lessons from last year was how important live reps and live at bats are in developing a successful hitter (and the successful pitcher for that matter). I truly gained an appreciation for the importance of live at bats in helping a hitter gain the necessary confidence for consistent success. I don’t mean live BP from an L screen. I mean a kid facing a live arm (both lefty and righty) at regulation distance in the cage much like you see in the Driveline youtube videos where younger players face off against one of the best pitchers in baseball Trevor Bauer, or (better yet) in sandlot style scrimmages as often as you can muster it. This may seem obvious, but, with all of the cage work kids do these days, I have just seen some pretty talented kids struggle to make the transition from the cage to the playing field in game/tournament settings–and I think more live, competitive reps would help.
Obviously, a progression is still key. A progression that begins with tee work, and soft toss, to front toss, and toward velocity training on machines and live arms, is still essential. With more advanced hitters, though, (varsity or advanced JV players) the progression simply can’t be thrust on a player in a vacuum. The first step is building a relationship with the player, watching, listening, and hearing what they “feel” and want to work on, to help with buy in. Then, video analysis of their swing mechanics. Getting a baseline of their measurables (exit velo on tee / on BP pitching). Then, we develop a plan and routine for each player, with a goal of achieving measurable results.
Our goal at SBC this year will be to help the kids each increase their exit velocity over the next 3 months by at least 5 MPH, and to increase the consistency of their line drive target performance by at least 10%. If we can achieve these performance goals it will confirm our process oriented focus will have succeeded. We will use a combination of strength conditioning, weighted bat training, and skills training (that we call “target practice”) to achieve these results.
“Target practice” = with tee work and front toss, hitting the upper corner of the end of the cage, on a line, where the pitch is pitched. We think of tee work as “sighting in our rifles” and the time in between our sessions as opportunity for our scopes to get bumped or out of whack. On an inside pitch (or tee location) to a right hander, this means hitting the upper left corner “gap shot”. And on an outside pitch (or tee location) to a right hander, it means hitting the upper right corner “gap shot”. Our rough goal is 10-20% launch angle for the kids below 80 mph exit velocity (which is most of the kids). For those who are over 80 mph exit velo, they can start working on hitting the ball in the air a bit more.
Another huge reservoir of insight for me has been the ABCA podcasts and Inside Pitch Magazine. To me, any coach who is not a member taking advantage of these resources is doing themselves and their players a disservice. One of the best nuggets I found this off season was learning about Rob Friedman’s “flat ground app” and his insights more generally on pitching. Rob is a fellow lawyer, who I can relate with on a number of levels who has a ton to offer coaches and players (MLB players are constantly in touch with him) wanting to get better. He create his flat ground app to help get players who were falling through the cracks more exposure without all of the expense.
Our winter hitting program will start Tuesday November 5, 2019 (4:45-6:15 p.m. Moller Cage) and will continue Tuesdays and Thursdays from 4:45 – 6:15 p.m.. All returning and new members / participants must print and fill out our registration forms available here or on our home page. Please print, fill them out, sign and bring to your first session. Bring a check for your player dues ($75) and your punch card ($50 for 10 sessions) ($100 for 20 sessions) to your first session.
RBI Alaska is part of a Major League Baseball initiative to help subsidize the high costs of baseball in rural and urban areas throughout America. If we can gather 20 registrants our club will be able to access resources from MLB to help our club members and community access coaching, equipment, and other resources that would otherwise be cost prohibitive.
Please contact Coach Brandon at email@example.com with any questions.
There is currently another Page called “Sitka Baseball Club” that I think was created by Ed Conway or someone within Little League, but since we can’t make posts or edits to that page, I created the new group. we’re hoping to be able to link the two shortly.
This past weekend, Jamar Hill, of Gamers Baseball, in Anchorage, visited Sitka and worked with us for a day in the cage. Jamar really emphasized swing plane. To teach the proper swing plane, Jamar placed a batting screen directly behind the kids, so that if they swung rotationally, their follow through would strike the screen, which doesn’t feel good and would teach the kids, like Pavlov, how to adjust their swing to finish high missing the screen. He started with small wood training bats and then had the kids use their regular bats. It was a difficult drill to say the least.
Many of us coaches tried it out just to see what the kids were grappling with and struggled. It’s like hitting in a phone booth. I call it the reverse net drill. I asked Jamar to send us a video demonstrating the drill with his own swing; so that we can continue to work on these skills before the season.
After spending a few nights thinking about this new drill, and keeping Jamar up late with some tequila and beer, I think I finally understand its genius. Having the screen behind you, forces the hands to whip the barrel through the hitting zone on plane with the pitched ball for a longer period of time, in an upward trajectory, finishing high. Much like what Matt Antonelli describes in this video. If you don’t, you get a loud “CLANG” and the bat hits the hitting screen. When the kids swing like they are used to swinging (more rotationally or downward… read: in and out of the zone more quickly) they finish low, and CLANG. The drill also emphasizes keeping your barrel a lot lower than your hands during the swing, at least on all pitches below the belly button. This puts your barrel in better alignment on sinkers, breaking balls and change ups. Finally, this drill basically eliminates any chance for a “roll over” at or near contact. If you roll over, you hit the screen.
To do the drill well, kids have to understand what happens earlier in their swing, e.g., how to turn the barrel, as opposed to “throwing the knob”. The kids quickly learn they cannot swing down on the ball. If they do, they will destroy their bats. On high pitches they still must have a slightly upward hand path with a golf finish to avoid the net. The high pitch was really tough for me to figure out with this new hand path. The kids that get it will relax and are able to swing hard and finish high without striking the net. Those that don’t get it right away, remain tense, and worry about striking the screen. After attempting the drill for a while, the kids should all spend time at the batting Tee, without the screen; because if the kids are tense and timid, the drill doesn’t help them much. It might even bring back bad habits because kids tend to forget about their lower half and their other fundamentals tend to fall apart.
At the batting Tee, they should imagine there is still a screen behind them. They will then have the freedom to swing hard without such a harsh penalty, while still learning the proper hand path. They should be checking all of their cues along the way. This means: making sure they’re getting a good load and stride, stretching the rubber band, getting in a good launch position (top hand ready to knock some body out). They need to make sure they are balanced throughout the swing with a bat path extending through the ball slightly upward and finishing high, with their backs to the plate, if they can. In order to achieve that high finish with their backs to the plate, they have to relax and get a good load and stride, with forward momentum, using the ground to power their swing in an upward trajectory. To finish properly, they have to have done everything else correctly (load, stride, turn of the barrel, stiff front side and balance at contact, with proper extension up and through the ball, finishing high).
Check out my favorite college player’s swing, which is a great example of what I think Jamar is trying to teach with the reverse net drill. Check out Nick Madrigal (OSU second baseman) and preseason All American.
As some of you know, the cage screen we had previously was in tatters and was a serious safety hazard. So we made it a priority to replace the old screen with this front toss screen. If you watch Root Sports much, you will see Edgar Martinez, use one just like this with the Mariners’ hitters. We have also purchased two buckets of 6 dozen leather baseballs; a bucket of tennis balls, and a bucket of wiffle balls.
Now that we have gotten started with our winter workout, I thought it might be helpful to address some common hitting flaws and myths or misconceptions about swing mechanics I have noticed over the years and have tried to address in my own coaching. These are not my ideas, but the teachings of pros I have learned from online and in books.
“Squish the Bug” or “Squish the Grape”
So this is a common refrain we all remember our coaches telling us growing up. But when you slow down the best swings in baseball, we see this simply is not what happens with the back foot. Plus, the teaching is far enough removed from what actually happens on a good swing, it may hamper the swing more than improve it in the long run. When we say “squish the bug” players take this literally and tend to believe they have to keep that foot on the ground throughout the entire swing. This may restrict their power and reign them in from fully releasing their hips and allowing the hips to explode or shift into the ball. Watch Joe Mauerand Mike Trout. Their back foot rotates and ends up on its toe during weight shift, to allow the hips to function properly in the swing. But it doesn’t “squish the bug”. Their back foot may come off the ground when the weight shifts forward, only to come back down to maintain balance throughout the swing. The back foot may even gain some ground and move forward. Here is another video of what the back foot actually does in an MLB player’s swing. That said, I agree with those coaches who say trying to teach our youth players the advanced power swing of a Mike Trout or Bryce Harper may over complicate things, and we should really focus on keeping things simple for our younger players.
“Knob to Ball”
Tony Gwynn said being balanced and swinging the knob not the barrel are the two things you have to do to be a good hitter. This became condensed in Tony Gwynn’s footsteps to take the “knob to the ball”. Most instructors today believe that taking the knob directly to the ball fails to get your swing properly on plane and can lead to a chopping down type swing plane. So while the thought of taking the “knob of the bat” to the ball might work for elite level hitters who already have a good spine angle and tilt to end up in the proper swing plane, this teach may have some adverse consequences for our young kids. “Swinging the knob” and “not the barrel” is perhaps the most short hand way to teach a hitter how to stay inside the ball, in 6 words or less. Taken literally, however, it can lead to problems like a lagging barrel at contact which simply filet’s balls into right field with no pop. So there is no simple refrain that will solve the riddle for everybody. According to Justin Stone, and other great hitting instructors, we should try and emphasize the entire kinetic chain, and complete hitting sequence leading up to contact. Rather than telling kids to take the “knob to the ball” when casting the barrel, or focussing on “extension” or what the hands are doing, when trying to correct swing flaws. Instead, we should focus on the process of the hitting sequence that is causing that outcome. I am so impressed with Justin Stone’s ability to articulate swing mechanics, while at the same time keeping hitting mechanics in perspective, by realizing how important other aspects of hitting, mental approach, pitch recognition, and timing are paramount.
“Chop Down” or “Swing Down” on the Ball
We often hear youth coaches today telling their players to swing down on the ball. This is perhaps the most difficult one for me to swallow, because when you swing down on a ball, you can only accomplish 2 things. You either hit a ground ball, or miss hit the bottom of the ball which results in a pop-up; both of which, more often than not, end up as outs. Because we want line drives, which more often than not result in base hits, we should not teach our kids to “swing down on the ball”. Obviously, there are exceptions to any rule, and if a kid has a drastic uppercut, this might work as a strategy for that kid, out of everyone else’s ear shot. But generally the proper swing plane requires us to swing in an arc that is trending slight upward at contact. Ted Williams’s The Science of Hitting at page 47, has a great diagram and explanation of this. That said, some great MLB hitters told themselves to “swing down” on the ball, and that helped them hit line drives. So the distinction between what subjective cues might work for a given hitter, and what objective cues work often times might be very different things. Everybody will respond to different subjective cues; but generally, if we want our kids to hit line drives, we need to be getting our bats in the proper swing plane not by “swinging down on the ball”. Whatever accomplishes that objective result is spot on!
How do we get to the proper swing plane?
We first need to have a slight tilt forward in our stance, so our chest leans slightly out over the plate. This creates an axis around which we can swing slightly up on the ball, finishing high, with our backs to the plate. After we get our tilt, get our load, and take our stride, stretching our hands back (scap load using the top hand arm), keeping our front shoulder square to the pitcher, we then take the “Shaft to shoulder” as shown in this picture below:
This brings the barrel level with the ground, with the knob pointing toward the pitcher and the back elbow slots against the ribs. Our lower half, at this point, should have the back leg in a power “L” position with the front leg stiff and pretty straight with a slightly open front foot. This is the power position we need to get into to get the bat properly on plane so we can teach our kids how to “attack the inside of the ball”. Notice the back shoulder is slightly lower than the front shoulder in this power position. The back shoulder turns around the tilted axis we created in our stance.
Swing “Level”, “Dipping your Shoulder”& Proper Swing Plane
In order to swing properly, your back shoulder has to be lower than the front shoulder at contact. And the swing plane is not “level”. We certainly don’t want to be dipping the back shoulder and hands like Domingo Ayala, in this video. This is the bad form of “dipping the shoulder”. But if you tilt your body forward at the waste, with your chest leaning over the plate a bit, your shoulder will naturally swing around your tilted spine angle, and will dip in a good way. Check out Manny Ramirez in this video addressing the issue. The swing plane should be in an arc that is slightly trending up and through the ball at contact. If you stand straight up in your stance you may end up dipping the shoulders in a bad way or leaving your shoulders entirely level throughout the swing. That will result in a completely rotational swing that takes your barrel in and out of the zone too quickly. It can cause a lot of other problems too: roll overs, ground balls, casting the barrel, and swinging around the ball, making it very difficult to hit the outside pitch well. John Madden, of youGoPro.com, explains the issue well here. According to Josh Donaldson and his former teammate at Auburn, John Madden, a good swing plane results from starting with the back shoulder up and finishing with the back shoulder down. Josh Donaldson doesn’t like to think about what his hands are doing, and prefers to think of his back shoulder as delivering the swing. The swing plane actually levels out on pitches higher in the zone, but should be in an arc moving slightly uphill at contact on pitches lower in the zone.
Here is a video of arguably the best swing in Baseball: Joe Mauer.
Drill of the Week Video: Justin Stone of Elite Baseball demonstrates the step and hit tee drill that we have been using with the boys in our cage sessions.