As the high school baseball season comes to a close, many a player will look back at his or her results and wonder, "What could I have done better?". Most of these questions will probably pertain to how he or she hit the ball, their batting average, runs batted in, and strikeout to walk ratio.
As I watched my share of high school baseball this spring, I have seen good hitters and bad hitters. The main thing I have seen that separate the good hitters and the bad hitters is really quite simple:
The good hitters all look the same when they hit, and the bad hitters all look different
Now, I am no hitting coach, but I did play at a high level, and have followed the theories of hitting for years. There are some universally accepted techniques and mechanics that lead to becoming good hitters. Some of the "old" theories on hitting you may have heard of as kid, or even your child had heard of when he or she started playing, are simply not true. Below I will put to rest some of these theories starting with youth hitter fundamentals, and ending with advanced hitting for high school players.
Keep your elbow up.... Go to any youth game and you will hear it coming from coaches as kids step in the batters box. They say this to keep the child from having an uppercut type swing. One problem, and simple physics can answer it. When ANYONE starts their swing with their elbow up, the first thing that happens is that the elbow HAS to drop in order to swing the bat. Try it. All that "keeping your elbow up" does is create extra movement in the swing, which is completely opposite than what the swing is supposed to look like. Start with a stance that points the knob of the bat at the bottom point of home plate
Step and hit.... Many youth players are taught to step to the pitch and swing the bat. While that theory might work for younger players, and they may have success, it won't work as they grow older. The correct term should be Step THEN Hit. As a youth player uses this theory of Step AND Hit, they decide if they are going to swing or not, then stride into the ball and swing the bat. The problem with this is when they grow older, and the pitchers throw harder, they won't have enough time to decide to swing. IF a young player is going to use a step or a stride, he or she has to do it BEFORE they decide to swing. Using the Step AND Hit method, a hitter will have real difficulty hitting any off speed pitches or pitchers with good fastballs.
Extend your arms and swing level.... "Swinging Level" is something that is heard everywhere. It is probably one of the first things that is taught to young kids when they first start playing. While on the surface it does make sense, simple physics disproves this as a train of thought. How you ask? When a ball is pitched, it is coming to the plate on a DOWNWARD plane. A level swing will produce ground balls. If the swing is at a slightly upward angle, to match the downward plane of the pitch, it will produce harder hit balls, including more line drives. If you watch the video above, or take a look at the picture on the left, you will see that both swings are at a slightly upward angle. Many people believe that "Extending your arms" at contact generates power and quickens the swing. If you take a look at any good major league hitter, or any good hitter for that matter, that isn't the case. The arms should be extended only AFTER contact. Extending your arms at or before contact decreases bat speed. In his article for BaseballRebellion.com, Former Division I player Chas Pippitt proves this theory.
"Squish the Bug".... Squishing the Bug refers to the action of the back foot. The theory is to use the back foot as if you are squishing a bug. It is supposed to be a trigger for hip rotation. Two problems with this. One, if a hitter does this before the point of contact, his or her weight is on their back side. In a good swing, weight is near evenly distributed, with slightly more weight on the front side due to hip rotation. Secondly, again if you watch the video above, you can see that the back toe is pointed downward at contact, if not completely off the ground. Chris O'Leary proves this on his website chrisoleary.com here.
The "A to B" or "A to C" teaching method.... This one should stir up a little controversy, because it is probably the way most hitting experts teach the swing. Its premise is a simple one. Get the hands from point A to point B. Since the shortest distance between two points is a straight line, this will teach the hands to be quick, and increase bat speed. While there is some truth in this theory, especially the part about having quick hands, the rest of the theory falls flat. If you watch the video from Chris O'Leary here, you can see the flaws in this theory. It promotes a DOWNWARD path of the bat to the ball. A swing like this will produce more ground balls and fly balls than it will line drives. If you are a high school player, go through your at-bats. I would be willing to bet that you will see ground balls and fly balls, rather than line drives. Again, it's simple physics when thought of this way: You have an "A to B" type swing, where the bat is swinging on a downward plane, and the pitcher throws you a pitch at the knees. How, with a downward swing plane, are you going to hit anything but a ground ball? This method may allow the hitter to have quick hands, and maybe even to make contact consistently, but it will not generate power, and it will lead to ground balls and fly balls, which are not signs of a good hitter.
So what does a good swing look like?
A good stance.... You watch any baseball game on TV and you see a variety of stances. The BEST hitters have a stance that is the most simplistic. Why? Because it eliminates a lot of moving parts when getting to the ball.
"Stride v.s. Load".... Some hitters stride to the ball, while others, like Albert Pujols in the above video, use a subtle "load" type action when getting ready to hit. Both are timing mechanisms. One thing to keep in mind when watching "striders v.s. loaders" is what position they are in with their front foot. When a strider puts his or her front foot down, they are in the EXACT same position that a loader is in when they are ready to swing. The timing when striding is a bit more difficult than loading is. I have seen really good hitters even start in their load position. It really comes down to personal preference, although with striders, there are more moving parts.
Hands through the window.... Everyone has heard the term "hands to the ball" numerous times when watching a game. Where that term comes from is the "A to B" hitting theory. While getting the hands through the hitting zone is important, the better term to use is "hands through the window", or "knob of the bat at the pitcher". Imagine a pitch coming in, and putting your hands through 6 inch by 6 inch window. Lead with the knob of the bat, by getting your back elbow "in the pocket" on top of your back hip. Why? It will allow the hitter to let the ball get "deeper" and allow more time for pitch recognition. Also, when leading with the knob of the bat, it generates more of a "whipping" action of the bat through contact, increasing bat speed and power.
Stiff front leg.... If you are striding or loading, all good hitters are consistent at contact with a stiff front leg. Hitting with a stiff front leg does a number of things. One, it keeps the hitter from diving towards the ball. Two, it keeps a hitter from becoming off balance if the pitch is off speed. Third, it allows the ball to get deeper and keeps the hitter from "pulling off" the ball, and fourth, it produces a "gap to gap" type swing. Show me a bent front leg when contact is made, and I will show you a weak ground ball or pop up.
Barrel under hands, and "palm up, palm down".... If you are taught to hit by swinging down on the ball, most likely is the fact that the barrel of the bat is above your hands. Since we spoke about how the swing needs to be on a slightly upward plane (thank you modern physics) then it only make sense that the barrel of the bat should be SLIGHTLY below the hands during the swing. To do this, the shoulders slightly tilt (not drop) to allow the hitter to get in this position. Take a look at the picture to the left, and you can see even a couple frames after contact is made, the right shoulder is lower than the left one. At contact with any good hitter, the hands should be "palm up, palm down". Why? Because at contact the "whip" action of the bat should be just starting, when the hitter is just starting to release all the torque of his or her body. Finishing with palms to the pitcher, which had been taught for years, actually breaks the wrists, extends the arms, and decreases bat speed. Great examples of this can be seen here, with both pros and kids as examples.
Elbows bent through contact.... Pretty simple. Extending the arms reduces bat speed. When you watch good hitters, the distance between each of their elbows during their swing never changes, and are always bent. Extension of the arms and when the elbows straighten is AFTER contact in the follow through.
Hitting a baseball has been called the hardest thing to do in any sport, and I agree. Hitting isn't easy, it takes hours and hours of CORRECT repetition to form a consistent swing.
For those summer league baseball players, check your swing, and check your at bats from the school season. Your success, or lack there of, could be attributed to some fundamental flaws, or you may want to revamp your whole swing.
I say good luck to all those players wanting to become better hitters