Hitting, Plain and Simple
It's everybody's favorite. Many people believe there is no such thing as too many swings, and you will hardly ever have trouble finding a time when players don't want to hit. But just like every other skill in the game, hitting should be taught in a building-block progression starting first with the ability to simply make contact. No matter what level, whether at a youth baseball complex or a Major League stadium, by far the number one reason for the swing-and-miss comes from the hitter's head and/or eyes pulling off the ball. No matter how perfect the mechanics or how powerful the swing, hitters cannot hit what they cannot see. Placing an emphasis on keeping the head down and seeing the pitch forces hitters to do the most important thing when it comes to hitting, helping them more than anything else to get the barrel of the bat to the ball.
Hit Strikes. Take Balls.
Search the web and you can find blog after blog, video after video, tweet after tweet dissecting the mechanics of the swing with more detail than most can fathom. What you can't find as easily is the well-known but hardly spoken secret to becoming a great hitter. That answer is found in the strike zone. The mechanics of the swing are designed to hit pitches thrown for strikes, not those out of the zone for balls. There is no such thing as a good swing at a bad pitch. It is never too early for hitters to make a conscious effort to only swing at strikes, and that doesn't start under the lights in a game, but rather begins in the cage during practice. Whether it be soft toss or batting practice, a hitter who works on his strike-zone discipline at all times can go into games without having to change a thing. There is no magic switch for players to not swing at bad pitches in games if they do it all the time in practice. So where does the ability to identify strikes and balls come from? You guessed it: from seeing the pitch.
The Middle is Where the Money is.
One of the best lights to look at hitting under is through timing. Hitting IS timing. Think about it this way: A pitcher's sole purpose is to try to disrupt a hitter's timing. A fastball tries to make a hitter late, while an off-speed pitch is thrown to make a hitter early. It is imperative for timing to be there, because without it, there is no hitting. When it comes to hitting, the middle of the field is the best indicator of being on time. When a ball is pulled down the line -- not to say a ball can't be hit hard down the line -- timing is somewhat early. When a pitch is hit along the opposite-field line, timing is relatively late. So if the pull-side line is early, and the opposite-side line is late, then the middle is on time. In essence, every time hitters work on hitting the ball to the middle of the field, from gap to gap, they are working on being on time, even if those swings come off the tee. There is no better teacher of timing than a focus to the middle of the diamond, or use of the length of the cage.
Hit It Hard and It Will Go Far.
One of Major League Baseball's marquee events of the year comes the night before the All-Star Game in the summer: The Home Run Derby. It showcases the impressive power of the game's biggest hitters who make hitting the ball out of the ballpark look easy. Power is the hitter's equivalent to velocity for pitchers. The more they seek it, the more that can go wrong and potentially have a negative effect on their overall ability. Truth be told, power is the last thing for a hitter to develop, as it has more to do with the body physically maturing than it does putting more effort into the swing. George Brett, one of the game's best hitters of all time, has a great expression when he teaches power to hitters: "Don't try to hit the ball far. Try to hit it hard, and it will go far." Albert Pujols, a guy with more than 500 home runs, doesn't consider himself a power hitter, but rather a line-drive hitter with power. Want to hit home runs? Learn how to hit, first.
Hitting can be as simple as see ball, hit ball. Or, it can be more complicated than a math formula from the movie "Good Will Hunting." How it is taught is in the hands of the coach, and while some players can handle a detailed explanation of the swing, others may be completely lost in translation. When trying to determine the best course of action for your players, remember this: Crawl before you can walk, and walk before you can run. Understanding the importance of seeing the ball, identifying strikes and staying in the middle of the field will get players well on their way as hitters.
Article written by Darren Fenster as part of the USA Baseball Sport Development Blog.