A friend asked on Facebook for some pointers on coaching kids to hit the baseball. Facebook doesn’t really provide me with the proper venue to answer him the way I would like, so I thought I would take to the blog and work some things out. Hopefully he finds them helpful. Maybe you will too.
One thing I learned from my playing days, by watching professionals, and by talking to good coaches, is that when it really comes down to the fundamentals, hitting is not much different than pitching. It’s all about balance.
A lot of coaches get concerned about where the hands rest before the swing, or where the elbows are, but really none of that “before the swing” stuff matters as long as when the swing starts everything goes where it is supposed to be and the batter remains balanced. That being said, sometimes kids need to find a good place to keep their hands and elbow so that they are consistent in getting their hands through the swing correctly. It’s much harder to get them there quickly if the hands and elbow start off in an awkward or really high or low position. That’s why you rarely see a professional hitter stand up there like Julio Franco. He was by far an exception.
Coaches also get concerned about what the legs look like before the swing. Again, not that important if when the swing starts the legs do what they are supposed to do. However, again, some kids, in order to get them consistently using their legs correctly, may need to start with their legs in as close to the “right” position as possible so that starting the swing is a simple as it can be.
Here you can see good old Vlad standing more or less straight up. Legs straight at the knees, elbow straight back, hands up by his ears. The hands are a little too forward for what most coaches would like, but my little league coach would be proud of that elbow sticking straight back. Most coaches would tell the hitter to start off with his knees bent, but as long as the knees bend when the swing starts, they don’t necessarily have to be bent before.
Here, Kevin Mench has his knees bent, his hands further back than Vlad’s, and his elbow back. This is much closer to what I’ll call the “traditional” hitting stance, although he is leaning back on that back leg more than some coaches would like (although I think that in this picture the ball is already on its way, so he may be leaning back a bit because he’s just starting to lift that front leg).
Here’s Travis Snider, one of the better minor league hitters I’ve seen play. Again, knees bent, hands back, elbow out, and front foot just starting to come up to start the swing.
And here’s one of the Rangers newest additions, Lance Berkman. A slightly different stance, but the same idea:
The key here is that all of them are balanced, so that when the swing starts they aren’t leaning out over the plate, falling back towards the baseline, or keeping too much weight on the front or back feet.
The important things all happen when the swing starts. With proper balance, a hitter can hit to the opposite field without leaning out over the plate, and can pull an inside pitch without bringing their hands too far in, or “stepping into the bucket.” And, he will always drive the ball when he makes solid contact.
What do I mean by balance? Well, a few things.
First, after the follow through, the hitter should be able to stand in that position without falling in any direction.
Second, when the swing is finished, the weight should be, more or less, evenly divided between the front and back legs.
Third, at almost any point during the swing, you should be able to draw a line from the ear straight down through the back thigh.
Here are a few examples:
Berkman again. Notice, you can draw that line straight from the ear through the back thigh. Coincidentally, that was the follow through on a nice opposite field bomb from Mr. Berkman.
Here’s Darin Erstad. The ball got up and in on him, but again, he’s well balanced.
Here’s a tough one. Phil Nevin has dropped his back shoulder a bit, which is causing him to fall towards the plate. Consequently, his body is leaning back putting more weight on the back leg than I am comfortable with, especially at the point of contact. He’s definitely strong enough to still drive the ball, but with younger hitters, I want to see more symmetry here. You can’t draw that line from the ear through the back thigh, which tells me that he let this ball get in on him too much. You can see it’s hitting the bat closer to the label than the sweet spot.
Dan Ortmeier has a nice swing here. Hands out in front and good balance. The pinstripe on the pants clearly shows the line from the ear through the thigh.
And of course, some of the best hitters to play the game.
And his follow through was beautiful. Perfectly balanced. He could stand there forever and watch the ball fly.
And then another one of my all time favorites, Will Clark.
So, when focusing on the lower body, for me, balance is the key. I’ve heard some discussion about the ratio of weight distributed between the front and back legs. I think what’s important is that the hitter keep more weight on the back leg to start the swing, and then as they rotate their hips, shift weight towards the front, using the hips and the weight shift to drive the torso and hands through the hitting zone, ending with a more or less even weight distribution between the front and the back. In the pictures above, you can see that with most the follow through gives them a relatively even weight distribution.
As far as balance goes, it’s the same thing for pitchers. A well balanced pitcher should be able to stop their motion at any point and not fall back, forward, or to the side. As the front leg comes up, they should be able to stay planted on that back foot until they fall towards the plate, and as the front foot lands, they should be completely balanced, driving off the back foot towards the plate. When the hips rotate, they should be symmetrical (up and down, square to the plate), and when the arm follows through, the back leg should rotate around and fall square and balanced such that the pitcher doesn’t fall to the left or the right.
Take a look at Kevin Millwood:
It feels like he could stay balanced on that back leg forever.
Then as he falls to the plate, he keeps his weight back, staying square. Then exploding off the back leg to drive the body towards the plate. You can almost draw a straight line from the ball of his hat through the middle of his back and split his legs evenly.
Same thing here with Clemens:
And a pitcher with some of the best mechanics I’ve ever seen, Mark Prior:
Now, look from the front:
Both are straight up and down and square to the plate.
The follow through. Leaning out and balanced over the front leg. You get the sense they could just stand on that front leg without wobbling one way or another.
The above picture is of Prior pitching a rehab game for the Lansing Lugnuts. I didn’t take this picture, but I was at that game. The Lugnuts were the Single-A affiliate of the Cubs at the time. Now they are in the Blue Jays organization.
There are a lot of other things going on with pitching and hitting: the hands, the feet, rotating the hips, etc. I just wanted to focus on balance here, because without balance, it doesn’t really matter what the rest of you is doing. If you’re off balance, you have to overcompensate with the other parts of your body in order to make good contact with the bat, or get the ball to the plate. Last year I went to a junior varsity high school game. I watched a pitcher who was so off balance that every time he threw the ball his follow through would pull him at least three feet towards first base. In fact, he fell off the mound more towards first than he did the plate. To compensate he was releasing the ball at a very awkward angle, one that will almost definitely lead to elbow problems later if someone doesn’t correct it. I was very surprised that the coaches had not worked with the kid on trying to fix this, but they seemed to be completely satisfied as long as he threw strikes. This is why balance is so important. Not just so that you can hit or throw a ball hard, but also because balance leads to good mechanics that should give you longevity and minimize injuries.
Note: I took some of these pictures at different games I’ve attended. Others were taken from the internet.