Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Thinking About Standing Tall For Better Baseball Hitting

By Chris Moheno
Great baseball pitching, of course, is needed to counteract great baseball hitting. But there is some difference of perspective among those who are involved in professional baseball training about one of the most fundamental issues regarding baseball pitching mechanics: whether or not one should "stand tall and stay back" when on the mound.

Now, pitching coaches generally contrast standing tall against pitchers whom they describe as "drop-and-dive". Drop-and-dive pitchers are represented in the Hall of Fame by such greats as Tom Seaver, Robin Roberts, and Sandy Koufax. But, the conventional wisdom generally adhered to by baseball pitching coaches is that a few Hall of Fame pitchers who had unusual capabilities do not a rule make.

"What you want to see out of power pitchers is that once that stride leg starts lowering, the lower body really goes fast, and they land on a flexed leg...The drop-and-drive is definitely something you wouldn't want to teach. Nobody pitches that way anymore, because in the drop-and-drive, you don't really use your body. It doesn't allow the core muscles of your body to get up and over a braced front leg," insists Amherst College's head baseball coach Bill Thurston.
And University of Kansas pitching coach Steve Abney adds, "Tom Seaver was a drop-and-drive guy, but he was a power-armed, 5' 11", 215-pound guy who could get his arm through. By staying tall and not dropping-and-driving, you allow the arm to get out of the glove and get your fingers on top of the baseball."

Another Hall of Fame Pitcher, the all-time strikeout and no-hitter king Nolan Ryan, credited with having thrown the officially-clocked fastest pitch ever (101 mph), is often cited as the exemplar of the mechanical advantage given to the pitcher who stands tall and stays back. It's well known that Ryan said that the most important part of his body when it came to pitching was not his arm--it was his legs. And when Ryan finished his delivery to the mound, he would be standing stork-like on his front leg, the rest of his body curled up around and on top of that powerful leg. "One thing [Nolan Ryan] told me about his delivery was that he wanted to do as much work out front as possible...Pitchers who drop-and-drive need to alter their posture to get that momentum going again. Keep all the energy you've worked hard to recruit," insists Bioforce Baseball's Bill Mooney.

However, this attitude about standing tall is by no means universally held by baseball training professionals.

Indeed, Nolan Ryan is used as an exemplar of what not to do by those who are antagonistic toward the methodology as he is use as a paragon of perfection by those who are its proponents. The point out that for all of his no-hitters, Ryan never threw a perfect game; and while he's the strikeout king, he's also the all-time walks king. Ryan, who is widely regarded as the greatest power pitcher there ever was, did have a human flaw after all: he did not always have the greatest control. And for those who don't like standing tall in pitching, this was because Ryan didn't do enough practice time on the baseball mound. Not because the great one wasn't training: but he had a personal trainer who believed in cross-training and working out pitchers on flat ground. Ryan spent a lot of training time throwing footballs from a flat-footed position. And they say that as great as he was, Ryan was harmed, not helped, by this training approach, even if he gained leg strength from it.

They also point out that in actual fact, Ryan did not pitch from a downward angle. And, nor did Koufax. Nor did Steve Carlton. Neither do Josh Beckett, "Dice K." , or the great heat-throwing closer Pedro Martinez. Instead, they insist that these great, powerful pitchers gain their ball velocity from long strides--not from standing tall and staying back except for at the very beginning of their wind-up. Proponents of this "lean forward" baseball pitching philosophy also point out that by leaning forward the pitcher is releasing the ball at a closer range to the plate--and while it's only a slight difference, given how fast the reaction times in baseball need to be, this closer-range release point does throw off hitters.

In fact, Koufax (whose single season strikeout record was broken by one pitch by Ryan in 1972) wrote in his 2002 book 'Sandy Koufax, a Lefty's Legacy', "If you look at pictures of Tom Seaver, Nolan Ryan, myself, the back leg is on the ground. You have to get your center of gravity low so that when you're throwing the ball, you're throwing it straight out, rather than down. You can't defy gravity."

What all baseball training coaches want their pitchers to do to create great pitching is: improve the mobility and rotational velocity of their hips and thoracic spine; increase their stores of kinetic energy and their ground reaction forces; and improve the coordination they have between their arms, torso, hips, and ball. Does standing tall and staying back facilitate this the best, or no? Maybe it all comes down to the individual; or, maybe many coaches are mistaken.
Chris Moheno has a long time passion for sports in general and for baseball coaching more specifically. His goal is to spread the word about effective non-fluff baseball training techniques for both more experienced and young baseball players, to help them perform better during the game.

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Monday, January 26, 2009

One Perfect Swing

By Todd Thomas

Is there one perfect swing? The simple answer is no. There are many "perfect" swings. Every pitch in every location at every speed requires adjustments. Mike Epstein's definition of a perfect swing is "the adjustments the hitter makes to the pitch s/he gets." If a hitter is only taught one swing, for instance level or down, they will be ill-equipped to make adjustments to different pitch locations if their body has been programmed to only "one" swing? If a hitter is only taught to swing level and taught NOT TO let their rear shoulder drop on the approach, how are they going to hit the pitch at their knees?

Great hitters like say Manny Ramirez ,though they have a core of swing mechanics, on a regular basis clearly show the adjustments good hitters make. When Manny is thrown a ball up in the zone you will see him swinging in such a way where he is upright on his axis, his shoulders are more level, and his swing is level to the incoming pitch. A "perfect" swing. Manny would have little or no success hitting the high pitch if the only swing he was taught was straight down.
If Manny was taught only a level swing, he would be well equipped for pitches up in the zone but would be in trouble on pitches down. Have you ever tried to swing "level" on a pitch at the knees? But we hear instruction to hitters all the time, "Swing level, swing level". Level to what?

Manny however within his core of rotational hitting mechanics has a great deal of success on the low pitch. His rear shoulder comes down and his bat head properly drops below his hands in order to get on plane with a low pitch. This being in a lot of ways a very different swing then he executed on the high pitch, yet another "perfect" swing. Keep in mind: this is the SAME hitter responding to different pitches and making adjustments!

Here's how a swing can be perfect AND ugly. A pitcher gets a hitter to break their vertical plane and come forward through their axis bringing their weight out over the top of the front foot executing a one-arm lunging swing. This could really be considered a "perfect" swing with two strikes when all the hitter is trying to do is get a piece of a tough pitch in order to get a better one to hit next time. Simply making contact is often the goal with two strikes and this could have been the swing necessary to fight off a good pitch. However, if that very same swing were executed by a hitter with the count 2-0, it would be considered "ugly". A hitter's goal often changes with each pitch based on count situation, score, inning, and runners on base. Perfect swings by good hitters though often different are the by-product of their mental and physical adjustments.

Adjustments made by the top hitters in baseball and softball are done to enhance their ability to get on the plane of the pitch and to hit the ball square. Repositioning the body is one of the adjustments necessary for making this happen. Why make a tough thing like hitting, tougher with a one way to swing approach?

Sometimes a hitter can execute a "perfect" swing(or what I call their "A" swing) to match the speed and location of a particular pitch and still one of those 9 other guys on the field makes a play on it and gets the hitter out. Sometimes a hitter will put a less than perfect swing( a "C" or "D" swing) on a particular pitch and somehow ends up with a hit. The goal of every hitter however should be to put as many "A" swings on pitches as they can.

Learning a "core" technique that you see in the best player's "A" swings is important. A good instructor will then show the hitter how to adjust from that blueprint to pitches in different areas of the strike zone. This is an absolute must. There is no "one way" to swing. Adjustments have to be made from a swing that would be "perfect" for an inside pitch to what would put a hitter in the perfect or better hitting position for an outside pitch. The Rotational Hitting technique (or whatever you want to call it, the "the big league" swing, hybrid swing, et. al) gives the hitter the flexibility to make on the fly adjustments much more than the rigid Linear Hitting approach does.

Todd Thomas is a Baseball Coach and Professional Hitting Instructor for Mike Epstein Hitting. Coach Todd's personal hitting website is Coach Todd also enthusiastically endorses as a place where baseball and softball hitters can master the Confidence, Composure, Focus and Consistency of their game so they can reach their full potential.

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Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Hitting to All Fields

By Todd Thomas

Having the ability to use the whole field or to hit to all fields, just how important is it? It's an interesting questions if you really think about it. Most would quickly answer that it is extremely important if not the MOST important ability a hitter should have. Is it? I'm not here to really tell you that it either is or isn't. I just want to examine the thought process of some coaches who hold the hard line that this ability is what makes a good hitter or would have you believe that player who can't or doesn't can't hit very well. Really?

I find it interesting that the prevailing thought amongst those around baseball(coaches, players, parents, and so on) look at a hitter that pulls everything and say "he can hit BUT he pulls everything". Yet the player who hits everything to the opposite field they say "this hitter is great, he hits everything the other way". Their eyes glaze over and go on and on over what a great hitter this player is because they hit everything the other way. Wait a minute. I thought that hitting everything to one side of the field like a pull hitter does was not good???

They will say of the pull hitter, "pitchers will just work him away all the time and he is doomed". Really? Doomed to be a bad hitter because he is a dead pull hitter and those oh so perfect pitchers will just throw everything on the outside black of the plate and this player will never be able to hit. Might as well quit the game right? Not so fast.

Ever see a major league team put the "shift" on against a player? Ever happen to notice who they put the shift on against? Is it against that deadly opposite field hitter so he won't get a single the other way? Not that I've seen. I've always noticed that it's players like David Ortiz, Jason Giambi, Mark Teixeira and others like them who are trying to PULL the ball hard every time they come up. Teams are willing to give them the hit the other way yet these players still try to pull the ball hard.

Why don't they just take what they are given every time and hit to the opposite field? Well, that's exactly what the other team and their pitcher would love for them to do. Yet they don't. They still try to do the big damage by yanking one deep. Ever notice that they still from time to time are able to pull one just like they want to? Yea, but the other team and their pitcher knew EXACTLY what they wanted to do. Why didn't they just prevent this from EVER happening by having their laser precision pitcher just work the outside part of the plate thereby foiling this dead pull hitter? One thing I've noticed over the years is that incredibly, pitchers aren't perfect. They can't always put the ball exactly where they want to.

I just think it's funny sometimes how people will fawn all over the hitter who can hit everything the other way while dismissing the guy who pulls everything as one who is in big trouble when the pitcher figures out what he wants to do. I've heard it so many times from coaches saying "Oh I know just how to get that guy out".. "I know just how to pitch him".. He'll never do anything against us because we'll just stay away from him".. "He'd never get a hit off me or one of my pitchers cause we'll just pitch him this way". Whatever. Then why in the world do guys like David Ortiz still get hits and home runs when the other team knows exactly how to pitch him to prevent this?

Do you know why pitchers like to work the outside part of the plate? I believe it is in large part due to the fact that they stand the least chance of being hurt really bad on their outside pitch. There's a reason why the great Ted Williams said, "History is made on the inside half of the plate". Remember, batting average is nice but ultimately it's runs that win games. Would you rather lead your league in batting average with a bunch of opposite field hitters, or would you rather lead your league in runs scored with a lower batting average. The only numbers that really matter at the end of a game fall under the letter "R".

So is hitting to all fields valuable? Absolutely! Most certainly, but ultimately where is the most damage done? Just something to think about.

Todd Thomas is a Baseball Coach and Professional Hitting Instructor for Mike Epstein Hitting. Coach Todd's personal hitting website is Coach Todd also enthusiastically endorses as a place where baseball and softball hitters can master the Confidence, Composure, Focus and Consistency of their game so they can reach their full potential.
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