Content provided by USA Baseball.
Drills are the lifeblood of skill development. Whether it be for Major Leaguers as a part of their daily routine, or youth players as their means of learning the basic skills of the game, it’s in the batting cages and backyards where ability is truly cultivated. Drills allow you to isolate a specific part of a specific skill that, when put together, help develop the overall talent of the individual player.
Within each skill of the game lies a natural progression straight out of the “crawl before you can walk, walk before you can run” school of thought. For instance, hitters can’t focus on putting the ball out of the ballpark without mastering the skill of putting the ball in play, while pitchers can’t concern themselves with throwing ten different pitches until they’ve actually figured out how to consistently throw one for a strike. By following a simple step-by-step, building block approach with each specific skill of the game, players will not only find a comfortable routine that will build consistency in their daily work, but will also reap the benefits in their entire ability.
When it comes to hitting, bat to ball/hand-eye coordination to simply make contact is that skill’s foundational base. Without it, the prettiest, most mechanically sound swing is akin to a luxury car without an engine: looks great but serves no functional purpose. With that in mind, employing the following hitting progression will undoubtedly help develop hitters at a consistent pace, eventually enabling the player to enjoy success in the box, under the lights.
The tee ain’t just for tee-ballers, folks.
One of the biggest misconceptions by both players and coaches in the game today is the true value of the hitting tee. Without the variables of speed or movement that a thrown pitch presents, the tee is the best tool around to allow to, at first, simply learn how to make contact with the ball, and later, enable a hitter to perfect his swing. Putting the bat on the ball is the biggest issue for young kids just starting to play, and there is nothing better than the tee to help improve what is largely considered the hardest thing to do in all of sports. As a player matures, with the ability to place the ball on all areas of home plate using the tee- in/out, up/down- a hitter can learn how to correctly hit pitches in different areas of the strike zone at the correct contact points.
The tee can also serve as a great warm up tool that can help make batting practice more productive because the body is loose and the swing, ready. Additionally, countless drills can also be performed on the tee to help improve every aspect of hitting. Are your players popping everything up? Set a tee up high, and have them hit the ball on the ground, and it will force them to stay on top of the ball. Do you have someone who struggles to make contact because their head pulls off the ball? Draw a dot on a ball and set it up on the tee with the dot facing your hitter and tell him to watch the bat hit the dot.
No matter the level, the tee is a hitter’s starting point. Take advantage of it.
Following the tee, the next progression for a hitter comes in the form of two different variations of soft toss, angled from the side or from directly in front of the plate in the direction of the pitcher. On a very basic level, both soft toss drills are done at short distances (side from just outside of the opposite batter’s box; front from 15-20 feet away) at slow speeds (tossed underhand) where young players who struggle to hit a pitched ball can enjoy the success of simply making contact, while more advanced players can use each as a means to focus on a specific part of their swing. Both types of soft toss can be done either on a field or in a batting cage.
For skilled players, side toss is a great drill that can help isolate proper contact points, or in other words, where ideally a ball should be hit relative to the stance/home plate, based on the pitch location. The further inside the pitch (tossed closer to the front leg), ideally the further out-front contact is made. The further outside the pitch (tossed closer to the back leg), the deeper the ball needs to get in the hitter’s stance. And the pitch down the middle falls somewhere in between.
Front toss is a drill that 99.9% of all professional players do on a daily basis. For them, it’s a means to get their swing where it needs to be before heading out for BP to get ready for that day’s game, in addition to working on a location they may be having trouble with. For amateurs, it offers many benefits, most notably timing to the middle of the field as well as understanding the idea of hitting the ball where it is pitched – inside to the pull-side, outside to the opposite field, and down the middle back up the middle.
From such a close distance and at such a slow speed, soft toss is also about swing maintenance, as it does allow hitters to focus on a weakness; like a dead pull hitter who struggles to take the ball the other way or a hitter who pops everything up and needs to learn how to stay on top. That’s how specific the drill can be.
LIVE-ARM BATTING PRACTICE
The final progression that merges practice and games is live-arm BP with a coach throwing from 15-30 feet in front of the pitching rubber, with an L-screen in front of him for protection. This type of batting practice is as close to game-like as it can be, while still allowing the hitter to have a specific plan and purpose with each round and each swing taken.
First and foremost, timing is the best focal point that live-arm batting practice allows for. At the end of the day, all hitting is, is timing, and this type of work gives the hitter the opportunity to get his eyes and body in sync to get the swing on time, knowing exactly when to start in order to be in a good position to hit when the ball comes thru the hitting zone.
Secondly, live-arm BP enables the hitter to put himself in game situations and approaches that undoubtedly will come up over the course of a season. Hitting with two strikes is a skill that boils down to defending the plate. There is far more aggression from a hitter when the count is 2-0 than there should be when it’s 0-2. The way to be good at each is to work on them in BP. Advancing runners from 2nd base and driving in runners from 3rd are also far easier to execute in games when they have been worked on ad nauseam in practice. At no point should a hitter get into the box during BP and just swing without rhyme or reason. There is always something a hitter can work on, from as simple as timing to as detailed as a two-strike approach to go to the opposite field.
Additionally, batting practice – or any one of the aforementioned drills – can be competitive. Out of five swings, how many live drives can your hitters hit? Turning a part of practice into a game gets players to practice competing without them even realizing it, while also helping them develop as hitters at the same time. Creating competition raises both the effort level as well as the player’s focus, both positives that at the end of the day will help them get better.
As with anything, coaches always have to remember that players have to crawl before they can walk and walk before, they can run. That’s exactly how professionals do it, and there’s no reason why amateurs can’t follow the same path. There is always a place to start, and we work up from there. Building a hitter is no different.
By Darren Fenster
Darren Fenster is a contributor to the USA Baseball Sport Development Blog, and is currently the Minor League Outfield and Baserunning Coordinator for the Boston Red Sox. Previously, Fenster was the Manager of the Portland Sea Dogs, the Double-A affiliate of the Boston Red Sox. A former player in the Kansas City Royals minor league system, Fenster joined the Red Sox organization in 2012 after filling various roles on the Rutgers University Baseball staff, where he was a two-time All-American for the Scarlet Knights. Fenster is also Founder and CEO of Coaching Your Kids, LLC, and can be found on Twitter @CoachYourKids.
Original article – https://usabdevelops.com/USAB/Blog/Hitting_Drill_Progression.aspx.