* This picture is courtesy of Ezio Ratti
One of the reasons I wanted to attend the 2015 WBSC Junior Women’s World Softball Championship in Oklahoma City was to see the Italian Junior National Team. As an Italian-American, I have always been interested in the success of Italian sports teams. Back in 2006, I proudly hosted a viewing party for Italy’s World Cup victory in soccer (football). During my two days at the beautiful ASA Hall of Fame Softball Complex, I enjoyed watching many great players from around the world, including several from Team USA. However, the two most entertaining players were Marta Gasparotto and Erika Piancastelli with Team Italy (pictured above—Erika is on the left and Marta is on the right). Both Marta and Erika also played on the Senior Italian National Softball team that recently won the European Championship in the Netherlands.
Marta and Erika stood out in Oklahoma City in several ways. They both are tall, athletic, and are “five tool” softball players. A five tool player hits for power, hits for a high average, steals bases, has a strong arm, and plays strong defense. Every time Marta and Erika come to the plate, they strike fear in the hearts of pitchers. During the tournament, opposing pitchers often carefully pitched around them and opposing coaches ordered intentional walks several times. Although their hitting styles are slightly different, Marta and Erika share one thing in common—they hit the ball really HARD!
Here is a comparison of their hitting styles:
Both Marta (left) and Erika are imposing when they walk to the plate and set up in the batter’s box. They appear comfortable and confident, which is surely intimidating for opposing pitchers. Even though I believe their hands are not in an ideal position at this point, they both will eventually move them back during the load portion of their hitting sequence. Starting with the hands back toward the catcher means there will be minimal unnecessary hand movement as the pitch is approaching. This becomes especially important when facing faster pitchers. However, Both Marta and Erika are athletic enough to move their hands back in time to generate maximum bat speed. This powerful set-up by both hitters is the solid foundation they will use to capture the power that originates from the ground.
Marta (left) and Erika have very different loads, but both are powerful and effective. For those who have been following this blog, it should be no surprise that I believe strongly in a leg lift like Erika’s for two important reasons. Lifting the front leg results in a more meaningful weight transfer, and it enables hitters to drive inside and outside pitches with more authority and consistency. That being said, as I sat in the stands watching Marta during her at-bats, I was impressed by her short, yet powerful weight transfer. With her short and subtle load, she is still able to gather enough power on her back foot and leg to set the stage for the rest of her swing. Both Marta and Erika are also in perfect balance. At the pinnacle of their loads, they are in total control. Their heads are still and their hands are beginning to move back toward the catcher. All great hitters achieve this moment of controlled power generation.
After recognizing where the pitch is coming, Marta (left) and Erika place their front foot back into the ground to initiate the swing. Notice in the pictures above that both hitters are now in the identical hitting position. Their hands have also moved far enough back toward the catcher to generate optimal bat speed. Their hands will stay in this “launch” position until the violent rotation of the lower body automatically causes the upper body to rotate into the ball. When their hands finally move and rotate in a circular path into the ball, they have ample “runway” to generate enough bat speed to drive the ball powerfully to all fields. If Marta and Erika’s hands would have remained in the initial set-up position, their bat speeds would be 5-10 mph slower, which represents 25-50 feet of lost hitting distance.
All great power hitters achieve full extension at impact with the ball. I call this full extension “lightning”, because when the arms are fully extended, it is like a bolt of lightning exploding into the ball. Marta (left) and Erika have plenty of lightning in their swings!
Before we look at their arm positions, take a look at their lower bodies. Marta and Erika are both in the classic power hitting position, with a stiff front leg and a bent back leg after the rotation of the hips. The stiff front leg serves as a barrier to keep all the power generated from the initial load back until the swing is completed.
Now, let’s look at the position of their arms and upper bodies. As you can see, Marta and Erika are fully extended, but their upper body positions are slightly different. Erika’s upper body is in a little better power hitting position. The angle of her upper body matches the angle of her lower body, which means she is using leverage to generate her prodigious power. Even though Marta is not in this classic leverage position, she still manages to consistently hit line drives with her great extension. She will eventually finish in the same powerful position as Erika.
Both Marta (left) and Erika finish their swings in the same beautiful position. They finish with the bat high and away from their bodies, which means they “let the bat finish where IT wants to finish”. Hitters who have solid rotational hitting mechanics never have to manually finish their swings. The bat will stay on a powerful path throughout the swing sequence and will finish without any intervention on the part of the hitter.
As I was watching Marta and Erika bat in Oklahoma City, I marveled at their combination of control and power, especially for such young hitters. Even when they were fooled by a pitch, they were able to maintain their swing mechanics. One reason for this control is the position of their heads. From set-up to finish, their heads are in the same position—-perfectly still, turned toward the pitcher, with both eyes focused on the pitcher’s release point and ultimately the ball.
A BRIGHT FUTURE
Marta Gasparotto and Erika Piancastelli are more than just great hitters on the Italian National Softball Team. They are setting the standard young Italian softball players can shoot for to be more competitive on the world softball stage. The gap between the softball skills of these two players and the rest of the Italian team is fairly wide. However, with the continued influence of Marta and Erika on the Italian National Softball Program and with progressive hitting instruction, the Italian team has enough talent to quickly catch up to the best teams in the world.
I love my Italian heritage, which makes me especially proud of Marta and Erika. They are great ambassadors for Italian softball and they are shining examples of the exciting new group of players from around the world emerging onto the international softball stage. I am hoping to have more opportunities to watch these two talented young women play softball in the future, including perhaps the 2020 Olympics!
* This picture is courtesy of Ezio Ratti