As promised, here is my honest assessment of the hitting approaches and mechanics of the teams that participated at the 2015 WBSC Junior World Softball Championship in Oklahoma City. For those who read this and feel I am too critical, it is important to first understand that I believe softball players are still playing catch-up with baseball players when it comes to power hitting mechanics. The good news is softball hitting theory is now rapidly changing, as coaches and players finally realize there should not be any difference between softball and baseball swings. However, most of the hitters I observed in Oklahoma City still employ old softball hitting mechanics geared toward merely making solid contact with the ball.
Here is a link to a previous post where I make the case that softball and baseball hitting mechanics should be the same:
Some may say that dominant pitching is still the key to success in fastpitch softball. I disagree. If you look at the final college conference softball standings in the U.S., the top teams almost always have the best hitting statistics and not necessarily the best pitching statistics. After watching all the teams early in the week, I had a good idea which teams would ultimately battle for medals, based only on their hitting. I left Oklahoma City thinking the top hitting teams were Team USA, followed by Japan, Canada, and Puerto Rico. Sure enough, these were the top four teams in the fifteen team field at the end of the tournament.
Team USA won the gold medal by being aggressive at the plate and by imposing their collective hitting will on every team they played. The U.S. team had the perfect balance of slap hitters and power hitters. Pitchers who faced Team USA were never able to take a breather, because every hitter in the lineup could do damage with the bat. It seemed like any time they needed a single to start a rally or an extra base hit to put some runs on the board, they were able to make it happen with relative ease.
I was fortunate enough to watch Team USA take batting practice before their game against the Italian team. This gave me an opportunity to take some videos in order to really analyze what made these young hitters so powerful. Simply put, it’s all about bat speed, especially for the power hitters in the lineup. It was evident that the U.S. hitters had superior bat speeds compared to almost all the other hitters in the tournament. When the U.S. hitters made good contact, the ball went a long way.
The challenge for these young hitters will be to find hitting mechanics that will be effective on the next level when they face the best hitters in college or the world. The goal for all hitters should be bat speed AND consistency. To be more consistent, I would narrow the stances of some of the U.S. hitters, encourage them to work on more meaningful weight transfers, and I would move their hands back farther toward the catcher earlier in the swing sequence. The hitters with wide stances and little or no loads hit the balls down the middle of the hitting zone really hard, but they looked relatively weak when they had to offer at pitches on the corners of the plate. A few of their hitters had some difficulty catching up to good fastballs, due primarily to the movement of their hands from the set-up position to the launch position. Hitters who start with their hands close to their bodies and then move them back as the pitch is approaching need nearly perfect timing, compared to hitters who start with their hands back and keep them back until the swing is initiated.
If these talented young American hitters continue to strive for consistency through more repeatable hitting mechanics, they will surely be a force at the senior international level.
I must confess that I have never been a fan of the hitting mechanics of Japanese baseball or softball players. Someone in Japan must have written a book on hitting that every player in that country has adopted with little deviation. Even before I watched their first game, I knew exactly how the Japanese hitters would look, and they didn’t disappoint.
The “Japanese Swing” is all about control and precision. Unfortunately, this approach is not conducive to power hitting. Many of the Japanese hitters set up with their hands close to their bodies, like they were holding a flag. Obviously, there is no way to hit for very much power in this position. They must erroneously believe that being “quick” to the ball will produce consistent power. I disagree, and wrote about this topic in a previous post.
To the average fan, it probably looked like the Japanese hitters had a powerful load and weight transfer. Many of the them had a very slow and high leg lift, but it was not as effective as it looked. I believe they do it primarily for balance. Balance may help them make consistent contact, but it will not lead to higher bat speed or more power.
The Japanese hitting strategy is all about putting pressure on the defense and keeping the pressure on until the opposing team makes a mistake. They accomplish this by using their hands to guide the bat into the ball for consistent contact. The Japanese have always been the most “handsy” hitters in the world. They love to use their hands to place the ball in the field of play with the precision of surgeons. Finally, all these hitters must have all read the last chapter in the “Japanese Hitting Handbook” together, because they all abruptly ended their swings almost immediately after making contact with the ball. This final phase of their precise swings resulted in very few strike-outs during the tournament, but also very little power.
The Japanese were undefeated going into their first game against Team USA. They had no trouble scoring runs against the average pitching and spotty defense by the other teams they played. However, their controlled and cautious hitting mechanics failed when they faced the elite U.S. pitchers. They had difficulty generating enough bat speed to catch up to the faster pitching. It is hard to argue with the success of the Japanese National Teams, but from an offensive standpoint, they are just not that fun to watch.
The Canadian hitters were not on the same level of Team USA, but I still enjoyed watching them hit. Every hitter was aggressive and smart. They knew when the game situation called for contact and when it called for an extra base hit. It was apparent the Canadian hitters had devised a hitting strategy for the tournament, which led to fairly consistent offensive performance.
The primary reason Team Canada had a tough time with the better pitching in the tournament was due to their “linear mechanics”. Many of these hitters had relatively wide stances when they set-up in the batter’s box. To compound the inherent problems with a wide stance, they also stepped toward the pitcher as the ball approached, widening their stance even more.
Linear mechanics cause several problems. When hitters step forward during the swing, they not only lose any benefit of a weight transfer, they lose critical control of the swing, especially with off-speed pitches. I witnessed several Canadian hitters get fooled easily by change-ups. With their weight already too far forward as the pitch was approaching, all they could do was attempt to hit the ball with their arms and hands. The results were usually weak ground balls or infield pop-ups. I call this “getting over your skis”. Anyone who has skied knows that when the weight of the upper body gets over the front part of the skis, there is really no way to recover.
Linear hitting is “old school” theory. The best hitters in softball and baseball now employ rotational mechanics. Rotational hitting theory emphasizes transferring weight to the back foot and leg during the “load” phase of the hitting sequence and keeping it back through the finish of the swing. It is the powerful rotation of the lower body first and then the upper body that leads to great power and consistency. Team Canada would be well-served to adopt rotational hitting mechanics to take their offensive game to a higher level.
I loved watching the young women from Puerto Rico hit! They reminded me of the hitters on the Dominican Junior National Softball Team I met during my trip to the Dominican Republic with the Wheaton College Softball Team. Like the Dominicans, the hitters from Puerto Rico were “free swingers” and were” tough outs”. They also had an intensity and desire to succeed that was refreshing to watch. Although I appreciated their collective aggressiveness, they lacked the hitting mechanics to match their big swings. Like most of the teams in the tournament, these hitters lacked a noticeable load or weight transfer, and they also used linear hitting mechanics. These mechanical flaws made them look out of control at times, forcing them to often swinging with just their arms.
I did like how these hitters set-up in the batter’s box. They entered the batter’s box and set up in a solid hitting stance that served as a good foundation for the swing sequence. Almost every hitter also had their back foot on the back line of the batter’s box. I ask all of my hitters to set-up back in the batter’s box for several good reasons, including allowing them more time to react to the pitch, and it encourages selectivity. I also liked the way the Puerto Rican hitters set-up as close to home plate as possible. Their intent was to force pitchers to throw inside. This is an effective strategy, especially with two strikes on hitters. I noticed that it worked well against many of the Asian pitchers who pounded the outside corner to entice hitters to reach for the ball.
Here are links to a previous post explaining why all hitters should set up in the back of the batter’s box:
My advice to the young softball players in Puerto Rico is to keep swinging for the fences, but with more control through the adoption of rotational hitting theory.
THE REST OF THE BEST
I have grouped the rest of the teams by geography because it turned out there were many similarities between the way teams from the same region hit. Frankly, none of these teams made an impression on me. Each team had one or two good hitters, but not nearly enough to compete for gold.
Australia and New Zealand
I watched Team Australia play a few times. I always came away from their games a little frustrated for them. They definitely had talent and I could tell they received some good hitting instruction. Every hitter in their lineup set-up in the batter’s box solidly and they appeared confident. What they lacked was any elite hitters who could get the clutch hit in pressure situations or who were consistent threats to hit the ball out of the park. They didn’t do anything really well and they didn’t do anything poorly. The team from New Zealand was very similar, except their hitters were not as advanced as their Australian neighbors. They had a more cautious hitting approach and their bat speeds appeared to be slower. For me, the best part of watching games involving New Zealand and Australia was their fans. They had the most loyal and vocal fans in Oklahoma City, cheering every pitch and every at-bat.
Mexico and Brazil
Both of these teams were not offensive-minded and their hitting mechanics reflected this. Their hands were high and close to the body, causing unnecessary pre-swing movement. Only a few hitters had any visible load or weight transfer, and they were not very aggressive. When playing similar competition, both teams were competitive, but they looked very average when facing good pitching. The Brazilian hitters seemed to be more contact-oriented than the Mexican hitters. I speculate this is due to the influence from their Asian coaches. Both teams appeared to have some good athletes on their rosters, but they were unable to convert this athleticism into hitting success.
China and Chinese Taipei
These two teams were a mystery to me. Some of their hitters had the same precise and controlled approach as the Japanese team, while others look fairly undisciplined. Both teams used their arms and hands to aim the bat at the ball, and their swings were intentionally abbreviated. These teams lacked the international experience of the Japanese team, but based on the practice regimen I witnessed, they should continue to climb the world rankings in the future. They will always have difficulty scoring runs against great pitching, but they don’t seem to care. Like the Japanese, they hope good pitching and great defense will keep them in every game.
Italy, Czech Republic, and Great Britain
I enjoyed watching the European teams in the tournament. I think it was because their hitting styles were very similar to what I see at high school softball games in my area. Other than a few standout hitters, most of the European hitters did not have much power. I could tell they had some level of hitting instruction, but I failed to see a consistent approach in the batter’s box. I may not like the hitting mechanics of the Japanese team, but at least they have a hitting style that is noticeable. It seemed like each European hitter had a unique style of her own. It will be imperative for the coaches of the European teams to adopt a power hitting philosophy and teach it consistently. These teams will remain in the middle of the pack at international competitions until they make adjustments in all areas of their mechanics. These adjustments should include where and how they set up in the batter’s box, the way they load and transfer their weight before they initiate their swings, how they use their arms to complement the power generated by their bodies, and the proper way to finish their swings powerfully. Without these important adjustments, the European teams will continue be fun to watch, but they will have difficulty contending for medals.
Argentina and Columbia
These teams were over-matched in the tournament. The challenge for both teams will be to install a hitting system that teaches power mechanics to young players who aspire to make the national team in the future. The current players tried to compete, but they looked as if they never were taught the type of hitting mechanics that would make them competitive at the international level.
Hope For The Softball World
Softball hitting around the world has come a long way and it is still evolving. No longer is softball a pitcher-dominated sport. As more teams adopt power mechanics, hitters and pitchers will become more evenly matched and the games will be more exciting for fans. If softball is reinstated as an Olympic sport in 2020, I want it to be the most compelling and entertaining sport at the Games.
- The picture of the Team USA hitter is courtesy of the WBSC