Don’t Choke—Choke Up

With so much emphasis on power hitting these days, it is not surprising that some of the “little things” in baseball and softball get overlooked. When I was a young baseball fan, it was common to see many hitters in professional baseball who could lay down a bunt in any situation. The “hit and run” was also much more common when offenses focused on moving runners around the bases with multiple hits, rather than driving them in with one big swing. In my opinion, one of the most effective offensive strategies throughout the history of baseball has been all but lost—choking up on the bat!

In the early days of baseball, it was commonplace for hitters to choke up on the bat, which simply means moving the hands up the bat from the handle a few inches. Many of the old-time players did this out of necessity because their bats were very heavy.  Babe Ruth used a 36 inch/54 ounce bat early in his career, which is among the heaviest in baseball history. Later in his career, The Bambino used a lighter bat, but it was still 40 ounces.  Due to the fairly primitive construction of early bats, players in Babe Ruth’s era didn’t have a wide selection to choose from. They had no choice but to use bats that were often too long or too heavy.  The only way for many players, especially the smaller ones, to control these big bats was to choke up.

Today, the average bat size in Major League Baseball is 34-36 inches and 32-35 ounces. Players are spoiled by the numerous bat companies that are anxious to customize the perfect bat for hitters, based on their height, weight, swing, and desired hitting strategy. Like professional bowlers who have multiple balls for different shots, some professional baseball players have multiple bats for different game situations. Most hitters today just don’t see the need to choke up on the bat.

Like him or hate him, Barry Bonds was one of the few power hitters in modern-day baseball who choked up on the bat. During an interview, Bonds explained that he began choking up on the bat as a child, because the bat giveaways at major league games were the same size as bats used by big leaguers. He was forced to choke up on the bat in order to complete his swing while playing with his friends. He said that sometimes he needed to choke up so much, the handle of the bat would actually hit his side during the swing. Eventually, Bonds discovered the benefits of choking up on the bat and he never changed.

Here is a picture of young Barry Bonds choking up on the bat.  Even though his body was a fraction of what it was during his later years as a player, he was one of the best power hitters in baseball, without all the steroids.

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If it’s good enough for Anthony Rizzo, it should be good enough for young baseball and softball hitters! Here are a few reasons why it is smart to choke up on the bat:

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Greater Bat Control

Choking up on the bat makes the bat shorter, which enables hitters to control it better. It is also easier for hitters to find the sweet spot of the bat. This improved bat control is especially effective with two strikes or in pressure situations. In 2016, Anthony Rizzo almost always choked up on his bat when he found himself in a two strike count.  By choking up, he increased his chances of putting the ball in play, instead of striking out. His sole objective was to force the defense to make a play or to find a hole in-between the fielders. This smart hitting strategy made Anthony more consistent and definitely more dangerous.

Rizzo is also known as a “dead pull hitter”. Opposing teams routinely shifted their fielders to flood the right side of the infield this past season. Frequently, Anthony would choke up on the bat and serve the ball to left field for an easy hit. The increased bat control he realized from choking up on the bat turned out to be an effective weapon to combat the shift by opposing teams.

Increased Bat Speed and Power

Swinging a shorter and lighter bat increases bat speed, which translates directly into more power. Barry Bonds was able to hit with consistent power, even though he choked up on the bat, because he was able to generate enough home run bat speed with a shorter bat. I believe if Anthony Rizzo continues his two strike strategy, he will begin to hit more home runs with his hands choked up on the bat.

I am often asked by my hitters whether they should swing a slightly larger or smaller bat. The simple answer is if baseball and softball hitters can swing a larger bat without sacrificing bat speed, then the change would be appropriate. If hitters begin using a slightly smaller bat, then their bat speed should naturally increase to allow them to hit with the same power as using a larger bat. Choking up on the bat to make it smaller and lighter has the same positive effect.

Defense Against Getting Jammed

In addition to more bat speed and bat control, Barry Bonds liked to choke up on the bat as a way to get a bigger part of the bat on the ball if he was jammed inside by the pitcher. Instead of hitting the ball near the handle, he was able to hit inside pitchers on a bigger part of the bat. It still wasn’t the “sweet spot” of the bat, but two or three inches up the bat can often be the difference between an infield pop-up and a line drive to the outfield.

More Mental Focus in Pressure Situations

The benefit of choking up on the bat that is more difficult to quantify is the mental advantage for hitters in pressure situations. Whenever I would choke up on the bat as a young baseball player, my focus and intensity seemed to increase immediately.  I’m not sure why, but as soon as I moved my hands up the bat, I became a tougher out.

I believe pitchers are also affected when hitters choke up on the bat.  They are aware the hitter has made the decision to put the ball in play at any cost. This can often force a pitcher to change his or her strategy, including the type of pitch and even the location of the pitch.

“Make Choking Up Great Again”

After thinking about the art of choking up on the bat to write this piece, I am now planning to incorporate it more into my private hitting lessons and with the college softball team I coach. Hitters should welcome any technique or strategy to gain more bat control without sacrificing power, especially in pressure situations. It is time for choking up on the bat a few inches to make a comeback in baseball and softball.