The end of summer can be disappointing for students and teachers who have to go back to school or families returning from memorable vacations. I look forward to August every year, because I love watching the Little League World Series. ESPN begins coverage of this annual tournament by televising the U.S. regional games. I get a kick out of the reactions of the players when they make great plays or come up with big hits and I enjoy watching some of their fun antics in the dugout. However, what strikes me every year are some of the young hitters who lack sound hitting fundamentals.
Critiquing the hitting mechanics of 12-year-old players may seem harsh, but as a hitting instructor, it is frustrating when I see talented young athletes fail to maximize their hitting potential due to flawed swings. Often, the most productive and dangerous hitters on each team don’t have the best swings. They are typically the biggest and strongest players who don’t need the best hitting mechanics to hit the ball hard, especially with the continued improvements to metal bats. I prefer watching the small, skinny hitters who have to use great mechanics to hit the ball in the gaps or out of the small little league parks.
Whether it’s at the Little League World Series or the youth ball fields by my home, I continue to see hitting inconsistencies in three primary areas: poor hand positions at set-up, ineffective weight shifts (loads), and abbreviated swings.
Poor Hand Positions
What I mean by poor hand positions at set-up is whether hands are close to the body or back toward the catcher. Every little league hitter seems to have a different initial hand position. Some hitters hold them high and close to their heads, while others start with their hands low, but still close to their bodies. As I have described in previous posts, the best hand position for optimal hand and bat speed is shoulder height, away from the body, and back toward the catcher.
I’ll use the young hitter I nicknamed DR Sammy, who I met while working with hitters in the Dominican Republic, as the model for the improvements I would like to see young hitters make. Here is what a good hand position for baseball and softball hitters of all ages looks like:
It is obvious to see the influence major league baseball players have on young hitters. I can often tell what professional player little leaguers are trying to imitate as they stand in the batter’s box waiting for the pitch. Don’t get me wrong, there is nothing wrong with young hitters trying to copy the swings of their big league heroes. I did the exact same thing when I was young. My little league swing was patterned after “Sweet Swinging” Billy Williams of the Chicago Cubs. The problem with young hitters trying to hit exactly like professional hitters is they are NOT professional hitters. Professional hitters can set-up with their hands in positions that are not ideal, but most of them get to the powerful hand position I advocate at some point before the pitch is thrown.
By moving the hands back toward the catcher like DR Sammy, hitters are able to generate more hand and bat speed. Hitters at every level are incorrectly taught to start with their hands forward to be “quick to the ball”. Unfortunately, this is really bad advice. I can prove using bat speed measuring devices that hitters who try to be quick to the ball by moving their hands forward have lower bat speeds than hitters who start with their hands back. Lower bat speed means less power.
I can also prove that hitters who start with their hands forward not only have less power, they are actually slower to the ball. Hitters who start with their hands back have much higher bat speeds, which allows them to wait longer before initiating the swing. These hitters also make impact with the ball at the same time or even before hitters who start with their hands farther forward. I can’t think of any reasons why hitters at any level should set up with their hands in any other position than back toward the catcher like DR Sammy.
Ineffective Weight Shifts (Loads)
I have written extensively about the benefits of actually lifting the front leg as the pitcher releases the ball. Here is DR Sammy in a powerful “load” position:
There are two reasons for lifting the leg as the ball approaches the hitting zone. First, hitters will enjoy a complete and powerful weight transfer by lifting the front leg. Imagine how much velocity a pitcher would lose by choosing not to lift the front leg before throwing the ball. The same holds true for hitters. Lifting the front leg sets the stage for the powerful rotation of the entire body into the ball. Hitters who fail to lift the front foot or only attempt a token weight shift, will never be able to generate the same power as hitters who gather their power on the back foot and leg before exploding into the ball.
The second, and most undervalued, benefit of lifting the front leg is the ability to hit balls on the edges of the strike zone with more consistency and power. Hitters who don’t lift their front legs off the ground during the swing sequence are forced to reach for pitches on the outside corner of the plate and need to swing too early to pull inside pitches.
When hitters like DR Sammy swing at pitches on the corners, they make an adjustment when they re-plant their front foot to hit these balls with authority. If the pitch is tracking to the outside corner, DR Sammy’s front foot will come down slightly toward home plate, allowing him to use the same hitting mechanics as if the ball was thrown right down the middle. He will never have to reach across the plate with only his arms to hit an outside strike. Instead, he can drive the ball to the opposite field using his entire body to power the swing.
DR Sammy also has the luxury of waiting longer on inside pitches. As the ball tracks inside, his front foot will naturally land slightly open compared to where it started, so he can wait a split second longer before pulling the ball powerfully. Hitters who choose not to lift their front leg forfeit this luxury of extra time before committing the swing.
Of all the hitting keys I teach, lifting the front leg to initiate the baseball and softball swing sequence is the most controversial, but I’m not sure why. I rarely debate why I teach this important hitting key. Instead, I just take out my bat speed measuring devices, which settles the argument very quickly.
The combination of moving the hands back toward the catcher and lifting the front leg are the two most important factors that contribute to maximizing bat speed. By making these two simple adjustments, baseball and softball hitters can improve their bat speeds dramatically almost immediately.
At the end of the first hitting lesson, I ask baseball and softball hitters the same question. “Where should the bat finish?” Responses vary, but they are always wrong, because it’s a trick question. The correct answer is the bat should finish where IT wants to finish. Here is DR Sammy in the perfect finishing position:
As DR Sammy lifts his leg, the angle of his body will slowly and naturally begin to change. When he makes impact with the ball, the angle of his body is in a powerful “leverage” position and he stays this way through completion of the swing sequence.
Letting the bat finish where IT wants to finish means allowing it to follow the same path and angle as the body, ultimately ending high and away from the hitter’s head. Any time hitters manually alter the path of the swing, bat speed will be diminished. Little league hitters are notorious for either stopping the bat as soon as it makes contact with the ball or forcing the bat to finish where THEY want it to finish.
It’s a shame when I see hitters doing everything right until the end of the swing. When my hitters are comfortable with the mechanics I teach, I often tell them to focus only on the finish when they are in the batter’s box. Finishing the swing on the right path and in the right position will ensure maximum power.
I have always been an advocate of instructing young players to focus on hitting the ball hard, without worrying too much about the mechanics of the swing. I still believe this, but as hitters progress to higher levels of baseball and softball, good hitting mechanics are imperative for consistent success. By focusing on these three hitting keys, coaches and parents can keep the baseball and softball swings simple for young hitters, while still encouraging them to keep swinging hard and free. This is when the fun really begins.