The end of the softball and baseball season is the ideal time for coaches to assess whether a spike or dip in offensive performance and production was due to the natural talents of players or the team’s hitting philosophy. It is not uncommon for a team to hit over .300 with impressive statistics in all the power categories one season and then struggle with a batting average under .250 and anemic power numbers the next season. This is a typical sign of a systemic offensive breakdown.
What a treat it was to watch the University of Oklahoma Sooner hitters dominate college softball this past season. The default explanation by envious coaches is Coach Patty Gasso has her pick of the top athletes in the country. They are right, but that is not the secret to the success of the Sooner offense.
It was obvious Oklahoma installed a hitting philosophy that each of their hitters adopted. All Sooner hitters shared similar hitting keys, including bat position, load/leg lift, swing sequence, and finishing position. These are the same repeatable power mechanics I describe in my book Hitting With Torque: For Baseball and Softball Hitters.
I want to be clear that a hitting philosophy is very different than a template of hitting keys that players are expected to adopt. For example, teams could have a power hitting philosophy, but still fail to hit for power from season to season. These teams are dependent on the quality of athletes on the roster each year. Offensive production focused on a certain hitting philosophy without demanding hitters adopt the important hitting keys to support that philosophy leads to inconsistency.
Demanding hitters adopt the same hitting keys may seem extreme to some. It is also difficult for high school or travel coaches to expect hitters to follow a singular hitting template. Too many roadblocks get in the way, including the proliferation of personal hitting coaches. This is not the case in college.
College hitting coaches like me do not have to deal with travel coaches or personal hitting instructors interfering with our hitters unless we allow it. Rosters with multiple hitting styles is not only difficult for college hitting coaches to manage, it leads to inconsistent offensive production.
Aligning Hitting Philosophies And Hitting Keys
When new players enter our college program, we first take time to analyze their swings. Some require only a few adjustments to align with our hitting philosophy and team hitting template. Others need to change major components of their swing. It is important to note that we are not looking to mold hitters with identical swings. We do expect every hitter to fall somewhere within the hitting template that matches our offensive philosophy. Our team hitting template is comprised of the hitting keys we know will result in power and consistency.
High school and college programs that wait for rosters filled with great players requiring very little hitting instruction and intervention are not typically among the top teams every year. Once in awhile these teams will strike gold for a season or two, but after the talented players graduate, offensive production declines. Only a handful of Power 5 college programs can get away with this risky strategy. These elite programs annually recruit the best student-athletes who need less nurturing to reach their offensive potential.
A hitting philosophy that allows players to retain their unique identity without much coaching intervention does not work for the majority of high school and college teams. I have endured many frustrating conversations with other college coaches who are adamant about leaving hitters alone to hit the way they are most comfortable. My argument is a comfortable swing is not always the most productive swing.
In defense of teams without a hitting template, they often do not have adequate coaching resources or a dedicated hitting coach to formulate and implement a template of proven hitting keys. Also, many head coaches are not well-versed in how to develop and implement common hitting keys. These teams have no choice but to rely on the swings their players bring to campus.
Relying on nature only to produce a consistent offense is a flawed strategy.
While I strongly believe in the effectiveness of a team hitting template, some players are just good hitters! If players can hit with power and consistency with ugly hitting mechanics that do not resemble the team hitting template, leave them alone! These hitters are rare and not always pretty to watch, but they get the job done. Although, even these hitters may need some tweaking.
Overcoaching can also negatively affect a team offense. Forcing players to hit exactly the same way without any personal expression can lead to frustration and resentment. The Oklahoma hitters employed the same basic hitting mechanics, but they still retained their individual styles.
Hitters and their parents should be leery of overcoaching, especially when hitting coaches promote and teach an ineffective template of hitting keys. I know coaches who actually do more harm than good. It is extremely important to keep hitting coaches accountable by demanding they explain the benefits of each hitting key they teach, along with quantifiable proof of effectiveness and improvement.
I tell all my softball and baseball hitters that if a hitting instructor is unable to explain the benefits of a swing adjustment, then they should be skeptical. All hitting coaches should use bat speed measurement devices to prove to their hitters the adjustments are actually improving their hitting metrics, including hand speed, bat speed, the time to impact with the ball, and the important swing angles before and after hitting the ball. This will help keep over-nurturing coaches accountable for what they teach.
Nature AND Nurture
The ideal offense strategy combines a team’s natural physical gifts and abilities with proven hitting keys that generate consistent offensive results. I often work with elite softball and baseball players. Many are already very good hitters. Some hitting coaches would default to past hitting successes and allow them to continue hitting with little intervention. My passion is to uncover the untapped potential in these hitters.
I recently had another opportunity to “nurture” a really talented softball hitter. During her first two years of college, she enjoyed considerable hitting success. At the beginning of our first workout together, her bat speed (not exit speed) was in the low to mid-60s. This bat speed range is fairly typical for college hitters in any division, including D1 players.
It was apparent after critically analyzing her swing that a few minor adjustments would make a big difference. The modifications we made together complemented her existing swing and capitalized on her athleticism. Her bat speed steadily increased until her bat speed consistently ranged from the upper-70s to low-80s after only three workouts. Not only did her bat speed jump, but so did her power and consistency. She commented that her swing now felt more naturally powerful.
It would have been easy to leave this hitter alone and let her continue to be a really good hitter, even with the minor flaws in her swing. She would also likely continue to be a productive hitter throughout the remainder of her college career. But with a little nurturing, she is now poised to take her hitting to a new and exciting level.
Teams will change from year to year which means the balance between nature and nurture also needs to change. The trick is knowing when to push players to adopt new hitting mechanics and when to back-off. I believe thoughtfully maximizing the physical and mental gifts of hitters through the appropriate amount of nurturing is always the right choice!
About Paul Petricca
In addition to writing this hitting blog, Paul is a hitting coach and the author of the books Hitting With Torque: For Baseball And Softball Hitters and his new children’s book Going Going Gone!. He is also a public speaker and provides unique customer engagement training through his company Torque Consulting. Paul teaches a Customer Relationship Management class to undergraduates at Wheaton College (IL) and MBA candidates at Loyola University Chicago, and DePaul University.