As you prepare your hitters for another exciting season, here are some tips to build and implement a simple, yet effective preseason hitting plan. At times, we coaches devise hitting drills that kill some time at practice, but they fail to improve our hitters. Sometimes, less is more when it comes to a preseason hitting plan. The key to building a powerful and consistent offense is laser focus on the drills and skills that will measurably improve each of your hitters.
Continue to focus on increasing bat speed
For those of you who are frequent visitors to this site, you are used to me preaching about the importance of measuring and improving bat speed. I know I sound like a broken record, but the best way to become a better hitter is to increase bat speed. The ONLY way to really increase bat speed is to improve hitting mechanics.
I am not disputing the effectiveness of weight training and conditioning. Getting into better shape will lead to marginal increases in bat speed and power. However, hitters who want to dramatically increase bat speed, power and consistency should focus on developing power hitting mechanics, not bigger biceps.
Many coaches believe working on hitting mechanics should be reserved for the summer or fall. I disagree. During the preseason, it is possible for hitters with already high bat speeds to add a few miles per hour in a short period of time. More importantly, by adopting the simple hitting keys described in my book, it’s possible for weaker hitters to increase their average bat speed dramatically in a matter of a few days, not weeks or months.
Some coaches and players respond to my bold bat speed assertions with skepticism or indifference. They don’t believe it is possible to increase bat speeds dramatically in a short period of time. Or, they don’t understand the real benefits of more bat speed. All I can say is there is nothing like seeing the expression on a hitter’s face when their bat speed jumps by just making a few simple adjustments to their swing.
Increased bat speed absolutely translates directly to additional power. As I have written before, studies show that by increasing bat speed by only 1 mph, the ball will travel an additional five feet! It is not uncommon for my new hitters to increase their bat speeds 5-10 mph after the first workout. If you do the math, the ball will now go 25-50 feet farther. This can be the difference between a single and a double or a double and a home run.
When hitters achieve a swing sequence that is more powerful, it also naturally becomes more repeatable. You can’t have one without the other. A repeatable swing will enable hitters to focus on the pitch and not their mechanics in the batter’s box.
Coaches who ignore or downplay the importance of measuring and improving bat speed even during the preseason are doing a disservice to their hitters. During the recent National Fastpitch Coaches Association (NFCA) convention last month, coaches who made hitting presentations described many helpful and creative hitting drills. However, I was hoping more of these talented coaches would have described in detail how these drills would increase bat speed, power, and consistency.
If you would like more information about typical bat speeds for baseball and softball hitters, please click on this link or feel free to contact me directly. Bat Speeds For Baseball and Softball Hitters
Follow the right hitting progression
With only a limited number of practices before the season begins, it can be tempting to spend the majority of hitting practices facing live pitching or hitting off machines dialed up to game speeds. My suggestion is to adopt the following hitting progression that will better prepare hitters for that first at-bat of the season.
- TEE WORK
It all starts with tee work. The best Major League baseball hitters know that success begins with focused and perfect tee work. Hitting off a tee is the only time hitters are in total control. The ball is not moving and it is not spinning in different directions to deceive the hitter.
With a stationary ball on a tee, hitters are able to focus on each individual component of the swing sequence. Hitters who spend time hitting off a tee in the preseason and throughout the regular season will spend more time on base in games.
The temptation for coaches and players is to reduce the amount of tee work during preseason practices in favor of live pitching. This is a mistake that will hold back hitters from reaching their full potential. Professional hitters incorporate tee work as an integral part of their hitting regimen throughout the season. Why wouldn’t high school or college hitters do the same?
Here is a tee sequence I use at almost every hitting practice.
At the beginning of each tee session, swing fully at approximately 80% with the intent to loosen up. Swings should be rhythmic and controlled.
1/2 and 2/3 Swings
1/2 Swing Drill: The purpose of the 1/2 swing is to practice achieving full extension at impact. Hitters should end each swing with both arms fully extended and both elbows and wrists totally stiff. The end of the bat should finish pointing over the top of the pitcher’s head. The ideal hit is a line drive to center field. Hitters should hold the position at the end of the swing for a few seconds to feel the extension and to confirm the correct position has been achieved.
2/3 Swing Drill: The purpose of the 2/3 swing is to train the body to maintain the full extension achieved at impact. Both arms should remain extended and both elbows and wrists should remain stiff as long as possible. The bat should finish on an upward plane toward the hitter’s pull field. The ideal hit is a high line drive towards either gap. Hitters should again hold the position at the end of the swing for a few seconds.
These two tee drills will train the body to pull the ball or hit to the opposite field. Hitters should align both feet toward the desired field and then swing normally when the ball enters the hitting zone. As hitters become proficient, the alignment angle can be decreased. After experimenting with different ways to hit to the opposite or pull fields off a tee without changing the swing, these are by far the best two drills.
Alternate Hitting Keys
Before each swing, hitters should choose one hitting key to practice and emphasize off the tee. During the swing, hitters should focus on the successful execution of this hitting key. Individual hitting keys include, moving hands back, a slow and powerful load (leg lift), independent upper and lower body rotation, full extension at impact, maintaining full extension as long as possible, and letting the bat finish without intervention.
In the batter’s box during games, hitters should TRUST the individual hitting keys and the overall swing sequence. During this tee drill, hitters should swing as aggressively as the body will allow, without concern where the ball is being hit. Hit it hard!
- FRONT TOSS
After concentrated and productive tee work, front toss is the next step in the hitting progression. Front toss sessions should look exactly like tee work, except the ball is now being thrown underhand from 10-15 feet. Like tee sessions, hitters should still work on each individual component of the swing sequence.
Front toss sessions provide players and coaches with the first indication whether the swing sequence is repeatable. Since the ball is traveling toward the hitter at a slower speed and at a relatively consistent location, there is no excuse for hitters to alter their tee swings. Unfortunately, it happens all the time.
If the swing degrades from the tee to front toss, coaches should use video to help hitters identify which hitting keys are not transferring. Some hitting video apps allow for the comparison of two swings. I use this feature to show hitters exactly where the front toss swing sequence differs from their tee swing.
I believe front toss should look different in the preseason than in the fall. The primary goal in the fall is to ensure the front toss swing is identical to the tee swing. The main goal in the preseason is to simulate game conditions. Each front toss session should include hitting to all fields, especially the opposite field.
Using targets in the cage or on the field is an effective way to train hitters to hit to all fields with power. I enjoy creating fun competitions between hitters during front toss sessions by awarding points for hitting these targets. You have to win in the cage before you can win on the field.
- BATTING PRACTICE
What’s good for college and Major League baseball players should be good for softball players. Yet, I don’t think enough high school or college softball team take traditional batting practice before games. I also don’t believe enough coaches include batting practice in their overall hitting plans. Batting practice is typically the missing link in most high school and college softball programs.
This definition of batting practice is a pitcher throwing fastballs at approximately 70% of game velocity. The pitcher can throw from the mound or slightly in front of it. Hitters benefit from this type of batting practice in several ways.
Seeing the full pitching motion and release point in order to synchronize the swing sequence is probably the biggest benefit. Hitters can also achieve a better sense of timing and rhythm that is more transferable to game conditions than front toss.
I understand the lack of pitching resources can be an obstacle to using batting practice as a consistent part of a practice or pregame plan. It can be difficult to convince starting pitchers to get shelled in practice by hitters feasting on fastballs.
Pitchers should realize that by pitching batting practice, their hitters will be better prepared to score more runs on their behalf in games. A potent offense takes pressure off any pitching staff.
If a team is short on pitchers to throw batting practice, there are other viable options. Pitching coaches, position players who used to pitch in high school, or former pitchers who live in the area are good alternatives. The extra effort to find arms to pitch batting practice will pay off in a more consistent and potent offense.
- LIVE PITCHING
After tee work, front toss, and batting practice, only then should teams increase the frequency of live pitching. Even the best hitters experience some degradation of their mechanics when facing full velocity and an assortment of spins. The key to being a great hitter is minimizing this degradation.
I have seen too many good hitters demoralized after going directly from tee work or front toss to live pitching. As a hitting coach, I get frustrated when I see all the hard work go down the drain when hitters drastically change their swing during live sessions just to make contact.
Live pitching is a critical component of the hitting progression, but too much too early can have a devastating effect on hitters. On the other hand, when hitters are confident in their mechanics, facing live pitching in practice can be very helpful.
The results of a hitting progression
A comprehensive hitting progression program will prepare hitters for success during the season. I encourage my hitters by telling them if they are 95% perfect hitting off a tee, 75% perfect during front toss sessions, 60% perfect during batting practice and 40% perfect in games off of live pitching, they will be All-Conference!
My final preseason tip is to develop and implement mental games that fit teams and individuals. In my book, I devote an entire section to mental games to improve offensive productivity. I intentionally use the word “games”, because I believe tricking our minds can be as effective as training our minds.
Mental games can include visualization, association, and observation. Visualizing positive outcomes, associating past success with the current situation, or observing and feeling components of the swing sequence in order to make adjustments are effective mental games. However, the most effective mental strategy is simply to “trust”.
Coaches often tell hitters, “Trust your swing!” This is great advice, but I’m not sure hitters really take it to heart. Sometimes, I watch hitters in the on-deck circle and wonder if they are too preoccupied with their mechanics. Instead, they should be using mental games to achieve a level of trust in their swing to take into the batter’s box. Trust will lead to confidence and confidence will lead to hitting success.
When hitters truly trust their swing, their minds become free to focus only on the game situation and the pitch. After hitters understand the game situation and the objective of the at-bat, all that remains is seeing the pitch and hitting it as hard as possible.
It’s time to play!
All the patience, perseverance, and hard work is about to pay off. After the trials of coaching through a pandemic, we all have new appreciation for the game we love. Beginning with this preseason, we all have a fresh chance to coach or to play. Let’s make the most of it!
About Paul Petricca
In addition to writing this hitting blog, Paul is a college softball hitting coach and the author of the book Hitting With Torque: For Baseball And Softball Hitters. He also is 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 the Benedictine University Asia Program