With so much emphasis on power hitting at every level in baseball and softball, it is not surprising that some of the “little things” get overlooked. When I was a young baseball fan, it was common to see many hitters in professional baseball lay down a bunt in any situation. The “hit and run” was also much more common. Offenses were more focused on moving runners around the bases with multiple hits, rather than driving them in with one big swing. One of the most effective offensive strategies throughout the history of baseball has been all but lost—choking up on the bat!
Choking up on the bat 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 did not have a wide selection to choose from. They had no choice but to use bats that were often too long and 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 bat companies 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 baseball who choked up on the bat. During an interview, Bonds explained that he began choking up on the bat as a child. He recalled the promotional bats he received at major league baseball games during giveaway days were the same size as bats used by big leaguers.
Bonds was forced to choke up on these big bats in order to complete his swing while playing with his childhood friends. He said sometimes he needed to choke up so much the handle of the bat would actually hit his side during the swing. It was then that Bonds discovered the benefits of choking up on the bat and 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 overall hitters in baseball before all the steroids.
A current player who values choking up on the bat is Anthony Rizzo. As a Cubs fan, I refuse to use a picture of him as a Yankee. Rizzo likes to choke up when he is behind in the count with two strikes. If it is good enough for Anthony Rizzo, it should be good enough for all baseball and softball hitters!
Here are a few reasons why it is smart to choke up on the bat:
Greater Bat Control
Choking up on the bat makes the bat shorter. This 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.
By choking up, hitters increase their chances of putting the ball in play instead of striking out. The sole objective is to force the defense to make a play or find a hole in-between fielders. This smart hitting strategy makes hitters more consistent and definitely more dangerous.
Rizzo is known as a “dead pull hitter”. Frequently, Anthony would choke up on the bat and serve the ball to left field for an easy hit to beat a defensive shift. The increased bat control he realized from choking up on the bat turned out to be an effective weapon to combat any defensive strategies.
Increased Bat Speed and Power
Swinging a shorter and lighter bat can actually increase bat speed, which translates directly into more power. It is a myth that choking up on the bat reduces power. Bat speed studies confirm the barrel of the bat travels faster when hitters choke up.
Here is a chart confirming choking up on the bat increases bat speed at the barrel of the bat.
* Picture courtesy of The Hardball Times
I am often asked by my hitters whether they should swing a 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 smaller bat, 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. Here is a link to a previous article to help hitters choose the right bat.
Defense Against Getting Jammed
In addition to more bat speed and bat control, choking up on the bat is a way to consistently get a bigger part of the bat on the ball. Hitters who are jammed while choking up will hit the ball on a larger part of the bat. It may not be the “sweet spot” of the bat, but making contact two or three inches up from the hands can be the difference between an infield pop-up and a line drive to the outfield.
More Mental Focus in Pressure Situations
Another key benefit of choking up on the bat is the mental advantage hitters will enjoy in pressure situations. Whenever I choked up on the bat as a baseball player, my focus and intensity seemed to increase immediately. 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 their strategy. They may change type of pitch and even the location when they notice hitters choking up. Advantage hitter!
Make Choking Up Great Again
After reading this article, I hope coaches and players will incorporate choking up as another weapon in their hitting arsenal. 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.
About Paul Petricca
In addition to writing this hitting blog, Paul is a hitting coach and the author of the book 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.