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March 2007
Browsing Archive March, 2007

Power Hitting: Get Deep to Go Deep

Every hitter I speak to — regardless of age — wants to hit the ball farther more consistently. Singles hitters want to hit doubles, doubles hitters want to hit home runs, and homerun hitters want to hit balls further and more frequently over the fence. Often, batters think they need to change their mechanics in order to hit the ball farther. They may go so far as to spend hundreds of dollars on gadgets that promise to increase your power, or DVDs promoting “rotational hitting”, or private lessons from the local hitting “guru”.

David Wright lets the baseball get deep before hittingWhile it’s very possible that a batter’s mechanics may need some tweaking, before you go spending money on a magic elixir, try a different approach: getting deep.

Deep means two things to a hitter, and all the GREAT hitters do it. First, it means let the ball get deep. In other words, let the ball get as close to the catcher as possible before committing to your swing. Second, it means get into deep counts — such as 2-1, 3-0, 3-1, even 3-2. Learning to do these two things alone will put you in a better position to hit balls with authority — also known as, getting your pitch to hit.

Let the Ball Get Deep

The longer you wait on a pitch, the better look you get at it. While it’s true that the most direct route in hitting a homerun is to hit a ball far out in front of the plate, and pull the ball to the shortest part of the outfield fence, using that kind of strategy all the time will result in far more swings and misses, and weak grounders, than fly balls over the fence. Those kind of hitters may help the team once in a while, but overall are not very productive. Dave Kingman was one of the last “dinosaurs” who hit this way — a typical season for him was 35 homeruns and a .205 batting average. If he didn’t hit a homer, he wasn’t much use to his team.

A better approach is to let the ball get deeper, allow it to come right into your “kitchen”. Trust your hands — they’re much faster than you think — and learn to get the meat of the bat (or “sweet spot”) on the ball. It’s easier than it sounds, and requires you to learn when to throw the bat head out early (on inside pitches), and when to wait a fraction of a second longer before dropping the bat head (on outside pitches). You will hit a pitch on the inside corner out in front of the plate, and meet an outside pitch when it is on top of the plate — or even past it, depending on where you stand in the batter’s box. 90% of inexperienced hitters have no trouble hitting the ball too early, but only the best hitters are able to trust their hands and wait on those outside pitches.

There is an old school fallacy that says hitting with power to the opposite field is more difficult because it requires great strength. In fact, that’s not entirely true; if you have strength to correctly pull the ball with power, you have the strength to do the same the other way. The fallacy is based on two premises: 1. that your weight goes with the swing (out in front), so that you’re actually lunging into the ball; and 2. that your swing has more length, and therefore more momentum, when it meets the ball out in front. In the first premise, a batter gets into that predicament by being fooled on an offspeed pitch — all his weight is on his front foot, but the timing is just right to get the weight into the ball and power it over the nearest fence. In other words, more luck than skill is involved.

The second premise — momentum — has some logic behind it, but can also be dispelled. To hit a ball optimally, you want the bat to hit the ball when your hands are transferring the most torque, leverage, and speed your body can muster. That said, would you rather hit the ball when your hands are speeding up, or when they’re slowing down? Obviously, when they’re speeding up. If you hit the ball too far out in front of the plate, there’s a good chance you’ll meet the ball when your swing is slowing down. Considering that, you can understand why waiting a fraction of a second longer won’t necessarily require you to have more strength. The key is to get to the ball when your hands are moving fastest.

Another benefit of letting the ball get deep is that you get a full, long look at the action of the pitch. All pitchers worth their salt put some kind of movement on the ball (intentionally or not). In addition, few pitchers can get the ball to move more than 3-5 ways consistently. For example, a pitcher may have a fastball that tails in and down a bit, a changeup that falls away, and a curve that starts high and drops down. The longer look you get at these pitches, and their late movement or action, the better chance you have of figuring out when and where to meet the pitch with the sweet spot of your bat. A good strategy is to think this: if the pitch is middle-out, go to the opposite field. This gives you that extra fraction of a second to wait on a pitch, let the ball get deep, and then when you’ve decided to commit, throw the hands through the hitting zone. To see this approach in action, pay attention to MLB hitters Albert Pujols, David Wright, David Ortiz, Manny Ramirez, Mike Piazza, Ryan Howard, and (usually) Carlos Delgado. All these men do a great job of letting the ball get deep, and regularly hit balls over the opposite-field fence. They also hit for high averages.

Get Into Deep Counts

Letting the ball get deep goes hand-in-hand with getting into deep counts. When you regularly wait longer on pitches, and get good looks, you tend to swing at less pitches. Because you give yourself more time before committing, you can more easily identify balls and pitches that are difficult to handle, and you let them go. While the very best pitchers will challenge hitters early in the count with strikes, most of ordinary hurlers nitpick around the zone, and try to get hitters to swing at bad pitches (it helps to study a pitcher and find out early in a game whether you’re dealing with an aggressive pitcher or a nitpicker). If you’re up against an average pitcher, and you take pitches, you’ll often find yourself in good hitting counts, such as 2-0, 2-1, 3-0, 3-1, and 3-2 (that’s right, full count is good for hitters because the pitcher has to throw a strike to get you out). When you’re ahead in the count, especially 2-0, 3-1, and 3-0, you have the advantage of looking for a pitch that you can not only handle but drive. Half of power hitting is technique, the other half is getting and swatting YOUR pitch. In addition, by getting into deep counts you are accomplishing two more things: first, you’re wearing out the pitcher; and second, you’re seeing more of his pitches. Knowledge is power, and the more you know about what a pitcher throws in certain situations, and how his pitches move, the better prepared you are to hit. As you see more and more of a hurler’s pitches, the easier it will be for you to recognize which ones you can best handle, and anticipate when they’re coming.

So, before you go wasting money or tweaking your hitting mechanics, learn to get deep. If you still can’t go deep when getting deep, THEN consider mechanical adjustments. You will lose nothing by learning the approach of great hitting, and gain dramatically when/if you do fix your mechanics.

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Losers Focus on Winning

Do you find the headline intriguing? It’s true: the biggest mental issue for losing teams is that they’re obsessed with winning.

Seems not to make much sense, but hear me out — I have firsthand experience.

In over 25 years of baseball (and four years of football) playing and coaching, I’ve been a member of dozens of teams — most ordinary, a few extraordinary, and a few too many that were hopeless, hapless losers. The extraordinary teams had a full squad of players who understood how to win. Every other team had perhaps a selection of players who knew the “secret” to winning, but were mixed in with a bunch who had no clue. As a result of my experiences, I usually know after one or two games whether a team is doomed for a losing season.

Generally speaking, losers spend most of a game obsessing over the outcome — whether or not they’ll win. They know the score, and are fearful of it, at every moment in every inning (I’m referring to the players; it’s the manager’s job to worry about the score). They might openly ridicule a teammate who has just made an error, particularly if that error led to a run. Losers will beat themselves up for striking out in the previous inning, when they’re back on the field and need to be thinking about defense. They’ll often explain that they “can’t stand losing”, or “will do anything to win.” However, they don’t really understand what winning is.

Winning was defined most succinctly and accurately by the legendary Green Bay Packers coach Vince Lombardi:

“Winning is not a sometime thing, it is an all-time thing. You don’t do things right once in a while, you do them right all the time.”

Lombardi also spoke these gems:

“Success demands singleness of purpose.”

“We didn’t lose the game, we just ran out of time.”

Read through these three quotes several times, until you “get it”. Winning is not something that you turn off and turn on — it’s something that you always do, it’s a habit. You don’t let your mind wander all game and then suddenly concentrate when it’s the last inning; rather, you are intensely riveted on every pitch, and only that pitch, until the pitch / play is complete.

What winners know, and losers don’t, is that executing the tasks necessary to win cannot be complicated by a preoccupation with the final score of a particular game. It’s about focus; if you are thinking about whether or not your team will win the game, then your mind cannot be completely focused on the task at hand — whether it’s throwing a pitch, fielding a grounder, or laying down a bunt. Baseball is difficult enough with a clear mind; cluttering it with concerns that are out of your control makes effective execution next to impossible.

Don’t read this wrong — it’s not that you shouldn’t want to win, or that you can’t think about winning. The point is, you need to have 100% concentration on the current task in order to succeed. Your small success in execution, followed by a teammate’s success in their execution, and so on, will give your team the best chance to win the game. If your team ultimately wins a game, it is usually because your teammates converted most of their opportunities — a series of small successes or “wins”. Bobby Cox led his Atlanta Braves to 14 consecutive NL East Division Championships using this exact principle. Cox’s teams rarely relied on colorful stars or dramatic individual achievements to win games; rather, they wore teams down by throwing strikes, fielding impeccably, and executing a team hitting strategy (taking pitches, moving runners, placing bunts, hit and runs, etc.). It’s a boring recipe, but it’s successful, because each player focuses on his specific task.

To give an example of a winner’s, versus a loser’s, mindset, imagine a pitcher on the mound in the ninth inning of a 2-1 game with the bases loaded, two outs, and the opposing team’s best hitter at the plate. The “loser” will be focused on “winning the game”, or “protecting the lead”. He may also be thinking about the opposing hitter’s strengths and weaknesses, and the fact that a base hit would mean a loss. The idea “I have to strike this guy out” may go through his mind. He might also think that a wild pitch will bring home the tying run — as would a walk. The loser has so many thoughts in his mind, and so much self-inflicted tension, that he forgets to focus on executing.

On the other hand, the winner toes the rubber with the same approach regardless of the situation: get the sign from the catcher, focus on the target, throw the pitch. Of course, the winner is well aware that the bases are loaded, that it’s a one-run game, and the other team’s slugger is up. However, the “pressure” of the situation motivates him to think more clearly, and execute his next pitches with more intense concentration. Rather than worrying about the score or what a wild pitch may do, he’s thinking “my catcher has called a fastball, he wants it down and away. I’m going to keep my head on the target and release the ball with my fingers on top and follow through the catcher’s glove. If it’s hit back to me, I will have plenty of time to throw to first base.” … etc.

It’s the same way for the hitter. The “loser” batter in this situation is thinking “I want to win this game so bad, I’ve got to get a hit”. The “winner” thinks, “bases loaded, there’s a lot of ways to keep this game going. I’ll take this one pitch at a time. I’m looking for a good pitch to hit, something I can hit off the sweet spot. I’ll look for ball, get my hands back, keep my head down and watch the bat hit the ball. Otherwise, I’ll let the pitch go.”

For the winner — whether it’s the pitcher or the batter — the focus is on executing. The loser is focused on the outcome of the game.

Winners understand that a series of successful executions give their team the best chance of winning, and that thinking about the final score only hampers the ability to execute. Losers are so wrapped up in whether they win the game, they may not even be aware of what is necessary to be victorious.

So remember, if you want to win, you have to win “all the time”. To win all the time, you need singleness of purpose — in other words, you need to be completely focused, and fixed on, the specific task at hand. And if, at the end of the game, your team has been outscored, remember: you’re not a loser — you just ran out of time.

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