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It's not HOW you swing, but what you DON't SWING AT that matters

Posted by John Reed on

After years of trying to improve both my hitting and that of my players through batting mechanics, I decided it was not working and went back to Ted Williams' classic book The Science of Hitting. He said the most important thing was to get a good pitch to hit. Not mechanics.

So I tried emphasizing waiting for a good pitch on the first and second strike in both my own adult-hardball and semi-pro play and in the way I coached my youth teams. Bingo! Both my youth team and myself saw an instant improvement in our batting. More walks and more hits.

Youth Baseball Coaching, 3rd edition book

My adult team manager moved me to leadoff for much of the season. My youth team had a .590 on-base average. Opposing managers were flinging their clipboards down and yelling at us. Umpires started to discriminate against us (call a bigger strike zone) because of our discipline at the plate. The head of our league came to one of my team's games, because he was curious about how a team that never did batting practice all season played. After the game, he said, "I have never seen one team hit so many line drives in one game in my life." He probably also never saw one 10-to-12-year old team draw so many walks either, which why the opposing managers were going nuts.

This is called being disciplined. It's called being patient. It's called "waiting for your pitch," a phrase I often heard in semi-pro and adult baseball, but rarely heard in youth baseball.

Ted Williams also said,

A good hitter can hit a pitch in a good spot three times better than a great hitter can hit a ball in a questionable spot.

Branch Rickey, the Dodgers owner who brought Jackie Robinson into Major League baseball, said:

The greatest single difference between a Major League and minor-league batsman is his judgment of the strike zone. He knows better whether to swing or take a pitch.

Warren Spahn, who won more games than any other lefthander, said,

Home plate is 17 inches wide. All I asked for were the two inches on each corner. The hitters could have the 13 inches in between. I didn’t throw there.

Amen. That is precisely what I found. Working on mechanics has the ostensible goal of making youth baseball players great hitters. But it takes forever, is not guaranteed to succeed, and seems more often to reduce performance by making the batter think too much when the pitch is on the way. Why not start your coaching efforts with what Ted Williams says will have a "three times" greater effect: getting a good pitch?

Coaching Teenage and Adult Baseball book

Only takes about ten days

Teaching your players to wait for a good pitch on the first two strikes does not take forever. It takes about ten days to two weeks to explain what they should do and convince them that it works. Furthermore, I do guarantee that it will succeed on your team. You will draw far more walks and your team will have much more success when they do swing the bat.

I taught my players that pitches down the pipe, right in the middle of the strike zone, were “line-drive pitches.” In other words, the quality of the hit is mainly determined by where the pitch was at in the strike zone, not by the quality of the mechanics of the swing. There is such a thing as a line-drive swing, but it takes thousands of swings to develop, and, as Ted Williams observed, the line-drive swing will not produce line drives if it is not used against a line-drive pitch.

No batting practice all season

My youth team that wowed the head of the league hitting line drives did absolutely no batting practice all season. So where did the line drives come from? From waiting for a pitch that was thrown to a line-drive location, that is, the heart of the strike zone. We swung with the usual motley assortment of untrained youth swings. But because we took those unprofessional swings only on professionally-chosen pitches, we hit line drives.

I thought my admonition to never hold batting practice during your youth baseball season was one of the most radical ideas in my book. But after my book went to press, I came across Jeff Burroughs' Little League Instructional Guide. He was the coach of the Long Beach two-time Little League World Series champion team. Guess what he says on page 93.

You have probably noticed that there is no time set aside for batting practice [in his recommended practice schedule]. Batting practice should be taken before regular season games only. There simply is not enough time in the practice schedule for batting practice.

This is precisely what I said. Great minds run in the same channels. You should note that in addition to coaching the Long Beach Little League team, Jeff Burroughs was also the Most Valuable Player in the American League in 1974 and an All-Star once in each major league. He played in the Major Leagues as an outfielder and designated hitter for 16 years. At various times, he led his league in RBIs, walks, on-base percentage, and batting runs. In short, he knows a little about batting and coaching batting.

Williams’ strike zone diagram

The most memorable thing in Williams' Science of Hitting is his diagram of the strike zone. He puts a whole bunch of baseballs in it. Each has the batting average that Williams figures he would hit off pitches in that location. The diagram reveals Williams' sweet spot as well as his weakness. (I use the work "weakness" in a relative sense when speaking of Williams' hitting.)

That's too fine a breakdown for youth baseball. I just broke the strike zone down into nine zones: left, middle, and right across the top and high, middle, and low down the side. I also added the out-of-the-strike areas and labeled them with letters and numbers. Here's a catcher's-eye-view diagram.


The red squares are balls. The yellow and green are strikes. But I only want my batters to swing at the green until they have two strikes on them. Then they swing at the yellow and the green. The green area is a "hitter's pitch" or line-drive pitch. Pitcher's call a pitch in the green location a "mistake pitch" or being "wild in the strike zone." The yellow areas are "pitcher's pitches."

I used to say, "Charlie three" all the time to my batters when they had no strikes or one strike. "Charlie three" means swing only at a C-3 location (green) pitch. When a batter swung at, say, a high, outside pitcher's pitch, I might say, "That was a Delta two." A player might chase a high pitch and say, "I know coach. It was a one." (For those of you who were not in the military, the pertinent phonetic alphabet is Alpha, Bravo, Charlie, Delta, Echo.)

This green zone is the generic hitter's pitch. What is a hitter's pitch actually varies from batter to batter. My pitch is centered on the C-D-3-4 intersection. That is a little bit low and away from my right-handed batting position. I had a right-handed player named Joe Swec whose pitch was D-4 and even outside the strike zone low and away (D-E-4-5). Of course, the fact that he could drive a pitch outside the strike zone does not change the fact that he should never swing at such a pitch. For him, the green area was Delta four and it would be a mistake for him to swing at a Charlie three. If possible, you should keep statistics on how each of your hitters does when he swings at pitches in each of the nine parts of the strike zone. If, as is typical, a batter does best in one zone, that is the only type of pitch he should swing at when he has zero strikes or one strike.

Extra-base hits

I am a singles hitter. Most players are. I hit about one double and one triple per season when I played. In almost all cases, my extra-base hits came off B-2, B-3, or C-2 pitches. The same is true of most right-handed batters. Left-handed would be just the opposite. You are strongest when pulling middle or high pitches. Left-handed batting Ted Williams hit for both power and average. His pitch was in the C-D-2-3 zone—high and inside.

The problem with this is that just about when I had my players convinced to only swing at C-3s, one of our players would hit a monster B-2 or B-3 for a triple. The kids would turn toward me with a look that said, "Coach, you said to swing only at C-3s. But that triple was a B-2. I want to hit a monster triple like that, too."

Swinging at B-2, B-3, and C-2s is like throwing long passes in football. Three things can happen and two of them are bad: extra-base hit, fly out, foul. Yes, you will sometimes hit a long ball off a B-2, B-3, or C-2 pitch, but you will usually hit a foul ball or a fly out. Foul balls are bad because some of them can be caught for outs. They are also always strikes. Sometimes, an umpire will miss a column B pitch and call it a ball. But I have never heard of an ump missing a foul strike.

But aren't coaches supposed to encourage players to swing the bat?

Letting your players take a lot of walks is considered bad form in youth baseball. It's ugly. It's only done by the "bad" coaches. Or at least that’s what coaches and fathers who live their lives according to cliches spouted by tobacco chewers think.

Bull! In my local league, ages 8 and under were always coach pitch or use a tee. Age 10 and up are always kid pitched. Some 9-year olds are in coach-pitched leagues; some in kid-pitched leagues. That incorrect policy is the source of the problem, not "bad" coaches.

Coach or machine pitch

I agree with coach or machine pitching at eight and under. I also agree that you can go totally kid pitched at around age twelve. The problem occurs at the nine to eleven ages. The better players at those ages can throw strikes and can hit against peers who can throw strikes. The weaker players in those ages cannot.

The question then is, "What do the adults in charge do about it?" In my local San Ramon Valley Little League, they went the absolute wrong way. Every minors game at those age levels began with the two managers telling the teenage ump in no uncertain terms that he could not call the rule-book strike zone. Rather he must call a much bigger strike zone because the pitchers could not throw enough rule-book strikes. The teenage ump would invariably comply.

The managers would then tell their batters to chase pitches out of the strike zone, which is coaching malpractice. We all know that's wrong. Essentially, the league was saying, "Our pitchers suck, so the umps and batters have to suck, too, so the pitchers won't look so bad." This is wrong, idiotic, and an outrage. The batters literally could not reach many of the pitches that were being called strikes. It was a travesty and is probably at least partly responsible for the high rate at which kids drop out of baseball at those age levels.

The solution

The proper course is to permit defensive managers in the 9 to 11 age range to have the option to switch to coach or machine pitch at any time during their games. That is, if the manager whose team is on defense does not have a pitcher who can throw strikes at the moment, he tells the umpire he wants to change to machine or coach pitch. If a machine is available, it will replace the kid pitcher. If there is no machine, a parent from the opposing team will pitch to their own batters.

With machine or coach pitch, there will be no walks or hit batsmen. It'll be three traditional strikes and you're out or five non-ball pitches and you're out.

We did something like this in another league where I coached. In the Orinda Valley Pony League, we intended to have four kid-pitched innings followed by two machine-pitched innings in an eleven-year old league. There was a two-inning limit per pitcher, so that meant we had to use at least two pitchers per game. It turned out that all the teams but one only had one pitcher who could throw strikes. So we changed the format to two kid-pitched innings followed by four machine-pitched innings. Before we did that, many games featured walk after walk. After we did that, the games were normal. With machine-pitched or coach-pitched games, there is much more hitting and fielding.

I am no less interested in the kid pitchers succeeding than anyone else, but the way to youth pitcher success is not for the umpires and batters to pretend the pitcher is throwing strikes. The mission statements of Little League and the other youth-baseball organizations do not say, "The purpose of Little League Baseball is to do whatever is necessary to prevent the kid pitchers from looking bad." So let’s stop behaving as if that were the mission.

Speaking of coach-pitched...

Speaking of coach-pitched games, those coaches quickly learn where each kid's hot spot is. Thereafter, they try to throw the ball to that spot because they know it greatly enhances the kid's chances of getting a hit. In other words, the message of this article—that the location of the pitch the main determinant of hitter success—is easily and quickly learned by every coach who ever pitched in a tee-ball or 8-9-year-old game. Yet those same coaches, after having learned that when their kid was 6 to 9, completely forget it when the kid turns 10 and focus totally on mechanics thereafter. Go figure.

Scientific basis?

Is there a scientific basis for the notion that pitches in the heart of the strike zone are better to hit? You betcha. Two, actually.

You hit the ball much harder when you strike it with the sweet spot of the bat. The sweet spot varies according to where you grip the bat. You can find the sweep spot, technically called the "center of percussion," by tapping the bat against a steel fence post. Make sure you grip it the same as when you bat. The sound and feel will be different at the sweet spot. You'll recognize it. It would be a good idea to paint a ring around the bat at that spot. In general, the heart of the strike zone is also where the sweet spot of the bat passes through the strike zone. It's hard to reach the pitcher's-pitch parts of the zone with the sweet spot, and if you do, your arms and wrists will be in a less powerful configuration.

The other scientific reason for preferring pitches in the heart of the zone is avoiding foul territory and grounders or pop-ups. The closer a pitch is to the heart of the zone, the greater the probability that it will be a line drive back at the pitcher. As the location of the pitch moves right or left, the angle of the bat in relation to the path of the pitch varies off of 90 degrees so the ball is more likely to go foul. As physicists say, the angle of reflection equals the angle of incidence. In other words, the angle at which the pitch hits the bat will be matched by the angle at which it leaves the bat.

As the pitch location moves higher or lower, because of the anatomy of the human body, it becomes harder to drive the center of gravity of the bat through the center of gravity of the ball. Hitting the ball above or below its center of gravity causes it to dive down or pop up. You also can swing the bat the fastest through the heart of the zone. If you try to swing at head-high or ankle-low pitches, you will feel the distinct loss of bat speed and therefore power because of the way your shoulder, wrist, and other joints are constructed. The same is true to a lesser extent of high and low pitcher's pitches.

You get three strikes. USE them! Make your players stop acting as if they had to swing at every strike. The only one they have to swing at or bunt is the third one.

Good luck,

John T. Reed


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