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4 Pressing Exercise Variations For Baseball Players

Developing a strong back is important for baseball players.

In the past I have talked about some general tips to use in order to grow a strong and big upper back. I have also given you some of my favorite exercises for the upper back and how to develop it.

This got me to thinking and I realized that not many coaches and athletes know how much of an importance should be placed on the role of the upper back when programming pressing movements for baseball players.

Many people neglect the involvement of the scapulae (shoulder blades) in their pressing variations and fail to see how much they can develop this aspect of their body if they simply focused on a few key details.

This would provide a multitude of benefits for athletes as their upper back plays a huge role in their health and performance.

For baseball players and rotational athletes (hockey, lacrosse, golf etc.) the upper back plays a huge role in not only their swing or shot, but it can also limit shoulder injuries if trained effectively. A strong upper back can help improve posture and limit the internal rotation of the shoulder (internal rotation can lead to labrum injuries due to the compression and force constantly placed on the acromioclavicular (AC) joint). So, not only can we contribute to an aesthetically pleasing upper back by making some adjustments in our pressing, but we can also limit injury and contribute to increases in performance for baseball players.

Here is a quick breakdown of external rotation, how to promote the use of the scapulae for presses with baseball players and my favorite exercise variations to do so!

What is External Rotation?

In my opinion, the best analogy to use to explain external rotation of the shoulders would be to have someone imagine that their arms are outstretched and fully extended with their hands on a wall. On that wall is a big sheet of paper, and your goal is to tear the paper down the middle without moving your hands. How exactly do we do that? Well, think as if you are trying to “screw” your hands into the wall, only without moving your hands outwards.

External rotation is created when we drive our right hand clockwise and our left hand counterclockwise. If we do this without actually moving our hands then we create torque, and that imaginary paper is now torn!

The shoulder is a ball and socket joint, meaning that the humeral head rotates about inside the cup-like socket of the shoulder blade. When we create proper torque the humeral rotates outward, hence “external rotation.”

Many of us perform presses without external rotation, which not only leaves us susceptible to injury but also does not allow us to develop the upper back and shoulder blades to the best of their ability. This has been said many times before, yet I still see baseball players utilizing presses that do not let the upper back work freely and independently of a bench. This is due to a number of factors, which include hand and grip positioning and the side effects of performing presses on a bench.

Basically, when our back is on a bench the bench itself does not allow for full scapula activation and retraction, which can limit external rotation and use of the upper back. Experienced lifters know how to properly activate the upper back and can get around this, but many others struggle.

Lastly, bilateral movements (presses with two hands) can negate the need to isolate each individual shoulder blade due to the fact that using both hands does not require as much stabilization as unilateral movements.

With that being said, here are a few variations that make use of these fundamental principles.

Dumbbell Piston Press

As I mentioned above, unilateral presses allow the shoulder blades to work independently of each other. In addition, they require more external rotation to be created in order to stabilize fully.

If I have a baseball player perform a bench press it will be with dumbbells due to the fact that they require more focused stabilization of the scapulae then barbell presses, and allow for a neutral grip to prevent stress on the shoulders. However, an even better way to guarantee shoulder blade activation and external rotation is to perform dumbbell presses in a piston-like manner. That is, perform each press individually (one side at a time) so that the athlete has to pay attention to activating the upper back and externally rotating at the shoulder in order to properly stabilize the weight.

I will also utilize these presses at lower weights for dynamic/speed repetitions as well for power development.

 

Barbell Push-Up

The barbell push-up not only is a great tool to use in order to teach the art of pressing but also it eliminates the use of the bench (as I mentioned), which can teach an athlete how to cue and activate the upper back while letting the upper back work independently.

Since we are performing presses without the support of the bench we can fully retract the shoulder blades with each repetition and learn how to activate the upper back. This is a simple movement for advanced athletes, so I will usually implement slower movements, isometric holds and even increase the load (with chains) in order to progress the movement and make it more challenging. Any type of push-up variation is great to use for baseball players.

Cable or Band Presses

Similarly to push-up variations, cable and/or band presses allow the athlete to perform pushes that allow the scapulae to work independently of one another. They also help place less stress on the shoulders.

Bottoms-Up Kettle Bell Presses

This last variation is the most advanced and ties in all the principles I have previously mentioned.

Holding the kettle bells in a bottoms-up position makes external rotation a necessity, and is why I love this variation. If you do not properly externally rotate it is almost impossible to stabilize the kettle bell. In addition, we are once again removing the bench from the equation and requiring true activation of the upper back and retraction (pinching) of the shoulder blades.

Lastly, if you really want to advance this variation and take it to the next level you can perform the presses unilaterally (one hand at a time), and tie in the same principles you would be when performing the dumbbell bench press in a piston manner!

 

Low Tech Ways to Maximize Your Bat Speed and Launch Angle

Data-driven training is becoming the norm in baseball. We have learned so much about things like bat speed and launch angle over the last several years. We know so much more about what goes into becoming an elite baseball player.

But the use of technology can be both daunting and expensive, making the implementation of data-driven training difficult. Luckily, you can bypass the need to spend thousands of dollars on technology and still maximize your hitting potential.

Common Limitations

As the hitting instructor at Prairie Heights High School (IN) for the last four years, I have had the opportunity to implement my own philosophies for the offense under the approval of the ex-head coach Nick Pfafman.

In my first year, Nick had a leash on “new” philosophies. He was hesitant to give too much control to an instructor who was, in his eyes, unproven. However, it did not take him long to loosen that leash. After a short period of time in the program, I was able to open the eyes of the players to the fact that there is much more to this game than they had ever experienced.

Not to discredit what Nick was able to accomplish in his time as the coach before I arrived, he was unable to bring a lot of these newer hitting philosophies to the program.

The reason for that can be attributed to his lack of resources (program money, volunteer coaches, equipment, etc.). He had to turn, what was then, a dying baseball program into something successful. Much to his credit, he did a lot of it on his own.

Upon my arrival, we were able to take the base that he created and build on it. We put a heavy focus on offensive production to complement the already solid defense and pitching staff. Over my first four years, we slowly rolled out newer and better hitting practices in an attempt to build a culture that boasted a high-powered offense.

I want to discuss how we used technology, and even the lack thereof, to help baseball players find more success at the plate.

Setting Up Your Batting Cage

We found that the batting cage was a huge tool for us to run an efficient practice early in the season. We tried to keep our players involved with practice 100% of the time so that we did not have the typical BP session of one guy hitting and the rest of the team shagging balls. Aside from the hitting circuits we conducted to keep everyone working, we used the batting cage as visual to teach players about launch angles.

During last season, I took a job as a 16U coach at Hitter’s Edge in Sturgis, MI. Mike Marks, the owner and head instructor, at Hitter’s Edge had recently equipped his facility with a HitTrax machine. The HitTrax machine measures many different metrics including launch angle, exit velocity, and where the trajectory of any hit ball will land.

At Prairie Heights, with the cage being outside and the HitTrax equipment being extremely costly, we did not see that as a possibility at the time. My major focus, after fundamentals, was getting players to understand the launch angle of a batted ball accompanied with bat speed. When you combine those two things and a good fundamental swing, you will find more success at the plate; especially in the way of extra-base hits.

The challenge was, without a HitTrax machine, how do we measure a player’s launch angle of a batted ball.

Despite everything I ever thought in high school trigonometry class, I needed to use math. I used the equation below to figure out the information I needed.

Distance = Height tan(angle)

I wanted to mark the range of where we had to hit the top of the net to achieve the launch angle we wanted.

Our target range was 10° to 30° for our launch angle. We knew our height of the cage was 8’ tall but it needs to be the height of the point of contact to the top of the net. We figured 2’ above the ground was a fair guess. So the height equals 6’ and the first angle is 30° (this will be your closest marker from the plate that you put on your cage).

With this calculation, your first mark needs to be on the top of the cage just shy of 10.5’ away from the plate. The next angle is 10° (this will be your further marker from the plate).

Using the same math, your next marker needs to be 34’ from the plate. I understand that this may be slightly flawed depending on the width of your cage because of where the foul lines are but I think you get the idea here.

Rethinking Batting Practice in a Cage

Allow me to backtrack a little here. When I first met with Mike Marks at Hitter’s Edge, he had a softball player in the cage that he was using HitTrax with during her lesson. He was preaching the idea of lifting the ball. I immediately understand why he was saying this to her. Players at “the next level” can field ground balls just fine so we need to elevate the ball to try to find some “green.”

Line drives and deep, well-hit fly balls are the most difficult hits to defend. The reaction time required to field a hard-hit in the air is much faster than that of a grounder. Batted balls with elevation are obviously not slowed down by the grass and dirt like a ground ball.

I know you are probably thinking “obviously we want line drives and not ground balls” but how often do you hear a coach say “nice hit” when a guy takes him up the middle and the ball hits the back of the cage at belt-height?

I think about how many times in my earlier years of coaching that I would praise a hitter for even hitting a ball six feet off the ground into the side of the net 40’ past the plate. Well, congratulations. That batter probably grounded out. Regardless of how hard that ball is hit, at the high school, collegiate, and professional levels, those balls are going to be fielded.

I decided that it was time was started focusing on hitting the ball over the infielders and, with some added bat speed and exit velocity, over the outfielders.

Think about how big your cage is in comparison to a baseball field.

 

The average cage I use is 8’ tall and 60’ long. If your hitters are peppering the top back corners of the cage, they’re hitting a ball that is only 8’ off the ground by the time it crosses the mound and it still has approximately 60’ of travel left before it even gets passed 2nd base.

So imagine a 6’ tall pitcher and he can probably reach 7’6” with his extended arm and glove which means that best case scenario you hit a ground ball over his head and if you are lucky to have hit the ball hard enough, you may get it passed the middle infielders resulting in a weak hit to the centerfielder.

I do not want you to think that I think that is a bad result because it is not. If you do that every single time you are at the plate you’ll go down in history with the best batting average of all time.

My focus is not to help our guys hit hard grounders that may or may not result in single. My focus is to create an explosive offense that boasts doubles and bombs from top to bottom of the lineup. When I came to this realization, I knew that I needed to change the way I look at results in the cage.

Adding Power to Your Launch Angle with Weighted Bats

Once I was able to get my students and players to understand the launch angle of their hits, I knew it was time to grow from there. Hitting a ball 30° into the air is not enough if your exit velo is 12mph. We needed to build bat speed to accompany everything else and for those of you that have ever seen/hit with a BBCOR or wood bat, you need a lot of bat speed to park a ball 300’+.

I looked into some of the weighted bat systems and I liked the results that their studies were showing but I did not like the price tags on their bats (refer to my previous statement about lack of resources). Every weighted bat system I found included using a hand-loaded bat, an end-loaded bat, an underloaded bat, and then your own game bat.

I had to try to accomplish this cheaply. Luckily for me, I knew a guy.

I played on an adult amateur baseball team in Fort Wayne, IN with Dr. Daniel Nolan. This guy makes wood bats in his free time out of his wood shop (how cool is that?). His bat-making tools are nothing to laugh about either. Everything he makes is hand turned on a professional lathe and he uses a very precise method to make each bat.

I sent him my design idea for the first one, a hand-loaded bat (see picture). He turned it around in a week and this thing was perfect. The next bat I needed was an end-loaded bat so we brainstormed ideas that might work best. He told me about a billet he had that was very dense and heavy (he used a similar one to make a rolling pin in the past). So within a week, he turned another bat for me.

The biggest question was how we were going to add weight specifically in the end of the barrel. Dan had the idea of milling out the end of the bat and adding weight to it so that we did not change the shape of the barrel in any way. So there were my two loaded bats and I had a nice ash bat that was a -5 already which worked as the underloaded bat.

Immediately, I put my new system to work. Using myself and other fellow players as my lab rats for the system, we found success that translated to an increase of 5-10 miles per hour within the six week program.

Based on a study that I found, every 5 mph added to your exit velocity equals approximately 25’ distance on a batted ball hit at a 30° launch angle. When you are talking about adding a potential of 50’ to your hits in 6 weeks, I will buy into that process.

Using Baseball Swing Tracking Apps

Even though we bypassed using the HitTrax machine, we did find other cost-effective tools to evaluate players. The most important tool we used at PHHS, one that we used since day one of my arrival, was an app called Coach’s Eye. I’m sure many of you are already using this app but I cannot get enough of the simplicity of this app.

The other tool we have started using in the past year is the Blast Motion Sensor. This little sensor goes right on the butt of your bat and records many useful metrics. We record the average of everyone’s metrics from each session so that we can show progress over time.

[Editor Note: There are several devices on the market, including Diamond Kinetics and Zepp]

These tools really help all of our players to visualize their swing and their progress. It does not always help the younger kids but it helps their dads so that they can help their son in between sessions.

Putting it All Together

100% of the time I will tell you that fundamentals are king.

Without sound fundamentals, your bat speed, exit velocity, and launch angle are irrelevant because you will not be able to replicate it consistently enough to be considered a good hitter. Whether you teach linear or rotational hitting, you have to be able replicate success consistently before you can get more advanced. I teach rotational hitting to every single one of my students and players. Without sparking an argument with anti-rotational hitting advocated, I just believe that it gives players the best opportunity to make consistent contact in the zone.

Once a player has a good fundamental swing, that is when it is time to start training for bat speed. I do believe that you can discuss launch angles with hitters during the fundamental teaching phase of their training. If you are using a cage to teach fundamentals, then using the launch angle markers in the cage can really help you and your hitters to understand and visualize the goal.

Teaching players to get on plane, increasing their bat speed, and getting their launch angles to the ideal range is the best way to get rewarding results all season long; however, I know that so many people will argue that players still need to put the ball on the ground in hit and run situations and with runner-on-third situations.

I would say that if a player hits a screaming line drive on a hit and run, regardless if he lines out and gets the runner doubled off, then can you really be upset with the hitter. As a coach, the hit and run is always a risky play. I would rather see a hitter hitting a ball hard on a line or with a little elevation than changing their swing altogether for a ground ball. No one ever said you couldn’t hit a double or a homer on a hit and run or with a guy on third base. Change your mental approach at the play, not your swing.

It is time, we as coaches, progress in our offensive policies.

There is room for plenty of old school philosophies in baseball but it is time we quit teaching “swing level” and “put the ball on the ground and make them throw you out”. Players do not get scouted and drafted based on their ability to ground out and move runners the hard way; they get to “the next level” by showing that they can hit for, not only average, but also for power.

It’s a new game we play and you know the old adage: “the best defense is a good offense.”

 

 

Defining the Efficient Baseball Swing

A position player’s value is determined by their ability to hit, more than any other skill, because it contributes so much to winning. Two of the five tools a player can have center around hitting production – power and contact.

For years, hitting instructors have remained locked in the debate on which players represent the most efficient swing, using labels like “linear” or “rotational” to explain the swing approach. On a scale from contact hitters like Tony Gwynn and Ichiro, to pure power hitters like Chris Davis and Adam Dunn, lies a middle ground of balanced hitters like Mike Trout and Barry Bonds who seemingly represent our ideal swing approach.

Only recently, however, has technology allowed us to trace the full swing to have a clearer understanding of what makes up the best baseball swing.

Sabermetrics has established new ways of valuing hitters and understanding efficient offensive production, while modern technologies (Trackman, HitTrax, ZEPP, SportsVision, etc.) have finally enabled us to analyze and truly define the efficient swing. This has helped us begin to answer some of the common questions surrounding the baseball swing:

  • Do we focus on swinging up or down at the ball?
  • Do we focus more on hand path to make contact or on torque with the lower body while allowing our hands to be passive?
  • What professional hitters should we emulate?
  • Which hits have the most value and what is the exact value of each hit?
  • What should my bat speed and swing angle be in order to square the ball up more consistently and increase my likelihood of getting the most valuable types of hits?

 

Physics: What Angles Create Optimal Baseball Swing?

Let’s start with a simple illustration….

We have a pitcher and a hitter both 6’0’’ tall. The pitcher is on a mound, meaning he’s now 10” taller than the hitter at the top of the mound and roughly 5” taller at landing. He’s most likely throwing overhand (99% of all pitchers do), so using an estimated wing span, the ball is now 5” plus 85% of the pitcher’s 1’6” wing span taller than the hitter at release.

As soon as the pitcher lets go of the ball, the ball is constantly slowing down due to wind resistance. If our pitcher is throwing from higher ground to a lower target with the ball constantly slowing down, we know the ball is ALWAYS going down, even at 100mph with exceptionally high spin rates. In fact, the documentary, “Fastball,” makes a point to disprove the idea that even the fastest fastballs do not rise, so we are safe to say the ball is traveling down no matter the pitch.

In order to consistently square up two round objects, the surface of one bat and one ball, given the downward trajectory of the ball, a hitter must swing even or slightly up through contact.

In his article in the Hardball Times, “Optimizing the Swing, Part Deux: Paying Homage to Teddy Ballgame,” Dr. Alan Nathan of the University of Illinois points to a study using Statcast data, in which on-base average is shown as a function of exit speed and launch angle.

The two regions of high on-base average are primarily red. One is the narrow strip extending from 110 mph/100 to ~66 mph/300. The high exit speed part of this strip represents hard-hit line drives with small launch angles, leading to a high on-base average. For the batter, these types of hits are highly desirable. The second important region occurs at high exit speed and launch angles in the 200-350 range. These are largely extra-base hits, primarily home runs.

Additionally, Dr. Nathan looked at BABIP (on-base average with home runs excluded) as a function of attack angle and offset paired with home run probability.

For BABIP, the red/orange strip results in an on-base average greater than about 0.75 and corresponds to launch angles in the range 90-170. The optimum swing parameters for high BABIP are 100and 0.5 inches for attack angle and offset, respectively, corresponding to an exit speed of 100 mph and launch angle of 120. On the other hand, home runs require a larger attack angle and larger offset, the optimum being 240 and 1.05 inches, respectively, corresponding to an exit speed of 101 mph and a launch angle of 290-300.

In simple terms, a professional player can get a base hit by either hitting the ball very hard between the infield and outfield or by hitting it hard enough over the outfield in the gaps or into the stands.
We’ve known these to be the best ways to get on base, but for the first time we have been provided a measureable understanding of what makes the hitter’s bat be in position to produce these types of hits.

The next question is: Does Dr. Nathan’s heat map data correspond to the swing data of players we statistically label as the best baseball hitters?

Based on these charts, we’d expect the best offensive players to consistently perform within the range of angles and exit velocities corresponding to extra base hits for higher run production and a higher BABIP, so launch angles of 90-300 with exit velocities of 100mph.

 

Statistics: How Do We Value Hitters and Who Do We Value Most?

Thanks to Sabermetrics, the statistical definition of an “efficient” hitter has been linked to maximizing run production by assigning linear weights, or run values to various types of hits.

Since maximizing runs is the ultimate goal, the statistically efficient hitter falls somewhere between pure power (a lot of homeruns with a lot of strikeouts) and pure contact (very little strikeouts, but not high slugging).

Weighted On-Base Average (WOBA) is the current “gold standard” by which we now measure a player’s offensive production, because it assigns actual run production values to types of base hits. Think of it as the very accurate version of Slugging Percentage. Since Major League Baseball statistically defines the “efficient” swing as the one that offers the most potential run production, WOBA serves as our finish line for the “efficient” swing approach. WOBA is defined as:

 

wOBA = [(0.69 × uBB) + (0.72 × HBP) + (0.89 × 1B) + (1.27 × 2B) +( 1.62 × 3B) + (2.10 × HR)]

/ (AB + BB – IBB + SF + HBP)

For simplification, let’s limit our sample of players to those who finished in the top 25 in WOBA in each of the last three seasons. We can look for consistencies in the mechanics and swing data of these players to validate the data in Dr. Nathan’s analysis.

The only players to be in the top 25 in WOBA for the last three seasons (2014-2016) are David Ortiz, Mike Trout, Miguel Cabrera, Anthony Rizzo, Nelson Cruz, and Edwin Encarnacion. Therefore, these hitters represent some of the most consistently high value MLB offensive producers in the last three seasons.

Over the course of the season, each of these players’ average launch angles range between 100-150 according to Statcast. The common denominator with these high value hitters is they elevate the baseball.

We’ve now statistically defined the efficient swing as the highest producing WOBA, and physically graphed an efficient swing as launch angles of 90-300 with exit velocities of 100mph. The last piece of the puzzle is defining the mechanics and approaches that produce these measurable results.

 

Mechanics: How Do We Swing Like the Best Hitters?

Using high-speed video to look at current high-value hitters (players with the consistently highest WOBA’s), we can see the commonalities in their swing mechanics.

By seeing where these mechanics overlap, we can determine hitting absolutes versus individual style. Below is an illustration of such mechanics among today’s top hitters. It is a visual road map for training the “efficient” swing as defined earlier. Notice the individual styles allowed in the beginning and end of the swings, but the absolutes that must be accomplished by all hitters between phases 3-7. Notice that every top hitter uses their feet/hips to create bottom-up torque, allows their hands to be relaxed and passive, and swings even or slightly up to match the incoming pitch plane and put the ball in the air for maximum potential run production.


 

Key Points

We want to swing and perform like the best MLB hitters. We define “best” as highest offensive production, or highest run producing potential, represented by the stat WOBA.  The defined best baseball hitters overlap in their swing mechanics and resemble swings like Mike Trout, Miguel Cabrera, Anthony Rizzo, Nelson Cruz, and Edwin Encarnacion.

Those hitters’ swing approaches share many common points:

  • Use the feet/hips to create bottom-up torque with relaxed/passive hands.
  • Swing even or slightly up to match the incoming pitch plane.
  • Put the ball in the air for maximum potential run production success.

 

These swing mechanics overlap our observed ideal swing angles from simulated bat/ball collisions, heat map data, and stat-cast data to confirm these swing mechanics represent the efficient baseball swing – the swing with the highest run producing potential.

In conclusion, if we want to perform like the best MLB hitters, we must train to use our feet/hips to create bottom-up torque with relaxed/passive hands, swing even or slightly up to match the incoming pitch plane, and put the ball in the air for maximum potential run production success.

 

 

3 Important Exercises Baseball Players Should Perform Inseason

Baseball season is right around the corner and hopefully our athletes have participated in an offseason strength and conditioning program. Achieving optimal weight, improving movement patterns and getting as strong as possible are prized during this time.

But now that the season has arrived, what should you implement into baseball players’ fitness programs to maximize performance?

 

3 Important Exercises Baseball Players Should Perform Inseason

Players will begin to hit, throw and sprint with significantly more intensity and volume as the season kicks off. When players try to match this volume in their fitness program it is often detrimental to success.

At our facility, we aim to provide players with lower body exercises that limit soreness, maintain power and help players recover before their next practice session or game. Remember that the minimal effective dose of exercise is always the goal.

Here are three exercises that can be included in the same training session to maximize in-season performance.

 

Elevated Trap Bar Speed Deadlift

The deadlift is arguably the king of all lower body lifts and a staple in our athletes’ programs.

Some players struggle with maintaining good posture from the start of the lift, especially those who are taller or struggle with loading the hips. This variation uses 45 pound plates or 2 inch blocks under the loaded bar to ensure the start position is perfect.

Move the weight as fast as possible with great form to maximally recruit the glutes and create force into the ground. Normally we like to see the athlete slowly lower the weight to encourage muscle growth, but this variation only focuses on speed from the ground up. Slowly lowering the weight will encourage muscle soreness, and this is the last thing a young athlete needs while trying to perform optimally!

Long Stride Sled Push

We use multiple variations of the sled push for getting kids strong, and this version encourages good hip movement with minimal stress on the low back.

You will notice how the athlete below really flexes the hip towards the trunk prior to pressing the foot back into the ground. Direct training of the hip flexor muscles is often ignored, and this exercise is a great way to sneak in some extra hip flexion work. The added benefit of this is the ability to really load up weight to maintain leg strength without waking up sore the next day.

Single Leg Box Squat with Counterweight

Standing on one leg creates a significant demand for core and hip stability, especially when loaded with weight. The box is there to ensure the athlete is using the hips to sit back and control the motion. The weight does not need to be heavy here, with only 5-10 pounds in each hand to provide some weight in front of the athlete.

This exercise is usually programmed towards the end of a training session to train good body control, even with fatigue after a tough session. If this variety is too difficult, have the player use the non-working leg to apply a little force into the ground to make the move easier.

 

Players work all offseason to maximize strength gains, put on quality mass and develop power to deliver during game situations. In-season training is often an afterthought, but remember that movement quality and maintaining strength are vital to success for baseball players. Try incorporating these exercises into fitness programming during the season to help players dominate games and recover faster.

 

 

Exercises For Baseball Players Installment 1: Knee-to-Knee Rotational Med Ball Shotput

Throwing and hitting can take a toll on the body.

Here is an exercise that baseball players can use to not only groove appropriate hip loading but also teaches power with the movement, without actually throwing or swinging a bat. Usage of medicine balls is the closest training tool players and coaches can adopt, to practice the sport specific movements in baseball.

I thought of this exercise because it is my favorite drill to use with the pitchers that I work with. The movement performed when a knee-to-knee is executed correctly, is what pitchers and hitters need to create in order to build optimal tension into the ground, to transfer force into the delivery or swing. Remember to stay athletic, and not to use too many cues in this exercise, so the athlete doesn’t get robotic and methodical.

Also, baseball is an explosive sport; so don’t teach your body to be slow.

 

Knee-to-Knee Rotational Med Ball Shotput

 

 

Should you swing at the first pitch?

Should you swing at the first pitch? Is being “ready to pounce” on the first pitch a quality hitting approach? Let’s talk about it. 

Swinging at the first pitch, affectionately known within baseball as “ambushing,” is controversial. Some coaches will tell you that you need to be patient, and see a bunch of pitches. Others strongly encourage their hitter to be ready pounce. The idea for this article came to mind when reading an intelligent tweet in response to a chart about batting averages on first pitch strikes:

should you swing at the first pitch

Ken Spangenber replied to this graphic with the following: “You realize that stat is only if they actually swing at the first pitch right? Any of these guys could’ve only swung at 5% of 1st pitches.”

What Does This Photo Tells Us?

Kudos to Ken, as his comment was right on track. This photo simply tells us that good hitters (the guys above are All-Stars, and the worst average shown was Catcher Salvador Perez, whose position is widely accepted as defense-first) are good at choosing to swing at pitches they can hit hard, with Mike Trout being unreal at it. This is going to lead me to my conclusion for the question, Should A Person Swing at The First Pitch…

 

Only If You’re Extra Sure It’s Your Pitch

I’ve pitched since I was 8 years old, including the last 7 years in pro baseball. The resounding commonality between good hitters – at any level – is that they’re better at selecting pitches that give them a higher probability of hitting hard. Pick only the fastballs down the middle and leave everything else.

And that appears to be exactly what Mike Trout does, right? To hit .632 in 0-0 counts is absurd, and really all he’s doing is narrowing his focus so much that the only pitches exist to him are pitches in the exact location he wants. When he gets them, he smashes them. When they’re not there, he takes them. That’s simple, but it’s not easy to do.

Most hitters think it’s their pitch, then realize it’s off-speed or not in the location they initially thought. Or, they get into an ambush mentality and get too aggressive, making poor decisions on what to swing at because they’re excited to hopefully get a hit in a certain count or situation. I’m not a hitter, but I know this because I’ve watched it and exploited it personally for many years.

But I used the word EXTRA SURE because if you ground out on pitch #1 too many times…  Clayton Kershaw will be pitching into the 9th inning (and no one wants that).

 

Guess What? There is No Magical Count

Your bat doesn’t know it’s a 2-2 count. The baseball doesn’t know it’s 0-2. The count you choose to hit the ball in makes absolutely zero difference as to the outcome. The only difference maker is the hitter – how well can he barrel up the pitch he chooses to swing at? A line drive in an 0-0 count flies just the same as a line drive on a 3-2 count.

There’s no magic and no advantage to putting bat to ball in a certain count…unless you’re a pitcher.

 

Swing First Pitch. Please and Thank You.

Here’s the thing, though. You hitters suck. Even the best of you only get a hit 3/10 times and most of you, only 1 in 4.

So, as a pitcher, the odds are good for me when you swing at the first pitch. I’ll even entice you by throwing a bunch of fastballs early in the game. If you swing at the first pitch, I get a one-pitch out 3 out of 10 times, and now my innings are nice and easy.

And even if you get a hit, chances are it’s not a bomb, and I’ve still only thrown one pitch. 4 pitches later, I’ve gotten a ground-ball double play and have two outs on five pitches. I’ll still pitch deep into this game.

What really hurts pitchers is 3-2 walks, 3-2 hits, 2-2 bloopers. Those cost us much more dearly, as we wasted 5-7% of our available energy (assuming 100 pitches) and got zero outs to show for it. If I’m a reliever and want to be fresh for tomorrow, I want to be back in the dugout in less than 15 pitches.

 

Pitchers Miss Their Spots

But here’s the thing: pitchers miss their spots even when grooving fastballs. Even Big League pitchers don’t hit their spots as much as you think they do. So when you get super hell-bent on ambushing the first pitch, even if he tries to groove a first pitch fastball, it may end up on the outer third, and now you’ve grounded out to short. If he throws an off-speed pitch for a strike, you’re definitely on your front foot if you even make contact. And like I just said, if you’re going to swing at a bad pitch, it’s better to swing at bad pitch #6 than #1.

 

Rules To Swing By

Based on all of this, I’ve come up with 4 rules that I coach my athletes.

 

#1: (Almost) Never Swing at An Off-Speed Pitch First Pitch.

If you’re sitting on one…ask yourself why? Are you even that good at hitting breaking balls when you know they’re coming? If it’s down in the zone you’re still probably rolling over. If you’re sitting on a slider that shows up much less frequently…you’ll let fastballs (literally) pass you by.

And if you’re looking fastball and decide to swing at a first-pitch slider, you’re probably not going to barrel it up well. In the Majors, more 0-0 off-speed stuff is thrown, because hitters are so good. But at lower levels, first-pitch breaking balls freeze and eat guys up. When hitters swing at them, the result is usually a weakly-batted ball.

 

#2. Never Pre-Choose A Specific Count To Swing

Your goal as a hitter should always be to select the pitch that you can barrel up with authority. The best hitters I faced in pro baseball were always exceptionally picky – they knew the strike zone and knew what their limits were; if they couldn’t hit my fastball on the inner third or closer, they’d choose a looking strikeout rather than a deviation from their plan.

So, if you’re getting yourself excited to “jump on the first pitch,” without having any idea what that pitch will be until it’s on it’s way, you’re setting yourself up for a poor decision; you’re making your mind partly up without any clue if the pitch is in your comfort zone.

I yelled at my 16U Warbird Senators team last year when they started getting excited about a pitcher who was throwing a lot of first-pitch fastballs.

He’s throwing first pitch fastballs! Start swinging first pitch, guys! Let’s get him!

What happened? The kid went through two consecutive innings on like 13 pitches. It was embarrassing, as he had quick innings and forced our pitcher back into the 96 degree heat after what seemed like a 30-second break in the dugout.

Sure, he was throwing first-pitch fastballs. But, this pitcher also barely had a second pitch to speak of, so he was throwing first-pitch fastballs, second-pitch fastballs, all the way down to 7th-pitch fastballs. Most 16U pitchers don’t have much else. We just helped him until I set us straight and reminded guys to swing if they could drive it and that there was nothing special about getting a first-pitch hit.

 

#3. X-Out Pitches That You Don’t Want.

Make a list for yourself by asking, “What pitches do I hit really well?” If it’s not on that list, then it’s definitely not for you on an 0-0 count, and you need to X it off your list; you don’t even consider swinging at it on 0-0. Offspeed in general is probably on this list.

 

#4. Remember: Picking a Bad Pitch Early is Exactly What the Pitcher Wants

Pitchers talk scouting reports on the opposing team, and every pitcher is different in his approach to pitching. The topic of “Who Ambushes?” is prevalent – we don’t want to get burned on 0-0 counts if we can help it.

But really, it’s about knowing who swings 0-0 more often than not. For those guys, I don’t get nervous about throwing a fastball. Rather, I get excited – I know that if he sees fastball, he’s likely to swing. So, I just focus a little harder on making an 0-2 quality fastball on 0-0; if he swings at my outer-corner fastball on 0-0, he’s out. If I jam one under his fists…he’s out. If I elevate well…he pops up. All I have to do is not toss it down the middle. And, even if I do…he’ll probably still just fly out.

And, in my experience, though flipping in a breaking ball to an ambusher is a good idea, it often results in a freeze – he expects fastball (he’s trying to smash it) and freezes on any spinning pitch. So, it’s either 0-1 or 1-0, rather than that 1-pitch ground out I’d much prefer. I WANT those ambushing idiots to swing (Mike Trout excluded).

 

A Story to End On

I pitched in relief against the same team twice within a week, and struck the same 4-hole hitter out twice on the exact same pitch – a fastball that was a ball-and-a-half inside. Clearly a ball both times, and nearly the exact same pitch. It was good for me, but he definitely got screwed each time.

I’m not usually very social, but both teams went out to the bars after a game, as it was the birthday of one of the players. I saw the guy, and I half-jokingly apologized for my strikeouts; I told him that both of them were balls. I’d take it, but he definitely got screwed. He laughed and replied:

Man, I’m not even worried about it. I’m never going to swing at that pitch – I’ll strike out looking 10 out of 10 times on that pitch because I can’t do anything with it. I’m trying to drive balls, not ground one through the hole. So don’t worry about that, I wasn’t swinging anyway, even if it was on the black. You just got me.

I liked that conversation. He was a veteran guy and knew what he could barrel up, and what he couldn’t. I was trying to make the pitch I made – I wanted to jam him (he had a lot of power if he extended his arms. So as soon as I got ahead in the count, I was living under his fists. If he swung, he’d get jammed. If he didn’t, then we’d see.

 

Are You An Ambusher?

Let me know if you think we should swing at the first pitch in the comments below!