By Eugene Bleecker
1. The GRIP: Picking up a bat is the first physical action that takes place before walking up to the plate. Holding the bat is your only actual physical connection to swinging the bat and hitting the ball. If you are not holding the bat properly, you are not allowing yourself to be the best hitter you can be. To hold the bat properly, lay the bat down in your fingers and then pick it up. For most of you, your “door knocking” or “baby knuckles” will be aligned. People with longer fingers will have knuckles slightly off center which is fine as long as the bat is in your fingers. Holding the bat in the fingers provides for more bat speed and extension through the baseball resulting in more power and fluidity in the swing. When holding the bat ANY other way, doing these things properly becomes a physical IMPOSSIBILITY. If this is something you struggle with or have been told to do but it’s uncomfortable,
2. The STANCE: There are many different options when choosing a stance at the plate. Not only are there many different places for the hands, but there are a few options for the feet as well. Many young baseball players try to emulate MLB players and their different stances and I encourage them to STOP!! Getting repeatability and consistency in the swing is extremely important. There are certain positions that every successful hitter gets too including the Load/Launch position and the PoC. The more indirect movement it takes to get to these positions, the more difficult it is to remain consistent. Those unique MLB players are able to remain consistent due to thousands of practice swings and their own unique abilities. As a hitter you want to find YOUR comfort zone not theirs. If you choose a unique stance please do it with the understanding that you will need to work twice as hard as everyone else to remain consistent. I encourage players to keep their stances as simple and comfortable as possible. The feet should be roughly shoulder width apart and in a comfortable athletic position. I tell my players to stand like they would if they were leading off a base with their weight distributed evenly to both sides and on the balls of their feet. An open or a closed stance is ok but both have their disadvantages. I like the feet to be in a straight line facing the pitcher because at the Load/Launch position they are straight, so it is much easier to start that way. Remember every hitter gets to the same Load/Launch position and the more movement it takes you to get into this position, the more difficult it will be to keep your swing consistent. I like the hands positioned not too far away from the body but not to close either, finding a happy medium between the two. Many young hitters put their back elbows up and that’s fine but they should consider a few things first. When the back elbow is up, the first thing a hitter must do before swinging the bat is DROP IT!!! So why have it up in the first place?? Most hitters have a tendency when dropping their back elbow to drop their back shoulder as well and this is the number one cause of pop-ups among young players. When the hitters back elbow and shoulder drop, it causes the bat to drop as well resulting in a loopy uppercut swing. We want a quality bat path to the baseball and this means driving the bat head “Down to the ball”. The reason some Major Leaguers are able to keep their back elbow up and succeed is due to repetition and a quality bat path. Remember swinging a bat is a complex movement so we want to simplify every chance we get and if you start with your elbows down, now all you have to do is drop the bat head on the ball!
3. LOAD/LAUNCH POSITION: Although hitters have many different stances, they ALL get to the almost the EXACT same position before swinging a bat. We call this the load or launch position. Many hitters start with their hands in another spot and move them to this position while other hitters choose to start here. I like a little movement to get to this position because I believe not only does it loosen the hands and arms to allow for more quickness but the cocking action provides for a little more power as well. If you were going to punch a block of wood in front of you, would you punch it with your arm in a still position or would you cock it back slightly??? I encourage my hitters to bring their hands straight back a few inches from where they start. The length of this movement depends solely on the hitter and what they are comfortable with. Movement is necessary to generate a rhythm but remember the more movement there is the more difficult it is to keep it consistent!
4. BAT PATH: Your bat path too and through the baseball begins after you launch your hands towards the ball and continues until the end of the swing. Many young hitters have an extremely poor bat path to the baseball. After our hands are in the launch position when we are ready to swing the bat, we want to take the barrel of the bat to the ball in the most direct way possible. Instead of bringing the bat directly to the ball, many of you drop the bat head and sweep the bat into the ball providing for an extremely long swing. We want to be “Short to it and Long through it” not the other way around. I encourage you to take a look at your swing in slow motion or consult with a professional hitting coach to ask if you are experiencing this problem. Many hitters don’t know they have a long swing and it certainly hurts their chances at success. You will also hear many people discuss whether to swing level, swing down or now people are saying to swing up to the ball. This is all nonsense. The bat is in a starting position above your head and your hands are starting above the strike zone, therefore you MUST swing down to the ball. The trick is to not chop down on it. Also, after the Point of Contact (PoC) you must swing up through the ball to finish over your shoulder. “Down to it and Up through it” is the phrase I like my students to remember because this helps them understand that you must swing down to the baseball connecting with the middle to lower third of the ball to hit line drives and extend up through the baseball to get carry and distance on the ball. If a hitter only thinks about chopping down, they will end up hitting tons of ground balls and if a hitter thinks about swinging up they will end up with a ridiculous amount of pop-ups which is the easiest out in baseball. Being a line drive hitter and a difficult out is what you WANT to be. This will provide you with more success at the plate and a higher batting average. (Next month: Steps 5-8)
Eugene Bleecker is the Founder and Director of Player Development at 108 Performance., and the author of Old School vs New School, The application of data and technology into baseball.