In teaching hitting, I often find young players developing an improper hand path where they hit down on the ball. This path results in many ground balls and not as many line drives. I believe there is a misconception as to what the correct hand path should be. I also believe many coaches have a misguided hitting philosophy. Let me explain.
It is a fact that the top hitters in the world do not chop down on the ball. Actually what you will see is not the hands starting the bat but instead the back elbow starting down and the front elbow initially starting upward. The hands are the last thing to be delivered to the ball. Good hitters do not commit their hands until the last possible second so that they can take a pitch if it breaks out of the strike zone. Many young hitters make the mistake of starting the bat improperly with either their hands going down and/or their front shoulder opening.
The second issue I see is that many coaches believe that hitting ground balls is the correct goal. While it is true that at the younger levels, a team that hits a lot of ground balls will probably win a lot of games I just cannot agree with limiting a player to being a ground ball hitter. College coaches want players who have swings that can drive the ball into the outfield (unless of course they are fast kids who are on the left side). By teaching a young player a downward hand path you are creating a muscle memory that will be hard to change in the future. What gets the player more excited – a ground ball or a homerun over the fence? I think we know the answer.
In short, teach players to hit the ball hard up the middle. Promote swing mechanics that lead to line drives off the batting T in practice. Remember, ground balls do not go out of the park.
In teaching hitting, one of the most common teaching cues I hear coaches of young players using is, “squash the bug”. What the instructor wants is the young hitter to rotate on their back foot during the swing in a motion similar to how you would squash a bug under the ball of your foot. I want to, once and for all, state that “squashing the bug” is NOT a good hitting mechanic.
I understand why it works at the younger age levels – young hitters are usually weak in the upper body and coaches see this technique as a way to increase strength (and bat speed) especially off the hitting tee. When a player squishes the bug their hips get involved in the swing and generate more power. The problem is that this method of early hip turn can happen before the front foot is completely planted and the full stride is taken. This can be limiting for their development long term. In fact – if you are “squishing the bug” it means you still have a substantial amount of weight (and energy) on the back foot before your hips are used. In “squashing the bug” usually the player lands their front toe, turns their hips and then lands the heel of their front foot. Do you know what this causes? It causes a player’s front shoulder to open prematurely and then we yell at our hitters, “Don’t pull your front shoulder out”, which is exactly what the result of “squashing the bug” is – just try it. Get in a batting stance – take a stride but don’t transfer your weight – now squish the bug with your back foot and low and behold your front shoulder must come out early and we all know that is bad mechanics!
See the pictures below, and I can find hundreds more, of major league ball players and high level softball players and you will not see one hitter “squashing the bug”.
So if the concept of “squashing the bug” with the back foot is incorrect, then what should you teach? Think front shoulder to the pitcher longer and have your hitters land their front heel before they get aggressively engage their hips. Have players focus on hitting balls back up the middle of the field rather than pulling everything. We will cover more of the correct mechanics to teach in future blogs.
There are a lot of hitting philosophies out there and I have seen a lot of hitters with “bad mechanics” get hits. But, as the competition gets better the best possible mechanics are my goal. Do you teach your players to be average, or do you want them to be the best? Strive for mechanics that give your player the best chance of success at the highest level. Remember, we want to take the bugs out of our hitter’s mechanics not bring them in.