Drop It

You crushed that pre-game wiffle ball into a tailwind and sighed satisfied with sound contact, but with that very swing you started building an unnatural upper-cut. You didn’t intend to swing that way, and you probably didn’t register the more-than-minor adjustments in your bat bath as they happened, though sometimes the flight of the ball offered hints. But you did alter your swing. And other hitters will too if they get the same teammate.

The principle is that, over enough repetitions, your swing plane will tend to match that of the thrown ball.

That’s the power of a practice partner. He can change your swing without your permission. Well, so long as you remain ignorant.

Let’s review what a practice partner usually thinks when feeding balls:

1) I should feed balls in the strike zone.
2) I should feed balls that aren’t too fast.

3) I can’t wait to hit, so I’m probably not focused enough.

The first two are admirable objectives, and the third is, well, human. As a hitter, you don’t enjoy watching ball after ball miss the zone and losing valuable repetitions (as a coach, I especially don’t like watching a hitter’s impatience turn into generous interpretations of what is a strike, but that’s a different story for a different post), and whiffing at a pitch blazing by doesn’t give you any feedback about or opportunity to improve your mechanics.

But the ball path to you matters as much as the other two variables.

A typical freshman hitter will cast his hands from his body and whip his swing upward through the zone with his arms doing most of the work. This describes a long, slow swing vulnerable to any pitch but the inside one at mid-shin to mid-thigh height. Give him a looping toss in practice, especially one down in the zone, and you’ll find his sweet spot but entrench his bad habits. He won’t object because he’ll enjoy the results. Until he faces a pitcher with an arm like that of the Schaumburg pitcher in the Froph game on our field a few weeks ago. Catching up can’t happen quickly enough on days like that.

The correct close-range underhand toss with a baseball, or overhand toss with a whiffle ball (the two most common feeds in our practices), begins its drop just before the point of contact, because the longer the ball drops, the steeper the drop as it enters the hitting zone, and the steeper the swing, on average. Steep swings usually cause hitters, not pitchers, to suffer.

The feed should enter the zone at or just above the belt, over the middle of the plate, and be hit to right field, since younger hitters must overcome swings built years earlier with not much more than arms. This pitch combination when hit the other way facilitates a flatter but still slightly inclined bath path with hands traveling closer to the body. The body rather than arms initiates and controls the early phases of the swing, which is important if the hitter is to have a chance to make adjustments to a pitch mid-swing.

But the power of the appropriate feed is that it betters a hitter without his conscious effort.

No one needs a PhD in projectile physics or kinetic chains to know how to toss the ball, remember to instruct a hitter to target right field, and then demand the same when it’s time to reverse roles.

Is there a place for the high-arcing feed, though? If you’re working on hitting curve-balls, yes. If you’re working on a hit-and-run technique and chopping ground balls, an arcing ball will make executing the skill harder. And harder means more focus and determination will be required. We like that. Also remember that some drop in the toss or pitch is normal. The idea is to minimize this drop so practice reps resemble in-game pitches. This helps the swing plane mirror the pitch plane longer, which increases the chance of contact.

It’s not that high-arcing feeds are intrinsically evil. It’s that you’ve been using them too often when the swing doctor calls for more of the opposite during this stage of your development. And the biggest truth is that you haven’t had a say because to this point you haven’t understood the consequence of not holding your partner responsible for the arc of the ball he throws, underhand or overhand. Not just the location or speed. The arc. So demand your partner feed underhand and with some zip, or if overhand, from a knee and with a release point at or just below the contact point.

And if you’re tempted to file this under “I already knew, or at least intuited, this, Coach,” try filing it instead under “Whatever I claim to understand, I’ve failed to execute this.” Remember that Schaumburg game–the one with the flamer-thrower who had us saucer-eyed against the dugout fence and hoping he’d tire early? The one we lost? During pre-game, ten of our thirteen players were feeding incorrectly, stalling balls in the wind that eventually dropped on bats sweeping up through the zone in poor form, which may have been related to our ten strikeouts that day. Just sayin’.

On a high note, though, it’s never too late to get on a better trajectory!