|The desire to hit the long ball and the glory of home runs has contributed to the decline in high-average hitters. The attempt to pull a fast ball low and away is a sure way to failure. Through the years, the premier batters of the game, such as Steve Garvey, Rod Carew, George Brett, Pete Rose, and Ted Williams, hit the ball to all fields.
The ability to hit to all fields, coupled with natural speed and bunting skill, can be a great advantage to a batter. The hitter who tries to hit the ball through the middle or the opposite field can wait longer on the ball and will make contact more frequently.
Major league batting coaches are in firm agreement in advocating a relaxed, smooth, rhythmic swing that emphasizes proper alignment of the head, perfect balance and full arm extension. This type of hitting swing will enable a batter to hit the ball hard more consistently than a crowd-the-plate, arms-in, swing-from-the-heels approach.
"Hitting becomes an element of timing," said Hall of Fame manager Walter Alston. "The longer the swing, the longer the stride the harder it is to time the pitch. A good, quick swing is the secret to good hitting. If a hitter can learn how to be fast with his hands and wrists, he will be able to wait longer for the pitch."
Mike Schmidt was a great power-hitting third baseman in the 1970s and '80s (Illustration 1). The Hall of Fame slugger of the Philadelphia Phillies led the league eight seasons in home runs and five in slugging average. He made an adjustment at the plate in 1980 which made him a better hitter. No longer a dead pull hitter, Schmidt began standing off the plate and striding into the ball.
Garvey, who was a perennial .300 hitter who had six 200 hit seasons with a total of 2,599 base hits in the majors, could also hit the long ball. Steve would pull the ball until he got two strikes on him. He went to right field better than any other right-handed hitter in the game. A 100-plus RBI man with a lifetime .299 batting average, he was one of the foremost clutch hitters in the game (Series A).
There are five areas of hitting that major league batting coaches concentrate on: set-up position (or stance); power position; approach, release or point of contact; and the follow through.
Set-up Position The stance used by successful major league hitters varies. A batter should move his feet around until he finds a stance that feels good. The best stance is the most comfortable one. Many hitters prefer a position somewhere even with the plate. The most balanced position is with the feet shoulder-width apart, and the front foot turned slightly toward the pitcher. The weight is distributed equally on the balls of the feet.
While waiting for the pitch, the hitter should rock back a little, as pictured here by Hall of Fame third baseman George Brett (Illus. 2). The power is in the knees, so bend them a little, flex them, and swing. During his long major league career, Brett had 3,154 base hits, 317 home runs, and a .305 batting average.
As he assumes the position at the plate, the hitter should be sure he has complete coverage of the plate. He should be close enough to the plate to handle pitches on the outside corner and far enough from the inside corner to keep from being handcuffed or jammed on the fists.
The long ball hitter, in general, will use a wide stance, while the batter who likes to drive or punch the ball through or over the infield will have a narrow one. Some hitters will vary the stance against certain pitchers. They will move up in the box against breaking ball pitchers and deeper against fastball pitchers.
Carew used four different stances which he altered to fit the pitcher and the pitching tactics. Whatever his stance, it was taken as deep in the batter’s box as he could get. “The further back I am, the longer I can look at the pitch.” Indeed, Carew, playing for the Minnesota Twins, had a great eye at the plate, with a career .328 batting average and 3,053 base hits.
Power Position When the front foot touches the ground the bat is back, with good extension of the front arm. When the front foot comes down, the hands are back, behind and off the back leg, ready to trigger the swing forward. The back elbow is down, not in an upward position.
As he demonstrates here, Brett has his bat back, wrists cocked, and he looks at the pitcher over his front shoulder. The great all-around third baseman of the Kansas City Royals is ready to accelerate forward. This is a key position in hitting (Illus. 3)
Before the start of the hitting swing, there is some movement of the hands. They are not kept dead still. The great hitters used a slight “cocking” action, with the hands coming up just slightly. As the batter gets ready for the pitch, the hands move slightly up, rather than down and then up.
The hands and hips are back, ready to trigger the swing forward. A hitter must not commit his swing too soon. As he strides to get into the hitting position, he will wait to see where the pitch is going and what it is doing. It is highly essential for a hitter to pick up the flight of the ball as soon as it leaves the pitcher’s hand.
Approach As the pitcher delivers the ball, the hitter slides his front foot forward. Keeping his head perfectly still, he takes a controlled stride into the pitch. The majority of hitters prefer a short stride because it keeps the hitter’s body balanced and enables him to have split-second timing. In addition, the short stride allows him to check his swing if the pitch is bad.
The batter who takes a short step controls his forward motion. He is not only properly balanced, but is also able to focus his eyes better on the ball. He can wait longer on the ball, and then can adjust to the pitch.
The top hitters in baseball employ various types of swings. Carew’s swing, for example, was flat, while Reggie Smith’s was high. The key is the power position, when the front foot comes down. With good hitters, when the front foot comes down, the bat is either off or behind the back leg.
Carew had a fluid, graceful hitting swing, with a smooth weight shift. As he brings the bat forward, Carew begins to rotate his body. Failure to pivot results in locked hips and prevents a smooth follow-through. (Series B)
When the front foot comes down, the bat is back and the body is in a position to move forward, not in or out but forward. The weight should be kept on the back foot and not be moved forward too soon. Otherwise, a hitter can lose much of his power.
As he starts to bring the bat forward, a hitter must begin to rotate his body. During the swing, he should pivot on the front foot in order to open up his hips. Failure to pivot will result in locking his hips and prevent a smooth follow-through.
The hips help turn the shoulders when swinging the bat. They bring the hips and shoulders around together. By opening up his hips, a hitter is able to transfer4 his weight forward, similar to the golfer transferring his weight. Everything is tied together so that at one split second he gets full benefit of his weight, his hand and wrist action.
Release or Point of Impact Once the hitter decides to pull the trigger, he must get his bat moving quickly. Everything – shoulders, hips, hands and wrists – is brought through smoothly, unleashing full power on the ball.
The head of the bat should be whipped or snapped into the plane of the baseball. Keeping his arms away from him, the hitter should have both of his arms extended as he meets the ball squarely in front of the plate.
The ball is met with the power end of the bat, in front of the plate, just before he breaks the wrists. When the hitter swings the bat, the head of his bat is what turns the wrists over. He, himself, does not actually turn them.
Good wrists and hands are essential to a good batting swing because they can “pop the ball.” The wrist snap is the final acceleration after the hips, shoulders, forearms, and hands have laid the bat on the ball.
With his tremendous strength, Bob Horner was capable of merely rolling his wrists on an inside fastball. His swing was unusual for a power hitter. His 34 1/2 inch, 35-ounce bat swung down quickly on the ball. He used a short, compact swing. Rather than over swing, he would snap the bat, getting it out in front. He waited until the last split-second before committing himself to a pitch. Horner did not hit many tape-measure home runs. He did not strike out much – 50 times in 1980 (Series C).
Follow-through After the hips and wrists have whipped through and hit the ball, a smooth follow-through is necessary. It provides power to the swing and gives distance to the hits. The wrists snap and roll over, and the bat continues under its own momentum to the rear of the body. The hitter should be in perfect balance with his body facing in the direction of the ball just hit.
When he completes his swing, the batter's bat should be at the middle of his back. The weight comes forward, causing the back foot to pivot, or for some hitters, to lift in contact with the pitch.
Line Drive Swing
A hitter should always try to meet the ball solidly and not try to over swing. The shorter and more compact the swing is, the better chance a hitter has for contact.
“Rather than over swing, a hitter should snap his bat and get his bat out in front,” said Pete Rose, who collected more base hits than any other major leaguer in history, 4,256, and hit over .300 during 15 seasons (Series D).
“That is the secret – hitting the ball hard,” said Pete. “I just try to take a hard, level swing. Getting the big barrel of the bat out in front of the plate is most important. I liked to hit the ball when the front arm became straight. The back arm is most important of the two because a hitter does not hit the ball until the back arm locks. If he does it correctly, he will have the bat out in front.”
Timing, of course, is the key to good hitting. The hitter must coordinate all the parts of the swing and this requires perfect timing. As the hitting swing starts, the hitter’s weight should be shifted from the back foot and finish on the front foot after contact.
The front shoulder has a tendency to affect the hitter a great deal. Too many hitters allow the front shoulder to pull out just a fraction too early. This causes them to pull the body away just enough to get the ball on the end of the bat, rather than on the good part of it.
The head of the bat should be whipped and snapped into the plane of the baseball. Keeping his arms away from him, the hitter should have both of his arms extended as he hits and completes his follow through on the ball. He should meet the ball squarely in front of the plate.
Using the Front Arm
The front arm should more or less guide the swing. The hitter then does a little snapping with the top hand. Quite a few hitters, unfortunately, will get the top hand in too quickly and begin rolling the wrist when the ball is fairly even with them. The farther they hit out in front, the better off they are.
“The front arm throws the head of the bat out at the ball,” said Wally Moses, former batting coach of the New York Yankees and Detroit Tigers (Illus. 4). “Most hitters fail to use this arm properly. I am a great believer that a hitter has to use his front arm right. He should hit the ball before he breaks his wrists. The front arm more or less guides his swing and then he does a little snapping with the top hand.”
During 17 major league seasons, Moses knew how to swing the bat. He compiled a .291 batting average, with 2,138 base hits and 679 RBI's. Wally said, “Quite a few hitters will get their top hand in too quickly and begin rolling their wrist when the ball is fairly even with them. They are forced to hit when the ball is on top of them. The farther they hit the ball out in front, the better off they are.”
Some hitters use the top hand too much and do not use the front arm enough. The top hand gets in there too quickly, before the bat gets out in front. A hitter should hit the ball before he breaks his wrists. Some hitters become too defensive, and the ball gets up on them so quickly they do not have time to get that front hand out. They roll the wrists around, and pull good pitches foul.
While batting authorities differ as to their interpretation of the effect of the weight shift on the hitting swing, our high speed sequence films of the great hitters through the years reveal quite convincingly that a hitter must hit against a firm front side, a close front hip. During the back swing, the weight does shift to the back foot.
In order to obtain a controlled stride, it is essential to maintain a firm rear foot. This is necessary because a hitter generates his power in his push forward as he throws the bat at the ball.
Many great hitters have used a short stride because it kept the body balanced and helped them have split-second timing. The batter who takes a short step controls his forward motion. He is able to stay properly balanced.
Ted Williams is regarded by many as the greatest hitter in the game (Illus. 5). The Red Sox left-fielder had a .344 career batting average, 2,654 base hits, and 521 home runs. His .406 average in 1941 has not been equaled in 72 seasons.
“I’ve always believed in keeping your weight balanced all the way through the swing. The body weight must never be ahead of the swing.”
During the back swing, the weight shifts to the back foot. The hands and bat are above the rear foot. The heel of Williams’ front foot was always lifted with his weight on his toes. This type of pivot allowed him to have an exceptionally fast swing speed.
By taking a short stride, the hitter is able to more or less just shift his weight from the back to the front foot. He should hit off the back foot onto the front foot. The front foot should be firm. By pushing off his rear foot vigorously, a hitter has a better chance of maintaining a level hitting swing (Series E).
By sagging his rear leg against a firm front leg, the right-handed swinger will very likely develop an uppercut because his right shoulder will be lower than his left.
“A hitter has to hit against a firm front side, a closed front hip,” said Moses. “If he throws the bat, this pulls him in behind the ball. He pivots on his back foot, with a relaxed bent knee. He pushes forward with his back foot, and when he hits the ball, he is braced. If the ball is out away from him, the hitter has to let his weight get up on his front foot.”
While some hitters have the rear foot off the ground, the lifting comes only after they have made contact with the ball, not before. Many hitters have a tendency to uppercut slightly. It is perfectly natural to swing up on a low pitch. However, if the hitter uppercut pitches across his letters or high pitches, he will have considerable trouble. On these pitches, he must swing down slightly, particularly with a hard infield, and if the hitter has good speed afoot.
More hitting instructors are emphasizing the slightly downward swing – the chop swing in which the hitter shortens up and swings down slightly. This type of swing will produce more line drives, rather than pop-ups into the air (Series F).
Along with Ernie Banks, Billy Williams provided the Chicago Cubs with a strong one-two punch. During his Hall of Fame career, Williams hit for percentage (.292), home runs (426), and base hits (2,711).
In order to swing down on the ball, the hitter should keep his top hand on top so the wrist will not be below the front wrist at the point of contact. He should try to keep the head of the bat above the ball at all times.
The reason hitters are told to swing down slightly is more or less to go to the extreme, to make them level off. If a hitter will level off on a high pitch, he will tend to hit the ball more on a line.
During pepper games, hitters have the opportunity to practice hitting high pitches down. If the ball is thrown high, they can raise their arms and get the bat coming down more.
Hitting the Long Ball
Rather than swing too hard, Mike Schmidt takes a hard, level swing. He coordinates all the parts of the swing, and this requires timing. As the hitting swing starts, Schmidt's weight is shifted from the back foot and finishes on the front foot after contact. He meets the ball squarely in front of the plate.
Power hitters like Schmidt kept their arms away from their bodies to give greater arm extension. The hitter who holds the bat too close to the body may have difficulty getting the arms out when he swings, causing too much roll of the hands and wrists (Series G).
A dominant or strong top hand can prevent a full-arm extension by taking over after contact and causing too much roll of the hands and wrists. To prevent this roll many hitting coaches advocate releasing the top hand after driving through and making contact with the ball.
Hitting to the Opposite Field
Major league batting coaches are unanimous in declaring that the pitch on the outside corner can be handled best by hitting it to the opposite field. In going to the opposite field, Manny Mota of the Los Angeles Dodgers, pictured here, keeps his hands ahead of the bat and does not roll his wrists (Series H).
The batter must assume a wider stance, and rather than striding into the pitch, he might lift his left foot and plant it down as the pitch is made. He lets the hands and wrists do the work.
The main thing is to hit the ball squarely. If necessary, the hitter should push or punch the ball. Contact with the ball should be made directly over the plate, not out in front. Although the batter completes a good follow through, the weight of his body should lean toward the opposite field.
Pre-game hitting practice in the big leagues is purposeful and meaningful. The prime concern is to make good contact with a level, well-timed swing. When taking a practice swing, a hitter should swing the bat the same way he would during a game. He should want to make good hard contact and not try to hit the ball out of the ball park.
Getting the timing sharp should be the basic purpose of any batting practice. Driving the ball hard on a line should be the hitter’s main concern. It also provides a good opportunity to hit the ball to the opposite field.
The only way to become a good hitter is to swing the bat constantly, not just when taking a few swings in batting practice. It is the desire to hit and the willingness to practice that makes the great hitters. While not every athlete can become a great hitter, every player can improve through instruction and practice.
Follow-through After the hips and wrists have whipped through and hit the ball, a good follow through is necessary. A smooth follow-through provides power to the swing and gives distance to the hits. The wrists snap and roll over, and the bat continues under it own momentum to the rear of the body. The hitter should be in perfect balance with his body facing the direction of the ball just hit.
When he completes his swing, the batter’s bat should be at the middle of his back. The weight comes forward, causing the back foot to pivot, or for some hitters, to lift in contact with the pitch.
Photographs by Don Weiskopf, including sequence-series photos; National Baseball Library & Archive; and Paul H. Roedig (Mike Schmidt)
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