Batting With Your Brain: Spider-Sense

My pack of 9-year-old Arlington Aces, the summer B-Team, were going up against the Vienna Muckdogs in our first tournament game. For most of them, it was their first game ever outside the cozy confines of rec league and in the wild world of summer travel ball.

Trying to keep kids focused when pizza and pool beckons--the life of the travel team coach...

Trying to keep kids focused when pizza and pool beckons–the life of the travel team coach…

They were excited.

They thought they were ready.

I hoped they were ready.

They weren’t.

Now, to my fellas’ defense, we had only been together for 3 practices before it was time to hit the field, where the Vienna team had been together all spring long. That said, the 19-0 drubbing was well beyond what anyone had expected. But, counter to what you might think, it was not the 19 that was the major concern.

The Muckdogs hit fairly well, and we were still getting to know our players on the mound and in the field. There were some jitters, some errors, and a whopping 12 walks in 4 innings. But all of those were predictable under the circumstances.

The fact that these kids, all among the top hitters in their spring league, managed one hit and only three other balls put in play for outs was another issue altogether. The Muckdogs had one flame thrower after another, and we were completely unprepared for the new pace of the game.

Yes, we weren’t the big, bad Arlington Storm (our league’s “A” team), but, still, over 40 players actually tried out for the Aces, so the kids who made it felt like they were still among the best the county had to offer.

What I realized in watching these kids against elite-level pitching (and, I have to say, what that team was doing in the B-level of this particular tournament is a bit of a question mark, but I digress…) was that most of these kids relied on the old “See The Ball, Hit the Ball” philosophy that works really well for talented athletes at the rec level. This means you see the pitch, recognize its speed and location, then react with a step-and-swing.

This is one of the very hardest things for coaches and players alike to recognize and change, because that is the natural way to hit. But there comes a point where kids throw hard enough, and then even start to change speeds on purpose where that kind of reactive hitting simply doesn’t work anymore. That game against the Muckdogs was our Exhibit A.

As we dragged ourselves to the next field hoping for better, I struggled to find a way to quickly explain to 9-year-old kids how to think differently not just about the mechanics of hitting, but the mentality.

Almost hard to tell if she's going to pitch overhand or underhand here.

Almost hard to tell if she’s going to pitch overhand or underhand here.

What came to mind at first was this amazing Sports Illustrated article, an excerpt from the book The Sports Gene. It explains why the most elite hitters in Major League Baseball, including all-time home run king (place an asterisk there if you’d like) Barry Bonds could hardly manage a foul ball off of softball superstar pitcher Jennie Finch.

As it turns out, the way great hitters are able to adjust so well to great pitching is that they have developed a sort of “precognition.” They begin their approach to the ball before it is ever released, having developed a sense of release point and angle of attack so that they “pre-act” to the pitch, then adjust based on what is delivered. Fascinating I know, but a little complicated to get kids to think about in the 5 minutes of warmup swings before a game.

And that’s where being a baseball nerd came in very handy.

When the word “precognition” came up, it immediately made me think of its use in Sam Rami’s first Spider-Man movie. As I’ve noted in my castigation of the reboot, Spider-Man is my absolute favorite Super Hero.  So it was a natch to remember that this was was the term the scientist in the lab used to describe reaction time so fast it bordered on seeing things before they happened. “A… spider-sense,” she concluded.

So when my kids came running out for pre-game BP, I told them to put their bats down. We needed to talk before we hit.

“Who here has ever heard of Spider-Man?” I asked.

As expected, first a confused pause, then all hands raced into the air.

“Great.  Now, what super-power does Spider-Man have that might have to do with the way you hit fast pitching?”

A much larger pause. Then a couple of cautious hands crept upward.

“Well, uh, he can climb walls, and stuff,” said John.

“Well, yes,” I replied, “but are we going to climb the backstop in order to hit fast pitching?”

A head shake.

“Well, he’s super strong,” Brian chimed in.

“True, but there are some very, very strong people out there who can’t hit, right?”

A nod.

At that point, they were all done guessing.

Spider Sense“So, has anyone heard of Spider-Sense?” I queried.

I was met with only the blank stares of ignorance. Poor children, I thought. Being denied an essential education in the classics.

“Spider-Man’s most important power (as proven when he took on Venom, a creature with the power to dampen that power, but I digress…), is his ability to actually sense danger before it actually happens. By knowing something is coming, he is able to be prepared to react to what he sees even before he sees it.”

“Oh yeah,” responded Jack.  “That’s sweet.”

“Yep,” I continued, “but do you know what’s sweeter? The fact that the very best hitters in baseball use Spider-Sense.”

The stares of anticipation after that comment told me that I had them. I went on to explain the Sports Illustrated article, and that the only way to hit good pitching is not to react, but pre-act. The process of the swing must begin before the ball ever left the pitcher’s hand, seeing the strike first, then adjusting to what actually came out of the pitcher’s hand.

Now, Rome wasn’t built in a day, and we got whupped 14-2 by the Northwest Reds in the next game. But “Spider-Sense” and “See the Strike” became the team hitting mantra and philosophy throughout the season. As the lesson sunk in, I saw player and player begin to lift that front foot before the pitcher ever release the ball. And these kids who had their bats crossing the plate well after the catcher caught the ball started to find their elite-level timing.

While we never faced that Muckdogs team again, we did get another shot at the Northwest Reds in our last tournament of the season.

The result? We scored 13 runs, and became the first B Team in tournament history to win our bracket with a perfect record.

Not bad for a bunch of web-heads, eh?

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