Archive for January, 2018

CoachN’s Pre-Season Tip: See the Ball Big When You Don’t Really See

January 25, 2018

Small Ball Machine

It was 1986, the year of Mookie, Gary, Straw, Doc, Maz, and Mex—My “Bad Guys” from Flushing who would eventually drive another dagger into the hearts of Red Sox Nation.  I was 16 and playing ball myself in a summer league in Atlanta.  Atl wasn’t yet The ATL, and also had yet to be introduced to the world of high-powered travel teams.  So this league out in Dunwoody was a mix of high school players and guys just looking to hang around the game.

That year, I was having what I would call an “Israelite” season.   I had served faithfully under the same rec ball coach since hitting The Big Field.  I started at first base as despite my skinny frame, my coach knew I could pick it and had pop beyond my size.  But he was leaving the league and I had to find a new team.

And so arose a new coach, who did not know him — to paraphrase from Exodus.  I was still working hard and having a solid season with the bat, but this new guy, a somewhat pugnacious fellow with an unkempt moustache and a penchant for those men’s short-shorts of the 80s that seemed more than a little out-of-place on the over-40 set, seemed to think I could do no right.

Given what a tightly wound ball of string I was, his skepticism became a self-fulfilling prophecy; the worst of which was when I sprinted for home on what I thought was a suicide squeeze…

…it wasn’t.

As we were getting to the end of the season, Coach Short-Shorts kept throwing me in right field and lowering me in the batting order until when I arrived that day I saw myself etched in dead last.  When I finally got up to the plate for the first time, it was already with two outs in the 3rd inning.  Their pitcher had been perfect through 2 2/3 with five Ks so far.  As I brooded from the dugout, I managed to notice that he had a solid curve that was giving our players fits.  So I went ahead and guessed on the first pitch and got what I was looking for.  I was a little out in front, but the curve landed right in that low-and-in hot zone we lefties love so much.  I hooked the ball right over the first baseman’s head and stood into second with a double.

The pitcher was clearly flustered as he gave up his first hit to the last batter.  He toed the rubber, and I noticed that he forgot to switch to the stretch—not a crazy mistake for a pitcher who hadn’t done it yet that day.  In one of the few good baserunning moves I had made that season, I took off as soon as I saw him start his wind and made it in standing on 3rd.

The only thing Coach had to say to me upon my arrival was, “No squeeze.”  The jab hardly boosted me, but the pitcher then uncorked a wild pitch and I scored our first run.

After that, the pitcher lost his cool completely, and through walks, errors, and a couple of hits, we plated three more.  He didn’t come back out for the 4th.

And that’s when we started turning it on.  Their pitchers struggled, and we surged.  My next at bat I cracked a wicked line drive up the middle.  My next time up with the bases juiced, I drove a fastball that three-hopped the wall in left-center and plated them all.

In most summer games, you’d be lucky to get a 3rd at bat—particularly at the bottom of the order.  But as both Lady Mercy and the time limit approached on our game, I was due to bat 3rd in the final inning.

One of our players had arrived late, and we already had our “Bat 10” in the order.  So, of course, Coach High Socks (did I mention that?) told me that he was going to pinch hit for me given I had three ABs already.  I simply nodded my head and wound myself a bit more taught.

But while I was not one to stand up for myself, my teammate Derrick was having none of it.

“Dude, you three-for-three, right?”

I nodded again with the same insular mannerism.

“Coach, coach, coach, coach, coach!  You cannot take him out!  He could go four-for-four!”

“He’s right, coach,” another teammate chimed in.  “You can’t lift a guy when he’s three-for-three.”

“Ain’t nobody taking me out of the game if I’m three-for-three.” Derrick added.

Coach Fishnet Tank Top (okay, that’s a lie, but I’m on a roll) turned to me and said, “So, do you want to hit?”  That emphasis clearly saying, “Just say no kid, so I can get this over with.”

I must admit that’s what I probably would have said.  I was very much a rules guy, much like my younger son is today.  Coach says…I do.

“Of course he wants to hit!” Derrick blurted before I even had a chance to unleash my patented sullen head bob.

“Coach, I’m not going to go in for him if he’s three-for-three!” said the kid who had arrived late.

That put the seal on it.

The pitcher walked the first two batters, and I strode to the plate with us up nine.  One RBI and it was over.

It was hot, late, and the game was already over.  I knew the pitcher wouldn’t want to toy around when there were Ms. Pac Man machines and cold, smooth Orange Julius at the mall just a couple of miles away.

So I sat on a fastball.

He threw me a fastball.

And for the first time ever, I saw it, right out of his hand.

The ball looked big.

Like, bigger than a softball big.

Like, it could have been 95 or had a 8-inch break and it wouldn’t have mattered big.

The ball vaulted off my bat maybe 30 feet in the air at the most.  But I hit it so hard to the right field gap that it hit the base of the wall on the fly.  I’ve hit some balls out, but I don’t think I ever hit a ball harder in my entire life.  I raced around and slid unnecessarily into third clapping my hands hard in a hitherto unprecedented public display of positive emotion.

I tell this story because players will say that they are, “seeing the ball well right now” or, “seeing it big.” And you’ve probably heard and announcer-or-six say, “The ball must look like a grapefruit to him!”  When things are really rolling, that grapefruit can even look like a beachball sometimes.

But other than that moment, I’ve never had an experience in seeing the ball big until some 30 years later, playing old man baseball this past fall.  I went four-for-six with three doubles, and each time, the ball looked absolutely huge.  It was my first game actually playing in years, so as I strutted off the field (my 13-year-old son’s team played next, so I got to gloat a bit) I tried to figure out why I was seeing the ball like that.

Then I realized it was because for the past year, almost every swing I took off of a moving baseball was off the Jugs Small Ball pitching machine.  I was so used to swinging at golf ball-sized objects that a baseball actually looked huge to me.

It may sound axiomatic, but seeing the ball is most important thing we do in hitting.

But the crazy thing is that we really don’t see anything.

What do I mean?  Well, enrich nine minutes of your life and listen to this TED Radio Hour Piece, “Isaac Lidsky: How Can Going Blind Give You Vision?”  If you don’t have time, here’s the operative, fascinating soundbite:

“What does it feel like to see? You open your eyes and there’s the world. Seeing is believing, sight is truth, right? Well, that’s what I thought. Then from age 12 to 25, my sight became an increasingly bizarre carnival fun house hall of mirrors and illusions. Objects appeared morphed and disappeared in my reality. It was difficult and exhausting to see. I pieced together fragmented transitory images until I saw nothing at all. I learned that what we see is not universal truth, it is not objective reality. What we see is a unique personal virtual reality that is masterfully constructed by our brain.”

We don’t see, our brain interprets stimuli for us.  It’s the same basic reason why it feels good to swing a weighted bat before going to hit.  It tricks our brain into making our regular bat seem light.  So we feel quicker and like we don’t have to put in as much effort to swing.

The Small Ball Machine accomplishes a very similar task.  It trains the eye to expect somethings smaller, so when we hit for real our brain interprets a baseball as big.

The Small Ball Machine is not the only trick in town.  Major League Catcher Paul LoDuca’s mother would throw him pinto beans (I’m guessing dried) in the back yard to help train his eye.  Now, check out this favorite drill from Carlos Pena on MLB Network—hitting popcorn kernels with a broom stick (this one getting small both ways!).

So below find my Pros/Cons for the Jugs Small Ball Machine.  But whether you are using foam balls or popcorn kernels, remember that training the brain is the most important, yet often most neglected part of the way both players and coaches prepare.

Jugs Small Ball Pitching Machine

The Pros

  • Hit Small: See above.
  • Self-Feeding: No one to hit with?  This loads about 24 balls and pitches them in 5-7 second intervals.  Great for hitting alone.
  • Soft Balls: The golf-sized balls are made out of foam and would not be a threat to a window unless hit extremely hard from a very close distance. They can still sting if you get pelted by one (which is why feeders are instructed to stand behind a net) but so long as the neighbors are okay with a few (or more) balls in their yard, it’s a great backyard hitting tool.  Likely even better yet for those with unfinished basements provided you have 25-30 feet of space.
  • Variable Speeds: There is both regular and advanced speeds.  It’s not a dial, just two to choose from, but the slower is around 50mph and the faster is mid-80s from 20 feet away.  You can, of course, adjust the speed by moving the machine closer or farther from the plate.
  • Curve Balls!: Also at regular and advanced, the machine has a nice little bender.  Not huge break, but enough to practice tracking a ball that is moving both toward you and down.  I mostly hit off of advanced curveball.  By moving the machine a bit farther away, you get more break (and of course less speed).
  • Consistency: I find a lot of foam ball pitching machines to be highly variable in terms of putting the ball where you want it.  Every machine will have some variability, but I find this one to be amazingly consistent in keeping the ball in the general zone once you have it set up.  Not a lot of time waiting for balls to finally come into the zone.  This also helps if you are trying to do a drill working a specific spot in the zone.
  • Great for Catching, Too: My 16-year-old will use the machine for barehanded receiving drills and for blocking.
  • Price: Pitching machines in general are expensive. At $240.00, this machine is a bargain for what it delivers.  However, see my note about the price of the balls below.
  • Durability: Over a year in, lots of use, kept out in our shed, and chugging along without an issue.

The Cons

  • Ball Price/Loss: The machine is inexpensive under the circumstances, but balls go in buckets of 48 for about $1/ball. That’s a bit pricey for what amounts to be a foam golf ball.  The balls are durable but if you’re using this outside, be prepared to lose and replace.  I’ve bought about 300 balls so far, and have very patient neigbors.
  • No Warning on Self-Feed: The self-feeder is pretty consistent in timing, but it’s hard to prep and be counting the seconds in your head. So that notion of “Spider Sense” anticipation is difficult to replicate as the ball will just pop out at you without warning.  This can be okay particularly when practicing a two-strike hitting approach, but you can definitely get a better rhythm having someone feed the ball to you.
  • Need Nets: Not sure this is a con, but you will need two hitting nets to use this machine. One to protect the feeder, and one to catch balls.  So there’s an added expense to cost in.
  • Portable Battery: I plug my machine in, but if you want to take this out to the field with you, the portable battery is pricey (pretty much same as the machine), heavy, and has a bit of a spotty record on holding its charge.

Really that’s about all I have on the downside.  Highly recommended if you can find the right space for it.

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CoachN’s Pre-Season Tip: The Backspin Tee & The Story of Your Swing

January 11, 2018

Backspin Tee

While I noted that I believe the most important off-season activity for any young baseball player is to go play another sport, there is one baseball activity that you can do year-round:

H
I
T

I haven’t found anything in all of sports so thrilling, maddening, complicated, or controversial as striking a pitched ball.  I’m convinced that it is the single most difficult thing to do in all of sports.  It is a full body activity which demands both rotation and verticality simultaneously.  It requires dynamic movement and stillness at the same time.  Minute mistakes mark the difference between a travel-caliber player and one whose knees are knocking on that 3-2 pitch desperate for that Ball Four in a house game.

What I tell my parents and players is that when it comes to hitting, there is a thousand ways to do it right, and a million ways to do it wrong.  That’s why it’s so important for anyone serious about the game to hit, hit, hit.  The journey is to discover the swing that is right for them; always knowing that swing is a living beast, needing constant care and feeding as the player grows and changes.

As I’ve noted before, I am a huge proponent of tee hitting at any age.  This is particularly important for younger players in the 7-10 age group who often resist tee hitting as “for little kids” or “too easy.”  But a swing is so complicated that it really demands time to not worry about location, speed, break or release points, but instead be able to just have a ball sit there and allow you to try different approaches.

Hitting off the tee is particularly effective in the winter for a number of reasons.  First, the player can do it by her/himself. Daylight is fleeting and the chance to get out and hit doesn’t always dovetail with spending an hour with buddies.  But you and a tee can get 15 minutes of swings in taking a break from homework (or Battlefront II).  And if you have a buddy, winter is really the time to let the arm rest up after 9 months of abuse, so trading swings off the tee still makes a lot of sense.

Another nice thing about a tee in the winter is that both because of the lack of flight, and the fact that it’s pretty easy to use anything from a baseball to a rolled-up pair of socks, the chances of getting jammed and having the sting of 1000 bees course through your hands is pretty low.  The one kind of ball I’d suggest laying off are the heavy balls, as despite the limited flight those will harden in the cold and both be potentially painful to hit and potentially cause damage to the bat.  And remember, if you are using a composite bat and it’s under 50 degrees outside, you shouldn’t be hitting anything harder than a tennis ball.

All that said, the very hardest thing I’ve found to overcome with a young player and a batting tee is that, “It’s SO boring!”  And, yes, unless you are a complete baseball rat, tee hitting is really not a thrill.

Now, yes, you can think about trying to mix things up a bit.  Come up with competitions to incent the repetitions.  Video even off a tee to take a look at the mechanics without the ball in flight, and compare it when you hit a moving target.

But the only way I’ve found any consistent success with young players getting them to enjoy hitting off a tee is by changing the tee itself.

And that’s where the Backspin Tee comes in.

I’ve been both hitting with, and coaching with this new contraption for about a year now.  And while my kids understand the need to hit off the tee, they invariably get excited when I bring out my new toy:

Here are my pros-and-cons:

The Pros

  • It Works and the Kids Dig It: This thing is almost magical—more of a contraption than a tee.  The fact that it does a good job holding the ball upside-down (and I’ve found works with tennis balls, squishy balls, whiffle balls, and regular baseballs) makes it just plain more fun to use than a regular tee.  If it does nothing else better than a standard tee, this fact alone has made it worthwhile.
  • Bottom Half Hitting: Unlike when I was in school, it’s all about launch angle these days. Having a tee designed to focus the swing on hitting the bottom half is both intriguing to kids, and is helpful, particularly for players that tend to be “chop” hitters.  I’ve had a lot of success with this tee helping to retrain swings of players who complained of grounding out too much.  If you’re looking for a great analysis of this approach, check out Antonelli Baseball’s analysis of Kris Bryant’s swing.
  • Stay Inside: Players who cast their hands and come around the ball are far more likely to clang against the pole of the tee. It acts like the Belly Button Drill (explained at the bottom of this post) in that it helps to diagnose and keep players focused on getting the barrel straight to the ball.
  • It’s Sturdy: You know those kids who cast their hands and clang on the pole?  Well at least my pro model is built to take a licking.  The same thing can happen with trying to work to the opposite field, particularly if you are working on an inside-out swing.
  • It’s a Great Diagnostic Tool: My favorite drill using this tee is actually a 2-Tee drill. Use a standard tee and put it about a foot behind the Backspin and about 6-8 inches below the hitting point of the Backspin.  This creates a “corridor” effect where the kids are learning how to create a slightly upward plane to their swing without dropping their hands.  Trying to hit line drives and fly balls with this setup can be tough, but it creates the kind of bat angle and staying “long through the zone” that we’re looking for.  A lot of the times, you’ll see kids either knock the back tee (too much uppercut) or hit weak spinners (to much downward angle, not enough time in the hitting zone).

The Cons

  • It’s Not Really Backspin: So in the ole’ days, we used to talk about creating that tight backspin that allowed the ball to carry by having a slight downward angle toward the ball. This created a slight slice that made for a tight backspin on the ball.  This tee does NOT work for that.  Instead, it rewards a slight uppercut that allows you to keep your bat in the hitting zone longer.  Having myself been a hitter/teacher of backspin, I can tell you that it can get frustrating hitting with this tee.  Guys with a more traditional backspin swing will find themselves mostly hitting little spinner flares as they strike the center of the ball rather than the bottom.  So unlike a traditional tee, this is NOT for everyone and if a player is struggling with it, a coach shouldn’t just jump to the conclusion that there’s a flaw in the swing as it’s really teaching a specific swing path.
  • It’s Complementary: Even if you are sold on what this tee is teaching (or showing), I would never use this tee as the only tee.  First, as I noted, I really like this tee as part of a two-tee drill, so you need a more standard tee right there.  Second, while the concept of seeing/aiming for the bottom of the ball is sound (indeed, this would more accurately be called the “Bottom-Up” tee if I were to name it), it really isn’t how a hitter sees the ball coming down out of the pitcher’s hand.  A traditional tee is far better for that.  In the end, I’ve found the Backspin Tee to be most effective for 20 swings before switching to a traditional tee.  It helps me get my swing path in shape, then I go “around the world” (start outside and deep, work middle on the plate, inside and out front) with a traditional tee.  I find myself and my kids hitting fewer grounders and more line drives and fly balls this way.  But I find it a struggle going from Backspin directly to a pitched ball.
  • It’s Heavy: I have an ATEC T3 tee, and it’s fantastic for porting around. Light, small, but stable.  My Backspin tee is a pain to take around.  It’s not only heavy, but the shape makes it hard to fit.  You could take it apart, but that just makes it more of a pain.  The extremely heavy base is great for stability but a chore to get to the field.  If you have a cart, it’s not too bad as you can pop your bucket of balls on top of the base and keep it stable, but this isn’t a great one for a casual trip to the park.  For kids, I’ve also found that if things are less convenient, they’re used less.  This is NOT convenient.
  • It’s Expensive: So you can get a quality, pro-level tee for $75 or so, and a decent rubber one for $40.  The basic model for this tee comes in at a whopping $200.  The pro model that I have comes in at $300.  A little do-hickey that tilts the ball to be more accurate angle for low pitches is $50 by itself.  My wife got me this for my birthday, as it was just too expensive for me to justify buying it for myself, even as a coach who does individual lessons.  For about the same price, I could buy the Jugs Small Ball Pitching Machine and 100 balls (my next review).

So there you go.  I’m not going to recommend or not recommend this toy.  It definitely has its uses, but I think any coach or player using it should know exactly what it is useful for before making the investment.  But no matter what tee you have, go put on your ski cap and snow boots, take some cuts, as the story of your swing is written year-round.  Your spring self will thank you for the chapter you scribe today.

Next, does hitting small mean big things?