Posts Tagged ‘batting’

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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The Giving Tee

March 6, 2014

Baseballs go from soft foam to hard leather.  Kids outgrow their gloves and helmets and bats.  But even as our kids change and the game changes along with it, there’s one piece of equipment that can go from first swing to game 1 of the World Series—the batting tee.  A tee can be a piece of living memory for coaches and kids alike, not dissimilar to Shel Silverstein’s Giving Tree.

Hello, old friend

Hello, old friend

Behold my Giving Tee—one I’ve had since my 12-year-old graduated from BlastBall.  It squeaks when I carry it around as the handle has rusted a bit from forgotten nights out in the rain.  It’s black plastic body hides a multitude of scars as numerous closed-eyed, spinning swings have taken their toll.  And the tee itself isn’t even the same one that originally came with it.  That heavy-duty, spiral rubber top managed to survive about seven seasons, but was ultimately overwhelmed by the power-sans-control of my 10-year-old Grays.  But I brought it back to live using the tee tube of one of my numerous other victims, using a carrot peeler to slim the tube down enough so it could move up and down and still be secured in the shaft.

I love this tee.  And when I see it sitting there, holding my boys’ bats, waiting anxiously for another season in the sun, I feel like it loves me right back.  This tee makes me especially excited to be going back to coaching t-ball, as it gets the chance to start over with yet another group of kids playing, laughing, and learning.

Okay, yes, I cried at the end of Toy Story 3.

But whether you’re a nerd like me turning a tee into a family heirloom, or perhaps because I’ve convinced you (or you already knew) that tee work is important at every level of baseball, I hope you’re going out and adding a batting tee to your baseball equipment must list.

So let me give you a quick guide to purchasing, protecting, and using your tee.  Tear-jerking personification is entirely optional.

BUYING A TEE

There are four general tee categories that I have experience with.  Let me give you a rundown:

Bucket Tees: The concept of these are simple and fantastic.  The tee and the bucket are one piece, allowing you to keep your balls and tee together, which is extremely convenient.

Try throwing a few batting donuts in the bottom to help keep it from tipping

Try throwing a few batting donuts in the bottom to help keep it from tipping

I’ve either used or seen three different types of Bucket Tees.  First is the Easton Bucket Tee.  This baby will run you about $50 and has 30 whiffle balls included, which makes it a pretty darned good bargain.  The key is that this one is made almost entirely out of rigid plastic, so it’s not overly durable.  It uses an elastic band to allow the tee to collapse down into the bucket and be sealed.  This one is best suited for the foam bat set, but could be used for t-ball and early coach pitch batting practice. If the mechanism to raise and lower the tee breaks, an easy fix is just to jam a key in as a wedge.  Worked like a charm for me.

My Giving Tee is a bucket tee made by the Virginia Baseball Club.  It costs around $40 and is much more durable.  Unfortunately they don’t ship, so you’d need to be in the Northern Virginia area to score one of these (they’ll even build one for you at a discount if you bring your own bucket).  This tee isn’t the greatest for first swings, as the lowest it goes is 2 feet high.  Also, the tee cannot go into the bucket, so it does not seal up.  But it does have a weighted bottom which keeps it from tipping over.

Osborne Bucket TeeFor those who like what they see from VBC but aren’t in the area, there is the Osborne Bucket Tee, which is available for about $80.  Like the VBC tee, this one is also weighted at the bottom, but puts the tee tube in the center of the bucket, and the tube is fully removable which allows the bucket to be sealed (and used for sitting for soft toss—a nice feature .  It looks like the tubes are replacable for around $20 a pop.  It also has a 2 foot minimum height, so may be better for the 8+ set rather than for first swings.

Rubber Tees: These are the tees most folks think about.  Usually fairly thick black rubber where the tee shaft fits into a molded raised hole in the base.

Now, for about $20 you can find a perfectly good basic rubber tee like this one.  The only issue with many of these is that while they fit in the molded hole, one good whack anywhere on the tube and it comes tumbling off.

5-tool batting teeSo if you are looking for a tee like this, I’d suggest you look for one that doesn’t just insert, but actually fastens in.  The most solid one I found was this Rawlings 5-Tool Multi position batting tee for $60, which has the advantage of actually having two tees that can either be linked or separated.  The downside to tees that fasten in with a screw, however, is that the kids can beat on them enough that the hinges that hold them together actually break.  Once that happens, time to head back to the store.

If you get this particular one, I would suggest NOT using the connecting piece and just use the two tees as needed.  So when one tee is hit, the whole tee will fall over—that give will keep the screw and bolt system from bending and breaking.  Then flipping the tee back up is far faster and easier than reinserting the tube itself.  These tees and almost every basic black rubber tee start at 20’’ instead of 24 or 25, which makes this perfect for t-ball work.

Note that many of these tees have replacement tops and tubes.  So when you buy, you may want to just Google your product and see if yours have replacement parts easily available.  Especially for the more expensive items, it’s good to know that you might be able to replace parts rather than the whole tee.  For coaches, having a replacement tube or top on hand is a great way to ensure that drills can continue even if there’s a mid-practice malfunction.

One last thing I’d note is that you’ll see a whole variety of tees that have tubes that can move from location to location on the plate.  I’d suggest you don’t spend the extra money for that.  Instead, use a simple throwdown home plate for your location, and simply move the tee so the tube is at your preferred location on that plate.  It ends up being faster than moving the tube around.

And a toy surprise inside every tee.  Just break and find, kids!

And a toy surprise inside every tee. Just break and find, kids!

Cheap Plastic Crap Tees: Okay, I guess I’m giving myself away here.  Tees take a beating.  So whether you have a little one wielding foam or an all-star softball slugger with her composite bat, learn from my failures and just stay away from the “My first tee” kind of stuff.  The MLB Foam Teeball Set was great—for the foam bat.  The tee lasted about 20 swings.  Then I thought I’d get clever as I saw this anti-tip batting tee.  Well, as good as its name as it didn’t fall over, the middle of the tube snapped off after about, yep, 20 swings.  Note that both of these products carry the MLB logo.  The only think I’ve been able to surmise about this is that any youth baseball equipment with the MLB logo is roughly equivalent to a product being approved by Krusty the Clown—don’t assume quality.

The one tee of this ilk I had any success with is the SKILZ 360 tee.  The claw top was a bit more durable and the “anti-tip” base actually withstood some significant thumping.  And when the claw top came off, you could still place the ball on the tube itself, so I ended up get a solid couple of years out of this one.  The tube, however, is not adjustable, so for the money, I’d say you’re still better off going rubber.

Professonal Quality Tees: Not much to say about these.  This $80 Tanner Tee is one of the standards you’ll see and there are a number in the same price range much like them.  They are easily adjustable, the tops are well made, and they stay quite stable.  I would not recommend them for young t-ball players using metal bats, as the tubes can be bent and dented so they’re really for more advanced players.

PROTECTING YOUR TEE

How tape can save your tee (see top) and what happens when you don't use it (see everywhere else)

How tape can save your tee (see top) and what happens when you don’t use it (see everywhere else)

The most important part of any tee—Duct Tape: Why, you ask?  Because whether you’re using a foam BlastBall bat or a cryogenically frozen carbon composite big barrel $3 jillion dollar special, tees take a serious beating.  At the early levels, kids hit parts of a tee you would never expect as they chop and twirl and close their eyes.  For more advanced hitters, even a great swing is going to strike the tip of the tee as the bottom of the barrel will brush the tee as the ball is struck directly on the sweet spot.  And because the default mistake most hitters have is to drop their hands below the ball, it is more likely that the tee is going to get whacked than a harmless swing over-the-top.

So do yourself a favor and give it a good wrap in Duct Tape.  For most tees, you can get pretty low on the tube itself without lessening the ability to move it up-and-down, but really build the tape up around the hitting area from the top down about 8 inches.  I usually go around a good 5-10 times.

For bucket tees, especially with younger players, it’s a great idea to actually give the top 4 inches of the bucket itself a wrap if it doesn’t hurt the ability to place the cover back on.  The Easton bucket especially is not of the best quality (mostly because no one expects you’ll ever hit them).  So even a foam bat can take a chunk out of the bucket, and you have a potential safety hazard as well as having the bucket itself not serve a purpose anymore if the crack is large enough for balls to spill out.

MY TOP TEE DRILLS

In my last post, I noted the “Pedroia Drill” which both my boys do as often as weather and homework allow.  But there are a few other great drills I’ve learned that I think really help maximize the value of working off the tee.

Two-Tee Drill: This one is my absolute favorite, as one of the most common issues for hitters from t-ball to the Majors is dropping the hands under the ball, rather than bringing the hands directly to-and-through the ball.  Placing a second tee about two feet behind the one the ball is placed on is a great way of getting players to really feel that loop in the swing and correct it (though, be warned, it can be hell on that back tee).

Testing this drill over time, I tend to like that back tee to be an inch or two lower than the front, as a slight uppercut is not the worst thing.  Having the back tee higher tends to teach the player to chop at the ball, so I’d avoid that. But pretty much any other tee drill can be supplemented with great efficacy using the two-tee approach.

Small Bat Drill: Here’s another Major Leaguer, Todd Frazier, with an interesting approach to hitting off the tee.

I pulled out one of my boys’ old t-ball bats which worked very nicely for this drill now that they’re bigger.  But another great tool for this drill (I’ll talk more about it in a future post) is “The Spatula.”  The actual name for it is the Insider Bat, and it is a wonderful way to help teach kids the right hands-to-the-ball approach as the only way to strike the ball is with proper hand position.

Belly Button Drill: I recently learned this one and love it, as along with dropping the hands, the “long swing” – i.e. swinging around the ball rather than directly through it – is one of the most common issues young hitters need to work out.  For this drill, you can use a screen, a chair, or a second tee, but you set up a barrier just off the outside corner of the plate.  The batter places the end of his bat on his belly button, and places the end of the bat so it touches the barrier.  Now, as the batter hits off the tee, the goal is to strike the ball without hitting the barrier.  It works well with soft-toss as well, but I’ve seen very few drills that so quickly teach players to keep their hands inside the ball rather than sweeping around it.

Well, there you go.  Hopefully enough (and more than likely too much) for you to go on.  Me, I think I’ll head over to ole’ Buckety and take a few cuts.  She’s looking a little lonely…

Coach’s Corner: Teaching Your Players to Whiff

October 24, 2013

“A great hitter makes an out 70% of the time.”

That’s the old cliché that supposedly “says it all” about baseball.  And there is a lot of value in it.  It shows the difficulty of the game (I still contend that the single hardest thing to do in all of sports is to strike a pitched baseball), and the value in learning to deal with failure—or more accurately to help redefine what success is.

Will never forget his "Taming the Monster" in Game 3

Will never forget his “Taming the Monster” in Game 3

That said, there was a wrinkle on this old piece of wisdom that helped me look a bit differently not only at helping kids hit, but on my personal style as coach.  For those that know me, it will come as no surprise that this sage advice came from the mouth of a New York Met.  Bobby Ojeda (aka Bobby O), a 1986 hero and current analyst for the Mets’ SNY network, was examining the approach of Lucas Duda, a burly power hitter mired in yet another slump.  He felt that Duda was losing his aggressiveness and was spending too much time trying to work the count.

That kind of “Baseball 101” commentary isn’t going to win any Emmys, but what he said next was somewhat revelatory for me.  “He needs to swing-and-miss more,” Ojeda said.  “Because a swing-and-a-miss is not a bad thing.  A batter learns from it. He gets a sense of what the pitcher is trying to do to him, and where his timing is.  Indeed, the worst thing a batter can do for his timing is sit and look at a bunch of pitches.

Scorecard KNow, I have stolen a fantastic piece of advice from one of my fellow coaches, whom I heard in a game say to a batter, “The first two strikes are free.”  He meant that a batter shouldn’t get down on himself with a swing-and-a-miss, or a taken strike on the first two.  I’ve spun his advice a bit differently, and told my batters that, “The first two belong to you.”  Same basic idea, but I feel that if the batter feels like for the first two strikes, it is he who is in control of the at bat, not the pitcher, it puts her/him in a better mental position.  And as we know from former Mets manager Yogi Berra, “Ninety percent of the game is half-mental.”

But never in my almost 40 years of baseball did it ever occur to me that swinging and missing might actually be a good thing.  But not only does this make a sense from a baseball perspective, it is a fabulous life lesson for young players.  Whether it is developing a successful swing or successful vaccine, ultimate success is grown from a “test-adjust-test again” method.  So a swing-and-a-miss is not a failure, it is an attempt at success that, while not successful that time, can be learned from, refined, and put to better use.

Yogi always looked best in the blue and orange

Yogi always looked best in the blue and orange

I’ve put this philosophy to work already with my little guys with some really good initial success, as one of our issues in this early kid-pitch phase has been watching third strikes go by.  It’s natural in our league, for when you get to ball four, instead of a walk you get the coach to come in and pitch to you, which is a comforting and usually less difficult task.  So in practice, I developed a “foul ball” drill where you were ALWAYS batting with two strikes, and the goal was to actually foul the ball off, not to put it fair.  I did my best to throw pitches inside and outside so they’d learn to swing at anything close and how to pull the ball foul on inside pitches and slap them the other way on the outside ones.  I love to the kids about how much I LOVE foul balls, as it’s the kind of counter-intuitive reasoning that makes baseball such a fantastic teaching tool.

But, sometimes, my pitches were WAY out of the zone.  And sometimes they’d swing at those, too.  But rather than say, “Ooh…don’t swing at those,” as is my instinct, I instead said, “Great, you learned something with that swing, didn’t you?  Great job, now you know.”  I’ve taken that philosophy into the games as well, cheering for “GWs” or “Good Whiffs.”  For even on a strikeout, there was something learned for the next at bat.

Now, there’s a whiff when your swinging, and a whiff when you’re coaching.  I’ve had more than a few of those.  Next I’ll give you an example and how I took this philosophy to turn an uncomfortable conversation into a home run for teamwork.