Batting Tips from Mike Epstein (Ancaster Little League)

PrintBatting Tips from Mike Epstein

Written by Mike Epstein

Body Torque Position

Of the 2200 players I have had the opportunity of teaching over the past 17-18 years, few -- if any -- have ever used their lower bodies correctly. This is amazing when one considers that the legs and arms are the biggest and strongest muscles in our bodies. Getting to the proper torque position is essential to utilizing these muscles and hitting to the player's potential. Because the torque position uniquely sets up a "rubber band" effect within the body. Here's how.

In the "take away," as the upper body starts rearward, the front shoulder comes down and in somewhat. What is important here is the hands, arms, and upper body go back as a "unit," keeping the elbows "soft." Watch out for the player who separates his hands from his body, straightening his lead arm. If a player does this, his initial move to the ball will be away from his body. Also watch for the player who wants to "cock" his bottom wrist, which puts the barrel of the bat over (and sometimes past) his head, creating a long swing.

Now, as the player is "counter-rotating" on top, his lower half is beginning to open in the stride. This happens a fraction later than the top-side rotation. The stride foot should be at a minimum 45 degree angle, open enough so the hips can come through (I recommend a very short stride). He should land on his TOES, because when he drops his heel, the swing is then triggered. The swing doesn't take place until AFTER the front heel plants! When it does plant, the player is then in the the proper torque position (top half going back, lower half coming forward), although maybe in miliseconds. Remember, at this point -- the heel dropping -- the legs burst forward, initiating their rotational path. BUT, the hands are STILL GOING BACKWARD! The big muscles (legs) 
then yank the small muscles (hands and arms) forward, maximizing bat quickness, velocity, and power. It is for this reason why we are sometimes baffled by some players who are not very big, but generate tremendous power ("Effortless power versus powerless effort"). They get their legs working correctly in the swing. I read a report that up until a few years ago, 42 of the top 50 home run hitters in ML history weighed less than 190 lbs.!

FYI, I call the counter-rotational move, "winding the rubber band." Players really take to it -- they understand the concept. If you think of hitting as a "fly rod" effect, I think you can get the picture a bit easier. When the fly runs out of line and gets yanked forward in the cast, it is akin to the front heel planting and yanking the hands forward. This is shown clearly on my videotape.

But also remember, that to teach this effectively, the player must re-gain the balance position in the stride, because without proper preparation (balance), the dynamic sequencing of the torque goes for naught; it is virtually impossible to rotate the hips optimally using only "one" leg. Proper rotation requires both legs balanced to ensure maximum rotational velocity.

Another thing to remember when teaching this. Thinner players can stretch their midsections more than thicker players. Fact of life. It's why Griffey, Jr's torque "angle" is 40 degrees and McGwire's is little more than half that. BUT, the thicker player many times makes up for the 
lesser torque angle with greater strength. Things seem to balance out in the long run. But the productive ones all get to the torque position! The point here (sorry, got a little sidetracked) is a player can only go so far counter-rotating on top as his lower half opens -- his body structure will limit it. So, when working with a player, make sure he doesn't go back too far on top and lose his ability to see the pitch with both eyes! To me, counter-rotating is for rhythm and winding the rubber band, without either we would really struggle as hitters.

Hope this helps. After all these years of teaching, I have become partial to certain idiosyncrasies and tenets of the swing. I seem to base what I teach on not as much "theory" as "what seems to work" -- can I teach it? My job is to get hitters to hit their potential -- to get them to the next level. Good mechanics play a large part in this development process.



Weathervaning

"Weathervaning" is a term I use to describe the process of "putting the plane of the swing on the plane of the pitch." You see, I believe good hitting mechanics allow the hitter to make instinctive, rapid-fire, on-the-fly adjustments to an incoming pitch. It is why I say the perfect swing is the adjustment you make to the pitch you get.

When the hitter is able to match the plane of his swing to the plane of the pitch, his lead elbow works in an approximate 6" slot: if the pitch is perceived as "down," the lead elbow works up in the slot. If the pitch is perceived as up, the lead elbow makes the adjustment and works down. The weathervaning of the lead elbow allows this to happen. The proper swing allows for dynamic adjustment.

When players are taught to swing "one way," for example "down," it takes away from their ability to work on the same plane as the pitch. If a pitch is perceived as "down" and the player has been taught to swing down, the only thing he can do is hit the ball in the ground. Why are pitchers taught to throw in a "downhill plane?" Simple, it's much tougher for the hitter to lift the ball and do some real damage. It's why Williams correctly says "history is made on the inside half of the plate." Because to hit the ball on the inside half of the plate, the hitter must hit the pitch OUT IN FRONT of the lead knee -- where the slight upslope of the swing occurs. Even if the pitch is down, the lead elbow -- if taught correctly -- will make the adjustment and work up, putting the bat in perfect alignment with the ball.

Another reason for the weathervaning lead elbow is to maximize the contact area. If a player can't do this and his movement is linear, producing a downward plane to his swing, he has only one chance to hit the ball as the planes of the swing and pitch converge. This small area of a few inches leaves litle room for timing error. Contrast this to the previous example of weathervaning which produces a contact area of approximately 30" or more! For me, it's a no-brainer.

Further, if a hitter matches the plane of the swing to the plane of the pitch, and he's a little late, he'll hit the bottom-half of the ball, producing BACKSPIN, very desirable on balls hit in the air. If he's a little early, OVERSPIN, exactly what you'd want on balls hit on the ground. Ground balls with overspin pick up momentum as they travel, producing "bad hops" and getting by infielders too quickly. The best of all worlds!

Hitters can be taught to make this mechanical adjustment. However, the player's inherent ability will dictate its consistency. My feeling is most players in the ML do this; the true superstars just do it more consistently -- because they can.

As for your girls, you don't mention their ages, some I'll convey some thoughts. Most young players under 13 generally lack the motor coordination to learn this type mechanics they will need to get to the "next level." However, as in all cases, there are exceptions. I have had younger players progress rather nicely. But they are exceptions. Eric Chavez, the young Oakland third baseman, played on three world championship amateur teams for me. When he was 12, he had the motor coordination and eye-hand coordination of someone much older. However, these are few and far between.

However, the drills I use which are in my videotape, can be used to teach weathervaning. This can be accomplished with a Tee or another piece of equipment. One I have had much success with, the Swingaway. You see, the hitter has to "learn" to hit in these areas. By having him/her swing at pitches "up," he/she will -- through repetition -- learn to get his/her hands on top, therefore levelling out the swing on the high pitch. As the hands raise to get on top, the shoulders level off, and the lead elbow will work towards the lower end of the "slot." You may even see the rear foot drag a little. Place the ball around the armpits to increase the hitter's tolerance to this area. For the low pitch, place the ball at the knees -- no higher. As he/she swings, watch for back shoulder dipping and the back elbow tucking in. As it does, it "allows" the lead elbow to work up. The head may also shade back an inch or two. The hitter should be directly over the rear knee, thigh perpendicular to the ground.

These should be done initially with my Torque Drill. As proficiency builds, graduate to my Numbers Drill. By the time the hitter has demonstrated proficiency with both, their full swing should mirror what they were doing in the drills. By "teaching" the body to understand the positions it has to be in to hit these pitches, when the time comes to react, the body will already know what to do! Nothing magical here. By the way, my experience is it takes a player 1500 reps to "de-learn" and "re-learn." Patience is key.



Staying Inside the Ball

I agree that way too many times instructors tell hitters to "stay inside the ball" or "hit the inside-half of the ball" but never show the player how to do it -- nor explain why it is so important. I make mention all the time that Edgar Martinez stays "inside the ball" better than any hitter I seen in years. A great hitter, for sure.

One of the best ways to elaborate on this is to tell a short story. I had the good pleasure of meeting Harry Heilmann, a Hall of Famer who batted over .400 twice in the '20s with the Detroit Tigers. I asked him if he was always a "great" hitter. He thought about it for a short time, then he said, "I was always a pretty good hitter, Mike, could always hit from my earliest days." I asked him if he could define the time when he became a "great" hitter. His response really got my attention. He said he became a great hitter when he learned how to hit the fast ball on the inside corner right back at the pitcher with two strikes. He then had the confidence that nobody could throw the ball by him inside.

Today, we have more "modern" ways and terms to describe what he was saying. Because when you analyze this, the ONLY way you can hit the inside fast ball back at the pitcher is by clearing your hips before your hands come into play. The hands rotate around the hitter, exposing the fat part of the bat to ball at a 90 degree angle. The linear hitter would find this very difficult to do. (I have a great diagram to show you guys, but don't know how to post it here. Can someone enlighten me?)

So Harry Heilmann was really telling me the benefits of staying inside the ball.

Now your really good hitters that do this have the best of all possible worlds. On the pitch middle-half in, the balls they hit stay fair -- don't hook very much. A few years ago Bruce Bochy, San Diego's manager, said Steve Finley "forgot" how to hit. Everything he swung at -- even pitches on the outer two-thirds of the plate, he pulled foul. When you watched him, as he strode, he hands and arms separated from his body, "barring" his lead arm (I call this "pre-extending"). By so doing, he couldn't stay inside the ball -- he casted and hit around it. I know from experience: it doesn't take long for word to get around in the ML. Pitchers started him off with FBs inside which he pulled foul. Now with the count 0-2 and having his bat "sped up" by inside FBs, he was easy prey for anything away. San Diego let him go to Arizona, where he corrected this flaw in his swing, and had a great year.

The "inside-out" hitter keeps his bat as close to 90 degrees to the pitch as humanly possible. 15 degrees either side is ok, too. Once a hitter gets to 30 degrees, he's on thin ice. If the pitch is away, the inside-out hitter will let the ball get deep -- once again trying to stay within the 30 degree contact parameter and hit his line drive the other way. The angle of his bat is set up perfectly. Ever wonder why hitters don't have as much power going the other way? Their length of stroke is too short, momentum is not able to build up enough before contact. It's why my mentor, Ted Williams, always said "history is on the inside half of the plate." Because to hit a pitch middle-in, you've got to hit the pitch in FRONT of your lead knee, your swing's momentum is near maximum, and you're contacting the pitch on the swing's slight upslope (assuming the pitch is not at the hitters letters or above). He reasoned that history isn't made with ground balls. I've asked countless hitters if they make -- or if they made more outs on fly balls or ground balls in their careers. They answer unhesitatingly: ground balls!

So, staying inside the ball makes a lot of sense. In my videotape, I show a fence drill which departs from the "fence drill" commonly used. It's more radical, but when you're instructing players, they're asking for help because they are far from where they need to be. We have to ask their bodies to do some things 180 degrees from what they are currently doing. Their bat heads will find the ball; they've got to learn to trust their hands in this regard. If we put the player a bat's length from the fence and ask him not to hit it, it's not too tough. To make the changes, it's got to be tough on him/her -- it's got to feel really different -- or the body will cling to the old muscle memory.

Of course, another benefit keeping your hands inside is my figure skating example. Nothing will slow bat speed faster than hands going away from a rotating body. It's like putting a parachute on your bat!

But this forum isn't only about mechanics. It's about teaching and learning how to articulate information so that a player can internalize it and use it to their advantage. All the product knowledge in the world doesn't do much good if others can't benefit through its use and application.

Is it tough to teach. Not really. A good instructor explains "why" with good examples like the figure skater above, then makes the player assume positions enhancing the correct movements. Hitters need things kept SIMPLE -- they can only concentrate on one thing at a time!



Lunging

Lunging will dissipate bat speed and power in the swing as fast as anything I know of! Just this afternoon I had a lesson with a player who told me, under questioning, what his coach was telling him. He told me he wanted his players to swing level to down and keep their weight back. Okay, here's where the problems and confusion set in with hitters. Ever try to stay BACK and swing DOWN at the same time? Try it. So, hitters today are confused because their bodies are being torn in opposite directions.

Today, once again, lunging is considered a bad word. Staying back is the buzzword. Yet the same coaches who teach staying back also teach level shoulders, keep the barrel of the bat above the hands, keep the rear shoulder up, etc. I don't say this is right or wrong, as everyone is entitled to their opinion. But lunging, in my opinion, is not where a hitter's potential lies.

Okay, then, how do I stop it? When a player's front heel drops to initiate his/her swing, the rear shoulder must dip (assuming, of course, the pitch isn't shoulder-high). I tell students it's like having a rope tied from their front heel to their back shoulder. When the heel drops, it "pulls" the back shoulder down. When this happens, the player's weight stabilizes on the inside of the REAR thigh. This is where it should be. As this is occurring, the lead elbow begins to work "up and away." Go ahead and try it. You can even put most of your weight over the front leg in the stride, but once your heel drops, back shoulder begins to dip, and front elbow works up, your weight automatically settles to the back thigh!

Hitters lunge because they can. Now try swinging with level shoulders, lead elbow down, and swinging down. Where does your weight go? Right to the inside of your FRONT thigh. This next statement is not said immodestly, but one can correct the lunge in five minutes or less just watching for the elements mentioned above. If players are lunging, it's because they can. They are linear hitters and geared for coming on to the front side. One can't have their cake and eat it, too.

Another thing to watch for is the front knee. If it stays "soft" at contact, i.e, not firm, the player can bleed through the blocking point easily, manifesting the lunging movement. One must remember that when the front foot plants, it blocks the front side and the linear movement initiated in the stride. Body momentum at this point revolves around the axis, precluding lunging. Much like the tether ball example I use in my videotape.

I have been correcting this hitting defect for many years. As a rule, with good, common-sense hitting mechanics, it NEVER shows up -- because it can't!

Anyway, hope this helps. Passing on good instruction information is how we get players to the next level.

Mike's Tips

How do I make adjustments to the "tough" pitcher? 

Tough pitchers can be defined in two ways. 1) The pitcher who is just a top drawer pitcher, able to consistently throw strikes to all four corners of the strike zone and is also able to throw "against the 
count." By this I mean when the hitter is ahead 1-0, 2-0, 2-1, 3-0, 3-1, the pitcher is able to keep the hitter off guard by throwing off-speed pitches in fast ball counts. 2) Any pitcher who is just "on" that day and making consistently good pitches. When you run up against pitchers like these, you've to make some concessions and adjustments!

When this happens, the hitter must realize that looking for that "perfect" pitch may be pretty elusive. He's "on" and throwing tough pitches right and left -- not "giving in" to the hitter in "predictable" situations. I tell hitters NOT to look for the perfect pitch, but to open up their strike zones and put the ball in play. Too many times I see hitters taking strikes early in the count and allowing the pitcher to get two strikes on him. When a pitcher is "on" his game like that, he usually winds up putting the hitter away. I know when I played, those good pitchers were "good" because they consistently made good pitches. Getting behind in the count against Nolan Ryan by taking strikes was practically suicidal. If he got two strikes on you, look out! You've got to give in a little. You've got to adjust. Why make that tough pitcher, tougher? 

Now against pitchers not on their game that day -- not making those tough pitches -- you can take some more liberties and look for your pitch. Because you know that he doesn't have the stuff that day to "put you away." You can be more selective! And you must take advantage of this.

When I was playing for the Oakland A's, we had a good-hitting catcher that absolutely could not hit Nolan Ryan. When Ryan threw his glove out on the mound, he was certain to go 0-4 with three called punch-outs. He talked to anyone and everyone about how he could gain more time. The more people he talked to, the more confused he became (sound familiar?). Nothing seemed to work. Frustration set in. He tried shortening up, bunting for a base hit, moving back in the box, everything. You name it, he tried it. Then one afternoon at the hotel in Anaheim, before facing Ryan, I talked to him about "hitting zones" and their demotion (or promotion) to accommodate certain-type pitchers. Basically, it was "don't let him get ahead of you taking pitches. If it's around the plate, put it in play, but don't let him get to two strikes on you." Point to remember: good pitchers are just that---good. When they get two strikes on you, they have the ability to put good hitters away. Anyway, for some reason, it clicked. This made sense to him. He went 2-2 off Ryan that night with two walks and two line drive doubles. He changed absolutely nothing mechanically; He just took advantage of some good information.

The majority of hitters hate to hit with two strikes. To be an effective hitter with two strikes, the hitter must adjust to that particular count situation. Effective two-strike hitting implies the confidence which comes from knowing your capabilities and being able to adjust intelligently.

"How can I improve my bat "speed" and "quickness" to the ball?"

Like Ted Williams, I have found that hip rotation, coupled with the proper torque position, is the true root of batting speed and power. The hips MUST lead the hands for consistent productive hitting. However, to acquire good hip rotation the hitter must learn to use both his legs and weight properly. Proper execution demands good preliminary positioning which will allow the player to do so. A player can definitely improve his bat speed and bat quickness! The torque position is critical to maximizing bat speed and quickness to the ball.

You may have heard the popular saying that "pitching and hitting are almost identical." Many say it, few actually know why. If you look at the three hitters below (l-r: Willie Mays, Dale Murphy, and Stan Musial) at the torque position, you see that their shoulders are back and their hips are open. Looking at the three pitchers below ("El Duque" Hernandez, Kevin Brown, Roger Clemens) at their launch positions, one sees the same body positioning as the hitters: closed shoulders and open hips. This puts their bodies in position for the big muscles in their bodies (legs) to pull the small muscles (hands and arms) through. This "slingshot" effect is crucial to speed and quickness as each relates to hitting and pitching. Note also the perfect balance of all six! To maximize the rotational velocity of their hips around the axis, they must be balanced! 

So, if you want to maximize your bat quickness, bat velocity, and power, the player should be in the correct torque position at launch. If he isn't getting there correctly --- and on time --- he is far from reaching his potential!

Why would a player not want to pattern his mechanics utilizing the torque position? Because in many cases it's easier to teach "back knee to the ball," "hit against a stiff front leg," and "hands to the ball" hitting mechanics. All "buzzwords," and much easier to learn. Unfortunately, as its followers (amateurs and minor leaguers) climb the baseball ladder, they may very well have wished they worked harder and followed logic, because while the aforementioned swings are easy to learn, without getting to the proper torque position, they're much harder to hit with. The swing is no more difficult to learn than any other physical movement. It's merely good information, good instruction, and lots of practice.



"Why can't I hit as well with a wood bat as I can with an aluminum one?

As Ted Williams says, "It ain't the arrow, it's the Indian." But the aluminum has gone a long way toward undermining this hitting truism!

With an aluminum bat, the player doesn't have to be mechanically-correct due to its high resiliency. The bat will "cure" any mechanical flaw. Think of it as an "Uzi" machine gun. If you keep your finger on the trigger, sooner or later you're going to do some damage. A hitter who gets "jammed" is still a threat to hit it of the park! Be aggressive and don't take close pitches.

But with the wood bat, there is no room for error! Jammed? Maybe a flare for a hit, but most times a weak ground ball or soft pop up. With a wood bat a hitter has to have good mechanics --- he has to be "right on" with every swing to be effective. Think of the wood bat as a single-shot rifle. You've got one shot to do your damage. You must be selective and look for a pitch you can drive.

If you want to hit more productively, you've got to learn mechanics which utilize your entire body, not only your hands and arms. You can go from wood-bat mechanics to aluminum-bat mechanics and INCREASE your productivity, BUT, taking aluminum-bat mechanics to wood bats has kept many good players from reaching their potentials. The choice is always yours.

Unfortunately for the player, few have ever taught lower-body mechanics effectively. Today, with modern frame-by-frame video cameras, we are better able to see and isolate the correct swing sequences in a way that makes sense to the player. In short, modern technology has shortened a player's learning curve considerably. Ted Williams used to tell me that if he saw something another hitter did, which he liked, he experimented with it. If it worked, he would use it. If not, he would discard it. This trial-by-error philosophy took time. Lots of time. In Williams' day, players played in the minor leagues 6-8-10 years before they perfected their hitting and got the call-up. Try this, try that. Try this, try that. Today, everyone wants "instant success." No one wants to wait. And professional baseball accommodates this trend by regularly promoting players from Double AA to the big leagues. This was unheard of only a few short years ago.

My hitting program gives today's players exactly what they want. A proven way to hit, quickly and easily. Right here. Right now. Today, we can put Ted's mechanics (or Ruth's or Griffey's or Bonds' or Sosa's) on the screen for dissection, and teach from there. We can stop the swing at any point for visual interpretation. "Are you doing it this way?" If not, "Let's see how 'close' we can get you to him." After all, if you're a business executive, you wouldn't want to pattern yourself after someone who bankrupted three other companies, would you? The player has confidence in what he is being taught, because all the productive hitting greats, both yesterday and today, have used them or currently use them. Confidence is the operative word here.
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Printed from ancasterbaseball.ca on Saturday, April 19, 2014 at 12:18 AM