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Friday, December 18, 2009

Evaluating Batting Practice

David Rawnsley        

During the course of working Perfect Game Showcases I probably evaluate approximately 2,000 individual batting practices per year. By “evaluate” I mean taking notes on hitting mechanics, bat speed, projection and overall hitting ability, then assigning dual “hitting/power” numbers to that player.

At the World Underclass Showcase in late December we evaluate about 500 hitters over a 2-day period, which I consider one of the more taxing jobs I’ve ever undertaken in 20+ years of scouting. That event is coming up quickly and that got me thinking hard about batting practice.

The batting practice evaluation is a very important part of the overall evaluation at a showcase. You might wonder how 10 swings can show so much but it’s really pretty fundamental. A player will show all the bat speed, hitting fundamentals and athletic balance that an evaluator needs to see in those 10 swings. It’s very rare to see a player go rake in game action, then look at his BP notes and find that you don’t have a good grade on him. If anything, the reverse is much more common; a player will look overmatched in a game but he showed strong bat speed and hitting ability in BP.

Following are some observations taken during all those thousands of batting practice evaluations.

Practice Your Game Swing

If you are the type of hitter who can rationalize with a clear mind that “I’m a different hitter in games than I am in BP”, then you have a problem as a hitter. Your swing in BP should be what you use in a game, that’s why it’s called “practice”. You are practicing for what you do in a game.

Probably the most important thing, to paraphrase, “practicing what you preach” is to have a realistic idea of what type of game hitter you are. If you’re a 5-10, 160 lb slender middle infielder who works the ball around the field during games and hasn’t hit a home run since Little League, it’s pretty worthless to be up swinging from your heals trying to pull/lift the ball during BP. Know who you are before you step to the plate and practice getting better at it.

We see a number of hitters who become “Keyhole” hitters in BP. While some BP pitchers will occasionally struggle throwing strikes, the vast majority at this level (i.e. PG showcases) throw 80% hittable strikes and some are closer to 95%. If you take 10 pitches during a BP session, that means you are looking for pitches in only one narrow area. That’s not a realistic game approach and you’ll be downgraded for key holing.

There Is No “Right” Way to Swing

Just as Tiger Woods and Jim Furyk don’t swing the golf club the same and Randy Johnson and Greg Maddox don’t throw a baseball the same, good hitters don’t all share the same baseball swings. Any hitting coach who teaches all his players to do the same thing is being intellectually dishonest….or maybe just overly simplistic.

We see this sometimes with teams. All the hitters will have the same approach regardless of their individual strengths and skills. I hate when I see this. There is a former scouting director (a successful and experienced one, I should add) who refused to pick hitters in the top few rounds for a few years in the late 90’s because his team’s hitting coach was so militant about teaching hitters “his” hitting approach. This scouting director told me “I don’t want to be responsible for ruining these kid’s chances.”

Still, there are some things that are fundamental to a good baseball swing and they stand out right away during the 10 batting practice swings.

Here are some areas that I focus in on during batting practice.


The key is to be balanced and in a consistent position to start your swing.

First, I refuse to believe that teenage hitters can hit from a still start. We often see hitters who have what I call the “pre-load” approach at the plate that has clearly been coached. You have to have some sort of rhythm and looseness when you start into your swing instead of a robotic pre-determined starting point.

In fact, “Rhythm” is one of most common words I use in my BP notes. Good hitters who project to get better have it. They move in a balanced and easy way through the ball. Lesser hitters don’t. And it’s one of those things that can’t be easily taught, either.

We see a number of stances that I describe as “spread, no stride.” Albert Pujols hits from this approach. He’s also about 6-3, 230 lbs and ungodly strong. Jeff Bagwell hit from an even more exaggerated similar approach, but was just as strong as Pujols. Unfortunately, many of the hitter’s I see at this level with the same approach are 16 years old and closer to 5-10, 150 lbs. In order to get the bat going they have to lean their upper bodies back and twist their bodies rotationally to generate bat speed. This creates length to the swing and poor direction through the ball.

It is very common these days to see open stances that a hitter closes up as part of his timing and stride into the pitch. I have no problem with that as long as the hitter truly closes up directly towards the pitcher. Staying open leaves you vulnerable to the outside half of the plate. Getting over closed impacts your ability to cover the inside half and to extend your swing. You have to get squared and starting too open throws in variables that detract from the hitter’s ability.

Hand position is vitally important to a successful swing. That means both proper hand position and consistent hand position. Lots of hitters have some sort of hand hitch to start their swing. That works if you are strong enough and have good enough timing to repeat the hitch and get your hands in proper position to hit. That doesn’t happen often at this level. I often think of Gary Sheffield’s swing and use it as an extreme example. Sheffield will move his hands and body all over the place during the pitcher’s wind up but when he starts his swing, his bat and hands are always in the same position. Always. Young hitters need to appreciate this.

One more thing that often happens with young hitters. And if it happens in BP it’s going to happen in games. That is getting that front foot down late. If your front foot is late, your swing is going to be late. So whatever your front side timing is, be sure that your front foot is getting down in time. Otherwise it isn’t a timing device at all, it’s a “destroy your timing” device.

Hand position, balance, rhythm/timing, direction, consistency. That’s the start of a good swing.

The Swing Itself

Bat speed and hand strength are pretty easy to distinguish right away and are pretty self-explanatory in an evaluation. You can have the prettiest, most balanced swing in the world and if you don’t have bat speed and hand strength, you are going to increasingly struggle as the pitchers get better.

A note to those looking to get stronger, which should mean everyone at this level. The most important area to increase your strength is from your finger tips to your elbows. Those are the hitting muscles. Your core is important and it’s nice to have upper body strength, but it all starts at the end of your arms.

After bat speed, the first thing that stands out about a hitter’s swing is its length. The longer the path that your hands and the barrel of the bat take to the contact point, the more difficult it will be to square up the ball as pitchers get better.

Swing length to the ball needs to be as short and quick as possible. To some hitters this comes naturally, others have to work hard at it. Sometimes it is most difficult for bigger athletes who have longer levers. When you see a 6-3 hitter who is short and crisp to the ball, it really gets your attention.

A sweeping swing is a synonym for an aluminum bat swing. A sweeping swing combines length to the ball with little hand use at the point of contact. You can get away with that with an aluminum bat, you can’t with wood. I sometimes cringe when I hear coaches say “Take your hands to the ball.” I immediately think aluminum swing. With a proper swing and with a wood bat, you have to take the barrel to the ball, not your hands. Unless you want stinging hands and a broken bat.

I really key in on extension out front when looking at a hitter’s swing in batting practice. Good loose extension out front tells me two things. First is that the hitter is still accelerating the barrel through the ball at the point of contact. A swing that gets cut off right after contact is not hitting through the ball. Secondly, power hitters get loose extension out front and I love hitters who can drive the ball.

Swing plane is an important factor in evaluating a swing as well. Most times people will automatically “upper cut” when you talk swing plane but I see just as many hitters swinging down on the ball. Both cut down one’s chances of making solid contact. The longer the barrel of the bat is on plane with the pitch, the better chance one has of squaring up on the ball. Line drives are a very good thing.

Bat speed, hand strength, short swing, extension through the ball. Good things will happen.

Batting Practice Performance

To tell you the truth, I really don’t see where most balls hit during batting practice land. I know by whether the ball is squared up and the sound of the contact and the angle it comes off the bat where it’s approximately going. The details really don’t matter.

That being said, simply squaring up the ball is very important. If a hitter is showing good swing mechanics and isn’t squaring up a good BP pitcher, it raises questions in the evaluators mind. How the ball comes off the bat tells me a lot, but if the hitter isn’t squaring up much, I don’t have as much to work with.

Where in the 10 pitch BP cycle a hitter makes best contact is also important. If a hitter uses his first six swings getting jammed and trying to get his timing together, then finally squares up a few balls, that’s not a good thing. You don’t get extra practice swings against live pitching. A good hitter, and especially one who takes lots of batting practice, should be squaring up the ball from the first pitch.

If you’re going to be down in Fort Myers either in late December or early January, I look forward to seeing you hit!

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