Why Your Batting Practice Stinks (part 1)
I’ve said it before …
I’m an idea man.
A couple of weeks I wrote a blog about an idea for changing USA Baseball forever. No response from them as of yet. Still waiting. Probably tied up in some committee or something.
Nevertheless, the ideas just keep on flowing. Here’s one for all the hitting guys, college coaches, and recruiting coordinators.
You’re welcome in advance.
Way back in 1970, in what has become possibly the most clichéd quote in the history of the game, Ted Williams wrote, “Hitting is the most difficult thing to do in sports.” Since the moment his epic book, The Science of Hitting was published, that thought has been the accepted as an absolute by nearly everyone in baseball.
I get it.
Hitting is hard.
Everyone knows it.
But, does it have to be?
Take a step back and consider this thought:
Perhaps the way we teach, and practice hitting makes it much more difficult than it should be.
Data analytics and advances in motor learning science are shining a prison yard flood light on the way we train hitters and it is illuminating severe disconnections between truths in skill acquisition science and baseball’s traditional approach to training hitters
Let’s start with one of the most pervasive training tools in the game – the batting cage. Batting cages are practical, efficient and potentially corruptive. Yes, batting cages can be corruptive because they frequently present the illusion that a ball is crushed for an extra base hit when that is far from the truth.
According to baseballsavant.mlb.com, since Statcast began collecting data, balls batted at 100 mph exit velocities with and a 28º launch angles have generated a batting average of .705 and have led to extra-base hits 70% of the time (51% homers). The same 100 mph exit velocity launched at 5º resulted in a .647 batting average but only led to an extra-base hit 6% of the time (0 homers).
These numbers suggest a simple truth. If you can hit a ball 100 mph, you’re going to get lots of hits. Hitting it 100mph at 28º in the air will result in more damage.
Even young hitters with lower exit velocities can benefit from improved launch angles. Take a look at the results for 75 mph exit velocities at 5º (75 mph is a little below average for a high school player). According to Statcast, those hits have yielded a batting average of .324. Only 1% were doubles (no triples or homers), so one would anticipate, hitting the ball harder is always a good idea. However, even though the power numbers don’t change much, by simply elevating the same 75 mph hit to only 20º, a trajectory clears the infielders’ heads, leads to an eye-popping batting average of .978.
The advantage of 20º and 30º launch angles are clear, even when those balls exit the bat at sub-elite exit velocities.
Twenty degrees is not a fly ball! It’s a line drive over the infielders’ heads.
The reason for the increase in success is simple:
Now back to the corruptive nature of the batting cage.
Let’s say you’re hitting in the cage and you smoke a ball right past the pitcher’s ear all the way to the back of the cage. On our Rapsodo® analysis, a hit to the back of the cage shows around a 5-7º launch angle. Many coaches would be pleased with this outcome. However, Ranch Guys want more. When you hit a ball to the back of the cage, even at a high exit velocity, the best you can hope for is single. And, unless you smoke it at upwards of 100 mph, you’re probably looking at a one or two hopper to the shortstop. Good luck, and enjoy your right turn back to the dugout. The batting cage is corruptive.
Let’s say your BP pitcher is throwing from behind an L-screen positioned 30 ft in front of home plate. To achieve a 28-32º launch angle in the cage, you would need to hit the ball to the top net right behind the coach. Yes, the evidence is clear. Batting cages can be corruptive.
And don’t get me started on pre-game BP.
A few hours before each game, field crews pull out the turtle and coaches spend an hour getting 12-15 guys about 20 mindless hacks against of what I call “40-40-40 reps.” That’s a 40-year-old dude throwing 40 miles an hour from 40 feet away. The only thing that kind of “practice” might be good for is if it is intended as a pregame exhibition to get “cheeks in the seats” or as a really inefficient warm up. We’ve all seen the 5 o’clock monster that becomes a mouse when the lights go on at 7:00 pm.
Take note coaches, if that describes one of your guys, it may not be the player’s fault. Forty-Forty-Forty batting practicing is the equivalent of seeing predictable 60 -70 mph straight balls (notice I didn’t even call them fastballs) during BP. Yet, in the games, he’s facing Shane McClanahan or Brady Singer pushing 100 with nasty 90 mph changeups and wipeout sliders.
The reason 40-40-40 is so bad is that it violates a critical concept in motor learning and perception-action coupling called “representative learning design.”
To give an athlete the highest likelihood of transferring the learning from batting practice to actual high-level game performance, the design of the practice should mimic the conditions of the game as much as possible. A coach’s practice design should present a wide variety of perception experiences similar to those demanded by the conditions of the game
Researchers in motor learning have shown that variable practice is much more effective than blocked practice when actual performance involves a response to random stimuli. Therefore, blocking pitches into all fastballs, then all curveballs, etc. is not good representative design (1).
One of the problems in creating an optimal representative design in batting practice is that none of the coaches I know (myself included) can throw hard enough or long enough from actual game distances to get anywhere near simulating what hitters will see in a game.
Also, Pitching machines manufacturers have tried to bridge this gap. A The Florida Baseball Ranch®, we recently procured a Sports Tudor® Home Plate pitching machine that we can program to perform any sequence of random pitches. We’re excited about it, but it’s still not optimal. When hitters face actual pitchers they begin collecting information to organize the appropriate swing as soon as the pitcher starts moving. Hitters search for thousands of tiny visual cues in the pitcher’s movement. They combine those cues with ball flight information to organize a swing that will coincide with the anticipated arrival of the pitch. They actually start their swing before ball release. When facing pitching machines, hitters must base their swing movements solely on ball flight information. In a 2007 study by Renshaw, et al researchers noted significant changes in the swing mechanics of cricket batsmen when facing a bowling machine instead of an actual bowler. Pitching machines are great for simulating game-like ball flight characteristics, but if used too frequently, the absence of information from the movement of a pitcher can lead to training corruption that negatively impacts performance.
Batting Cages – corruptive
Pitching machines – corruptive
40-year-old dudes throwing 40 mph – corruptive.
Not enough arms to throw live from 60’6” all the time.
Conclusion: Batting practice as we know it today is corruptive and it is creating hitters who can’t adjust to game time variability.
Still, it would be disingenuous to present a problem without offering a solution, so here it is and it has everything to do with opportunity.
NCAA Divison 1 programs are allowed 11.5 baseball scholarships and division 2 programs get 9 to spread across a 35-man roster. Obviously, that’s not enough to cover everyone. To make ends meet, most quality programs have access to additional funds. Besides academic and athletic scholarship money, many schools have endowments that provide extra scholarships for baseball players as well as other athletes. Coaches often refer to this as “funny money”. If I were a college coach I would put that money to use in a unique manner.
Get ready coaches because the idea man is about to drop a nuclear brilliance bomb squarely on your recruiting coordinator’s overstressed desk in part 2 of this blog which will be revealed tomorrow.
Randy Sullivan, MPT, CSCS
CEO, The Florida Baseball Ranch
- Renshaw I, Davids K, & Savelsburgh E. (2010) Motor Learning In Practice: A Constraints-Led Approach. Routledge, New York, NY.
- McMorris, T. (2014) Acquisition and Performance of Sports Skills. Wiley Blackwell, Chichester, UK.