It's spring break around here. No games for a while. Time to get back to basics and work on the detailed mechanics of the game. My team will be doing a lot of hitting, among other things. Every player is working on something - an adjustment to make - and they know what it is. No one is perfect. They all have at least one flaw and it probably falls into the list below. Here are the top ten swing flaws I see in working with youth players.
1. Rolling the wrists too early. Despite the fact that the barrel is what makes contact with the ball, the hitter should think more about the knob of the bat. If a hitter throws the barrel at the ball with the top hand behind the handle, rather than pulling the knob through contact with the top hand under the handle, the barrel will cast up and around the ball, creating a steady flow of weak ground balls instead of line drives.
2. Lunging. Many young hitters have their legs "backwards." At the point of contact, the front leg should be straight and the back leg bent. A braced front leg keeps the upper body back behind the ball at contact (a wide stance helps). It sends energy up to the hips where it is needed. Lunging forward with a bent front knee causes a loss of energy and lowers the hands under the ball. The upper body and head drift forward and hip rotation is weak.
3. No backside rotation. After the front heel lands, the back knee should turn in to a 90 degree angle. The back heel rotates up to the sky with shoelaces facing the pitcher. If the hitter keeps the heel down, he cannot fully open his main power source, the hips. He also can't get the hands through quick enough - it's an open invitation for an inside fastball on the handle. If he pushes with the back foot rather than rotating, he will pop himself up into a tall position, creating one or both of the above flaws.
4. Barring / Sweeping. A hitter's hands should load back in order to create separation with the lower half (torque). But the hands should always remain relatively close to the body with the elbows in a relaxed position. Young hitters often want to shove the hands either back behind their body too far, or out over the plate. This creates stiff arms, or "barring" lead arm, or "sweeping." It results in a slower swing and an incorrect swing path. Remember to keep the hands close and elbows relaxed, and pull the knob quickly to the ball.
5. Chopping. The hands are up around the shoulder in the stance and the strike zone is lower. So the hands must pull down to the strike zone before leveling off, getting to a slight uppercut and finishing high. But many youth players level off ("flatten out") too late or not at all. Their swing plane is still moving downward through the ball at contact. This causes either a choppy ground ball or, more likely, a weak pop-up to the infield. Get the back elbow tucked into the body, flatten out the hands sooner and pull the knob up through contact in order to match the plane of the pitch. I think it helps to think about pulling forward at the start, rather than down.
6. Dipping / Uppercutting. Some players go the other way and have too much of an uppercut. The front shoulder tilts upward and the back shoulder drops down before the hands are pulled forward. This causes swings and misses or foul tips, as the batter drops under the ball. He may compensate by rolling his wrists before contact, which raises the barrel and creates topspin. Either way, he won't be able to drive the ball unless he keeps those shoulders level until after the hands start to come forward.
7. Pulling off the ball. In some young players, you see the head flying out before contact. In others, you will notice the front foot coming out toward 3B ("stepping in the bucket"). I tend to watch for the front shoulder to fly out early. But often, it is all three. After all the head is pretty closely connected to that front shoulder. It's first movement should be down and forward to the ball as the hands are preparing to pull. If any of those parts pull out toward 3B too early, there will often be weak contact off the end of the barrel, if contact at all. Pulling that front shoulder out can also cause the lead arm to bar, even if the hands were loaded correctly.
8. Tension. Loose muscles are quicker. Tense muscles are slower. If a hitter tries to "muscle up" and crush the ball, it will likely create a tense grip and rear elbow - often cocked high where it must travel further to be correctly tucked into the side of the body. All of this causes a longer, slower swing. The hitter may be late to the ball and get jammed. He may roll his wrists too early and try to throw the barrel at the ball. In his stance the hitter should breathe and think about being relaxed and quick to and through the ball. Relaxed hands, elbows and shoulders allow the front elbow to twitch forward and knob of the bat to be yanked through with quickness, staying inside the ball and whipping the barrel through the zone.
9. No load. This is a tricky one since many young hitters load their hands back too far. But if they don't load at all, they aren't creating any energy in the hips by separating the upper and lower halves of the body. The hands must go back before coming forward. It's like stretching a rubber band before firing it. Just don't stretch it too far, or it will break.
10. Wrapping the bat. Some players not only cock the rear elbow when loading, but they also cock the wrists and wrap the bat behind their head, pointing it at the left side of the infield. This makes for a long (and often late) swing. The barrel must first travel back up into the correct position before it can be pulled to the ball. Elbows down, hands up, bat to the sky. Keep it simple.
You may notice professional hitters on TV with a lot of moving parts. Some of them especially like to throw the bat around when loading. I tell players to keep in mind that pro hitters are exceptional athletes. They are very strong and quick, and they have had many years of practice. If you watch closely, even Kevin Youkilis gets all of his moving parts back into position when his front heel lands. I don't think a youth player could get away with a swing like that very easily. Keep it simple while you're young, and you may end up developing your own particular style as you get stronger and develop in the game. Or maybe not, and you can just do it like this.
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