January 29, 2013
Out of Left Field
Teaching Myself to Hit
[Disclaimer: This article may give the impression that I’m passing myself off as an expert on hitting. If I’m the hitting expert, it’s only by default as there is nobody else in this article. If this were called Teaching Myself And A Rabid Hyena To Hit then the hyena, despite its medical issues, would be the expert.]
I love baseball. Maybe that’s obvious, since I write about it all the time (Seriously, dude, like, get another topic!), but I don’t just love it as a writing subject. I love playing it, too. I’ve been fortunate enough to play baseball almost straight through my life, from Little League to high school, a smidge in college, and up to last year in an adult league here in Portland, Oregon. There were breaks for the normal things in life, like marriage, having children, that cannibalism phase everyone seems to go through*, and work, but most of my life I’ve been on a baseball team. During most of that time I’ve never been able to hit.
*Cannibalism: it’s just not worth it, kids. The more you know…
My senior season in high school my team had a hit-a-thon to raise money for some local charity. The idea was that people would pledge money by the foot for the longest ball you could hit in 20 swings. An 18-year-old high school senior with a coach lobbing the ball up there, I should have been able to hit it pretty far. Nope. I hit the ball 200 feet. That’s a pop up to the outfield. The outfielder is going to have to trot in to get it. That was my farthest by about 200 feet, too.
That was 100 words I like to call Matt Can’t Hit. All through high school I couldn’t hit. The number of hits I got in my four years could have been counted on my fingers had I been through several industrial accidents.
Flash forward a decade. There was a batting cage a few miles from my office. Instead of using my lunch hour for something traditional, like eating, I decided I would teach myself to hit.
Lesson 1: Don’t Fear The Ball
Part of my fear of pitched baseballs was fear of pain, but maybe more of it was fear of the unknown. I couldn’t solve the first part but I could take a stab at the second. I went into the slow cage and, like something out of an Adam Sandler movie, stood on top of the plate. The pitch came and hit me in the stomach. It hurt. The next one hit me in the thigh. That one hurt too. That was enough to teach me that getting hit with a ball isn’t fun, but my fear was out of proportion to the pain it caused.
Lesson 2: Make Contact
As a hitter, if you can discern the correct plane of the pitch (we’re just talking fastballs now) then the longer your bat stays in the zone the higher your chances are of making contact. If your swing has an upper-cut to it, then it won’t be in the zone for very long and the chances of contacting the ball drop. Staying in the zone longer means weaker contact, but you don’t have to supply much of the power to line a single to center with most fastballs. As long as the barrel hits the ball, the pitcher's effort can be borrowed for your benefit.
Lesson 3: Hit The Fastball
Lesson 4: Practice Hitting Off-Speed Pitches
Since most pitching machines don’t throw off-speed pitches, the ones you see often come in game situations, and that makes them extra difficult. The way I practiced was using the pitching machines at the cages and moving around in the batter’s box. To simulate a fastball followed by a change-up, stand three feet in front of the plate (i.e. shorten the distance between the pitching machine and you). Hit that pitch, and then before the next one comes, move a few feet behind the batter’s box. Practicing that forced me to keep my weight centered and my hands back and react to the pitch rather than falling back on timing the ball.
There’s more to it at the major-league level, but in a wooden bat adult league, pitchers fool hitters with off-speed pitches because the hitter is trying to time the pitch. Watch two fastballs go by and you expect the third pitch to arrive at the same time as the first two. When it doesn’t your swing is early or late and you miss. Avoiding this pitfall requires immense concentration and body control. It’s almost like you have to re-teach yourself to hit before each pitch, because it’s very easy to start subconsciously timing the ball.
1. Hitting is hard.
2. Hitting for power is really hard. I can’t do it. I didn’t even try to do it.
3. Hitting for average and power is impossible. Anyone who can do it is a cyborg.
4. Hitting off-speed pitches at all requires amazing concentration, and body control, neither of which I possess.
5. Cannibalism is bad. Don’t do it, kids!
6. Hitting is really hard.