Conquering the Curveball (Part 1 of 3)

By Dave Hudgens, New York Mets Hitting Coach

All Major League hitters can hit a fastball, but only the best have a solid plan to hit the curveball. No one can hit the great curveball – the curveball low and away, the hall of fame pitcher’s pitch. Even the best hitters don’t swing at that pitch until they get two strikes. So why then would anyone provide instruction on how to hit a pitch that no one can hit? Because even the best pitchers cannot consistently throw their off-speed pitch in a great location for a strike. Therefore, you don’t have to hit the un-hittable curveball. Your job is to be prepared and to be in a good position to hit the pitcher’s mistakes and take advantage of his weaknesses.

With all of that in mind it may surprise you to find out that the easiest pitch to hit in baseball is a hanging curveball, or an off-speed pitch up in the strike zone. This is true however only if you are in the right position to hit it. Thus the secrets to conquering the curveball are:

· Preparation & studying the pitcher’s habits

· Knowing the proper keys to hitting the off-speed pitch

· Practicing curveball drills

It is that simple. You will never be able to hit the un-hittable curveball, but don’t worry, no one can. You will however be able to hit the hittable curveball consistently if you do your homework and practice your techniques. A word of caution – if you find yourself out front, off balance, and not recognizing the pitch, you will consistently have problems with the breaking ball. Without a solid foundation, you will not have success with this pitch or any other pitch for that matter. From the viewpoint of either a parent or a coach, there are two key points you want to look for as you view your hitter:

1. If your player pushes forward, or is slightly out front, it is important that his front knee does not go over his front foot. If he is in this position, he is too far forward to hit the breaking ball. He’s lunged forward and now he’s in a poor position to hit that pitch.

2. Check to see if the hitter is consistently swinging at breaking balls out of the strike zone. Many hitters swing at pitches out of the strike zone because they have committed their weight transfer too soon. Once again, this is the reason pitchers throw off-speed pitches to begin with – their goal is to disrupt the balance of the hitter.

Preparation
The first key to mastering the curveball is for you to learn how to prepare for it. You need to have a definite battle plan, your personal curveball strategy. You need to know:

Who is pitching
What type of pitches he has
What command he has over his pitches
What command he has THAT DAY over his pitches

This preparation should start before the game even begins, depending on your situation. If you have scouting reports it is an obvious advantage. However scouting reports are not always correct. You need to see what the pitcher has that day. When you go to stretch before the game begins, position yourself in a place to where you can see the opposing pitcher warming up in the bullpen. At this point you should be thinking:

Which of his pitches you would most like to hit
Which of his pitches you want to lay off
Which angle his release point is coming from
What are his best pitches
Which pitches he can and can’t control

What is your plan – are you going to hit the ball to right-center field or left-center field?

You should remind yourself:
Never swing at a pitch you haven’t seen
If you are hitting up in the order- take a pitch
If you are hitting down in the order- watch what he is throwing previous hitters that might be like you.

Since recognizing a curveball is so difficult to do, you must get into a routine to practice it. My suggestions for your routine:

When your own pitchers are throwing in the bullpen and practicing, ask if you can stand in and see how early you can recognize the ball out of the hand.
When you are taking batting practice, have the pitcher mix in some curveballs. It is not even important if these pitches are strikes, what you are trying to do here is practice recognizing pitches.
When someone else is hitting during batting practice, stand behind the cage and work on seeing the pitcher’s release point.
Before you hit in the on deck circle, work on seeing the ball out of the pitcher’s hand. If you don’t recognize the ball until it is halfway to home plate, it is too late. It is almost like telling the pitcher to pitch from 30ft instead of 60ft.

Next: The Proper Keys to Hitting the Curveball

Dave Hudgens has been involved with the best of baseball for over 30 years. He is currently the Hitting Coach for the New York Mets. Prior to that he was a longtime hitting coach in the Oakland Athletics’ organization.

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