Proper Thinking

By Mike Epstein

In two-strike hitting situations, “proper” thinking helps the hitter to get to all his hitting zones and “time” every pitch. The hitter has to prepare himself for every speed pitch in the pitcher’s arsenal that day. That’s why it is a good idea to see as many pitches as possible from that pitcher (make the pitcher pitch!). The best way I know of is to mentally prepare for the “in-between” velocities of the pitcher you’re facing. By this I mean, if the pitcher has three pitches, one 70 mph, one 80 mph, and one 90 mph, the hitter must prepare for the mid-speed (80 mph) pitch. If he only has two, say an 85 mph fast ball and a 75 mph slider, you’d gear up your pre-swing for the 80 mph velocity. By doing this, the hitter gives himself a “chance” to catch up to the faster speed pitch, yet still be able to stay back and put the off speed pitch in play. Gearing up for one of the extreme velocities would put the hitter at a grave disadvantage: too late on fastballs and too early on off speed pitches. With two strikes, “proper” thinking prevails.

Ted Williams told me that when the slider became popular, around 1950, that it was the hardest pitch for him to hit. From his earliest days, he felt no pitcher could throw a fastball by him, so he would “lay” for that pitch on every pitch because it was a mid-velocity pitch. I didn’t fall into that category! (and neither do the majority of hitters). Having ability like that will reduce anyone’s strikeout potential, but the point to be made here is that the average hitter can compensate for this by preparing for the mid-velocity pitch with two strikes.

Reaching Potential Demands Good Two-Strike Execution
To me, the quality of a hitter’s technique lies in the superiority of his two-strike execution. By executing efficiently, he will bring a newfound confidence to his game. Once Harry Heilmann learned how to inside-out the two strike fast ball on the inside corner, and hit it back through the “box,” he KNEW there wasn’t a pitcher alive who could throw a fast ball by him. Likewise, when Ted Williams realized that he could “look” for the slider (mid-speed pitch) and STILL hit the cheese, he knew he was “on” to something. Statistics bore them out. ANYTIME a hitter can “forget about” a pitcher’s fastball, the confidence this brings him is overwhelming. This is what we call being “comfortable” at the plate against certain pitchers.

Being “comfortable” leads to “confidence,” and having “confidence” with two strikes is the name of the game for the hitter. The fastball “sets up” EVERY pitch in a pitcher’s repertoire. And when a hitter doesn’t have to worry about the fast ball—because he can catch up to it even when he isn’t “looking” for it—he should rarely be fooled. Now, the hitter can “sit” on his pitch, and be more selective—even with two strikes! Hitters with little (or no) confidence normally fear getting to two-strike situations, and almost always open up their hitting zones prematurely to guard against it. The rule of thumb is when a hitter is ahead in the count, his strike zone should shrink; he can look for a “certain” pitch. When he is behind in the count, his strike zone should expand; he can’t be selective. The hitter with poor two-strike execution invariably lacks the confidence to get to two strikes. In essence, he is “always” hitting when he is behind in the count. Few have had success hitting this way. These hitters will swing at borderline pitches because they lack the self-confidence to hit effectively with two-strikes. And by so doing, their batting averages and overall production radically tail off. Reaching potential demands first-rate, two-strike execution.

Don’t “Sell Your Soul” To Two-Strike Hitting!
Many times I see players have success with their two-strike hitting approach and slowly gravitate towards adopting this hitting approach on a full-time basis. The player should not be tempted to do this, nor should the coach/instructor persuade the player to do so. In my opinion, there is little more distasteful in baseball than seeing a player who can really drive balls short-circuit his potential by adopting a singles/contact approach at the plate with less than two strikes. Leave singles hitting to the bona fide singles hitters. If you’ve got serious “pop” in your bat, keep working hard at being the run producer you’re capable of being!

Prior to Mike’s teaching years, he was an All-American baseball player and still holds the highest lifetime batting average of .384 at the University of California (Berkeley). He was a member of the first United States Olympic Baseball Team, leading the team in many offensive hitting categories (Japan, 1964). He was named the Sporting News and Topps Minor League Player-of-the-Year in 1966. His website is http://www.mikeepsteinhitting.com/

Advertisements

Read the December OnDeck Newsletters

If you missed today’s baseball and soccer OnDeck Newsletters we recommend you check them out ASAP. You’ll love the articles and offers in both issues!

How Can We Gain More Time?

By Mike Epstein

A large part of being a good two-strike hitter is the ability to “wait” as long as possible to determine what type of pitch it is and where it is going. There are a number of ways a hitter can gain more time when confronted with a two-strike count. Over the years, many have been taught to “choke up” on the bat, move further away from the plate, move deeper (further back) in the batters’ box, and to concentrate on hitting the ball up the middle, or the opposite way. Some have been instructed to “close down” their stance somewhat, which offsets the hitter’s contact points back further, and can gain him some extra time. All these have worked for many players over the years.

Another way, which I have found very effective, is for the player to move CLOSER to the plate, “open up” his stance, and utilize the inside-out swing. By doing so, the player significantly shortens the path of his swing. His stroke is shorter (can get to the ball quicker), he rotates less, and has more “accuracy” because he is more compact. My experience also suggests he will “open up” his hitting areas more effectively this way rather than by closing down his stance. I also recommend this approach to all the “singles/contact” hitters I teach, because their greatest asset is their foot speed; the last thing they should want to do is jeopardize their contact-ability by increasing the length of their stroke.

On the other hand, when a player closes down his stance (placing his lead foot closer to the plate than his rear foot), the angle of his stride clashes violently with his deepened contact area. When a player closes down his stance, and resulting stride, he effectively “closes off” to the pitch “in” and “down and in.” With two-strike hitting, the idea is to “open up” your hitting zones, not close them down. And, by closing down in his stride, he not only runs out of hip rotation, resulting in an upper body swing with loss of bat quickness and bat speed, but also blocks off a significant part of his strike zone: the areas “in” and “down and in.” In the major leagues, giving the pitcher an extra 25% of the plate to work with usually gets you a one-way ticket to a bus league.

The Inside-Out Stroke Is Normally Used For Contact
Staying “inside the ball” is an integral part of hitting success. It makes no difference what “type” hitter you are, this concept works for EVERYONE. My article for the Collegiate Baseball News, “Staying Inside the Ball,” goes into much more comprehensive detail about its merits and why it should be on every player’s “hit list.” I encourage you to (re)read it.

The inside-out stroke enables the hitter to wait longer. Coupled with proper lower body rotation, the player is able to contact the ball deeper in his hitting zones. Harry Heilmann, a line drive/gap hitter and Hall of Fame outfielder for the Detroit Tigers in the ‘20s—who hit over .400 twice in his career—said he went from being a “good” hitter to a “great” hitter when he learned how to inside-out the fastball on the inside corner—when he had two strikes. This is a wonderful piece of information for all hitters.

What he was telling us was that by being able to keep his bat 90º to the oncoming pitch on the inside corner, he was able to hit the ball back through the pitcher’s box. When we look at the illustration, we can see exactly what he was saying. We can ONLY effect this by doing two things: 1) By keeping our hands inside the ball, and 2) By using good lower body, rotational mechanics, whereby the hands have the ability to “wrap around” the rotating body as the arms extend to contact. This produces the correct inside-outswing. When a hitter is able to do this, he picks up more TIME, the elusive and valuable commodity hitters never seem to have enough of. And, with two strikes, he doesn’t have to be as “conscious” of the inside fastball—he can wait longer—which then makes hitting the off speed and breaking pitches much easier. It worked in Heilmann’s day—and it’s still working today with baseball’s current crop of outstanding hitters.

A player who quickly comes to mind when I think of the inside-out stroke is Edgar Martinez (bottom, left) of the Seattle Mariners. He puts on a clinic when he hits. If you get a chance to see him on TV, or are lucky enough to see him perform at the ballpark, watch closely and you’ll see what I mean. But there are too many others to mention here. All we have to know is if they’re getting all the headlines—and making all the money—they’re usually the best examples.

Executing the inside-out stroke correctly will enable the hitter to get to the pitch more quickly. He will not have to shorten his stroke. Again, it is worth noting that ALL styles should become singles/contact hitters with two strikes. The hitter has to “give in” to the pitcher by shortening his stroke and gaining valuable time. I am continually telling hitters that when they have two strikes, they can’t anticipate pitches or “guess” with the pitcher. They can’t afford to make a mistake here. They have to concede to the pitcher and just put the ball in play.

Let’s face it. With two strikes, the fight for time becomes amplified. The hitter is now dealing with his “largest” strike zone and also loses the benefits of “anticipation” as an aid.

Prior to Mike’s teaching years, he was an All-American baseball player and still holds the highest lifetime batting average of .384 at the University of California (Berkeley). He was a member of the first United States Olympic Baseball Team, leading the team in many offensive hitting categories (Japan, 1964). He was named the Sporting News and Topps Minor League Player-of-the-Year in 1966.His website is  http://www.mikeepsteinhitting.com/

How Does a Hitter “Know” Himself?

All the players’ experiences playing baseball go into this equation. He is the sum total of every pitch, every at-bat, every inning he has ever played. And over this time frame, he has learned what “type” hitter he is. “Types” fit into three groups. “Contact/singles hitters” for the smaller, fleet-of-foot player, “line dive gap hitters” who possess average-to-good foot speed and occasional power, and “pure power” types that don’t run very well, but have true long ball potential. Most hitters fit into these three types, and knowing where YOU fit in, goes a long way in determining your two-strike hitting plan. My experience suggests that approximately 70% of players fall into the “line drive/gap” type and 15% in both the “singles/contact” and “pure power” categories.

“Cloning” Hitters

While we’re on this subject of hitting “types,” this is probably as good a time as any for all us instructors/coaches to get on the same “page.” Because most hitters fall into these three types, we MUST be sensitive to the fact that not everyone can do what we teach. As instructors, we have to adjust our hitting knowledge—and what we teach—to the player and his intrinsic ability. Sadly, many times I tutor players who confide that their coach teaches everyone the “same” mechanics, regardless of size, strength, or foot speed. We must guard against allowing ourselves to be caught up in this potentially harmful practice.

Last summer, a college player from the University of ****** came for lessons. He was a big, strapping kid. 6’4″ and 240 pounds. Strong as an ox. I asked him to take a few dry swings for me. After watching him, I told him I was really “excited.” He asked why, and I told him I very rarely come in contact with a player as strong as he—and with such great foot speed.

He looked at me, incredulously, and blurted that he had NO foot speed whatsoever. So I asked him why he swings “down” at the ball if he can’t run. He said that’s what his coach taught, and EVERYONE had to hit the same way. Players 5’4″ were taught to hit the same way as players 6’4″! I know you’re smiling at this point and saying, “Yeah, Mike, but that isn’t ME. I don’t do that.” Think again. It runs rampant in baseball. What a terrible waste of ability!

His coach, possibly unaware of the consequences of his actions, was keeping this player from realizing his “dream.” I told him I had no interest in teaching him a technique that would upset his coach, and perhaps cast him in an unfavorable light in his eyes. He said he wasn’t worried about that; his dream was to play professional baseball. Over the next seven days, this player learned mechanics more suited to his “type.” He returned to school and hit 9 home runs in the fall. No one else on his team had more than two. At the conclusion of “fall ball,” his coach came up to him and said he didn’t like his swing. He wanted him to go back to swinging down—the mechanics he taught.

While we’re on this subject, it is interesting to note, as a “general” rule, ALL hitting types become “singles/contact” hitters with two strikes. Because, for the most part, we don’t come to bat, every at-bat, where we represent the winning run. More often than not, we must do some things mechanically which will allow us to put the ball in play. Contact—not power—becomes the name of the game with two strikes.

Prior to Mike’s teaching years, he was an All-American baseball player and still holds the highest lifetime batting average of .384 at the University of California (Berkeley). He was a member of the first United States Olympic Baseball Team, leading the team in many offensive hitting categories (Japan, 1964). He was named the Sporting News and Topps Minor League Player-of-the-Year in 1966.His website is  http://www.mikeepsteinhitting.com/

Your copies of October OnDeck Newsletter

If you missed this month’s issues you can be sure to never let that happen again by signing up here! In the meantime, download our soccer edition anchored by an article by Jeff Pill and catch the baseball issue with Mike Epstein’s thoughts on two-strike hitting.

Read today’s OnDeck Newsletters!

What? You missed today’s OnDeck Newsletters for Soccer and Baseball? Problem solved! And make sure you never miss another issue by signing up here!

Throw Your Hands at the Ball? (Part 2)

By Mike Epstein

(Read Part One of this article here)

Work the hands in front!

The hitter’s hands must work in front of his body for a number of reasons. One of the most important concerns the notion of staying “inside” the ball. However, another important reason is it allows the hitter’s bat to stay as close to 90º to the oncoming pitch as possible. When a hitter does this, he maximizes the exposure of his bat’s “sweet spot” to the pitch. In addition, he has a much greater chance of keeping inside pitches fair, and not hooking them foul.

Downside of being “hands-conscious”

If a hitter “throws his hands at the ball,” none of these advantaged hitting positions come into play. And, if the hitter’s preoccupation is with his HANDS, he will most assuredly “lose” his hips and lower half. Once a player loses his legs, he loses the strongest muscles in his body! This restricts him from taking advantage of the vital separation of the upper and lower torsos (torque) which is the root of all speed and power in the swing!

Perhaps we can get a better picture of this by looking at a pitcher throw. If we isolate a pitcher’s movements into simply throwing—with no lower body movement whatsoever—it is very obvious why no one pitches this way. If the pitcher just stood on the mound and threw the ball solely with his arm and did not use his lower body at all, you’d probably say, “Why would a pitcher do that?” When he throws with his arm only, he loses the most powerful muscles in his body and all the vital torquing, momentum, and rhythmic movements he needs to provide maximum velocity to his pitches.

So it is with a hitter, although it is more “camouflaged” than with the pitching motion. When a hitter has a preoccupation with his hands, he also loses the lower body advantage. When a hitter tells me he thinks “hands to the ball” when he is hitting, I simply ask him if he’d ever consider using a 17” bat? Because that’s what he’s indeed using when he only uses half of his body to hit with.

Before the minus3s, a hitter WAS able to use only his hands and arms because the ultra-light, ultra-resilient aluminum bats made it possible. The bat did all the work. With the heavier, less resilient minus3s, however, this makes little sense. We’ve got to adjust our thinking here. Take a hard look at the players producing all the runs in amateur baseball and you’ll see very few who are not utilizing rotational mechanics. Even though many of their coaches teach “hands to the ball.” Kids are going to do what works; every hitter wants to be successful.

Now, mind you, I’m not saying every hitter must use his lower body and be rotational. Far from it. But after so many years instructing hitters, I am convinced there are many more players capable of really DRIVING the ball to the gaps if they were given a fair shot at mechanics that promote this. After all, can you name one player who wouldn’t want to hit the ball harder (or further) than he is right now? I can’t, either. Yet, we take this ability away from hitters by communicating cues like “throw your hands at the ball” and teaching mechanics which constrain all but the elite hitters from accomplishing this. Go figure.

It’s got to make sense!

But, I think the most salient point of all might be just “plain ol’ common sense.” IF we tell a hitter to “stay inside the ball” because of its importance to productive hitting, how can we also tell him “hands to the ball?” If the pitch is on the outer half of the plate, how can he then stay “inside” the ball—and also let his hands go “to” the ball? It can’t happen, yet we continually instruct hitters to do them at the same time. It is confusing and also frustrating for him.

The American Baseball Coaches Association and other interested groups are at this very moment addressing their concern over the growing number of youngsters who leave baseball early for other sports. Hitting a baseball is a very demanding exercise, requiring a high degree of athleticism, mental toughness, visual acuity, and a strong work ethic. It’s certainly not for everyone. But, far too many youngsters quit for other sports because they don’t hit well. One of the reasons for this shortcoming is the conflicting information coaches dole out without thinking it completely through. Chalk it up to my pet peeve, “conventional wisdom.” We must teach with objective facts rather than subjective opinions.

Hitting isn’t for everyone, but…

Every player can’t be a big leaguer. But, with some common sense teaching from my DVDs, CD-Roms, and books, ANYONE can easily teach the right information and furnish the mechanical blueprint for a player to correctly stay “inside” the ball. A proper hitting technique can give more players an enjoyable and fun experience. In all my years in this game, I’ve never known one player who hit .150 who had “fun.” Having first-rate information is a good start.

When we tell hitters to “stay inside the ball” AND “throw your hands at the ball” in practically the same breath, we defeat our purpose and goal of trying to get the player to hit his potential.

Why make such a tough thing to do—tougher?

Good luck, continued success, and “get a good pitch to hit!”

Mike Epstein is one of America’s top hitting analysts, instructors, speakers, and published writers. His uncanny ability to simplify the complexities of the baseball swing has thrust him to the forefront of America’s hitting coaches. The Collegiate Baseball Newspaper calls Mike “Baseball’s hitting guru.”

Prior to Mike’s teaching years, he was an All-American baseball player and still holds the highest lifetime batting average of .384 at the University of California (Berkeley). He was a member of the first United States Olympic Baseball Team, leading the team in many offensive hitting categories (Japan, 1964). He was named the Sporting News and Topps Minor League Player-of-the-Year in 1966.His website is http://www.mikeepsteinhitting.com/