Editor’s note – This article originally appeared on AstrosConnection.com.
Hitting a baseball: this skill is a path to fame and fortune if one does it well and is a certain ticket to enshrinement in the Hall of Fame if one does it exceptionally well. No less an expert than Ted Williams, however, once said that hitting a baseball is the single most difficult act to accomplish in all of sports. Because Teddy Ballgame was the greatest pure hitter of all time, perhaps folks should listen to him. How does one use a round bat to hit a round ball squarely? Surprisingly, the mechanics of hitting are relatively easy to learn, but because of the superior eye-hand coordination required, few can hit a baseball well enough to make just four successes out of ten tries commonplace. If averaging only three successes out of ten tries over a career can put a professional hitter into the Hall of Fame, the actual doing must be far more difficult than the “knowing how to do.” Basic hitting mechanics follow and can be practiced alone, in the batting cage, or against live pitching.
The stance should be balanced, with the feet no wider than the shoulders and the toes pointed at the plate or slightly pigeon-toed in. The stance should be neither open nor closed, and the feet should be parallel to the inside edge of the plate. The hands should be held in a comfortable position, with the top hand approximately level with the top of the back shoulder, no more than 6-10 inches from the body. The front elbow should be bent so that the front arm is in a relaxed “L” and the back elbow should point to the ground. The bat should be held loosely across the inside base of the fingers, not squeezed tightly in the palms, and if the bat is held properly, the middle knuckles of both hands will be aligned. This loose grip will enable the hitter to throw the head of the bat at the ball during the swing. Being balanced and comfortable is essential to the stance, and the hitter must be able to see the pitcher with both eyes. The bat should be held at a 45 degree angle to horizontal, not at a 90 degree angle, to get the bat head to the plane of the ball quickly and to prevent a loop in the swing.
The Hitting Position
What is perhaps the single most important principle of hitting mechanics should occur just as the pitcher’s throwing arm reaches the top of his delivery and before he releases the ball. At this critical time, the hitter should move to the hitting position by taking a short stride with the front foot and by moving the hands straight back slightly at the same time. This movement is similar to cocking a gun and is accomplished by moving the front foot slightly forward and the hands slightly back simultaneously. The hitter’s front shoulder, knee and hip will turn slightly inward as the hands go back, but the head, hands and weight will stay back with no movement forward during the short stride to the hitting position. He must not point his front foot at the pitcher during this slight movement. As the pitcher releases the ball, the hitter already is in the hitting position and is ready to begin the swing if he believes the pitch is in an area he can handle. The hitter can be early getting to the hitting position, such as moving to the hitting position when the pitcher lifts his front knee and turns away from the hitter, but he should never be late getting there. This seemingly innocuous movement, if correctly done, is of immense importance and will enable the hitter to time even the fastest pitcher’s delivery. In general, the more velocity the pitcher has, the sooner the hitter should move to the hitting position.
The ideal swing is short and compact with maximum bat speed as the bat moves through the hitting zone. Several things should occur at once: the hitter must keep his head and eyes down and on the ball, his weight should be centered over the back foot as the swing begins, he must keep his front shoulder in and take the shoulder to the ball, he must keep his weight and hands back, he should take his hands straight to the ball with no up or down movement prior to the swing, and he should keep his back side down and move it through the ball with a slight transfer of weight to the front side during the swing. As he is transferring his weight during the swing, the hitter should pivot on the ball of his back foot so that the toes on that foot are pointed at the pitcher at the end of the swing.
The hitter should not stride as he swings; first he must take a short stride as he moves to the hitting position before the pitcher releases the ball, and then the swing will follow after the hitter’s front foot is down and the pitcher releases the ball. There should be little or no movement forward by the head or body as the hitter swings the bat. The ideal swing is slightly down and through the ball, with the barrel of the bat above the hitter’s hands, in an attempt to hit hard ground balls. The hands should stay inside the ball, and the wrists should roll only after contact with the ball. The hitter should try to hit the ball back in his stance, not out on the front foot. This effort will keep his weight back and prevent him from reaching for the ball and from rolling his wrists too early. The hitter should endeavor to watch the ball hit the bat and should not try to watch the flight of the ball after contact. This effort to keep his head down and his eyes on the ball until the last possible instant should keep him from pulling his body away from the ball during the swing.
The Mental Approach
A specific mental approach to hitting is essential. The hitter should prepare to hit while in the on-deck circle and should concentrate on his mechanics there and between pitches while hitting. Once he is in the batter’s box, the hitter should not think about the technical details of his swing but should focus solely on “see the ball, hit the ball.” Of major importance is for the hitter to know his personal strike zone. He should know in which parts of the zone he can handle pitches and in which he cannot. He should work every count: the first pitch, the 2-0 pitch, the 3-0 pitch and the 3-1 pitch are hitters’ pitches and should be swung at only if the ball is in the area of the strike zone that the hitter favors. If the hitter is ahead in the count, he should never swing at just any strike. He should look for a pitch in his zone and should try to hit it hard. With two strikes, the hitter must become defensive: he should choke up, move up on the plate, shorten the swing, foul off close pitches and just try to put the ball in play. Finally, and perhaps most important, the hitter always should look for fastballs to hit. No one hits the curve ball well consistently, and a smart hitter will wait for a fastball to hit in all situations except when he has two strikes. Then, of course, he must protect the plate and try to put any pitch in the strike zone in play.
There are numerous past and present professional hitting gurus… Ted Williams, Charlie Lau, Walt Hriniak, Tom McCraw, Dusty Baker, Merv Rettenmund, Tony Gwynn and several others. Each has had his unique approach to teaching hitting, and none of the principles the recognized gurus teach can be criticized as wrong. The basic mechanics of hitting are the same, no matter who is teaching, and can be learned quite easily. Not quite as easy, however, is solidly hitting a ball that is hurtling toward the hitter and that is changing planes as it approaches him. Repetition is the key to improvement, and there is no substitute for taking as many swings at live pitching as is possible every day. So, read this article over once more, practice the various aspects of the mechanics of the swing in front of a mirror until the swing is smooth, and then run, don’t walk, to the nearest batting cage or batting practice pitcher. See the ball and hit the ball!
Jim Raup pitched and coached at the University of Texas and spent nine years as a head baseball coach at Brenham and McCallum High Schools. His teams won numerous regional and district championships and made three trips to the State Tournament. The 1970 Brenham squad won the Texas State Championship. Many of his high school players have gone on to excel at the college and professional level. He also provides radio color commentary for Houston’s Texas League affiliate, the Round Rock Express.