With Nippon Professional Baseball hitters in Japan having problems hitting in the 2011 season, with many pointing to the obvious new ball’s introduction set to match international ball standards, this may be the time to do some soul searching with the batting methods used here in Japan.
For details on the new balls effect read Jim Allen column: http://www.japanesebaseball.com/writers/display.gsp?id=38134
Anyone worth their salt who wants to learn the best methods usually goes to the best person in any given field that has given information on the subject out to the public. One can look even today at the success of the St. Louis Cardinals and their hitting coach Mark McGuire and see past his steroid use to see how much he has improved the hitting of the World Series Champs.
In my case the obsession with homeruns holds less attention, as I am a novice historian and look to old school hitting of the past over the fame of the ever fashionable and “it girl” of our time "the homerun."
The last hitter to hit .400 was Ted “Tiger” Williams of the Boston Red Sox and if you know anything about this stout man you will know he coached for the Old Washington Senators. When he coached the Senators in his first year he brought their average from the low average of .224 to a .251 along with the team’s win-loss record improving from a .404 to a .531. This points to the ability to not only hit well, but teach hitting well, which is the only kink in the armor of looking to the best for advise. Some “can’t teach what they do” very well, especially if they just “wing it” or “run on instincts.”
In Ted’s Williams case he had the ability to do both, as attested to by Wage Boggs (former American Batting League Champion and Hall of Famer) as he described Ted as being, “ A major influence on my basic hitting skills through my formative years.”
From the Neck Down (50% is the body)
So with the preliminaries dealt with let’s move on to what Ted taught. First off here are some ideas that are fairly common, for example his preference for a light bat and keeping it that way with cleaning your bats regularly to make sure they don’t pick up weight from dirt, powder or other substances that are used to improve grips. Mr. Williams was a strong man, but to get the bat around after sighting what kind of ball was coming you need every edge you can get. As is common with many professionals he believed in a compact swing holding the bat close to the chest before contact is made, along with being on the balls of your feet leaning slightly forward and feet roughly shoulder width apart.
Not so common he believed when you were behind in the count you should choke up on the bat and be defensive. Low-balls means you must bend the knees including the front one closest to the pitcher. Today you see many hitters always jam their front leg straight. Or in his own words, “I’d say to go down a little, don’t stay quite as high, bend your knees down toward the pitch. That way your swing will stay more uniform. The tendency on a low ball is to hit it on the ground. If you bend your knees and go down with the pitch you’ll be able to get under it enough to compensate.”-*
He also stated quite clearly to “keep your head still” to gauge the ball, and thus too much front leg movement and your perspective would suffer. You see with many young boys, and a noticeable number of NPB players, in Japan copying Ichiro’s high leg raising before placing it with their heads following suit in small measure or large. This won’t do, as their eyes are moving with their head as it goes up and then down before the ball's arrival. How does this help to gauge the placement of the ball in or out of the strike zone?
Hands should be held higher than most batters do so as to oppose having to lift them to deal with certain pitches is also suggested by Tiger. So he preached bended lower at the knees for the legs and hands higher, which can seem in conflict unless you see the thinking behind it.
Yet what I found very happily from Ted Williams was the idea I had logically come to the conclusion on, and that being the angle of your swing. What he called the “ Large Impact Zone” which means your stroke is matching the balls angle and height. If you chop down or come down only partially through the balls line of sight, you only give yourself a chance at impact ever so small. A level stroke improves the chances, but doesn’t equal the matching of the pitch angle with the slight upward stroke at the end of the swing. I’m always reminding my son above all other advise to swing at the level of the ball, which means he may hit the ball late in his swing or early in his swing but he will make contact much more often than the chopping or level to ground swing. My boy is hitting 75-80% of 120 km pitches at the batting cage at age 10.
When this contact happens it allows your boy to then read where the ball goes and adjust. Fouls one-way means he is usually too late on the swings, while fouls the other way means he is usually too early on his swing. Thus he can adjust because he is making contact consistently. This is the benefit of a “Large Impart Swing” suggested by Ted Williams. Someone missing the ball all together means he must wait till reviewing the tapes before he can adjust, or listening to someone else’s view of each pitch, or only hear the usual “Gumbate” from the otherwise quiet family members in support.
From the Neck Up (50% is mental)
So many young batters wing it, or run on instinct. Some people love sports because they can turn off the brain and relax, but this is the kiss of death for the successful player, unless he has such instincts that it dwarfs everyone else’s, which is almost never the case. So one must use the mind to hit better.
Ted Williams talks about trying to gauge a pitcher while others are in the batter’s box. He talks of annoying pitchers as he tried to get further behind the other batter in the batter’s box as he warmed up to bat in the on-deck circle. He talked of always taking note of what one gets struck out on at your last time up against that pitcher, and like many he talked of studying the pitcher as best you can before you meet him. Here he states it quite clearly:
All they ever write about the good hitters is what great reflexes they have, what great style, what strength, what quickness, but never how smart the guy is at the plate, and that’s 50 percent of it. From the ideas come “the proper thinking”, and the “anticipation,” the “guessing.”
Is the pitcher struggling with one of his pitches, is he stubborn, is he afraid of you? These are the many thought processes you go though at the plate. So early on you must get involved with the thinking of your son, and early on teach him not to wing it and empty the mind in some cheap attempt to appear Zen like.
Half an idea can be a dangerous thing. In Japanese combat they often say, “don’t think to much” with the sword (as shown in the movie “Last Samurai”), but that’s after practicing so that your swing has become second nature. You must think wisely. The better expression of this was Yuzan, but I will be paraphrasing him here:
-First in youth you don’t think at all
-Then as you become a teenager you think too much
-After that you think about thinking
-And finally you think so well that it almost seems like you have come full circle, yet you haven’t. You have just come to think about the right things with ease and then focus in on your issue at hand to be in the zone to hit.
So letting your boy wing it, as he gets older is a wishful thinking measure on your part. Counting in your head to gauge the speed of a pitch is an early first step. Take him through ideas on the how the ball is arriving (inside and outside of the plate) and how to deal with them (swinging earlier on the inside, and later on the outside pitch) so as to “hit the ball where it wants to go.” Later you can deal with what types of pitches a pitcher can throw and how to deal with them. Finally take him into the mind or heads of the pitcher he is facing, as your boy progresses in the thinking stages.
Always learn from the best when they know how to teach.
*- “The Science of Hitting”, by Ted Williams and .John Underwood.