Home Run Derbies

This past week, hitting games on the hit trax were held each day at Elite Diamond Performance.  Each game was intended to both be enjoyable and improve each player's hitting ability.  One of the days was centered around a Home Run Derby.  Obviously enjoyable, how would that improve a hitters ability?  Interestingly enough, some of the best swings of the week came during the derby.

Home Run Derbies often hold a negative connotation.  People often think that players that participate in the Major League Home Run Derby ruin their swings for the second half of the year due to the contest.  However, there is no evidence that this is true.  Check out my article with the statistics here.

So, why did the Home Run Derby showcase some of the best swings of the week? Bat path.  Bat path is perhaps the biggest thing that I work on with young players.  Successful hitters at all ages swing up through the hitting zone.  Like this:

However, most young players don't have this type of bat path.  Most young players work down or level through the hitting zone.  During the home run derby, what did I observe?  Higher Line Drive percentages and fewer weak fly balls.

When given the goal to try and hit the ball over the fence, players often go from swinging down or level to working up through the zone.  This upward bat path is vital to hitting line drives.

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While the players were getting frustrated because the ball wasn't going over the fence, I was elated that they were hitting hard line drives.  After all, the goal of everything that I teach my hitters and every cue that I give to hitters is to increase their line drive percentage.  

Mental approach to batting practice

This time of year, batting practice and instructional time at Elite Diamond Performance is centered around mechanical changes in the swing.  We are still a few months away from stepping on the field and it is the perfect time to attack any mechanical flaws that may be present in a player's swing.  However, the way in which we approach a session mentally can have a profound impact on the way that those mechanical changes take hold.  There are 3 main things that a hitter must keep in mind when working in the cage.

1. Focusing on 1 thing at a time

One of the hardest things for a hitter to do is to focus on 1 mechanical change at a time.  Every hitter, tee ball through my pro guys all have more than 1 mechanical flaw in their swing they need to address.  However, a swing happens so fast that trying to change more than 1 things at a time seldom works.  For example, if a hitter needs to work on avoiding lunging, focusing on the weight shift in addition to focusing on the bat path will often result in neither getting fixed.  Focus on the most important flaw then proceed.

2. Trusting the process

Mechanical changes take time.  Muscle memory is a powerful tool that is often times not easily manipulated.  The body remembers patterns and swinging a bat is a complex pattern that needs time to mold.  

Perhaps the biggest attribute that my most successful hitters possess is patience.  When I introduce something new, they trust that it will take time for it to feel comfortable but they know in the end it will benefit their swing.  The players who take a few swings with something new and feel uncomfortable and ditch the new pattern will struggle with seeing improvement.  I always tell my hitters that swinging a baseball bat is not a natural pattern that we were born with.  It is something that has to be learned.  However, that doesn't mean that the way our body does it right now is the best way.  Often times what feels comfortable now is not the best and most efficient way to do it.  Allowing the body to feel uncomfortable in the beginning is how we make ourselves better. 

3. Have a plan

Perhaps the biggest lesson that I learned in my short professional career was to always have a plan in batting practice.  Always be working on something.  In professional baseball, most hitters can routinely hit the ball over the fence.  However, not every round consisted of HR Derby swings.  They took rounds where they drove line drives the other way, treated BP like 2 strike counts, and so on. 

I tell all my hitters to always have a plan.  I often times see hitters just get in and swing at everything.  Besides the obvious aspect of this approach translating to the game, this swing at anything approach can impact our ability to see mechanical changes.  If we are working on trying to drive the ball to the outfield, swinging at low outside pitches may not be the best pitches to swing at.  There are countless examples of this, but unless we are working specifically on 2 strike approach or driving the ball the other way, I will tell my hitters to treat batting practice like a no strike count.  This will force them to focus on getting their best pitch and allowing them to put their best swing on it.

Conclusion

When working on mechanics, the way that we approach batting practice is vital.  We need to only focus on 1 issue at a time.  Choose the most important flaw and attack that.  Focusing on more than that often leads to nothing getting fixed.  When attacking the flaw, trust the process and understand that changes take time and that your first few swings may not be the most comfortable.  Finally, always have a plan when it comes to pitch selection so that more quality swings can be taken in a session.

Using sub max effort swings

When it comes to fixing mechanics, there are a number of ways to go about doing it.  Drills, cues, analysis, etc are all effective ways to do this.  However, I recently have been experimenting with using less intense swings or sub max effort swings to help hitters feel certain things.  Today I will discuss what this entails and show a case study of one of my high school hitters and how effective this method can be.

What are sub max effort swings?

Swinging a baseball bat should be a max effort, powerful, explosive movement.  However, like any other movement, sometimes we have to pull the intensity back to see changes.  Often times, our body's muscle memory will take over when moving at full speed.  This is why mechanical changes are often seen earlier in tee or front toss swings.    

When I tell a player to swing below max effort, I cue them to swing at 50 %.  Fast enough that they can replicate the swing but slow enough that they can really focus on changing one aspect.  I have begun using these on swings involving bat path issues.  Bat path is perhaps the biggest thing that I work on in swings, namely working up through the zone as opposed to swinging level or down.  Bat path involves many things to fall in place:  body position, lower body mechanics, front arm mechanics and many others.  So far, I have found it easier for my hitters to feel all of those things fall in place when using sub max effort swings.

Case Study

Player: High School Senior with tremendous power

Swing issue: Bat path stays too flat or works down causing lots of hard ground balls or weak pop ups. 

Here is a video of his swing the session before implementing sub max swings.  

He clearly is swinging down through the zone, clipping the bottom of the ball and hitting a weak pop up.  That was pretty much most of this session.  Here are his numbers from that session:

Ground Balls: 29 %

Fly Balls: 30 %

Line Drives: 41%

Max Exit Velocity: 90.1 MPH

The next session we worked exlcusivley with sub max effort swings at 50% effort.  Here are the results.

Swing video:  Clearly getting on plane with the pitch better and squaring the ball up more.  

Here are the numbers:

Ground Balls: 5 %

Fly Balls: 39 %

Line Drives: 56 %

Max Exit Velocity: 97.2

Summary:  Even with lowered effort and swing speed, he increased his exit velocity, line drive percentage and hard hit average.  In addition, he hit 7 HRs in 1 session and set a new distance record by 30 feet.  

Why?  Creating bat path is incredibly important and he was able to better achieve this with sub max effort swings.  Bat path is all about squaring balls up and with these type of swings he was able to achieve this.  Right now, full effort swings are leading to falling back into his ingrained patterns.  As he gets more comfortable with the new pat path pattern we will increase intensity and eventually get him to the point where that bat path can be seen in every full effort swing.

 

 

The Importance of the Launch Angle

Launch angle is something that has always been a part of hitting but the term has recently been popularized with the creation of statcast and tools like Hit Trax to measure it.  Today I want to discuss what optimal launch angles are, why they are important and how to improve them.

Launch angle is simply a fancy term for the angle the ball leaves the bat from.  Simply put, negative numbers means ground balls and positive numbers mean balls in the air. Any ball hit in play will range from -90 (ball that is hit off of home plate) to 90 degrees (pop up to the catcher), however, the majority of batted balls will range from -20 to 60.  

So what is a good launch angle?

Almost all measures of offensive production suggest that hitting line drives and fly balls are more advantageous than hitting ground balls.  

Look at thee charts below

Spray chart: (blue/yellow are hits, red are outs)

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Where are the hits?  In the outfield.  How do we hit the ball to the outfield?  Hit line drives and flyballs.

Batting average at different launch angles

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What do we notice?  Batting averages below 0 degrees (ground balls)  don't produce a very high average.  Neither do balls that get hit over 30 degrees.  The highest averages are seen on balls between 10 and 30 degrees.

Slugging pct at different launch angles

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What do we notice?  Slugging Pct. peaks between 10-30 degrees in the vast majority of hitters.

So, from all of the data, the best ranges tend to be between 10-30 degrees.

Line drives tend to be in the range about 10-20 degrees and good driven fly balls tend to be between 20-30 degrees.  Think of a 10 degree line drive as a hard line drive right back at the pitcher and a 30 degree fly ball as a double to the wall.

Anything below 10 will be a ground ball which at any level where fielders are semi competent will result in an out. 

Anything above 30, which for the majority of hitters (Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton excluded) tend to sit in the air too long and result in weak fly balls.

So, how do we get the majority of our batted balls to fall in this range?  Improve bat path.  Launch angle has everything to do with where we get the bat to meet the ball. Look at the picture below. 

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Simply put, if we hit the top of the ball, the ball will go down, if we hit too far below the center of the ball, the result will be a weak pop up.  

Most balls that get hit below 10 degrees and almost all of the balls that get hit above 30 degrees tend to be bat path related. If ground balls are the problem, it generally means that the bat stays on top of the ball throughout the whole swing.  If fly balls are the result, it means the bat stayed under the baseball. The fix for both?  Swing up through the Zone.  In a good swing, the bat will drop below the ball when it enters the hitting zone.  Ideally it should work up (like the Greg Bird clip below).  If the bat gets below the ball and doesn't work up then the result will be a weak fly ball.  

What a Hitter's Jersey tells us about power Generation

Even though the Reds weren't in the Playoffs, it turned out to be some great baseball.  For me, the best part was being able to watch all of the slow motion video of some truly great hitters.  The video that we now have is incredible and can teach us a lot about the way good hitters swing the bat.  

Today I want to talk about one of the cooler things about the super high speed images captures:  The way that a hitter's upper body moves in order to generate power.  This can be seen in the Jersey at different points in the swing.  We can see the way that a hitter loads and unloads the upper body based on the wrinkles in their jersey.

Take a look at the clip below.

What can we tell?  Lets start with the launch position (The position just before his upper body starts to rotate).  The jersey is wrinkled from his front hip to his back shoulder.  This shows that this line of connective tissue is being pre-stretched just before unloading.  This is a huge component of power generation.  I did an experiment and wrote an article on this here

As Kyle Schwarber begins to rotate, those wrinkles fade and new ones appear.  These new wrinkles show up on his back side oblique (side) muscles.  This shows that the tension and energy is being released from the initial connective tissue and he is side bending in order to drop his body to get the bat on plane with the pitch.

These 2 signs of power development seen in the jersey (pre-loading the connective tissue between the front hip and back shoulder and side bending during rotation) are seen in very high level hitters.  Most young hitters will lack both tell tale jersey signs.  Many young hitters will release the tension in their upper body too soon.  This is because they are very anxious to get the swing started by the arms and hands instead of the bigger stronger muscles of the lower body and core.  Side bending on the back side is also usually lacking too because most younger hitters are taught to avoid dropping the back shoulder.  Without dropping the back shoulder, it is almost impossible to get the same bat path that is created with this side bending.

The worst advice given to hitters: "Don't drop your back shoulder!"

There are a lot of things that coaches yell to hitters when they don't get a hit, many of which drive me crazy.  Like I said last week, I have a new sign in the facility with rules that fly contradictory to conventional thinking when it comes to hitting. Today I want to speak to rule # 2:  Drop your back Shoulder.

Like most of the rules on my wall, this one gets the attention of players and parents all of the time.  What?  Drop your back shoulder?  My coach always says "Don't drop your back shoulder."

Lets first talk about why coaches preach this.   One main reason:  Avoid pop ups.  The conventional thinking is that dropping your back shoulder will keep the bat too far under the ball.  These are the same coaches who preach swinging down or level.  So, yes if I want to swing the bat down or level, dropping my back shoulder will cause the bat to move even lower under the ball.  However, if we take a proper bat bat, up, then dropping the back shoulder is a vital component to a good effective swing.  Just like my last article on uppercutting, every good hitter drops their back shoulder.

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I could show a thousand more swings and every one would show something similar.  I often tell people that one of the biggest mechanical differences that I see between successful hitters and struggling hitters is the amount of back shoulder drop.

So why should I drop my back shoulder?  There are a myriad of reasons, but I will talk about the top 2.

1. Generating power

 In order to generate power, we need to let the biggest strongest muscles in the body do their work.  This requires us to keep our hands and arms from doing too much, especially early in the swing.  If the arms break away from the body too soon, the movement principles of creating power break down.  We need to keep our hands connected to the body.  Take a look at a home run swing by Ian Kinsler.  His hands are in a similar position to his body that they were in the start.  His body and back shoulder have dropped his body to get to the ball.  This allows him to get the bat as close to the ball as possible without having his hands and arms take over too soon.

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2.  Setting the plane of the swing

Like I have mentioned numerous times, the path of the swing needs to move up.  Every pitch that we should swing at is below where the bat starts.  Since we know that the bat has to get under the ball and move up to meet it, we have 2 options for getting to the ball, our arms or our body.  If we don't drop the back shoulder, our arms are forced to shoot the bat down to the ball (which is often the real reason for pop ups).  

If we can drop the back shoulder, the body helps get the bat closer to the ball and allows us to work the bat up through the zone.  Like this:

To sum up, every hitter drop their back shoulder.  It is a vital part of a good powerful swing.  It allows us to generate more power and create more line drives by setting us up for a good bat path.

 

Uppercut: The most (and wrongfully) vilified word in hitting

I recently posted a new sign at my facility with 9 Rules for hitting.  Most of them are eye catching conversation starters since most are against the traditional teachings of most coaches. However, they are all rules that I have spent years researching and can confidently back each one of them up. I will be writing more on all of them, but today I want to talk about the second rule on the board: Uppercut.

When I tell a player to uppercut, I immediately get the attention of parents and players.  Uppercut?  I can practically see the thoughts running through peoples minds. "Is this guy nuts?" "This guy has no clue what he is talking about", and from the parents "This was a waste of money coming to this guy." After all, the word uppercut is perhaps the most vilified word in all of hitting, the biggest no no to every little leaguer, coach and parent. 

So why then do I advocate for such an evil in the world of hitting mechanics?... Because every good hitter, at any level, uppercuts. Period.

What is uppercutting?

Uppercutting is when the bat moves through the hitting zone (Area where contact can be made) on an upward plane. Like Adrian Gonzalez Below

Uppercutting is when the bat moves through the hitting zone on an upward plane.  We have 3 ways of moving the bat through the hitting zone.  Up, down or level.  Most coaches will advocate for a level or downward plane.  But why?  Groundballs are better than fly balls?  The numbers don't support that.  Better chance of contact?  Nope, bat is not on the path of the pitch long enough.  And my favorite, Uppercutting causes pop ups.  

Actually, most times it doesn't.  More on this in a minute.

I'm not going to discuss the fallacies behind the numbers or the concept of matching the path of the bat to the pitch.  If you want to see the number behind why flyballs are superior to ground balls click here.  If you want more information on bat plane matching pitch plane click here.  Today I want to discuss the myth that pop ups are a product of upper cutting too much.   

As much as I advocate for flyballs, pop ups are balls that are hit at a launch angle over 40-45 degrees and are not desired.  SOowhy do pop ups happen? Traditional thought would say that we uppercut and got under the ball.    The second part is true, the first is not.  Pop ups are a product of hitting the bottom of the baseball, but is rarely from upper cutting.  In fact, it is almost always a result of not swinging up enough.  

Take a look at the pictures below.

Swing 1:  Swinging Level/Down

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In this swing, the batter is punching his hands and arms down to the ball.  The bat never moves in an upward fashion.  The bat is undercutting or slicing the bottom of the ball. The result is a weak pop up at a 52 degree angle to the 2nd baseman.

Swing # 2 Swinging up through the hitting zone

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In this clip, we can clearly see that the batter has moved the bat up through the zone.  The bat is well below the ball in the first picture with the end of the bat a little higher than knee height.  At contact, the bat has moved up to about thigh high.  The bat is squaring up this ball.  The result: 88 mph line drive to left center with a launch angle of 19 degrees.

From these different bat paths we can learn a lot, mainly that uppercutting is not the result of pop ups.  This is just one example, but I have taken thousands of videos in my career and almost all of the weak pop ups I see are a result of not upper cutting enough. If the bat does not move up through the zone, the bat will undercut the bottom of the ball and pop ups occur. 

Final Thoughts

Traditional thinking in hitting has always suggested that the word uppercut is synonymous with hitting weak pop ups.  This was the predominate thinking before we had the technology to prove that this was not the case.  Even still, I often get push back from players and parents when I first mention the word uppercut.   I think I may have even had one or two that believed so strongly against it that they stopped coming.  However, when you really think about it, and look at the evidence, uppercutting is not the reason for pop ups and should not be something that is discouraged. 

I can't count how many players come in and have a problem hitting weak pop ups and the cue I give to them is uppercut and try to hit the ball in the air.  And what happens almost all of the time?  More line drives.

This idea to move the bat through the zone on an upward plane is perhaps the biggest difference maker I have seen in players swings.  I have had players of all levels, from little leaguers through pro players tell me that when I first told them to uppercut they thought I was crazy, and some even fought me for weeks.  However, many of those same players have told me that upper cutting or moving the bat on a more inclined path through the hitting zone has been the biggest positive change they have ever made in their swings.

 

 

Swing Experiment: Grips

Every aspect of hitting has an endless number of teachings and schools of thought.  Unfortunately, many of these are rooted solely in theory and old school beliefs.  Today I will shed some light on one of the points of contention: the way that we grip the bat.

For this experiment, I took a look at 3 different grips:  Deep in the palms, knocking knuckles lined up and bat in the finger tips with bottom hand top knuckles lined up with top hand knocking knuckles.  I took 50 swings off of the tee with each grip, using the same bat.  Here is what I found.

Results

Grip # 1: Bat Deep in Palms

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This grip is probably the most common grip employed by younger players.  They tend to feel stronger with the bat buried deep in their hands.

Results:

Avg. Ball Exit Speed: 79.4    Max Ball Exit Speed: 82.7 

Grip # 2: Knocking Knuckles lined up

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This grip is also another common one that I have seen.  Many instructors and coaches tell players to line up these middle knuckles and make sure that when straightened, their index fingers don't cross.

Results:

Avg. Ball Exit Speed: 75.5      Max Ball Exit Speed: 78.6

Grip # 3 Bottom hand top Knuckles lined up with Top hand middle knuckles (Bat in fingertips)

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Results:

Avg. Ball Exit Speed: 81.2     Max Ball Exit Speed: 83.9

Conclusion:

The top grip for ball exit speed was the grip with the bottom hand top knuckles lined up with the top hand knocking knuckles with the bat held in the finger tips.  The second was the bat buried in the palms and the worst was lining up knocking knuckles.

Why?

To start, allowing the bat to rest in the finger tips allows for a stronger grip and helps to relax the muscles of the forearm.  The top grip (Bottom hand top knuckles lined with the top hand knocking knuckles) allows for the elbows to be properly spaced to allow the arms to contribute to the whipping action of the bat.

The worst grip for ball exit speed was the commonly taught lining up of the knocking knuckles.  This grip does not allow for the bat the start in an optimal position to create whip and bat speed.  It is commonly taught by coaches who preach hitting the top of the ball and hitting ground balls.  In fact, this grip did produce the highest rate of ground balls.

 

HIt Trax Case Study

HIt Trax Case Study

When I was contemplating investing in the Hit Trax System, I reviewed all of the cool features.  It shows where the ball goes on any Major League field, the gaming modules that allow for a more competitive atmosphere, the in depth analytics, and many more.  However, what got me to finally pull the trigger on the purchase was the ability to see quantifiable evidence of whether my instruction was working or not.  Finally, a system that would show whether certain techniques, drills and concepts were aiding in each player's progress.

Today, I want to share a case study of a 12 year old player that I started working with at the beginning of August.  

Check out the data below.  It shows the key metrics of swing performance from the first session on August 1 to the most recent session on September 14.  

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If we look at the data, every category has improved significantly from the first session.  After the first session, I had real data that showed me what areas needed improvement.  In this case, the two biggest areas of weakness were line drive percentage and ball exit speed.  This data gave me a clear blueprint on how to progress this player.  We started with bat path drills that forced him to take an upward path to the ball to improve line drive and fly ball percentage.  These same drills helped him elevate the ball and start driving the ball to the outfield. 

From here, the data still shows that we need to continue to attack this players bat path because ground balls still make up the highest percentage of batted ball type.  However, since all of his numbers are trending in the right direction, we know that the prescription of drills and concepts is working.

Now this is an extreme example of how this data can help to improve a player's skills. Not every player will see this dramatic of an increase.  If I work with a college or pro player, chances are they aren't going to add 10 mph of ball exit speed over the course of  5 sessions.  In addition, there are sessions where we try something and the numbers don't improve or they go the wrong direction, but in these cases, I can see hard data that can steer training in a different direction.  

Hit the Ball to the Outfield

Among my many cues to get players to hit the ball in the air, I have recently been using the cue "Hit the Ball to the outfield."  Seems simple enough but not something that most hitters are ever told.  Let's take a look at why I use this cue.

First, poor mechanics can be fixed with the simple cue "hit the ball to the outfield."  With most kids being taught to hit the ball on the ground, swing down, don't drop your back shoulder, young hitters often struggle with conciously changing these practiced mistakes.  Instead, giving them the goal to drive the ball to the oufield many of these flaws begin to disappear.  Why?  the only way to hit the ball to the outfield with any authority is to drop the back shoulder and work the bat up through the hitting zone.  Like this:

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The second reason that this cue works is that if a hitter can hit the ball to the outfield more, they will be more successful.  Why?  Lets take a look at the dimensions of the average Major League Field.  The average infield is about 19,000 Square Feet with all of the dirt included.  This area is patrolled by 6 fielders.  The average outfield is about 90,000 square feet. This area is covered by 3 fielders.  That means that each infielder is responsible for an average of 3,166 square feet.  Each outfielder is responsible for 30,000 square feet.  Seems pretty clear that your probability of getting a hit will only increase once the ball passes the infield.  Take a look at the photo of a recent Hit Trax session.  For reference, the blue dots are hits and the red dots are outs.

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Swing Experiment: Showing numbers vs. not showing numbers

I recently finished fellow hitting coach Joey Myers book "The Catapult Loading System."  The book took a very science based approach to generating power using certain bio mechanics of the body.  I won't into the nuts and bolts of what he discussed but needless to say it was refreshing to see a science based approach as opposed to the hitting coaches who still believe in fake science such as swinging down to create backspin and drive the ball, etc.

After reading the book, I wanted to test one of the mechanical traits that he talks about.  This was the concept of showing the numbers to the pitcher at foot plant.  In addition to that, when in this position, having the front shoulder lower than the back shoulder.  Basically, this helps to load certain components of the body that should help create more power.  The best example of this is done by Josh Donaldson.

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The Experiment

For the experiment, I took 50 swings normally off of a tee.  I then took 50 swings trying to show the numbers and lower my front shoulder at the launch position. All swings were taken with a 34 inch wood bat.  Here are the results: 

50 Normal swings:  Average 74.0   High 75.8

50 "Show Numbers swings": Average 77.8   High 81.7  

Results:  Average 3.8 mph harder with showing the numbers

What does this mean?

One of the biggest indicators of hitting success is ball exit speed.  Why?  2 reasons: First, the faster the ball comes off of the bat, the harder it is to field.  Second, the faster the ball comes off, the further the ball will go (all other things, launch angle, etc. being equal).

The general consensus is that every MPH that is added to ball exit speed adds about 4-5 feet of distance to the hit.  This means that with this simple change, I was able to add between 15 and 19 feet of distance.

Conclusion

Any mechanical change that can add about 4 mph of ball exit speed is incredible.  Based on the science of why this works, it makes perfect sense to try and include this in the swing.  The only caveat would be to not overdo this concept and turn too much.  Like most mechanics, somewhere in the middle is the right place to be.

On Deck swings:  Why I love Joey Votto's routine

On Deck swings: Why I love Joey Votto's routine

One of my biggest pet peeves as a hitting instructor is the way that players approach their warm-up swings in the on deck circle.  More often than not, I see the poorest swings in the moments just before a hitter goes up to the plate.

The biggest issue that I see with on deck swings is the swing path of hitters.  I have written many articles on the importance of a proper swing path.  To sum up the thousands of words that I have written on this topic:  the path of the bat should be slightly up through the hitting zone, not level or down.  If you want to read about bat path you can find those articles here and here.

One of the top 2 or 3 mechanical issues that I work on with players is the bat path.  The majority of players are taught to swing down or level.  Changing the bat path to be slighlty inclined is challenging but a prerequisite to being successful as a hitter.  So, why do players continue to take downward swings in the on deck circle?

I attended the Reds game the other day at Yankee Stadium.  Among lots of other things, I spent a good deal of time watching the way that players approached their on deck routines.  I saw some players, like Jacoby Ellsbury take the type of swings that I hate in the on deck circle.  I saw other that I really liked.  I loved the way that Gary Sanchez and a few other players swung on deck, but my favorite was Joey Votto.  Joey Votto has been one of the best hitters in baseball for the past 10 years.  From all accounts, he is a true student of hitting.  Watch his warm-up swings below.

 

Now, I have never spoken to Joey Votto about his thought process of his routine but there are a few things that I love.  The first is the position of his body.  He allows his back shoulder to drop and sets his body up the same way that he would at the plate.  The second thing is the path of his bat.  His bat gets below the imaginary pitch and works up through the zone.  The final thing that I love is the path of his hands.  They stay connected to his back shoulder and then work up as his hands more through contact.  All of these things are traits seen in a good swing.  

It frustrates me when I work with a player on their bat path and then as they take dry swings, its the same disconnected, downward, choppy swing that we are trying to get away from.

Here is a clip of one of my college hitters on deck.  I spoke with Pat as I was writing this article and asked him what he is thinking when taking these swings.  He said that he is trying to keep his hands up and allow the bat to work the way it would at the plate.

The bottom line is, have a reason for what you do in the on deck circle.  They are the swings that you take just before you go to the plate.  Having no plan or doing the opposite of what happens in a swing is a recipe for struggling at the plate. If you are working on not swinging down, swing up, not down.  Don't reinforce bad habits just before show time. 

What is wrong with Aaron Judge?...nothing he is in a slump

I was having a conversation with a Yankee fan today and he said "Aaron Judge can't hit anymore."  The best player in the first half  of the season, the front runner for MVP and Rookie of the Year can't hit anymore?  While he has gone 1-21 in the first few games after the all star break, he certainly is still one of the best players in baseball.  Aaron Judge will be fine, but this conversation highlights the ups and downs of a hitter.  Simply put, Aaron Judge is in a slump. 

I often tell people that from the start of the season to the end of the season, I play the role of psychologist more than hitting instructor.  During the season, unless there is a glaring mechanical flaw, I tend to focus more on the mental side of hitting because this often times can be the reason for a hitter struggling.  So, lets take a look at slumps:  what they are and how to fix them.

The first thing to remember is that hitting is hard.  My job is to help hitters be successful, but even the best hitters I have ever worked with still fail more than they succeed.  Unfortunately, that's hitting.  We have more than 150 years of baseball history to go off of, and one thing is certain, hitters fail at an incredible rate.   Every hitter, the best hitters in the world, even Hall of Famers fall into this category.   Probably the most notable slump of the past 20 years was Derek Jeter in 2004.  In the first half of the season, the future Hall of Famer went on an 0 for 32 stretch.  

What constitutes a slump?

While there is no definition a what actually makes up a slump, I would consider a slump a period of 5-6 games without hitting the ball hard.  Why do I use hitting the ball hard as the measure?  Hitting the ball hard is the only thing we can control as a hitter.  If we go 0 for 10 and hit the ball hard at someone 10 times, that is just bad luck, not a slump.

Also, a stretch of a few games with struggles does not mean you are in a slump.  Just remember, everything regresses to the mean.  This simply means that over time, everything balances out. Lets look at an example.  In one game, a hitter goes 4 for 4. The next game, the hitter goes 0-4.  The next they go 0-3.  I have had to talk kids down after a 3 game performance like this, however, this is not a slump.  Over those 3 games, this hitter has a .363 batting average.  Not too bad.

Why do hitters go into slumps?

Hitters can go into slumps for a bunch of different reasons.  Mechanics can go awry, timing can get off track, injuries can contribute, thinking too much, trying to impress college coaches or scouts, or just plain bad luck.   Lets take a look at the 2 most prevalent reasons that hitters go into slumps.

1. Mechanical:  If a hitter continues to get out in the same 1 or 2 ways (weak hits or strikeouts), there usually is a mechanical component to their struggles.  Video taping swings and comparing them to better swings can often times highlight a mechanical flaw that is causing the issues.

How to fix: If there are mechanical issues, focus on 1 mechanical change.  No more than that and never think mechanics in the batter's box. Mechanical slumps can quickly turn into mental slumps if too much enters the hitter's mind. 

Mental slump: A hitter is either just experiencing bad luck, or are thinking too much at the plate, either about mechanics or trying to do too much.

How to fix:  A hitter needs to focus on something other than the swing mechanics and the result of the hit.  Aaron Judge has a trick that he often uses when he feels like he is struggling at the plate.  He will pick up dirt and rub it between his hands.  This is simply to take the focus off of the previous pitch or at bat and focus on something other than his struggles. Check out the article on this habit here

General guidelines

1. Don't think about more than 1 mechanical change at a time

2.  Don't think about mechanics or timing in the box

3. Take each game one pitch at a time

4. Relax.  If you have had success as a hitter at some point in the recent past, you will regain your form.  It usually takes 1 hit to break out and get back on track.

 

John Smoltz and Year Round Baseball

A few weeks ago, John Smoltz became the first pitcher to be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame after undergoing Tommy John Surgery. At the end of his speech he made a plea to parents and the emphasized need to take care of the arms of the future. If you haven’t seen it, here it is:

In the speech, he summed up the biggest issue surrounding not just baseball, but all youth sports today: early specialization and year round competition in one sport. I understand why parents see the need for their kids to focus on one sport from an early age. Everyday there seems to be more competition for a starting position or a college scholarship. Everyday there are new travel teams popping up promoting the benefits of year round competition. Parents are scared into thinking that their children will fall behind if they do not play as much as possible. However, there are two main problems with early specialization and year round play: health concerns and enjoyment of the game. For these reasons, I believe most would be better off taking time away from the field.

1. Health

Every sport places unique demands on the body, but throwing a baseball is unlike any other motion in sports. The picture below illustrates that throwing a baseball is not the best thing for the long term health of our body.

With the amount of stress placed on the shoulder, elbow, and just about every other joint, the body needs time to recover. Over the course of the season, pitchers lose internal rotation of the shoulder, rotator cuff strength and timing, along with a whole host of other strength, mobility, and stability concerns.

According to a study done by Dr. James Andrew, the biggest risk factor of injury to a pitcher is throwing too much. Listed below are some of the findings of the study and the markers for increased chance of major elbow or shoulder surgery:

Pitching more than 100 innings/year: 3 x more likely to need surgery

Throwing 80+ pitches per game: 4x more likely to need surgery

Pitching competitivley for 8+ months/year: 5x more likely to need surgery

Pitching regularly with arm fatigue: 36 x more likely to be in the surgery group

These numbers show the need to put the ball down for a few months a year. During this off time, proper shoulder function and strength need to be restored and mechanics need to be optimized to keep arms healthy.

2. Losing enjoyment of the game

Every year, as more and more kids are playing competitively without a break, I see less excitement for the game. I can remember every spring was the best time of year. Practice was starting and the season was right around the corner. Now, there isn’t the same excitement, because many never have a break from competing in the same sport. It is just the same, long continuous season.

I was recently working with a player on hitting and he said something that made me realize how year round playing may be ruining the fun of the game. He is a very good player who plays year round. I asked him what he had done for fun over the summer and he said “Nothing really. All I have done is play baseball, I haven’t even been able to go swimming with my friends.” I wish this was just an isolated case, but unfortunately, I have seen a similar attitude from many year round players.

There have been many people who have been outspoken against early specialization of young athletes, but every year there are more and more. Unfortunately, I believe that this trend will continue. If a player decides to specialize early, the following are some guidelines that will help keep arms healthy and kids loving the game: 

1. Take 2-4 months off from throwing.

2. Limit pitch totals and total innings over the course of a game and season.

3. Work with a qualified pitching instructor to develop optimal mechanics.

4. Work with a qualified trainer to develop the strength, mobility and stability needed to throw a baseball with less risk of injury.

5. Take time to enjoy other activities.

 

References:

1. Andrews, Dr. J and Fleisig, G. “Prevention of Elbow injuries in Youth Baseball Pitchers.”

Sports Health. 2012 Sept; 4(5): 419-424.

Exciting News!

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Exciting News!

Everyone that has worked with me knows how much I try to integrate technology and the latest tools into my instruction to help players better understand their swing, in addition to helping me be a better instructor.  I have always loved video, have used the Zepp swing sensor and have found using my radar gun incredibly helpful.  While all of those have been invaluable in my teaching, I will now be using a new tool that has as many capabilities as any on the market. The Hit Trax system is a state of the art tracking system that captures about as much as you can in a baseball swing.  

Every swing that a player takes is captured by the system to track the following:

    •    Exit Ball Velocity

    •    Distance of Hit

    •    Launch Angle/Elevation

    •    Batting Average

    •    Hard Hit Average

    •    % of Line Drives/Fly Balls/Ground Balls

    •    SLG and OPS

    •    Spray Charts

    •    Strike Zone Analysis 

    •    Performance Trends

All of these metrics are recorded after each and every swing during a session.  In addition, every swing is captured with a high speed camera, along with the metrics of that particular swing. This gives a ton of information about the swing and what areas need improvement.  

In addition, the system shows in real time where the ball would go on the field and what the result of the hit would be.   A player can choose to hit in any stadium in the Major Leagues, along with a few college stadiums.  The field dimensions are tailored to the age of each player and after each swing, the system tells the player what the result of the batted ball would be based on what an average defense at their age would do.  

The System has other features such as showing hot and cold zones in their swing, how hard they hit the ball in different depths of the hitting zone, spray charts and many more.

This information is invaluable to helping both me identify weaknesses in swings but also help players better understand their swing. Each player can log into the system from home and review their session and track their progress.  

For myself as the instructor this tool could not offer more.  I have always used video to track mechanics and the radar gun to track ball exit speed to ensure those were trending in the right direction.  Now, I will have so many other incredibly valuable metrics to help guide my instruction.

In addition to the wealth of information this system will provide for hitters, the Hit Trax System also does a ton for pitching lessons as well.  For pitching the system measures the following:

    •    Pitch Velocity

    •    Late Break Measurement

    •    Pitch Location

    •    % Strikes

    •    % of Line Drives/

    •    Fly Balls/Ground Balls

    •    Spray Charts

    •    Batting Average Against

    •    Analysis by Pitch Type

    •    Strike Zone Analysis

    •    Performance Trends

All of this information can help track not only pitching mechanics but give real data on velocity, control and pitch movement.

I am incredibly excited about this new, fun, incredibly informative tool to use at Elite Diamond Performance.  I really believe that his machine will help both me as an instructor and my players become the best players they can.  Come in an check it out!

 

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Timing Issues in Young Hitters Part 2: How to fix being late

In Part 1 of this post, I discussed the timing issue of being too early.  In case you missed it you can find it here.

Todays post will discuss the opposite problem: being too late. 

Lets start by seeing what a hitter looks like when they have good timing:

A hitter who is late will either hit the ball too far back in the hitting zone, ie well behind the front foot, or will get jammed and hit the ball below the sweet spot like this:

Causes

1. Faulty mechanics

Anything mechanical should be to help improve bat speed or keep the bat on plane with the pitch longer to improve contact.  If a player has mechanical issues, bat speed most certainly could suffer.  Slower bat speed will result in a hitter having a tough time catching up to faster pitching.

I won't go into great detail, but the top 3 mechanical factors affecting

-  Improper lower body mechanics (lack of a weight shift or rotation)

-  Disconnecting the arms too soon during the swing

-  Improper bat path

2.  Getting set too late

One of the most important positions in the swing is the launch position.  This is the position that a hitter is in when the heel of the front foot lands after the stride.  It should also be the position of the batter right before the hands begin moving forward.  When a hitter gets here too late, the result is often being late to meet the ball in the hitting zone.  To learn more about the launch position check out my article here.

3.   Lack of aggressiveness

Young hitters often times are not nearly aggressive enough in the batters box.   Many are simply content to just make contact.  However, maximum bat speed cannot be achieved with this passive approach.

4.   Swinging a bat that is too big

For the most part, I usually don't see bat size being an issue.  Most of the time the previous three reasons are more likely to contribute to being late than bat size.  However, there are times when a bat may just be too big for a player.  If a player is being aggressive and getting to the launch position on time, or is having a really tough time making mechanical changes, the bat may be too big.

How to fix

1.  Improve mechanics

This topic could be an entire book, but mechanical issues, like the ones listed above are usually the cause of a hitter being too late.  When a hitter doesn't use the lower body properly, swings the bat mainly with the arms, or has too long of a swing path, being late is usually the result. Getting in front of a qualified hitting coach to fix these can go a long way in improving mechanics to catch up to faster pitching.

2. Face faster batting practice

Many times, players just aren't used to seeing fast pitching.  Many batting practice sessions are comprised of pitching that is much slower than game speed.  Simply increase the speed and allow the hitter to adjust their timing accordingly.

3.  Use helpful cues

Cuing is very player specific.  Certain cues work for some players and some will work for others.  Try out some of these verbal cues to see if they can get a player to catch up to faster pitching,

- Attack the ball

- Hit the ball out front of your front foot

- Pull the ball

- Get set sooner

 

Elite Diamond Performance Outstanding High School Players 2017

Jack Carroll (Randolph High School)

Jack was named 2nd Team All Conference during an outstanding senior campaign.  Jack hit .290 with 10 doubles, 1 Homerun and 23 RBI all while missing 4 games.  His 10 doubles was good for 4th best in the state.  Jack will continue his baseball career at Susquehanna University next season.

Sam Beck (Rutgers Prep)

Sam had one of the best seasons on the mound of any player in the state.  In 54 innings he posted an incredible .90 era while striking out 65 and only walking 9.  He not only led Rutgers Prep to a county championship but also racked up the post season honors.  He was named 2nd Team All-American, 1st Team All Conference, 1st Team All Area and Honorable Mention All Region.  Sam will continue his career at Skidmore College next season.

Stu Backer (Randolph High School)

Stu finished his senior year hitting .329, 7 doubles and 23 RBI.  He was named 1st team All Conference for the 2nd time in his high school career.

Tim Lallis (Bernards High School)

Tim led Bernards High's offense this season with a .393 avg. and 8 Doubles.  He was named 1st team All-Conference and 2nd Team All Area.  In addition, Tim was named to the Senior All Star game where he went 2 for 2.  Tim will continue his baseball career at Delaware Valley College next season. 

Ryan Mulligan (Randolph High School)

Ryan was named 2nd Team All Conference during his senior season.  He finished the year hitting .293 with 5 doubles in the leadoff role for Randolph.

Timing issues in young hitters part 1: Being too early

Timing issues in young hitters part 1: Being too early

Generally, as players get older, pitchers get better and tougher to hit.  Pitchers throw harder, have better off speed pitches, better control, and make the ball move more as they get older.  All of these make hitting harder.  However, there is one challenge that younger players face that most higher level players don't: extreme variability in pitching velocity.

In the major leagues, the average fastball is 92 mph.  Most major league pitchers live in a range between 90-95 mph.  Anything lower or higher, hitters tend to feel less comfortable and can struggle.  At lower levels, pitching speeds can vary greatly.  In little league, hitters can see a much wider range.  The hardest pitchers at the 46/60 level can reach speeds in the upper 60s and low 70s.  Meanwhile, others throw in the 40s.  On any given night, a little league player could see a 20-25 mph speed difference from the night before. Even high school hitters can see this extreme variability.  Top level high school pitchers (division 1 or pro prospects) can sit in the upper 80s to low 90s.  Other high school,pitchers struggle to throw 75.

Some hitters struggle with being too late, others struggle with being too early.  In today's article, part 1, we will take a look at why hitters struggle being too early on the ball.  most of the time this comes as a result of facing a slower pitcher, by can also be the sign of a mechanical flaw.

What good timing looks like

In a good timed swing on a pitch down the middle, hitters will make contact with the ball somewhere over their front foot.  Like this:

3 mechanical signs that you are on time:

1.  Ball is hit somewhere over the front foot.  Contact should be made slightly out in front on an inside pitch and slightly behind on an outside pitch.

2. Back arm "L".  At contact, the back arm should form what looks like an L in right handed hitters and a J in left handed hitters.  This tells us that the arms have not extended yet.  When the arms extend too soon, bat speed slows down. 

3.  Contact is made with head in the middle of the body

What does it look like if a hitter is too early?

A hitter who is too early with either display reaching or lunging.  Reaching for the ball is when a hitter has their arms extended at contact and is meeting the ball far in front of their front foot.  Lunging is when a hitter pushes the vast majority of their weight over their front side in order to get the body closer to the ball. 

Left: Reaching for the ball with arms extended.                                     Right:  Lunging at the ball

Left: Reaching for the ball with arms extended.                                     Right:  Lunging at the ball

Many times, hitters salivate over the prospect of facing a slower than average pitcher.  However, these soft throwers often present just as many, if not more challenges to young hitters than hard throwers do.  So the question is why, with more time to react, do hitters struggle against what seems like an easier pitcher?  

3 Main reasons a hitter is too early

  1. Inability to control forward momentum (lunging)

Lunging is is not a problem that I see too often,  but when it appears, it can often show up when a hitter is facing a slower pitcher.  Basically, rather than allowing the ball to travel and hitting the ball deeper in the zone, the hitter is jumping out to meet the ball.  For more details on lunging check out my article here.

 

        2. Inability to keep hands back

Many young hitters struggle to use their entire body to swing the bat, and prefer to use the arms and hands more.  In particular, they start their swing with their arms instead of the lower body.  In a good swing, as the batter strides into the launch position and the body travels forward, the hands should stay back.  Look at Vladimir Guerrero on the right.  As his body moves forward into the launch position, his hands move back.  This allows the hands to stay back and lets the ball travel to the hitter instead of the hitter leaking the hands too soon and struggling with being early.

3. Pull happy approach

Sometimes being too early is simply a product of approach.  While I have no problem with a hitter trying to pull the ball, at times young hitters can be too focused on pulling.  Many times this occurs as a result of playing on a field with a short fence and a hitter becomes too focused on trying to drive the ball out of the park. 

Practice causes

  1. Facing batting practice that is too fast.  

Many times, coaches want to challenge their hitters by throwing batting practice that is at or above game speed.  While this could be a valuable exercise at times, doing this too often can cause issues.  Hitters who are thrown batting practice that is too hard can easily become "collision hitters."  This means that a hitters must just simply try to throw everything they have at a pitch because it is the only way to catch up.  How can you tell if you are broke a collision hitter?  Have your coach wind up and fake throw a ball.  If you end up lunging forward or your back foot can't stay planted on the ground, batting practice needs to be slowed down.  Continuing to throw high speed batting practice will only increase the problem.

       2. Hitting off of the tee out of position

Any first lesson that I have with a hitter I ask them to show me where they set up to hit off of the tee.  More often than not, they are out of position.  They either set the tee up too far out front or they set the tee up too far back.  In the case of being too early, many hitters practice with the tee too far out front.  This causes the hitter to have to find a way to get to the ball.  This is either achieved  by lunging at the ball with the whole body or reaching for the ball by extending the arms.

How to fix being too early

1. Take slower batting practice

             By having a hitter face slower batting practice, they have to learn to allow the ball to travel to them, rather than jumping out to get the ball.

2.  Hit off of the tee with the tee set back in the zone

            While many timing issues are not solved by tee work, hitters who do not feel comfortable hitting the ball deep in the hitting zone can benefit from this approach.  Ideally, when doing tee work a hitter wants to set the tee up directly over the front foot after they stride.  With a hitter who has a problem being too early, setting the tee up at the front foot before the stride or even deeper will get them to feel what it is like to hit the ball deeper in the zone.

3. Take an opposite field approach

           For hitters who understand how to hit the ball the other way, telling  hitter to try and drive the ball to the opposite field can often times let the ball travel deeper before they attack it.  This does not mean that every ball has to be hit the other way, it just means that a hitter is thinking about letting the ball travel.

Stay Tuned for part 2:  Timing Issues in Young Hitters:  Being too Late

 

 

Elite Diamond Performance 2017 College Outstanding Players

 

 

Max Matilsky, Dickinson College

During his rookie campaign, Max not only won the starting job at second base for Dickinson college but had a historic freshman year.  Max hit .325 with 12 doubles, 2 Home runs and 18 RBI.  He was named first team all Centennial Conference.  He was the only freshman named to a post season team for the conference and become only the 10th player in Centennial Conference history to be selected to the first team.

  

 

Luke Ronchi, Suffolk University

Luke finished his college career with a huge senior season.  His .293 avg. and 35 RBI helped lead his team to a 3rd consecutive conference championship.  In addition, Luke was named to 2nd team All Greater North Atlantic Conference honors.

 
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Will Anderson, Gettysburg College

Will finished his college career as one of the most successful hitters in school history.  Over his 3 years as Gettysburg's starting catcher, Will compiled a .327 avg, .519 slg %, 50 extra base hits and 89 RBI's.

 

 

 

 

Pat Anderson, TCNJ

Pat, a junior a TCNJ helped his team win the NJAC conference title and advance to the regionals.  Pat hit .297 with 18 RBi for the # 18 division 3 team in the nation.

 

 

 

Dave Sacco, Fairfield University

Dave started the year in the Stags bullpen and finished the year as a contributing starter.  He finished the year with a 3.09 ERA in 23 Innings Pitched.  IN addition, he averaged almost a strikeout per inning while walking only 6 batters all season.

Swing down to Create Backspin???

One of the pieces of advice that I have spent much of my career as a hitting instructor trying to disprove and fix in many swings is the concept of swinging down on the baseball.  This is a piece of advice that I was given for much of my baseball career.  I was told to take the shortest, most direct path to the ball, to hit the top of the baseball, etc.  I spent many hours hitting off devices like this.

In theory, it makes sense, swing the bat in a straight path because taking the shortest path possible should be the fastest, correct?  Let's take a look at a few major leaguers and how they would do at this drill.

I don’t think either of these elite hitters would do very well trying to swing down on the ball.  As I have mentioned in many articles before, Ted Williams proposed the idea that a batter wants to swing at a slight incline to meet the path of the incoming pitch.

An average major league fastball enters the hitting zone at a downward angle of 8-10 degrees, so as proposed by Ted Williams, keeping the bat on this path for a longer period of time will result in an increased chance to make contact.

Successful hitters will get the bat on plane with the pitch early and stay on the plane longer.  Let’s look at Jose Bautista again and Ryan Braun.

The barrel of his bat has already dropped below their hands in an attempt to meet the angle of the pitch.

In today’s world, it is not very hard to dispel this myth of swinging down on the baseball. Take a look at the clip below.

What do we notice? Pablo Sandoval gets the barrel of his bat below the ball well before contact. Why?  Because this will allow him to start creating the slight upward path to his swing to keep the bat on the same plane as the ball.  Even Eric Karros and AJ Pierzinski, two great major league players mention that videos like this will dispel some of the myths surrounding hitting.

Now that we have hopefully cleared up the bath path issue, let’s talk physics.  For starters, before I get into a discussion on physics, I have never in a game or practice thought about trying to create a certain spin on the baseball when hitting.  Hitting a baseball is one of the hardest things to do in sports and trying to put spin on the ball when hitting is simply unrealistic.

I have heard for years that hitters need to swing down on the baseball, hit the top of the ball to create backspin, and the ball will carry.  Drills like this one below are often used to teach kids how to do this.

Since we know that the bat of a successful hitter is moving at an upward path before contact, we can already see flaws with this drill and with this advice.  But what about backspin? The coach mentions that backspin is what helps the ball carry and go further.

Now, it is true that backspin will help the ball go further.  In fact, a study done at the University of Illinois proves this.  The researchers state that “increasing backspin from 1000 to 2000 rpm has the expected effect of keeping the ball in the air longer, increasing the maximum height, and increasing the total distance.”

So we get it, creating some backspin is a good thing.  However, the problem comes in how we create that spin.  Take a look at the hitters below. These are all swings that resulted in extra base hits.

Are they hitting the top of the baseball?  No, they are all hitting either the middle or just below the center of the baseball.  The picture below illustrates the different effects on the ball based on where the center of the barrel meets the ball.