Approach Part 2: Neutral counts

When speaking about approach, I break counts into 3 categories.  

1.  Hitters counts:  Any count with either no stirkes or more balls than strikes.  Read last weeks article on hitters counts here.

2. 2 Strike counts

and finally

3. Neutral counts

What is a neutral count?  

Simply any count that is not a hitters count or a 2 strike count.  While many of them may be slightly in favor of the pitcher or hitter, they are those middle counts (0-1, 1-1, 2-1).

What should be my approach?

There are a few things that hitters need to do in a neutral count.  

1.  Always look fastball first, adjust to anything off-speed. 

With good mechanics, it is possible to hit something slower if you are looking fastball.  However, if you are looking for something slow, it is almost impossible to catch up to a fastball.  

2.  Don't give in to the pitcher

Neutral counts mean that the pitcher generally has more options and freedom to mix pitches and locations than in hitter's counts.  However, that does not mean that we need to chase a pitch we can't put a good swing on.  We should open up the zone we are looking for compared to a hitter's count, but should not chase anything too far out of it.

3. Drive the ball back at the pitcher

Thinking about hitting the ball up the middle helps us with timing.  With pitchers having a little more say in these situations, we need to be ready for both the fastball as well as anything off speed.  If we get too pull happy in this situation, we leave ourselves open to being too early. If we think too much about driving the ball the other way, we may miss a pitch on the inner half that we can drive.  Taking the approach to hit the ball back up the middle allows for us to adjust to a wider variety of pitch speeds and locations.

 

Approach Part 1: Hitter's count

This time of year, we shift much of the focus from mechanics to approach. There is a lot to cover when talking about approach at the plate so I will be breaking this post into a few parts.  Today, I want to discuss the approach I want hitter's counts. 

What is a Hitter's Count?

A Hitter's Count is any count where the hitter has the advantage.  These counts include 0-0, 1-0, 2-0, 3-0 (with green light), 3-1 and 2-1.  Basically, any count where the hitter has no strikes or there are more balls than strikes.

Take a look at the chart below of batting averages, ON-Base Percentage, Slugging Percentage and OPS from the 2016 MLB season. 

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Lets take a look at those hitter's counts.  The highest batting average, slugging percentages,  and OPS are seen in these counts.  Aside from a full count (due to the probability of a walk) they also have the highest On-Base Percentage.  

Why are these counts so favorable?

The pitcher has to come to the hitter.  Baseball, boiled down to it's simplest parts, is the pitcher trying to get the hitter to hit his pitch and the hitter trying to get his favorite pitch.  In these hitter's counts, the pitcher has to give in a little more to the batter.  He can't try and be too fine and more often than not, will throw the pitch that they have the best control of which is usually a fastball.  

What should be our approach as a hitter in these counts?

There are two big components to the approach in a hitter's count, pitch selection and swing.

1.  Pitch Selection

Look for one pitch, in one location.  Unless you have some advanced scouting where you know a pitcher will throw a certain pitch the majority of the time in these counts, the pitch type and the location should be your favorite pitch, (the pitch you can put your best swing on).  

Split the plate into 2 halves.  Middle in, and middle away.  Choose which area you handle better.  Choose a pitch type, (most of the time should be a fastball). I would say for the majority of hitters, this will be a middle in fastball.  Sit on that pitch. Most hitter's will simply just look for that pitch and then react to it. I want hitters to take a more aggressive approach.  Expect the pitcher to throw that pitch and gear up everything you have for that pitch.  If it is there, hammer it, if it is not, out the brakes on and take the pitch.

2. Swing

Aside from the pitcher having to give in a little more to the batter in these counts, the type of swing that hitters take accounts for much of the success. Be Aggressive.  Swings in hitter's counts should be the best most aggressive swings that you take. The last thing that I or any other coach wants to see in this situation is a weak defensive swing.   

Overall

The best hitters in baseball take advantage of hitters counts because they know the pitcher has to come to them.  Sit on your favorite pitch in your favorite location.  If it is there, be aggressive and put your best swing on it.  If it is not a pitch you feel you can drive to the outfield, take the pitch. Remember, we get 3 strikes for a reason, so we don't have to give in to the pitcher in hitter's counts.

 

Snow Day Tips

Snow Day Tips

Here we are.  Another snow day in the middle of March pushing the start of everything back another week.  It is frustrating, I know, but a reality of playing and living in the northeast.  Today I wanted to offer some suggestions on how to make yourself a better player while stuck in the house. (Fort Nite is not one of them)

1. Take Swings

If you happen to have an area that is large enough to accommodate taking dry swings or hitting off of a tee then take some swings.  Make sure they have a purpose.  If you have a tee, check out my tee article and if you are taking dry swings check out my article on practice swings. Make sure you have a purpose with each swing.  Even if you pick up a bat and take 20 quality swings, you have made yourself a better player.

2. Practice movements 

Here is a picture of Joey Votto on First Base in a Spring Training game.  He doesn't even need a bat to work on his swing.  He is working solely on the movement of his body.  What do we notice about this position?  Back shoulder down, head out over home plate, front elbow up.  Check out my article on why dropping the back shoulder is so important.

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3. Watch Videos/Read articles

The wealth of information that players have at their disposal today is amazing.  Check out some of these great videos:

Joey Votto: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Nxd7M4wRiuE

Josh Donaldson: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NyWNCrxVzPU

Or check out some of my articles Here

 

 

How to deal with a coach who wants you to swing down and hit the ball on the ground

Every season, I have hitters who work their tails off at improving their bat path to become a more successful hitter and make huge strides, only to be told that they are doing everything wrong by their coach in the spring.   I have countless conversations with young hitters asking me how they handle this situation.  I will address this later, but first I want to discuss what coaches who disagree with a hitter using an upward bath path are missing.

Baseball has been undergoing a hitting revolution over the past few years.  There seem to be 2 camps that have developed.  The old school approach and the new school approach. 

Old School Approach

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Terms used: Swing down or Level, Hit the top of the ball, Hit line drives and ground balls, keep the barrel above the ball, Knob to the ball, short swing, etc.

This is the way that hitting has been taught throughout the majority of the history of the game.  The thinking is that avoiding strikeouts, increasing contact and keeping the ball out of the air will lead to a successful offense.  

New School Approach (I use this term only to simplify the article, as the mechanics taught here are what can be seen in good swing from 100 years ago)

Terms used: Drive the ball in the air, hit line drives and fly balls, take an upward bat path, hit the middle/bottom half of the ball, don't hit the ball on the ground, take a curved path to the ball, etc.

The thought behind this school is that hitters take an upward bath path to not only increase their chances of making solid contact, but also have more of a focus on trying to drive the ball and increase extra base hits.  

This approach is starting to expand in the world of hitting.  Coaches and instructors who teach this school of thought have utilized high speed cameras, data, analytics, and other technologies to show that hitters don't do what has been commonly taught. 

I have written a bunch of articles on all of this, but will give a quick synopsis.

Here are 2 videos, one of Jose Altuve hitting a HR and one of Greg Bird hitting a scorched line drive. Watch their bath path closely.  Notice how the barrel gets under the ball and works up to contact.  These are just 2 examples, and is what you will se in just about every good hitter at any level. 

This "New School approach" was even advocated for by Ted Williams in the 1970s.  Somehow, even when perhaps the greatest hitter of all time flies in the face of conventional wisdom at the time, people won't agree.

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Why if it is so clear what good hitters do, do coaches still advocate for the old school approach?

Even though Ted Williams advocated for taking an upward bat path over 40 years ago, this "new school approach"  has really only become popular over the past decade or so.  Why is this important?  Coaches start their coaching careers often times right after the end of their playing careers.  Most coaches have, at a minimum, played through the end of high school with many playing in college and possibly professionally.  This means that most coaches have been around baseball for somewhere between 12-20+ years before they get into coaching.  If we go back 12-25 years, we have to recognize that the "Old school approach" dominated hitting.  Why?  We didn't have the technology or data that we have today that proves that hitters don't swing down.  When most coaches enter coaching, they have been engrained with this thinking for much of their lives.  Try believing something for that long and changing your mind.  Not easy to do.

With all of that being said, I do think that the "New School Approach"  can be taken too far.  A wave of power has swept over the Major leagues over the past few seasons, with home run totals jumping back up due at least in part to hitters trying to elevate the ball. So what is the problem with this?  Many young hitters do not have the size or strength to hit the ball over the fence that these Major League hitters do, so getting these extremes in positive launch angles will not translate into a ton of success.  

So what are these coaches missing?

Coaches who still teach the "Old School Approach" believe that all fly balls are created by hitters swinging up too much and that line drives are created through a level or downward swing. Fly Balls are created by the bat hitting the bottom of the baseball, often times from a bat path that is working too down or completely level.  The whole point of an upward bath path is the increase contact area with the baseball and create line drives.  This is what successful hitters at any level do. 

What can we agree on?  

I think that finding common ground is the key to being able to weather a storm from a coach who teaches a style of hitting that has never really worked in the game.  What can we all agree on?  The main goal of any hitter is to create as many line drives as possible.  Take a look at the chart below.  This shows that batting average is highest between the launch angles of 10-25, aka line drives.  

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How to deal with a coach who teaches the "Old School Approach"

1. Don't tell him that he is wrong. 

Josh Donaldson gave the advice to young hitter to say no to a coach who tells you to hit the ball on the ground.  While I agree with his premise, never tell your coach that he is wrong.  For one, this is the easiest way to find yourself on the bench.  secondly, like I stated earlier, you are not going to change his mind.  I have sat down with coaches and given them all of the evidence in the world and they still refuse to buy in.

2. Find common ground.

If you know your coach teaches the "Old School Approach" and he approaches you about your swing, simply tell him that you are not trying to create fly balls but rather your aim is to create line drives.  This is something that he cannot argue with.  As much as I advocate for fly balls (to a point) being superior to ground balls, hard ground balls still trump weak fly balls to the infield.  

3. Stay the course

Most coaches who teach the "Old School Approach" don't have a tremendous eye for hitting mechanics.  I have seen it time and again where a coach will tell a hitter to swing down, the hitter takes their normal swing (upward bath path), hits a double to the gap and the coach applauds the hitter for doing what he told him to do.  Don't overhaul the mechanics that you know work because often times these coaches will not really be able to differentiate between what you are doing versus what they are telling you to do.  They will only see results and taking an upward path will lead to results.  

Takeaways from Joey Votto interview

It seems like every year there is one interview that runs on MLB Network that sparks new conversation in hitting.  There was the Josh Donaldson interview where he tells young hitters to say no if their coach tells them to hit the ball on the ground, the Nolan Arenado interview where he states that he doesn't want to hit the ball to the middle of the field because that where the best athletes are and this year the most talked about interview has been this Joey Votto interview.  

Joey Votto is, in my opinion the most underrated hitter in the game today.  This interview has a ton of great takeaways.

1. Launch angle is important but doesn't tell the whole story

Votto states that while Donaldson is correct in not trying to hit the ball on the ground, just trying to drive the ball in the air may not be the best approach for alot of hitters.  

I agree, and this is why the first thing I tell hitters is that our goal is to hit line drives.  After all the major league average on line drives is over .700 and is below .215 for both fly balls and ground balls.  Nothing novel here, but what he doesn't touch on is how to hit line drives.  The reason that I advocate for players to try and hit the ball in the air to is create line drives.  Most hitters stay too flat with their bat path and using the mindset to drive the ball in the air can help create a path that produces more line drives.  Check out my article on what happens when I have Hit Trax HR Derbies here.

2. Look for positives in non productive at bats

Votto states that one season his best game was an 0-6 day against the Cubs.  He felt like even though he was getting out, he was striking the ball well and that it was only a matter of time before the ball started falling.  This is a huge takeaway for younger hitters.  Often times we get very hung up on how each at bat effects our batting average.  Look for positives in each at bat even if it results in an out.

3. Treat each at bat as a separate event

Joey Votto has one of the highest first inning batting averages in the history of the game. However, if hes not successful in his first at bat, he doesn't let that carry over into his next at bat.  This can be a very hard thing to do but is something that high level hitters have the ability to do.  Often times if we get out in the first at bat, we press in the next at bat and get away from our game plan at the plate.

4. Let the ball be your guide

The most important thing that we can do as a hitter is hit the ball hard, consistently.  Hard line drives are what successful hitters get more often than lower level hitters.  If a mechanical adjustment helps you do that then stick with it.  If you are not squaring the ball up and hitting hard line drives, make an adjustment.  Let the ball off the bat lead you to the adjustments you have to make.

 

Guide to Successful High School Tryouts

Guide to Successful High School Tryouts

The first Friday in March was always better than any holiday.  In New Jersey, the first Friday in March marks the first day of high school baseball practice.  Depending on your grade and level played at last year, there are numerous emotions. The varsity player from last year is excited to get back and chomping at the bit the top last season.  The Sophomore who played Freshmen ball last year is hoping to prove himself to make it to the Varsity level and the freshman is hoping to make the team.  Excitement and nerves will be felt by most players as they go into tryouts.  Today I wanted to offer some tips for the players who are hoping to make the team or make it to the next level.  Often times High school tryouts last for only 2-3 days so these tips can go a long way in making an impression on a High School Coach.

1. Hustle

It sounds obvious, but hustling is something that most players don't do.  Make it known to the coaches that you want to be there and are passionate about making the team.  One of the quickest ways to get a coach down on you is to lack hustle, get easily upset, throw equipment, etc.  Handle practice like a professional.

2. Take the right approach in batting practice

Depending on the number of players on the team and the number of tryout days, a hitter may only have the ability to take a limited number of swings under the watch of the coaching staff. There should be only one thought in the mind of the hitter: Get the right pitch.  If it is a regular BP round, look for a no strike pitch.  All of the mechanical adjustments in the world can't do much if pitch selections is poor.  In fact, some of the best rounds of BP often come not as a result of significant mechanical changes, but from better pitch selection.  Give yourself the best oppritunity to drive the ball by getting a pitch that will allow you to do that.

3. Prepare your body

To put yourself in the best position to play well, you have to get your body ready. Sleep and diet are the top 2 things that you can do in the upcoming week. 

Sleep-  Get a good night sleep starting tonight, not just the night before tryouts.  You don't want to be fatigued going into the first day of practice.  If your team has an AM practice, get your body used to the earlier wake up time by going to bed earlier and waking up at the early time a few days before the first practice.  (I'm not a big fan of 5:30 am practice, but many schools have them and if your coach wants to have them you have no choice.)

Nutrition- Eat well and drink lots of fluids.  Many schools have conditioning as a major part of tryouts to see who has been working in the off-season.  Even if you have worked your butt off, poor nutrition and hydration can make it appear as though you haven't.  Wake up and drink a glass of water, have breakfast, make sure that you are fueling your body so that you can be at your best.

4. Relax and Control only what you can conrol

Remember, baseball is a game of failure.  Chances are, you will take at least one bad swing in BP, miss a ground ball or make an overthrow at some point during tryouts.  It happens....to everyone.  Forget about it and move on.  Don't let a single mistake dictate the rest of the tryout.

When you are competing for a spot on the team, there will be competition.  Don't worry about the other player you are competing with.  If they do something spectacular, don't try and one up them and get outside of yourself.  Control only what you have control over: yourself.

Summary

Tryouts can be both exciting and stressful.  An off season worth of training often comes down to just a few days to impress a coach.  Prepare the right way, stay within yourself and have fun!

 

Night With the Pros Recap

Last Tuesday marked the first "Night with the Pros" at Elite Diamond Performance.  This event was one of the goals that I had envisioned when I opened up the facility.  I wanted to give my younger players the opportunity to interact with these amazing athletes and baseball players.  I had an amazing night and want to thank all of the parents, players, and coaches for joining in the evening. 

The event began with the professional players shadowing live at bats off of Mike Wallace, a pitcher in the Pirate minor league system.  The hitters then put on a show in batting practice for the younger guys, launching balls over the fence at Yankee Stadium on the Hit Trax.  Following BP, came the highlight of the night for me, the Question and Answer section.  The professional players took questions from players and parents and I would like to share some of the highlights.

Ty Benson (Padres), Nick Egnatuk (Brewers), Kevin Mahala (Pirates), Derek Jenkins (Angels), Mike Wallace (Pirates) and Ryan Rinsky (Florence Freedom), all shared valuable insights into how they got to the professional ranks and what it takes to get there.

College Recruiting:

We had a mix of high school draft picks, players who signed before they graduated college, and players who finished college.  However, they all went through the college recruiting process and shared 2 very valuable pieces of advice for the aspiring college players.    

1. Don't give up when a coach tells you that you are not good enough for their program

All of the professional players had similar stories of coaches who had no interest in them or simply told them that they weren't good enough.  Think about that.  The vast majority of players who play college baseball professionally, and all of these pro players were told by someone that they were not good enough.  Use that as fuel to get better!

2. Stand out with the way that you communicate

In today's world, college coaches are more accessible than ever, but players often struggle to communicate in a way that help coaches remember who they are.  Coaches are constantly bombarded by impersonal emails and text messages.  When leaving a camp or showcase, introduce yourself and shake the coaches hand.  It may help them remember you when the time comes to offer a spot.  Follow up the meeting with a hand written letter.  In 2018, that will definitely stand out.

3. Act like a professional

Hustle on and off the field.  Don't throw your equipment.  Run out everything.  Be a good teammate.  It sounds cliche but play like you are being scouted at every game.  You never know who is watching.  After working with these players, they all act like professionals.  They all show up on time, work hard, don't get down on themselves when they struggle and help each other out. College coaches want not only good talent, but good people for their teams.  One of the quickest ways to have a coach lose interest is to act like a jerk.

4. Every player develops at a different rate

With the exception of Nick Egnatuk who got drafted out of High School, none of the other pro guys were on anyone's draft radar in high school.  None of them committed to college as freshmen or sophomores.  They were all later developing kids.  In today's world of 8th graders and freshmen being offered by the Vanderbilt's and Florida's of the world, you have to keep in mind that every player develops differently.  Some players who develop and mature early, may be offered more early on, but it is still very much a possibility to advance far in this game if your personal development is later.  

Hitting:

1. The metal side of hitting is huge

There was a little talk of mechanics, but the main thing that the pro guys kept going back to was handling the metal side of hitting.  With such long seasons, they have to be able to navigate the roller coaster that is hitting.  They all talked about not allowing the previous at bat or game effect the upcoming ones.  They train for this when they are working at the facility.  They get excited when they hit 100 mph exit velocity or crush a ball over the fence, and get upset when they struggle, but they have a unique ability to not get too high or too low.  They are purely focused on the next swing and what they have to do to get the best result.  Baseball is filled with failure, especially as a hitter.  Learning to deal with that and work through it is a key to advancing.  

2.  Having an approach at the plate is key

Each hitter talked a little about the way that they approach at bats.  While they varied slightly, they all touched on the concept of having a plan.  Far too often, young hitters have no plan when stepping in the box.  Most of these guys are zoned in on their pitch with the count in their favor and are looking to do damage.  From there, they adjust based on the count, situation, pitcher, etc. 

"I'm a Jersey boy just like you guys"

Angels outfielder Derek Jenkins said it best to the kids when he told them that he was once in the same exact spot that they are in.  These guys are all New Jersey born and raised who were not standouts until later in their careers.  They are all getting paid to play baseball.  Work hard, never give up and good things will happen.

 

The Importance of Spine Angle in creating a powerful, consistent swing

Just about everything is developing a powerful, consistent swing path begins with body position.  If the body is not where it needs to be, you can do whatever you want with your hands and the swing won't fall in place.  Today I want to discuss the importance of spine angle, that is the position of the upper body from a side view from the beginning of the swing through contact.

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What should the spine angle look like?

Notice how each one of these hitters is slightly leaned back with their upper body.

The degree to which they lean back is dependent on each hitter.  Look at the picture below.  Both hitters have some lean back, but Chris Davis is leaned back much more than Ichiro Suzuki.   Why?  It all has to do with the type of hitter they are.  

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Every successful hitter uppercuts and has an upward path to their swing.  The degree to which they move the bat up varies slightly from hitter to hitter.  Chris Davis is one of the most prominent power hitters in the game and makes his living by hitting the ball over the fence.  Therefore, he works up more to the ball than most hitters.  Ichiro on the other hand has made a hall of fame career by hitting line drives.  His bat path, while still very much working up, is designed more to slapping singles all over the field. 

I use these two hitters to showcase the 2 ends of the body position spectrum.  Most hitters are not as big and strong as Chris Davis and cannot launch balls at a 45 degree launch angle over the fence.  Likewise, most hitters do not possess the bat control and speed that Ichiro does to almost begin running out of the box as he makes contact.  Just about every hitter should fall somewhere between these two when it comes to the amount that they are leaned back.

Why is leaning back important?

If you look at the Chris Davis and Ichiro pictures, you should notice that the bat path (yellow line) is perpendicular to the spine angle (blue line).  This simply means that the most powerful, efficient bat path a hitter can produce should match the spine angle.  Chris Davis swings at a steeper angle because he leans back more, and Ichiro is less upward because his spine angle is a little straighter.  Why do young hitters tend to swing level or down?  Because with an upper body that is leaned forward (Lunging), the most efficient path is down.  

Without the upper body leaned back, a hitter cannot create a powerful upward bath path that is essential to being a successful hitter.

Drill to work on spine angle

This drill is one of my favorites for helping players feel their spine angles.  Align the tee up in the center of the body instead of out front.  Try to and drive the ball in the air.  This will force the upper body to stay back and not get out front.

How to use the Tee

Perhaps the most commonly used piece of hitting equipment is the batting tee.  I use it for almost every lesson that I do.  However, I have a love/hate relationship with the batting tee.  Let me explain.

Why do I love the tee?

The tee is an awesome implement when working on certain mechanical issues.  The tee allows hitters to really focus and break things down in their swing.  Most of the swings that I have hitters take off of the tee are sub max effort swings where they are trying to exaggerate certain mechanical changes we are trying to get into their swing.  Often times, these muscle memory changes can only occur in a controlled environment such as hitting off of a tee.

Why do I hate the tee?

While the tee can help hitters gain feel in their swing and allow hitters to slow things down, often times hitters change their swings when working on the tee.  I see hitters change their bat path, get too pushy with their hands, and become out of sync with coordinating their body.  Hitters can take a bad swing off of the tee in a cage and the result may look nice, but would not translate to a good swing in a game setting.  In addition, I see far too many ground balls off of the tee due to changes in bath path.  

What should hitters try to do when they are working on the tee?

Hitters are often told to try and hit line drives to the back of the cage.  While not the worst advice given to hitters, hitters should aim to drive the ball to the top of the cage.  Why?

The biggest mechanical issue that I work on with hitters is creating more upward bat path in their swings to match the plane of the incoming pitch.  The reason for this is that this upward path meeting the downward plane of the ball will increase the chances of producing line drives.  Off of the tee, the ball is not moving, it is stationary.  Therefore, if a hitter takes a proper upward bat path, the ball should be more elevated than it would be in a game.  When a hitter creates line drives to the back of the cage, the bat path is often too flat.

2 of my Favorite Tee Drills

I have numerous drills that I work on with players off of the tee based on what their specific needs are.  However, these 2 drills are ones that I use most often with hitters to create a good bat path.

1. Bat under stick

Have a coach hold a long plastic stick about a foot behind the baseball at the same height as the ball and have the hitter swing under the stick to hit the ball.  This will recreate the proper bat path.  

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2. Double tee Drill

- Set up 2 tees about 1-2 feet apart/back tee should be about 3-6 inches lower than front tee.  Have hitter try and hit both balls to create an optimal bat path

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- Set up 2 tees about 1-2 feet apart/back tee should be about 3-6 inches lower than front tee to create an upward bat path

 

 

 

 

Maintaining Tilt during the Swing

 Body position is paramount when talking about hitting mechanics.  We can discuss all sorts of details, but if the body is not positioned correctly, nothing else will fall in place.

When talking about tilt, we are talking about the way that the body is positioned when looking at a hitter from the pitchers perspective.  

What should this position look like?

One of the biggest mechanical changes I try to make in a player's swing is to get them to drop their back shoulder.  You can check out that article here.  As important as getting the back shoulder down is maintaining it throughout the swing.  At contact, a hitter should look something like this:

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The biggest components of this position are maintaining the back shoulder down, having the head out in front of the feet, and the bend in the side of the body closest to home plate.

In addition, plane of the bat should match the plane of the shoulders.  Like this:

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Why is this important?

Keeping the back shoulder down and keeping the upper body tilted over home plate allows for 2 major components of successful hitting:  Proper bat path and generation of bat speed.  

Proper bat path:

Keeping this tilt throughout the swing allows the batter to get the bat underneath the baseball and work up through the hitting zone.  The bat and hands should be moving up through contact. Like this:

When a hitter cannot get to this position or fails to maintain it through contact the hitter tends to work down or level through contact.  This decreases the hitter's chance of making good contact and decreases their ability to hit line drives or driven fly balls. 

Power:

One of the biggest components of generating power in a swing is the hitter's ability to stay connected.  This means that they are able to keep their hands connected to their back shoulder for as long as possible to allow the bigger stronger muscles in the body to create power.     

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If the hands have to disconnect from the body too soon, bat speed will be reduced and power will drop.

How do we work on this?

Here is one of my favorite new drills for getting players to feel this position and maintain it.  

 

Coaching points:

1. Start in launch position (Athletic position, hips back, chest leaned forward) with head on pole.

2. Slowly rotate until the knob of the bat faces the pitcher, keeping the head on the pole with back shoulder down.

 

 

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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