On Thursday, Kris Bryant was named National League MVP. This coming a year after he won the National League Rookie of the year. So, what makes Kris Bryant so good? Obviously, Kris Bryant was born with a 6'5 frame and other factors that make him who he is. However, I believe that one major point of advice that he received from a young age is what has led to much of his success.
When asked by Jessica Mendoza in an interview for ESPN what the most important advice that was given to him as a hitter, he responded with, "hit the ball in the air." Many people who hear this immediately are dumbfounded. "Hit the ball in the air? That goes against everything that I was taught." It is probably the same reaction that I get routinely when I offer the same advice to the players that I work with.
So why would this piece of advice work when the vast majority of players are taught the complete opposite from an early age?
1. Trying the hit the ball in the air produces a better bath path to improve contact area.
One of the most important factors in successful hitting is keeping the path of the bat on the plane of the pitch for as long as possible. The ability to do this improves a batters chance of making contact. This means swinging the bat on a slight incline through the hitting zone. Check out my video on bat path here.
2. Thinking about hitting the ball in the air produces more line drives
This ties directly into # 1. Improving the bat path to meet the path of the incoming pitch will increase the chances of the barrel squaring up the ball. This means the bat will meet the ball at the midline or just below the equator of the ball, thus producing line drives.
3. Hitting the ball in the air is actually more productive than hitting the ball on the ground.
While most coaches believe that ground balls are more productive, this could not be further from the truth. Most who preach hitting the top of the ball to get it on the ground say so because in theory, fielding a ground ball is harder than fielding a fly ball. I have seen coaches fire a ground ball at a player and then toss a lazy fly ball to the player and ask which was harder. I have heard coaches state that fielding a ground ball requires a player to field the ball, throw the ball and have someone catch the ball, while a fly ball only requires a player to catch the ball. So, 3 plays versus 1. However, take a look at the statistics below from the 2013 MLB season:
On-Base Pct.: .232
Slugging Pct.: .250
On-Base Pct.: .213
Slugging Pct.: .621
As mentioned in # 2, thinking about hitting the ball in the air can help produce the most desirable outcome, line drives. So, if we take those out and compare grounders and fly balls, we notice that the later is more productive. If we simply compare On-base percentage, grounders would win. However, if we look at Slugging Percentage, and OPS (perhaps the best measure of a hitters productivity), we notice that fly balls are far superior to grounders.
For these reasons (improved bat path and increased productivity from increased fly balls and line drives) it is no secret as to why the advice given to Kris Bryant at a young age has had some role in his success. Most players are told to hit the top of the baseball and hit the ball on the ground, while they would benefit much more from trying to hit the ball in the air.
What issues are there? In this launch position, his back shoulder is dropped too much and he leaves too much weight on his back leg. When he swings, he pops up too much and has trouble rotating his hips.
While there is a lot going on here, the most important issue to clear up for him was his weight shift. Getting more weight on his front side and being more balanced caused him to level out his shoulders in his launch position, which caused fewer pop ups. It also allowed his to free up his back leg to help rotate his hips.
If we had tried to tell him to rotate his hips without first clearing up the weight shift, it wouldn't have happened because in order to fully rotate the hips, there cannot be too much weight left on the back leg.
Write down all of the flaws that you find and then attack them in order of importance.
Overall, batting practice is vital to the development and success of any hitter. However, we need to make sure that we are doing it correctly. Make sure that you don't swing to a point of diminishing returns, focus on pitch selection and try and stick to one mechanical issue per round.