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Attack the Zone

October 13, 2010 By: Danny Putnam Category: Coaches Corner No Comments →

danny putnamThis week I bring you some insight into hitting that may challenge your current ideas and contradict some of the things you are teaching to your players. I say this because I have become aware that some of the phrases and ideas I would tell myself have actually been a hindrance to my success. I have spent hours, upon days with baseball great Willy Upshaw this season. He has helped turn my approach right side up.

Have you ever heard, “Let the ball get there, hit it deep”? This phrase is usually used to encourage the hitter to let the ball travel all the way to the strike zone before swinging. It is used to keep someone from jumping out and being too early.  On that premise, “let it get deep” sounds like a good idea. However, what does “deep” actually mean? Where is this ideal contact point? Answer, just out in front of your front foot. That is a general range, and the contact point will vary based on pitch speed, type, location, and the hitter’s timing. If not understood properly a player may interpret deep means not making contact till the ball travels all the way to their back leg, or their waist. Next time you watch baseball highlights study where the best big league hitters are striking the ball. Even on pitches away, they are still delivering the barrel head. The problem with letting the ball get too deep is that the barrel never gets a chance to accelerate through the hitting zone. Consistently letting the ball travel too deep can create several bad habits: lagging the barrel behind the hands, slicing balls the other way, pulling the bat through the zone instead of driving the barrel head to the ball, and being unable to handle the inside fastball.

If you have read any of my previous articles you know I emphasize aggressiveness and an attack mentality at the plate. The key is to direct all the energy and swing to that contact point in front of your body. You can’t attack a ball that is already past your belly button; that is too late. Let it get deep is a passive phrase which will make a hitter get too defensive and indecisive.

Hitting the ball out front does not mean trying to hit the ball out of the pitcher’s hand or lunging forward. It means being disciplined, ready to attack the ball, and letting the ball travel to the hitting zone. Letting the ball travel to the hitting zone is fine as long as it is clear where the hitting zone is. When you attack the right zone, you won’t lunge forward with your body, because you will be using your hands to deliver the barrel to the contact point. You also won’t be late, because you still will be attacking the ball before it travels too far back towards the catcher. Then you will be able to get extension towards center field because the barrel is releasing out in the front of the zone.

Attack the Zone.

Have you ever heard, “Stay back; keep your weight back.” Coaches use this to keep kids from lunging forward and getting out on their front foot. Yes, lunging is bad, but so is getting stuck on your backside, never using your legs or transferring power in the swing to the contact point. Again, “stay back” is a passive mindset, which cannot be taken to the plate. There is a way to balance those extremes: Attack the Zone.

Getting the weight back is part of the preparation to hit. Readiness. Load. However, that weight has to go somewhere. It goes to the zone, to the contact point. There should be a weight transfer as the legs drive, the hips rotate, and the hands deliver the barrel to the ball at contact. When you try to force a player to stay back, you actually interfere with a natural and powerful swing. Imagine telling a pitcher he has to leave his back foot on the rubber as he follows through. He couldn’t. You have to release the power both the throwing motion and the swing.

When you start to understand where the contact point is, then you can begin to let your power and weight transfer to that point. It is not a lunge or a drift. It is an aggressive drive to the zone. Take everything to that spot.

Attack the Zone

A good friend of mine got to spend some time with Ken Griffey Jr. when he was with the Mariners. They talked for about an hour on the bench during a spring training game, and the whole conversation with this future hall of famer is summed up in one sentence. Be ready to hit fastballs down the middle.

This statement is pure genius in its simplicity. When you are ready to hit fastballs, you won’t be late. When you look to attack the middle of the plate, you will stay off pitches off the plate and breaking pitches that break out of the zone. When you stay focused on the middle of the zone you won’t chase as many pitches. The middle allows for human error and movement on the pitch. If you swing at a pitch just off the middle of the plate, it is still a strike. But if all you are looking for is a strike, the ball just off the strike zone is a pitch that you will chase. “Aim Small, Miss Small” (The Patriot). The more consistent you are at attacking the middle of the zone, the more disciplined you will be and the more dangerous at the plate you will become. When you take your swing to the middle every time, you are putting your swing in position to make small adjustments from there. Always start with fastball middle, and adjust from there.

Attack the Zone

Fly Ball Angle Drill

August 19, 2010 By: Billy Horton Category: Coaches Corner No Comments →

billy hortonThe fly ball. It can be a pitcher’s best friend in a spacious ballpark or their worst nightmare if they have guys playing behind them who don’t have a clue. One of the biggest mistakes I see as a coach is when a player takes a bad angle to a fly ball. It happens much too often at the younger levels and it can really turn a simple base hit to right field into a circus. I have observed too many sharply hit singles that turn into triples because the outfielders run sideways instead of taking a deeper angle to the area where the ball is hit.

A lot of things come into play for an outfielder when a ball is hit. How deep am I playing, which direction is the wind blowing, remember to run on the balls of my feet so my eye balls won’t jump up and down, will the guy next to me hear me when I call it or just trainwreck me ala Jeff McIntosh at Cactus High circa 1991. No bad feelings buddy. I just couldn’t walk for 2 days after you drove your dagger-like kneecap into my quad muscle and flattened me in left center. A lot of things come into play and when doing drills it’s best to start out simple by throwing baseballs, not hitting them.

What I have listed below is an excellent drill for you to use for your players to work on taking good angles to fly balls. Once they get good at this you can increase the difficulty by throwing the ball over their opposite shoulder so they have to snap their head around in order to catch it. This will simulate a windy day or simply losing sight of the ball on your route to it. All you need are a couple of cones and balls.

Fly Ball Angle Drill (2 cones)
1.) Place a cone or object down for the starting point.
2.) Space out 2 cones 30 feet apart from the start point at a 45 degree angle.
3.) Partner points to one of the cones and the player opens up that hip and drop steps in the direction of the cone.
4.) Player sprints past the cone and then while in stride looks over their shoulder for the ball.

The Greatest Play in the History of Baseball

July 01, 2010 By: Billy Horton Category: Coaches Corner No Comments →

billy hortonOn this Independence Day weekend I thought it would be appropriate to acknowledge Rick Monday and his outstanding act of patriotism in April of 1976. I believe it is our duty as coaches to teach our players about being proud of the American flag and what it stands for.

It was always one of my favorite parts of the game to stand on the chalk line and listen to the National Anthem when I was a player. I still remember the fields I played on and made a point to ingrain the memory in my head so I could look back on those times when I was older. It brings a smile to my face as I am writing this article as I think back to my home fields in high school, college and pro baseball. Don’t be ashamed to sign the anthem out loud and even have a tear in your eye when you are doing it.

Proper Warm Up Routine

May 15, 2010 By: Billy Horton Category: Coaches Corner No Comments →

billy hortonAs promised in my last article I am going to talk about the proper way to get warmed up. Too many players go out to the field and start playing catch before they get their bodies stretched out. Some of it comes from youthful exuberance and the fact that some look at stretching as boring. Other times it comes from a coach being lazy and just wanting to get to the baseball side of practice. While I can’t fault a kid’s excitement to start playing catch, I will lay blame on a coach for not preparing his team the way he should.

I hear similar phases like the following all the time. “They’re just kids and won’t get hurt.” “I only have 90 minutes for practice.” “The kids don’t like it and I don’t want to hear them complain.” All of these statements have something in common. They are excuses. You are the coach and the players follow your lead. It is your job to have a game plan written up before you get there so you can help your team improve their level of play. It is also your responsibility to do your very best to prevent injuries so the players can do what they love- PLAY!

A very simple routine that takes as little as 10 minutes can be performed to get their blood pumping and their muscles loosened up. I prefer dynamic stretching versus static stretching when preparing for an athletic event. Static is when you hold a stretch in place. Dynamic is when you are moving as you are stretching.

Listed below is a set of movements we do prior to practices, games and camps. I encourage you to try them at your next event. For the lower body, set up cones or some other object as a start and end point. I would separate them 20 to 30 yards apart. For the upper body, go through each motion 10 repetitions.

Lower Body
1.) Jog one lap around the field or a couple times around the bases.
2.) Side shuffle to your right, then go back to your left facing the same way.
3.) Carioca to your right, then go back to your left facing the same way.
4.) Run backwards, then sprint forward to your starting point.
5.) Skip forward, then power skip (jump higher) to your starting point.
6.) Lunge as you do a midsection twist forward, then do this backwards to your starting point.

Upper Body
1.) Place arms at a 90 degree rock your arms forward and backward at the shoulder joint. Perform three sets at different hand positions: palms up, palms down and thumbs up.
2.) Do the same as #1 except now cross your arms over your chest.
3.) Do the same as 31 except now cross your arms behind your back.
4.) Place your elbows shoulder high, interlock your fingers with your throwing hand palm in, glove hand palm out. Pull your fingers in opposite directions and then move your arms in the following three motions: side to side, small circles forward & back, swim with elbows forward & back.
5.) Do the same as #4 except now interlock your fingers and then push your hands together as you complete the 3 motions.
6.) Place your arms shoulder high and then straighten them out to the sides of your body. Perform arm circles forward and backward in the following three hand positions: palms up, palms down and thumbs up.

We offer this routine, plus a lot more on our Professional Baseball Training DVDs. Sometimes a visual is a lot easier than written material. You can pick them up on our Online Store by clicking here- Cactus Store. Please remember with any new exercise, if you experience pain stop immediately and consult your physician.

Playing catch with a baseball in your hallway

April 23, 2010 By: Billy Horton Category: Coaches Corner No Comments →

billy hortonI tell my pitchers this all the time- “You are going to be so good with your accuracy that your mom will let you and your friend play catch in your hallway.” I almost always receive the same response- laughter from the players and rebukes from the parents. As much as I want them to take me literally, this is more for visual training. I want the pitcher to understand his margin for error is very small.

When standing on the mound the pitcher throws from the rubber, which is 24 inches in length. In contrast, home plate is only 17 inches across making the midpoint of the plate 8.5 inches. What that basically means is that if the goal is to throw the ball right down the middle of the plate, the pitcher can only miss his target by roughly 9 inches either way or he will throw a ball. While 9 inches may not seem like a lot in many walks of life, it may as well be a mile in baseball. Remember we consider most 35 year old shortstops ancient.

This comes to my main point- What are you focusing when you pitch? Some players simply say they are looking at the catcher. If you miss the outer portion of the catcher by 9 inches, your pitch will be behind the batter. Others say they are looking at the glove. When opened up and giving a target, the average catcher’s mitt is almost 11 inches across. That would cover over 60% of home plate and when set up down the middle, would give you only 3 inches on each side of the plate that are not covered by the glove. Therefore if you missed the outside of the glove by 9 inches, which is what the players said they are looking at, you would probably HIT the batter.

I want the pitcher to focus on a small point INSIDE THE MIDDLE of the glove. Now if your catcher is set up down the middle, you can miss your target by about 9 inches either way and still get a strike called. For those of you who are thinking “I never have my catcher set up down the middle”, having a small focus is even more important because now your margin of error is even smaller. All of this sounds great and it is assuming you throw the pitch in the strike zone. The rule book says this zone goes from the batter’s armpits to knees, but as we all know this can change daily depending on your umpire and how often he visits his optometrist.

I have worked with Tom House on numerous occasions and one of his famous sayings is “Aim small, miss small”. Some people don’t like to use the word aim because you hear coaches yell at their pitchers from the dugout all the time “Don’t aim it Johnny!” That’s why I like to use the word focus versus aim. The definition of the word focus even sounds good- a central point of attention. I am big on the words spoken to players, because the terminology you use is just as important as what you teach. It’s funny how 2 coaches can teach a player the same exact drill, but sometimes the way it is communicated by one coach makes it click with the player.

I encourage you to use this visual technique with all of your players when they are playing catch before practice and games. Have them give a chest high target and tell them that they need to keep the ball in-between 4 points: the beanie on top of their cap, the outside of each shoulder and their bellybutton. Also remember that playing catch before practice is not considered warming up. Stretching your muscles is warming up. Playing catch is working on throwing mechanics. An article on this will come next time.

Catching Stances

March 19, 2010 By: Billy Horton Category: Coaches Corner No Comments →

billy hortonBeing comfortable behind home plate is essential for a catcher. It is also very important to know that during the course of a game, catchers will be squatting in different positions depending on the situation. Listed below are the three main positions that we have found to be the most effective. Remember, the catcher is the general of the field so choosing some of your brightest and best athletes to play this position will put you in the best position to succeed.

(1.) Reading Stance

- From this position we control the game and give signs to the pitcher.

(2.) Receiving Stance

- This is done with no one on base or with less than 2 strikes on the batter.

- Get in nice and relaxed to be in the best position to catch the ball.

- Showing the umpire the location of the pitch is very important.

(3.) Blocking and Throwing Stance

- This is when runners are on base or with 2 strikes on the batter.

- Butt should be up higher in the air than the receiving stance.

I got the ball, now what?!

February 17, 2010 By: Billy Horton Category: Coaches Corner No Comments →

billy hortonYou may laugh at the title, but how many of you coaches have sat in the dugout and yelled “Throw the ball!” to your left fielder as he pump fakes the baseball like he’s Kurt Warner trying to draw the free safety away from Larry Fitzgerald. That’s right, every one of you. Typically the coach gets mad at the player and the player is mentally toast for the rest of the inning or possibly the game. Now I pose this to you- Is it the player’s fault or possibly does more blame fall on the coach for not preparing him well enough?

I think we should lean towards the latter. Granted some players are watching butterflies while other are focused on the delightful smell of hot dogs emanating from the snack shack. It’s almost a lock that the next ball hit will be headed directly at them like a heat seeking missile. For the most part I think it does fall on us as coaches. While working on fundamental grounders and fly balls is essential, I think that sometimes we should focus more on situational defense in practice.

Here is a great way to start. Work on relays and cutoffs. Have the players line up in throwing groups of 4 and spread them out about 10-20 yards apart depending on how old they are. Teach them how to turn to their glove side when receiving the ball so they can cut down on the steps they take when they go to throw it. If possible get them to turn their bodies towards their target while the ball is in mid-air so all they have to do is turn, step and throw.

Once that is done put players in defensive positions and work on only one base at a time. Put them in the 3 outfield positions and have the short stops and second baseman work on cuts to second base. After that you can progress to third base and eventually home plate. Teach them that it is of utmost importance to position the cut off man so he is in a direct line between the outfielder and the base the ball is going to. We all know that the shortest distance between two points is a straight line.

Remember it is our job to put the players in a position to succeed. We can’t catch it or throw it for them, but we can do our best to prepare them. One last thing is emphasize to the players is the importance of being in a ready position on the balls of their feet before every pitch. Hopefully that will keep the butterfly chasing to a minimum.

Choosing the Right Bat

January 23, 2010 By: Danny Putnam Category: Coaches Corner No Comments →

danny putnamOne of the amazing things about parents is their ability to provide for their kids. There is no limit to the extent a parent will go for the well-being of a child. This truth is evident in the fact that you are reading this article. So I applaud you for unselfishly taking the time to learn something that you can pass on to your children as an investment in their athletic future. Not only do I want to applaud you, but I also want to help relieve some pressure that some of you may be feeling.

You don’t have to buy the most expensive bat for your child! More expensive does not mean better, and it certainly does not equate to “providing for them”. I understand the pressure of “keeping up with the Jones”. For example, you may have heard your son come home and go on-and-on about the new bat Billy got and how cool and expensive it is. The “new bat day” with youngsters is kind of how adults get when a friend or neighbor gets a new car. You may ask yourself, “Maybe I need a better one now?”

The top of the line aluminum bats can cost in the range of $400! Is the best and newest bat really worth a car payment? You may rationalize the sticker shock with “I want to provide the best for my child.” However, I argue against that notion and hope that you do not feel obligated to make such an investment. Don’t get me wrong. I am not trying, nor am I qualified, to tell you how to spend your money. I just want to challenge the notion that more expensive is better.

In certain cases, I will argue the opposite. Some of the more expensive Little League bats are -13. That means that a 30 inch bat will weigh only 17 oz. Over time bats have become lighter and lighter due to the new technologies and materials that bat companies utilize. These new technologies come with a price tag that I am sure you have felt at the register. Here lies the problem: we tend to buy the best. The best is generally associated with price. Price is set by the manufacturer. Therefore I have this question: does the bat company really know what is best for your child? Their expertise is creating the next years  shinier and more expensive model, not in the development your child’s swing. (I am not anti-bat company. I am just trying to shake things up a bit).

Is a lighter bat really better for a youngster? After all, everybody has heard that you want quick bat speed. This is true, but just putting a lighter and lighter bat in the hands of a growing, developing ball player could actually hinder his or her development. It can delay the development of hand and forearm strength and can produce bad habits in a young player’s swing. A light bat can also be a problem in that it doesn’t have enough mass (weight) to redirect the baseball without much of that force being absorbed by the young player. That is physics. The ball doesn’t ever get lighter so when bats gets too light the force behind a player’s swing is also less. There are many power hitters in the Big Leagues who use -1 or -0. Meaning they use a 35 inch 35 oz bat. They choose this weight because lighter doesn’t mean better, and it can actually mean worse. What initially sounded like a good idea actually can have negative side effects. So guess what. If you pay a little less for a bat that is not ultra-light, you may actually be providing for your child more effectively. The bottom line is this. More expensive is not better and lighter is not better.

The key is to find a bat that a player can swing and feels good, not just the lightest possible. The final reason that a lighter bat in not always best is the feel. A player needs to be able to feel the bat and where the barrel head is. If the bat is too light, they won’t be able to feel the bat or what is going on in the swing. A bat with some ‘meat’ on it can be much more helpful for a young player because they can feel the bat, it will develop muscles, and it will actually apply more force to the pitch.

Extra credit. Now I make one more challenge and offer one last suggestion. Imagine investing the same amount of money that the newest, latest and greatest bat would cost, into quality instructional hitting lessons and camps. Four hundred dollars could get you a lot of great one-on-one instruction that truly has the ability to take a child to the next level. The real improvement will come from hard work and sweat, not from the the biggest price tag at the sporting good store.

I recommend for players who are 12 years old and older to begin supplementing wood bats in batting practice. I will expand more on this idea in the next article, but I will leave you with this. Wood bats improve strength, hand eye coordination (smaller sweet spot), and better swing mechanics. How can a bat improve mechanics? When the bat is heavier, it makes a hitter more efficient and teaches them how to have rhythm in their swing. The key is to get a wood bat that is heavy enough to be a challenge without being so heavy that they will hurt themselves.

Danny is an outfielder in the San Diego Padres organization & finished the 2009 season playing for the AAA affiliate in Portland, OR.

The Definition of a Good Hitter

November 19, 2009 By: Danny Putnam Category: Coaches Corner No Comments →

danny putnamHow would you define a good hitter? What criteria does a player have to meet to be considered a good hitter? Can you quantify a good hitter by looking at his statistics?

The “Good Hitter” label is an envious title in the game of baseball. If you are a player who can achieve this status than you have a great opportunity to succeed in the game all the way to bigs. However, this is not an easy task, and it is much more difficult than lobbing a few (or a bunch of) homers over the fence to pad your stats. There are plenty of players who have above average stats who aren’t necessarily considered good hitters. From fantasy sports to contract arbitration in the MLB, statistics have become paramount in determining how good a player is and what they are worth. So I ask again, “can you quantify a good hitter”? Answer: yes but no. – Sorry if you were looking for a definitive and life changing answer.

In order to clarify my reasoning let’s determine a simple definition of a good hitter. A good hitter is someone you hope is up in the bottom of the ninth in game 7 of the world series when the closer is in. A good hitter is clutch. He rises to the occasion. You have confidence in his consistency and ability to perform. He is the guy that the manager knows is going to have a quality at bat. You may say, great but how do I develop myself into a good hitter, even a great hitter? There is a reason that players are good in the clutch and why they perform at high levels consistently. It isn’t just because they have some intrinsic and mysterious ability that you are either born with or not. You don’t have to be 6’5″ and hit 70 HR to be a good hitter. I believe there are 3 basic components to being a “good hitter”, all of which I am personally working on in my own career.

1. Working on a consistent and repeatable swing- A swing with less moving parts can be repeated more consistently. And you must maintain that swing with lots of repetitions in practice time and pre-game routines. Then trust that swing to happen naturally in the game.

2. Having quality at bats- Swinging at strikes (no chasing). Having discipline. Knowing how the pitcher likes to get guys out (what is his strikeout pitch). That means taking a walk if you don’t get a good pitch to hit.

3. Stay within yourself- Let it happen. Don’t try to force a result. Don’t try to hit homeruns. Just put a good swing on a good pitch. When you are in one of the clutch-pressure situations try to take a deep breath and take the emotion out of it. Put the focus back on getting a good pitch to hit and putting a good swing on it.

So, is there a stat for being the manager’s choice to be in the game in the bottom of the 9th. No. But are there stats that may reflect how consistent and good a hitter is? Yes. Many people argue that on-base-percentage is the key. Others, slugging percentage, or even OPS (on base plus slugging). An interesting stat to look at is a player’s walk to strikeout ratio. That will give a good idea of the quality of at bats a player gives when going up to the plate. The more you chase and the more inconsistent your swing is, the more you will strike out.

As you can see there are some stats which can be indicate to some extent how good a hitter is, but my answer of “no” is also important. I say no because i do not believe it is healthy to focus on statistics as a player. Leave that to the fantasy gurus. Statistics are results, but don’t tell the whole story.  A player might have gone 0-4 with a walk but helped the team win. How? By having good at bats and making the pitcher throw a lot of pitches because he was disciplined. He might have lined out 3 times. Then he might have walked in the ninth setting up the game winner. Another player could have gone 2-4 but not really done anything productive. A couple a flares, but with 2 strikeouts with guys in scoring position. Bottom line. Stats don’t tell the whole story. However, over the course of a career, a good hitter will have some eye-popping statistics on the back of his baseball card.

It is much more important and productive to focus on the process. Focus on the things you can control like the 3 principles I listed. Work on these aspects of your game and you will see the improved results which will ultimately show up in the stat line. Let the stats be a result, not a focus. If you put your mind to these three principles you can start becoming a “good hitter”!

Danny is an outfielder in the San Diego Padres organization & finished the 2009 season playing for the AAA affiliate in Portland, OR.

Bunting “Alley” Drill

November 04, 2009 By: Billy Horton Category: Coaches Corner No Comments →

billy hortonIn our last newsletter we discussed sacrifice bunt fundamentals (click here to read). This week I will give you a great drill that you can incorporate into your next practice. Bunting isn’t looked upon as an exciting part of our game, so when doing the drill make sure to make it a competition and involve a point system to keep the players into it.

You also want to teach players to place the baseball near one of the two foul lines and not bunt it back to the pitcher. This drill will definitely help with that. Also let them know that players who are good bunters can add 20 to 30 points to their batting average and on base percentage. This not only helps the individual, but the team as well.

Alley Drill

1.) Set up 4 cones about 10-15 feet from home plate. Two on the 3rd base side & two on the 1st base side.

a.) Place one cone on each foul line and another cone 2-3 feet across from it in fair territory.

2.) Player tries to bunt the ball between the cones (alleys).

3.) Use a point system: 1 pt. for fair ball, 3 pts for a ball that goes through on of the alleys and 5 pts if it hits a cone and stays in fair territory.

Make sure that no points are given if the ball is bunted extremely hard or does not go outside the dirt circle of the home plate area.