A common flaw we see with a lot of hitters is a very steep approach to contact where the hands go directly to the ball. Since we know the average pitch comes in at a roughly negative 6-10 degree angle, hitters need to match this plane for optimal contact with a slightly uphill swing. This maximizes the window for hitters to make hard contact and drive balls in the air. This is also not news – Ted Williams figured this out a long time ago in his book The Science of Hitting. Taking a steep approach to the ball minimizes this window and makes it very difficult to drive balls in the air. Most batted balls with this type of swing are hard ground balls or pop ups with excessive back spin.
From the Science of Hitting by Ted Williams
We believe this type of swing has become common due to a couple of things. For one, batting average on balls in play (BABIP) is very high at younger levels of baseball. A lot of kids don’t catch and throw at a high enough level causing a lot of ground balls to become base hits or errors where players reach base. This positively reinforces movement patterns that help kids just put the ball in play as opposed to driving the ball in the air (kids feel good when they reach first base – they don’t care how). These patterns may work early on but they will not scale as the field becomes bigger and their ground balls no longer find holes. At the MLB level, the batting average on ground balls in 2016 was .239. Just putting the ball in play might work when you’re younger, but it’s not going to create movements that scale when the playing field gets much better.
Another reason why kids can develop a steep approach to the ball is the misinterpretation of what it means to be quick to contact. Conventional wisdom suggests the quickest route between two points is a straight line. However, this is not true for an object traveling through space between the same two points. In the famous Brachistochrone Curve, the ball that travels on the most direct route actually finishes last compared to the other two balls. The ball that gets to the end point first has a distinct curve which takes a steeper negative route but finishes on a slightly uphill path (sound familiar?). As a result, a straight line may be the shortest distance between two points – but it is not the path of least time.
The Brachistochrone Curve showing the path of least resistance, from @InertialObservr
In terms of the swing, hitters must be able to create early acceleration by turning the barrel back – not by taking the hands directly to the ball. This move helps maximize bat speed by keeping the stretch shortening cycle engaged. Turning the barrel helps pulls slack out of the system just the way you would pull slack out of a rope if you wanted to drag a sled. This keeps tension in the posterior shoulder and trunk in order to create elastic energy (think of the way you’d create energy when you pull a rubber band back). This elastic energy is then used to produce force required for the swing. If the hands run forward and take a direct route to the ball, hitters are not able to keep tension necessary for removal of slack for optimal energy production and transfer.
Stanton and Bonds turning the barrel back as opposed to pushing their hands forward, from Heefner 2018 ABCA Presentation
Here are a couple of really good visuals for this turn.
After this, the athlete must continue to accelerate the barrel and get it going on a slightly uphill plane. To optimize for ball flight, athletes should strive to catch the ball on the upswing. This would create what is known as a positive attack angle – where the bat reaches its lowest point before contact is made. A negative attack angle would be a situation where the barrel is traveling on a downhill (steep) plane at contact (i.e. taking your hands directly to the ball). To hit the ball hard and in the air, athletes should strive to create a positive attack angle. Maximum ball flight is going to occur when the bat is able to match the plane of the pitch with minimal spin off the bat. This is very hard to do when you take a downhill path to a ball traveling on a downward plane.
Altuve matching the plane of the pitch with a slightly uphill swing, from @HyattCraig
A lot of attack angle issues can be cleaned up by eliminating some bad cueing. As we’ve discussed before, our thought patterns have a direct correlation to our physical mechanics. Most kids have been taught to swing down on the ball their entire life. Finding the cues that helped establish these patterns (ex: swing down, hands to the ball, knob to the ball) can help create a mutual understanding for where they are and how they got there. From here, giving athletes the freedom to drive the ball in the air (external cueing) is a really easy way to unlock some athleticism where the athlete can discover more optimal patterns.
Based on how the athlete receives this, you can add in some other cues such as taking your hands to the sky, turning the barrel back, or slotting the elbow into the rib cage. Find which one resonates and incorporate it into your vocabulary with the athlete. A lot of our athletes tend to describe their best swings when making this adjustment as “smooth.” It’s worth using this cue with athletes who are trying to create a better swing plane. Steep bat paths can create a “choppy” feeling as the bat is moving through space.
Batted ball flight is going to be your best source of feedback when making this swing change. The athlete’s goal should be to hit balls hard and in the air with the least amount of spin possible. A lot of spin after contact is going to be indicative of a swing plane that has a tough time matching the plane of the incoming pitch. Early on, try to get athletes to feel the difference between a pushy swing plane (hands directly to the ball) and a more ideal swing plane (turning the barrel back). Hitters will only be able to make long term changes if they can feel the difference between certain movements. Create some routines that the athlete can use to create a feel for the movement you’re trying to create. Utilize film to understand how the “feel” relates to the “real.” At the same time, understand the feel might not always match up to the real. Every athlete is going to process things differently – adapt accordingly.
Jaden creating feel for an uphill swing plane between pitches
Posey and Carpenter feel moves vs. what their actual swing looks like, from @HyattCraig
Below are a few different drills Dan Heefner from Dallas Baptist University uses to create feel for a more optimal initial move to the ball (from 2018 ABCA Presentation).
Using a foam roller to hold angles as the bat moves into the hitting zone
Feeding the mistake from the front and trying to get the hands to slide forward prematurely
Creating feel for keeping the hands back while turning the barrel
Hitting plyos are a great place to start when working on this change in tee work and flips. The goal when using them is to square them up and hit them hard in the air with minimal spin. Hitters with a really steep path to the ball will struggle to square these up and drive them in the air. The ball itself will create an external focus to help the hitter organize into more efficient patterns using feedback from ball flight. Skills are best learned and retained implicitly rather than explicitly. Give the athlete parameters to work within but don’t overcoach the athleticism out of them.
Hitting plyoballs can help hitters get a better feel for their bat path
A drill you can use with hitting plyos is slow pitch softball styled underhand flips. By increasing the arc of the incoming pitch, hitters are forced to create a bat path that is going to match the exaggerated negative plane of the ball. This goal is obviously not to build a slow pitch softball hitter, but rather to create a feel for how the body should work to create a better attack angle. The goal is to drive the ball with minimum spin in the air. Below is an example of a hitter who we used this drill with to create a better path to the ball. The after video (top) was taken at the end of just one session with the athlete.
Notice Dallas creates better angles by tilting his shoulders and working into the ground (watch back knee) to help him square balls up and drive them as opposed to slicing underneath them (see bottom).
Another tool you can use with athletes is putting a longer bat (ex: fungo) in their hands and working the middle-in portion of the plate. The constraint of the longer bat and the pitch location forces the athlete to create a tighter turn that cannot be accomplished using a handsy/steep move to the ball. Heavier bats are also going to help create a more efficient path to the ball by keeping the barrel connected to the torso without excessive hand manipulation. Heavy bats act as constraints the same way weighted baseballs can constrain pitchers into more optimal arm actions (see our article on variable practice for more information about this.
For some athletes, teaching a better path to the ball starts from the ground up. Teaching better moves with the lower half can help clean up poor swing paths by creating a more efficient sequence. Below is an example of a college hitter who came in with bat path issues. Instead of jumping to the path path, I got him into a narrower stance and gave him the freedom to create more movement with his lower half. Using only the cue “hit a homer to center field,” you’ll notice a completely different sequence with both the lower half and upper half.
Notice how he does not lose a lot of space behind the white line in the bottom shot as opposed to the top shot. Negative sway gives athletes a tendency to get stuck on their backside and can have a subsequent impact on swing plane (ex: pulling off, slicing underneath balls). Athletes with wider bases tend to create this sway as they feel the need to go back to go forward. We like to cue this move using “down and out.”
Notice Colin is able to turn the barrel in the bottom frame giving him more space for his hands to work on an uphill plane to the ball (see his front elbow work up in the bottom frame as opposed to down in the top frame). He’s able to catch the ball on the upswing and stay through the zone longer as a result.
Jaden is another example of an athlete who worked hard to improve his swing plane. Notice the position of his hands after his initial move in both frames (see the white line). In the top frame, his hands slide forward and push. In the bottom frame, Jaden is able to turn the barrel back and hold angles like the Bonds and Stanton still shots from above (hands, rear hip/knee should align). For him, the things that clicked were trying to create feel for getting the barrel on an uphill plane (see feel move from above) and driving the ball in the air.
Hannah was someone who we started from the ground up to help create space for her hands to work on an uphill plane. Notice in the gif below how she creates very little movement in the top frame. This gave her a tendency to get stuck on her backside (i.e. squish the bug) and lose a lot of power. We used medicine ball work to help fix this and create a bigger base for her to fire from (see the difference in how far she travels beyond the white line in the bottom frame).
From here, we used some plyoball work and some external cueing to help create the desired ball flight which would indicate a much better approach to the ball. Notice the difference in hand positions after the initial move (white line) and contact positions. She’s able to catch the ball on the upswing in the bottom shot as opposed to the downswing in the top shot. This helped her drive the ball in the air with minimal spin for optimal ball flight.
Creating a better path to the ball is an adjustment that athletes tend to pick up on pretty quickly with the right cueing and drill implementation. With this, don’t rush to progressions before seeing some early mastery. If you challenge the pattern too soon, it will break down. When adding progressions, make sure to film and reassess so you can be sure the pattern is sticking. Don’t guess if you don’t have to – confirm what your eyes are seeing as much as possible. Most kids today are visual learners. If they can see what they’re feeling and bridge that gap, they will be more likely to retain that pattern in the future.
Feel free to reach out with any questions, thoughts, or cases of your own. Keep learning, growing, and please don’t tell kids to swing down on the ball.