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Coach Rob Ellis Why Hitting Prospects Fail This article will explain how a talented hitter fails in professional baseball, and why the system is inadequate to help him. Joe Linedrive leads the SEC in home runs, RBI, and is second in batting average. Joe is a top draft choice. He signs a bonus contract. The club has indicated that he is their third baseman of the future. Joe's first year in pro ball is not a disappointment, but it isn't all the club thought it would be. It was good enough to get his feet wet, good enough to build upon. His next season would be better. Two months into the next season, Joe settles down in the .260 range. His college power is down as well. Strikeouts have become a problem. It's too soon for "Wait until next season." That phrase is already a year old. Joe's agent naturally counted on having a solid big league third baseman in his stable. He consults Joe to find out what is going on. Joe is vague. His agent asks about the hitting instructor since Joe is a priority. Joe says they are trying some things, but he's a bit vague about that too. Joe has a hard time putting the remedies into words, something that shouldn't be hard if he understands them. The agent wonders about the instruction he is getting. He can't conceive that Joe is more or less on his own, not after a six figure bonus. Joe's season ends in mediocrity. Sure he hit 10 home runs, and he finished at .266, but those are hardly the numbers he is capable of compiling. In the off-season, Joe has a long talk with his agent. His agent wants to know what can be done to realize his potential, particularly how he can hit more home runs. Joe isn't sure. In fact, he can't even state his hitting problems clearly, let alone solutions. What, asks his agent, has the hitting coach suggested? Joe explains in a couple buzz-word phrases. Asked to elaborate, Joe can't. He can't state problems, solution, goals, or even something to work on in the off-season. It is like he has gotten no instruction at all. Joe has a universal hitting problem. His style began when his dad threw him underhand tosses when he was five. The ball came in like it was falling off the house roof. So he swung up to hit it. The first little league tosses came in the same way, and up he swung to hit them. The high school pitching straightened out a bit, but the featherweight metal bat was there to cover up the deficient, low-to-high, uphill swing plane he had grooved. And Joe was a man among boys; his strength made that metal bat hum. The combination of his strength and the featherweight bat even fooled the scouts into thinking he had bat speed that would convert to wood.
Then came the day Joe got wood in his hands. Gone was the huge metal-bat sweet spot. Gone was the featherweight bat that allowed him to get away with imprecise hitting mechanics. And now the fast, tough pitching. The conclusion is simple: it happens to every player who grooved his hitting mechanics with a metal bat. Joe never converted from little boy, metal bat mechanics to professional, precision mechanics. The metal bat never let him learn to use his hands correctly or develop an effective swing plane. The habits are grooved so deeply that Joe is clueless on how to get out of it. Joe's hitting instructor, a man whose skill is in getting and keeping a professional hitting coach's job, not teaching hitting, is as baffled as Joe. Joe is cut off from the correct mechanical solutions to his hitting problems. The only solution Joe has is this: He must increase his strength exponentially to "muscle" the wooden bat as he did the aluminum bat. His first step? Find the lightest wooden bat he can until the over-the-counter steroids kick in. Joe is too young to think any more constructively than this. Joe's agent knows that continuing like he is, Joe will fail. The agent senses that Joe would be able to figure it out in time. After all, he has some ability. But his agent also knows that time is limited for minor league players who are not progressing. Joe has all the signs of being on the conveyer belt that deposits talented but lost players into the trash can. And the hitting instructors can't shut off the switch. Talking to Joe has made that clear. The question is, what does Joe do? What does Joe's agent, in charge of his professional wellbeing, do? Joe is but one of many professional problem hitters: the can't miss player who is missing, the draft pick who can't break .200, the fringe major leaguer who can't hit his way onto the 25-man roster, the promising five-tool player who is sputtering, the eight-year big leaguer who's numbers have sunk to a vulnerable level. All of these players have one thing in common. They have all gone through a major league organization which cannot help their hitting problems. They have gone through a system which bluffs its way through hitting instruction, never imparting anything solid. The hitting coaches are all great guys, they just don't have anything to help a player. Essentially, the players are on their own, and their own way is not only limited, it isn't working. What do these hitters do? Where do they go when their own organizations can't help them? 13 Reasons why Professional Baseball Cannot Offer Competent Hitting Instruction This article will not surprise astute people who are aware of: 1) the tendency toward human incompetence, and 2) the reasons for human inadequacy. The astute person already knows the forces below are at work in every human endeavor, every profession. This is not an indictment
against anything, it is merely the human condition. What this article does is describe this process within the game of baseball. Prelude Confirm the following with your player or players: A.There is, for all practical purposes, no effective coaching in the minor leagues. None, nada. Yes, there is an exception here and there but generally it is hit-and mostly miss, well intentioned but off the mark, spotty, weak, and half-assed attempts at giving a player something correct that will make him better. B.To fill the void of coaching in professional baseball, the "coaches" deliver management-rote drilling and evaluation reports. C.The best coaching in baseball is done at the college level. Rarely, if ever, does professional coaching extend college coaching. D.The player who signs out of high school will receive essentially no effective coaching for the duration of his career. E.Professional hitting coaches are not teachers. They are superior "talkers", i.e. bullshi**ers. Much of the following information deals with minor league instruction. This is because the minor leagues is where all non-coaching begins. To extend the reasoning into the major leagues, simply upgrade the rank of the persons mentioned. 13 Reasons Why Professional Baseball Cannot Teach Hitting 1. Job Security Issues The primary goal in every coach's mind is keeping his job. Not wearing the uniform scares the hell out of him. Coaching baseball is a relatively simple, subjective profession. Many, many people are qualified to coach baseball, huge numbers are waiting in the wings, and this makes coaches nervous. The requirements for keeping the job become: a.pleasing the Minor League Development Director (MLDD) or General Manager (GM); b.following Company Line Instruction, i.e. basic teaching principles; c.being liked by the players; d.being perceived by the scouting staff as not interfering with the development of their bonus prospects; e.not teaching something different than the "best" coaches on the staff (i.e. management's favorites); f.assuming the proper place in the coaching hierarchy and paying homage to the "best" coaches and front office personnel. Every coach would like to see his players improve, but this always takes a back seat to job security issues. This is merely the principle of playing it safe in a highly subjective profession.
All coaching requires courage because it reveals what the coach knows and what he doesn't know. For this reason, coaches are hesitatnt to "put it all on the line." This, combined with toeing and sidestepping the issues which determine job security result in a topical, watered down, buzzword, gutless and empty approach to coaching. But this satisfies the coach's number one goal: keeping his job. Hitting coaches are not teachers. Hitting coaches are not interested in acquiring new knowledge unless it is the kind which will help them keep their job. 2. Lack of knowledge It has been my experience that most, if not all, people are blessed with a single set of skills which result in a single area of competence. Rarely is a person capable of becoming a competent expert in more than one field. He simply could not divide his focus adequately to master two separate areas. And almost universally, the person desires to be in the field for which his skills are tailored, narrowing his choices to one. Example: A competent MLDD is a competetent MLDD because he has the skills to weave his way into that position. They usually include a certain gift of gab, "inner circle" type skills, organization. If he had the skills to be a competent hitting coach, they would preclude the skills to be a competent MLDD, and vice versa. The same is true of a scout, coach, manager, ticket salesman and team owner. To expand, rarely is the manager of any business a good front line person and vice versa. Their skills are diametrically opposed. This is just as true in baseball. However, front office player management people often set the hitting instruction agenda. As would be expected, this consists of the most basic, vanilla flavored, widely known and therefore ineffective hitting principles. Their hitting principles, because their area of expertise is front office maneuvering, cannot be correct or cutting edge. The hitting coordinator (HC) is often a former player who 1) has the skills of surviving in the coaching game (skills which preclude his ability to be effective); 2) was (usually) a big league hitter who managed himself as a hitter, but may have zero qualifications for developing another human being's hitting potential. If this hitting coordinator is given the job to develop policy, he is also hampered by lack of teaching know-how, coaching experience, or the courage to defy his bosses' vanilla-flavored principles. In addition, his knowledge of hitting is undercut by his skills for getting and keeping a professional baseball job. (If a person is given one dominant set of skills, and these skills qualify him for "inner circle" status among people incapable of teaching hitting, he must be one himself.) Example: Here is a list of players who finish their swings "low" rather than "high": Barry Larkin, Nomar Garciaparra, Lou Gehrig, Barry Bonds, Bernie Williams, Mike Schmidt, among scores of other stars. Sam the HC remembers employing this movement to get on top of the fastball. However, the principle of "finishing high" is iron-clad. It is all Moe, the MLDD, really knows. Sam the HC realizes this, and for job security reasons, never mentions the low finish for effective fastball coverage. Why? It defies "company line" coaching. And if Sam the HC won't teach it, imagine how scared the coaches and managers below him are from using this effective tool. Result? ALL coaches cling to the safety pole, where no player learns to hit.
I remember getting fired from one organization because I taught Hank Aaron/Lou Gehrig hitting principles. When I explained this in my defense, their reply was, "We told you not teach that twice before. We want the HC's principles taught!" Honest. By the way, I was recently told by a National League MLDD that hitting has changed since Hank Aaron and Mike Schmidt played. Hitting the fastball is not as important as it used to be. Honest again. 3. Lack of diligence The Bible says it this way, "the precious possession of a man is diligence." This means the ability to slow down all his faculties in order to concentrate on and persevere through details. Picasso said this, the details, is where genious lies. Perhaps one out of twenty men has diligence in his nature, and from my experience, one out of 100 in baseball. Without the skills of diligence and perception, the truths in hitting—the things which make all the difference—can never be perceived. This leaves the hitter on his own. Those with diligence —Tony Gwynn, Alan Trammel, Mike Schmidt, Ted Williams—climb to the heights. If a player doesn't have the capacity for diligance, he won't get any help from 99 out of 100 coaches either. A player is lucky if he finds a single one—a Walt Hriniak, a Johnny Sain—in his career. But it can make all the difference between failure and success. (Note: As per Reason #1, Hriniak and Sain were fired repeatedly from jobs for going outside the lines of coaching policy.) I wrote The Mike Schmidt [Hitting] Study with Mike. I must have given out over twenty copies to fellow minor and major league coaches. To my knowledge, only one cracked it open, and that's only because I take his word. From the publishing world I have learned this: men don't read. Men don't really want to know. And men certainly don't want other men telling them something they might not know. This doesn't make for a very good hitting instructor. 4. Lack of Teaching Skills Every organization states flatly, "We want teachers!" but it's not true. I was once the only true teacher, with methods and acumen, on a minor league staff completely devoid of them. I was once fired as a hitting coach after my team placed first in two rookie leagues in fewest strikeouts and second in most walks, while finishing second in batting. Why? I demanded consistent time and structure to coach hitting, which the manager (a MLDD favorite) didn't like. Real teaching scares coaches who can't do it. It so rattles a non-teaching coaching staff to the point where an organization must eliminate him. Real teachers are in college, many trained with teaching techniques such as "explanation, demonstration, repetition." But simple techniques like these are foreign to professional baseball. Using them is so strange as to mark one's self as a trouble-maker among the staff, which collectively doesn't enjoy something it can't do.
"Teaching" in pro baseball consists of fifteen-minute, after-game lectures to glassy-eyed players, explanation without participation to "burn it in", and banal verbal cues such as "Head in" or "Pop those hands." There is also tee work and shorter scale batting practice with no stated purpose. Almost never is the baseball swing broken down into components to isolate a problem and rebuilt into a whole. Never is thinking at the plate discussed. This is genuine teaching and is looked at as odd within the context of pro ball. It will also get you fired. 5. Minority Hirings The following is not a racial slam. Major League organizations are required to hire minorities in proportion to the minorities that play the game. They do this by hiring minorities, making them hitting coaches and putting them in the low minors. This means hiring a lot of coaches who have no coaching experience or specialized knowledge. Also: A.Since pitching is always given the edge in development, teams hire minorities for the hitting coach. (If somebody wanted to really make an issue, they could investigate why all the hitting coaches throughout the minor league systems are black and the pitching coaches are white.) B.Minority hirings means an influx of inexperienced coaches which end up as hitting coaches. This would be a workable situation if the new coaches were taught how to teach hitting by an experienced hitting coordinator. But there aren't any hitting coordinators who know how to teach hitting. How can he when he is restricted by job security, the platitudes of an unqualified MLDD, and no teaching tools? The combination of A and B makes knowledgeable hitting instruction unavailable for the player. He is coached by people who do not know any more about hitting than what he does—his own persoanl experience. 6. Coaching Differences for Hitting and Pitching Pitching is largely a mechanical operation. A pitcher's thinking can be done by his catcher, or the pitching coach can call the signals. The simple goal of the pitcher is to do the same thing every time, mechanically. It is an easy skill to coach because there are only three or four simple mechanical movements that need be mastered. The player's throwing ability is pretty much a given. Hitters, however, must think on their feet to the level of the pitcher, catcher and pitching coach combined. He must makes adjustments to the pitcher. He must "guess" what is coming, whereas the pitcher knows. This requires a huge amount of experiential learning. Mechanically, the batter has a plethora of interchangeable skills and movements available for adjustments, and to maximize his bat speed. Whereas the pitcher's arm speed is pretty much a
given, the hitter's bat can be sped up with the use of various devices—knee cock, hand momentum, bat twitch, stance, swing plane, stride, follow-through, etc. (There is pretty much one standard wind-up for a pitcher.) This means the hitting coach must be much more knowledgeable than the pitching coach. But when you add in job security, lack of teaching ability, personal focus and diligence, the hitting coach is horribly handicapped. More, hitting is a subjective skill (whereas pitching is a repetitious, highly mechanical skill.) One hitting coach can have one pet prescription, another may have another, all determined by the limited scope of their personal experience. My experience has shown me that it is the blind leading the blind in 19 of 20 cases. Where does this leave the young hitter trying to make it to the top? Alone. 7. Company Line Coaching Every organization has some basic teaching model to convey hitting principles. Again, it is determined by the men in charge, often a vague, MLDD/hitting coach combination. The hitting coordinator is usually someone of major league playing experience who is either limited by personal bias to what worked for him, lack of trained teaching skills, or by what his MLDD requires from him. Company Line coaching falls in line with other organizations' Company Line coaching because the common denominator is bland, broad-based, dull-edged principles. Each fails to realize that real truth in hitting cannot be known by all. Even a fool has to realize that the pinnacles of any knowledge in any competitive profession cannot be known by all or even a majority. As an example, I remember a hitting instructor who emphasized to the point of blood that no hitters were to have a high back elbow in their swings. This is a device which can (not always) be used to generate power. One of our players was doing this. The HC tossed a fit. I pointed out that Mike Schmidt used it to hit 40 homers a year and Carlos Delgado uses it to hit 50 homers a year. The HC said he realized that, but the GM wanted it stamped out completely. The HC was simpy putting his job security above this player's well being. That's how it works. Ironically, the GM's questions in spring training were, "Why don't our hitters hit for power? What can we do about this?" His solution was to stamp out what Schmidt and Delgado use to generate power. Then in its place, to remedy the situation, he put in some fool batting tee drill in which the players simply hit the ball as far as they could, a complete waste of time, which we were required to follow. I didn't. 8. Black Pearls Both the MLDD and HC, in order to both have something for the young hitter, and to systemize the hitting policy, usually opt for basic, known instruction such as: "Get a good pitch to hit" (Does a hitter really want a bad one?) "Hit through the ball" (Would the hitter really stop his bat on contact?)
"Keep the bat in the zone as long as possible" (This makes stopping the bat on contact make sense. Also, it doesn't say much for bat speed, eh?) "Finish high" (Are we playing golf or baseball? Schmidt didn't, Gehrig didn't, Garciaparra doesn't, Larkin doesn't.) "Get the front side through" (I know what this is supposed to mean, but does a young hitter?) "Hit the ball out in front" (Charlie Lau and Schmidt said this is a no-no.) "Hit off the fastball" (Mike Schmidt, Ted Williams, Hank Aaron and Brooks Robinson said they didn't.) If you'll ask your players if they have ever heard these pharases, I'll bet they make up the core of the batting instruction they have received. Essentially, they are "black pearls"—things that sound good and are accepted as truths, but really are rabbit trails leading to failure. Every single team has the same ones because every team shares the same pool of weak knowledge, most of which is detrimental to the young hitter's chances of success. 9. Lack of Resources There is one hitting coordinator for approximately 85-90 organizational hitters. There is one hitting coach per team for approximately 15 players. There are eight hours per coaching day, six of which are taken up by the game, travel, opponent's batting practice, etc. This leaves very little time for individual instruction, if we take into consideration that 15 minutes is the minimum for such. To tell the truth, most coaches blow off individual instruction. It doesn't exist in quantity. Ten minutes here, ten there, a few buzz words, that's it. Pick it up on your own. Ask your players. EFFECTIVE HITTING INSTRUCTION REQUIRES QUALITY ONE ON ONE INSTRUCTION. THERE IS NO SUBSTITUTE. Managers, for all their time in the game, don't instruct much. Most slip-slide away, others go the ten minutes here and there route. Ask your players. 10. No specialized knowledge To think that a hitting coach has anything more to offer than a few black pearls and the Company Line is not accurate. In most cases, he has a couple pet drills, and phrases, and a lot of bullsh**. To think that the average professional hitting coach has studied his trade, picked the brains of anyone, worked to increase his knowledge, or prepared himself along the way is to be horribly naive. By and large, coaches are very average people who had the ability to play the game, look the part, have loads of b.s. to influence higher up b.s. (generally, a coach moves up by how much b.s. he has). Don't think for one minute this qualifies them as hitting coaches. Ask your players. Usually they aren't fooled.
11. The players close their ears This one I can't blame solely on the hitting coaches. True, the player does not receive much, if any, constructive coaching throughout his career. This sort of hardens him to the fact that no coach can really help him. Say he gets to the majors, or double A or even high A ball. He's gotten there mostly on his own, picked up things from teammates and opponents, and trial-and-error. He's making money. He's signed contracts and experienced the special treatment. He can't help but begin believing he's special. Why, he's a pro. Now along comes Ned the hitting instructor. The player's attitude is, "Who's this guy? He thinks he can help me? Nobody's had anything for me so far. I'm sick of hearing 'Hit through the ball.' Where was he when I was 20?" In other words, the player is conditioned not to listen to a coach any more. Another factor is what I call the "eyes in the back of the head" syndrome. That comes when I am teaching a seasoned player who is embarrassed to have his teammates see him getting coached. He is horrified that his teammates see him get coached like a first-year player. It's real and it's difficult to work with. To be receptive, this hitter has to be isolated. It has been my experience, after having coached at ever minor league level, that by the time a player reaches double A the organization can't reach him anymore. He is at the mercy of the game's Darwinian principle. There have been too many disappointments, too much "hardening" of his style, too many bland coaches. As I say it, the cement is now hardened. Only a jackhammer will work. There are no jackhammers in the pro game except the release paper. 12. Organizational Policy: "Let 'em play" I have worked for seven organizations, four as a coach. In every one, and throughout the game, the bedrock policy of the Player Development management is: "Let 'em play." This essentially means, "Coaches, leave the players alone. Conduct your management duties." This is particularly true in the low minors, where good or bad coaching sets the direction of the player's career. There are many translations for this phrase. The MLDD might actually say: "It's too much work to coach these guys. Let 'em do what they're gonna do." "They got signed, didn't they? Why change 'em?" "I don't want to start anything with the scouts who signed him if he (the player) goes back and says he got bad coaching. This could mean trouble for me." "Most of 'em aren't gonna make it anyway. Why bother coaching them?" "It could discourage the player." (At least this guy realizes his staff can't do anything.) "My staff ain't worth a darn, anyway." "What? My coaches coach? That would be the day." "The staff could never pull it off." "The staff wouldn't like the pressure." "If I had somebody down there who actually knew what he was doing, I'd say go ahead, teach them. But I don't." "What, and take a chance it could hurt him?"
"If they can't make it on their own, the hell with 'em." "Don't you coaches break your neck. These are cush jobs. Let's keep them this way." "Don't' worry, the cream will rise to the top." Not coaching young players is like letting your son have his way until he's 17 or so, then trying to instill some values and ethics. It can't work. The greatest coaching time available, the time when the most ground can be covered, is in the first two years. After that the player's ears slowly close and the coaching gets even thinner. 13. The belief that there actually is some real coaching in the pro game Players, scouts, parents, friends, agents, even the players themselves (at first) think there is actually coaching, teaching, going on in professional baseball. Just a brief look at 1-12, with a minimum of observational skills and some common sense will tell us there can't be. It is the myth of myths in a mythical game. Unless they've beaten the odds and had a great one, most players don't know what a real coach is. I'm not talking about a funny coach with a knack for telling stories and creating a comical atmosphere. I'm talking about informative coaching that moves a player to new heights. If it exists in the pro game, I haven't seen it in 18 years. To confirm this opinion, to make sure I'm not off base, ask your players. Pin them down to gainful, purposeful coaching, not just glamorously going through the motions. Confucius said that it is the responsibility of each individual to acquire whatever knowledge is necessary to succeed in life. Nowhere is this truer than in professional baseball. Reasons for Poor Hitting Production Let's say there are 100 facets to hitting a baseball. Let's rank these in terms of importance. For example, bat speed can be ranked higher than rear foot placement in terms of importance. Bat speed might rank as #1 while rear foot placement might be #75. The hitter can still be effective if his rear foot is placed wrong. He can still be effective if #s 75-100 are done "wrong." However, if #s 1-5 are done wrong, the hitter cannot be effective. Experience in a hitting instructor arrives when he can accurately rank the facets of hitting and teach the important ones. This way he doesn't bother the individual style of the player but does tend to the essentials. (To play it safe and ignorant, MLDD's generally concern themselves with things like #s 80-100. Diligence reveals #s 1-25, genius lies in the ability to teach them.) I have never met a hitting coach or coordinator who doesn't have a few favorite facets of htting. The problem is, they might be #33, #53, #64, and #88 instead of #1,#2,#3 and #4. So any work he does with the hitter is of little or no use. I once knew a hitting coordinator with over fifteen years of major league service whose thing was balance, balance, balance. He had guys working on a balance beam. He insisted the players be high on the balls of their feet, which naturally imperils balance. The single solution to balance
is to allow all shoe spikes in the dirt toe and heel. He wouldn't hear of it. He's probably still doing the same thing today. He's safe because what MLDD would object to a thing like balance? While this hitting coach is working on balance, which is about 30 on the 100 facet scale, 1,2,3, and 4 (bat speed, hip turn, swing plane and thinking) were totally neglected. This is about par for the course of hitting instruction in pro ball. The Top Four Reasons for Poor Hitting Production Given the necessary physical skills to get signed to a pro contract, these are the reasons for poor hitting production at every level of professional baseball:
1. Poor bat (hand) speed. Major League pitchers throw over 90 mph. If the hitter does not
have the hand speed to counter a Major League fastball, he won't succeed.
2. Poor swing plane. A flat swing plane takes away the pitcher's fastball. This done, the
hitter can begin making timing adjustments for other pitches. If the hitter has not neutralized the pitcher's fastball, he is vulnerable to all pitches. Acquiring the proper swing plane requires a change over from amateur to professional mechanics. Most players and coaches don't have the insight to see this, though Hank Aaron and Mike Schmidt insist on it. 3. Inability to rotate the hips effectively. This is a result of poor swing plane. Without quick, full rotation of the hips, the hitter is vulnerable to the inside half of the strike zone. With this vulnerability, he is not free to look "away," where most pitches are thrown. 4. Poor thinking. This means inability to think along with the game situation, and pitchercatcher-pitching coach combination. This also means a hitter whose philosophy of hitting consists of black pearls and misinformation. If these four areas are faulty, the hitter is fighting the tide. He can hit, but he will not be as effective as he could be. Usually, faults in these areas pick up weight and gradually wear down the hitter until he is eliminated from the game. For more informational baseball tips are articles feel free to visit baseballtips.com
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