Saturday, October 6, 2007

Hitting with Wood: A Preparatory Guide for Young Players

" virtue of the trampoline effect and lighter weight, metal gives the hitter power. With wood, the hitter has to give the bat power."

There's no question hitting with wood is different than hitting with metal. Go to a wood bat tournament and you can see lots of players swinging with their hands and upper bodies but not really turning on the ball and using the lower half of their bodies. With metal, over the years, the standard mantra has been "quick hands and bat speed." A great deal of nice contact at these wood bat tournaments by otherwise talented young players turns into ground outs and little flares to the short outfield that may or may not fall for hits.

Kids who know how to hit with wood make themselves very obvious: they load up, land soft, get the bat head into the zone aggressively and then turn on the ball driving it deep and hard (hips, gut, thighs and legs). Good contact means the ball is going to travel a long way. With wood, though, you often don't make good contact resulting in pop ups and dribblers. The hands more than ever have to be fast and true, but you also need everything else working to create power.

Hitting is a difficult art form. Good hitters have to work very hard to become masters -- especially when using wood.

So where does the young hitter begin? How do we teach young players who have learned to hit with metal how to hit with wood? Read on.

It's the hands!
I am not a baseball physicist, kineticist, or anatomy expert, but besides proper rotational technique, watching young hitters swing bats, it often seems to me that the secret to hitting with wood is hand, wrist and forearm strength. If these aren't working properly, then all the core conditioning and lower body strength in the world will be useless. Just as with tennis and squash, most young (eight-year-olds on up) baseball players do not have the proper muscle development to adequately make contact and transfer the full power of the rotating body back into the ball through their hands.

Wood bats are heavy, meaning the hitter may swing them a little slower in the beginning. They also flex and vibrate some, meaning that if the hitter's hands and wrist aren't strong, power again will be lost in energy transfer.

Young players (including teens not used to swinging with wood) need to spend a lot of time working out with wood bats and getting their hands, wrists and forearms strong. There are a number of training and conditioning tools for this, but nothing substitutes for the simple act of just swinging with wood. Below, I offer a list of a number of off-season and pre-season activities to help with this.

Fall Ball Heavy and Crazy
For kids playing fall baseball that is not tournament oriented, i.e., non-competitive or recreational leagues, whether or not others are using metal, I strongly suggest having your young hitter swing with wood exclusively. Talk to his or her coach and explain the situation. Hopefully they'll understand what you're doing. Don't bring metal to the field ever under any circumstances. Talk with your young player. Get them to understand that it's just fall ball and its all about working hard, training, and getting ready for next spring. Many regions now have wood-only fall ball leagues. Do some research. You may need to drive a bit out of your way, but you will find that leagues where kids all play with wood tend to have knowledgeable and thoughtful hitting instructors and coaches.

Buy a practice bat and a game bat
If your young player is going to swing with wood in games, get a batting practice bat that's a little bigger and heavier than their game bat. My twelve-year-old has a 29-inch, 25-ounce maple game bat and now swings a 31-inch, 29-ounce ash bat for practice. The ash bat cost us about $30. Obviously, older players would want to use bigger bats, but you get the idea.

Dry swings in October
We are not playing fall ball (due to school and community soccer schedules), but I encourage my son to go outside whenever he's been sitting in front of the TV too long and swing his bat at leaves and weeds in the yard. I've also got him understanding that he needs to make his hands tougher, so he goes out and does this without batting gloves. Even if I can convince him to go outside two or three times a week for only five minutes I know he's getting stronger.

Tee work
So many kids think tee work is boring. These are kids who are not going to get very far as hitters. We have a tee and a sock net in our backyard and all three of my boys have been known to go outside when they're frustrated or feeling grumpy to hit a few buckets of balls. The routine is to hit a bucket using a smooth and gentle swing; then to do a half bucket with one hand, then the other half with the other hand; finally, they finish up with another bucket or two of balls working on driving the ball hard and true. The older ones will also work on their inside-out swing, hitting to the opposite field, etc. Again, all of this is with a heavier wood BP bat. Sometimes they use batting gloves, sometimes not.

Soft toss
I think soft toss is the best way to work with young players learning to hit with wood. (Soft toss is basically kneeling to the side of a hitter in normal batting positioning and gently tossing the ball about waist high just out in front in the "hitting zone."). Ideally, you can do this on an empty infield if it's in the off-season. We usually have to hit in a cage because our neighborhood field is used for football from August through November. I've written about this before. Soft toss requires that the young hitter gets his or her hands to go to the ball almost as quickly as if they were hitting a pitched ball. Using a wood bat that is 30% heavier than metal and has a smaller sweet spot means that the young player has to work that much harder to really nail the ball -- which is, of course, the object of soft toss. For more on soft toss drills, go here, and here.

Front toss drills
If you have access to a pitching net, get behind it and put your young hitter through a battery of drills with their wood bat. You want to throw underhand from about twenty feet away. Start them out just swinging normally, but mix it up, have them swing with only their top hand, then their bottom hand. Work on pulling inside pitches and letting pitches away come in further to drive them to the opposite field. With wood in all of these your young player has to know that he or she is not going to be as successful as they are with metal, but they have to understand that they are working on strengthening themselves for next season.

Psychological impediments to hitting with wood
There is no question that young players need to learn proper hitting mechanics to be successful with wood. It's essential that kids see hitting successfully with wood as something that is going to take time and that requires dedication. It's also essential that they understand that they won't achieve their goals if they slip backwards and use metal because it's easier. If your kid or team is using wood in a game and decides to shift to metal because "...the game's on the line..." they won't help themselves at all learning and growing as a hitter. Sticking with wood is always a better idea in the long run.

Wanting to change
All this said, you can't force young players to put away their metal bats. You'll create resentment and maybe even foster "excuse making" by kids and parents. One thing to do with your young player is to sit down with them and go to some of the web sites I've written about in this blog and talk about how important hitting with wood is and how it will make them a better hitter. Take an hour or two and surf these websites looking for the perfect bat. As I've written, the customizing options some wood bat manufacturers offer make the purchasing experience really fun and exciting. Many of these companies also have articles and pages at their websites offering other tips and advice on Hitting with Wood.

In the end, my conclusion is that by virtue of the trampoline effect and lighter weight, metal gives the hitter power. With wood, the hitter has to give the bat power. This means everything has to be working together. But it all starts with the hands. The hands have to be strong. Working on this in the off-season even just a little will go a long way to success in the spring.

See you on the field.

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