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Seeing the Ball Part 1

The most important aspect in hitting a ball is seeing it. A hitter can have a perfect swing, but if he cannot see the ball he may as well be hitting blindfolded. He can have the game’s most perfect swing, but not even the greatest can make contact without first seeing what they want to hit. Simply put, hitters that see the ball best are the best hitters. Pete Rose, the all-time hit leader, Clemente, Williams, Stargell, Griffey, McGwire, Jeter, all have different looking swings, but are among the greatest hitters the game has ever known. What separates them from the lesser hitter is the mental approach and the ability to see the ball the best they can every pitch. True, not everybody can hit a baseball as far as McGwire, Griffey, or Sosa, but neither could Pete Rose nor Derek Jeter. Consistency is what makes these and other superstar hitters great. How they see the ball is one aspect they can control every time at the plate. Consistency at the plate stems from the control they have over how well they see the ball during each at bat.

Ted Williams, a Hall of Fame hitter, liked to take pitches when he was seeing a pitcher for the first time. When he took pitches he did not have to think about his swing or prepare to react, he simply put all of his focus on seeing the ball. Seeing the ball well gave him valuable information on how to hit what that particular pitcher was throwing. A hitter seeing the ball well will be able to judge velocity more accurately and read the spin of the ball for pitch identification and movement. The velocity of a pitch determines how much time a hitter has to react to a pitch. The faster the pitch, the less time a hitter has to start or stop his or her swing. The spin of the ball tells the hitter what the pitch is, and which way it is moving. For example, a curveball has more diagonal rotation, and a fastball moves more up and down. A straight 4-seam fastball appears to be all white with a straight up and down rotation, while a 2-seam fastball will appear to have two seams moving up and down. The direction of spin will also tell hitters whether the ball will be moving away from them, toward them, or remain straight. The great hitters could read the spin early, and judge the velocity more accurately. This made them better hitters because they made better decisions about which balls to swing at.

When your best hitters are on a hot streak, they can do no wrong. They are swinging at bad pitches and lining them into the outfield. They can get caught off balance with change-ups or curveballs and are still able to hit the ball hard. They hit pitchers throwing 95 as if they are only throwing 80 mph. These hits happen because they are able to put the sweet spot of the bat solidly on the ball on a regular basis because they see the ball so well.

During good hitting streaks, a lot of major leaguers say they saw the ball well, that it looked like it was right in the middle of the hitting zone. When they took the time to review the same at bats on video, they couldn’t believe how tough some of the pitches actually were. Once again, the hitters that see the ball best are the best hitters. The bottom line is that a hitter is only as good as the pitches they swing at, or perceives the pitch to be. Apparently when they are seeing the ball very well… every pitch looks like a good pitch to hit. Ted Williams’ favorite line of advice was “get a good pitch to hit!” He either got a heckuva lot of good pitches to hit during his career, or simply saw the pitches extremely well. I would venture to say the latter is the more likely.

When players at any level of competition are not hitting well, the first question asked is “what is wrong with my swing mechanics?” What is important to understand is that poor swings, and poor at bats, are often the result of not seeing the ball well. For example, a hitter who is not seeing the ball out of the pitcher’s hand, but rather is picking the ball up 50 feet from home plate (instead of seeing the whole 60’6″) will have the sense that the ball is actually quicker than it really is. The reaction may be to overswing trying to catch up with the pitch, or pull the front side open, literally trying to get the bat out in front. Both reactions result in the mechanical breakdown of the swing. On the other hand, a hitter seeing the ball very well may sense the ball is actually slower than it really is– like in a car accident, when it appears like everything is in slow motion, and they have no problem hitting a 95 mph fastball. A lot like the Pepsi commercial with Ken Griffey, Jr. and Sammy Sosa. Griffey appears to have enough time to think about whether the pitch is a fastball, slider or … “Hmmm… did I lock my keys in the car?” Certainly an exaggeration, but you understand the concept; great hitters see things so well it appears to be taking place in slow motion.

I think most players have played in a game where many of the hitters came back to the dugout and complained about how hard a pitcher was throwing. However, the one hitter hitting the ball well argued that the pitcher wasn’t throwing the ball hard at all. How a hitter sees the ball will affect how he or she reacts. I suggest that coaches and parents teach kids to “grade” how well they see the ball during their at bats. An “A look” is the very best a hitter can see the ball, like when they are on a hot streak. A “B look” is good enough to hit the ball well, but it is not their best. A “C look” is when hitters start having trouble recognizing pitches and chasing bad ones. A “D look” is a complete loss of the strike zone and not knowing what they are swinging at. An “F look” is when they “go blind”. I would suggest hitters learn to grade how well they see the ball. When a good hitter starts to make bad swings, we want to make sure that the first course of action is to evaluate how well they are seeing the ball. If he is not having his/her “A look” at all the pitches then it needs to be addressed and corrected first, before any mechanical adjustments are made. A hitter does not need to have a perfect swing to hit the ball hard, but it is imperative that they see the ball well!

About Rick Down

Richard John Down was named the New York Mets hitting coach on November 26, 2004. In 2004, he was the minor league batting instructor with the New York Yankees. Served two separate tours of duty as the Yankees batting coach from 1993-1995 and from 2002-2003. After leaving the Yankees in 1994, he was the hitting coach with the Baltimore Orioles (1995-1998), the Los Angeles Dodgers (1999-2000) and the Boston Red Sox (2001). Helped guide the 2000 Dodgers to a franchise record 211 home runs.

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