The Strike Zone. How many hitters can actually say they go up to the plate and “know the strike zone”? What is “the strike zone”? Good question… there are many answers! Who’s “strike zone”? The Pitcher’s? The Catcher’s? The Hitter’s? The Umpires? Today? Tomorrow? Yesterday? The “strike zone” changes. It’s an amoeba. That’s one of the things that makes the game of hitting such a difficult task. Combine not knowing “the strike zone” on any give day with a fastball moving at about 90mph, from a pitcher that doesn’t exactly want you to hit it, to a catcher that’s been watching every swing you take to figure out your weakness and you have a very difficult task. Add in the fact that the catcher and pitcher have basically been working “in concert” with the umpire for a good portion of the game, so they “know” the umpire’s “strike zone” on that particular day. Yea, you pretty much have the odds stacked against you.
Ahhh… but there is hope. If it were impossible, nobody could do it. And guess what, the last time I checked there were a heckuva lot of guys that are really, really good at it. What separates them? They don’t go to the plate unprepared. They go up to the plate with a plan. A plan they have developed from sitting and watching. A major part of the plan is knowing the strike zone! What is the pitcher throwing consistently for strikes? Where are those strikes a good portion of the time? What is the umpire calling today? If the pitcher gets a questionable strike called… does he go right back to that spot just a teensy bit farther out and get the strike called? What exactly is happening up there in the battle zone? Home plate… where you compete… remember? How can you win that battle? What do you have to know or do to help you win the battle at home plate? Answer: The Strike Zone. No, make that the Strike Zone times 9!
Yea, that’s what I said. The Strike Zone x 9! My baseball hitting friend, there are nine… count them … nine… strike zones. And YOU have to know and be able to defeat all nine zones if you want to be one of those great hitters we spoke about a paragraph ago. Well, maybe not all nine. Even the great Ted Williams had a weak spot. But… as many as you can, you want to master.
The nine zones:
- Inside and Low (lower portion of the strike zone)
- Inside (middle of the strike zone)
- Inside (upper portion of the strike zone)
- Middle of the plate/Low
- Middle of the plate!
- Middle of the plate/Up
There you have them… all nine, just as pretty as can be. How many of you think you have practiced swinging to all nine strike zones? I mean just swinging. Swinging at air. Swinging at air with a really light stick so you can repeat it over and over, kind of swinging. Well, you should. You should develop muscle memory for a correct swing to all nine sections of the strike zone. I’m going to do my best to teach you how to do that.
First, I want you to understand what a swing is: A baseball swing begins with a weight shift to store energy. The energy is then trapped in the core body by a resistance from the front side (the plant foot). From there it is a sequential releasing of levers: Beginning with the hips, waist, shoulders, upper arms, forearms, wrists, hands, handle of bat and finally the barrel. The last lever. The last lever to release is traveling the fastest. The last lever to release is also dependent upon the accuracy of the earlier releasing levers. If they were not started in the right location to permit an efficient release to the object by the last releasing lever, we end up with a swing and a miss. A strike.
The critical levers that control accuracy are closest to the last lever. Meaning the hands, the wrists and the forearms. Think about it. How many great hitters did NOT have strong wrists, hands and forearms? Hmmm, my guess? None! They all had tremendous strength in this area.
Okay, so tip number one. Develop strong hands, wrists and forearms! Pretty simple isn’t it? If you know what a baseball swing is, you can start figuring out how to make one that is efficient, accurate, powerful and repeatable. There’s your start. Develop a strong set of hands, quick agile wrists and strong forearms. You might want to visit the Bat Speed Development section for drills and exercises to help you succeed.
Next, you want to develop muscle memory in each section of the swing. Slowly integrate one section with the next. One at a time. One lever movement with the next until you have a complete swing.
For instance; The swing begins with a weight shift called loading. Practice your load. Find one that is easy, repeatable and minimizes upper body movement. One that works particularly well is to simply lift the heel of the front foot off the ground while simultaneously kicking in the front knee toward the plate. Just a little inward move of the knee… not much, just a little. This cocks the hips and shifts the weight back onto the back foot.
The loaded energy then gets trapped. We do this by something called: a step! Yes, that’s right. We trap the energy by stepping. “The energy” is just the movement of the weight or the inertia. Inertia is the tendency of a body in straight line motion to stay in motion in a straight line unless acted on by an outside force.
Did you get that? Our weight is moving from back (by the catcher), forward (to the oncoming ball). If we don’t stop it… trap it! It will just keep going forward. That will usually result in a very weak swing. Therefore, we would prefer to alter that energy and transform it into the efficient, accurate, powerful and repeatable swing that gets a lot of base hits.
We begin this process by stepping and trapping that energy. We prefer to step lightly on the inside of the big toe. Just enough pressure to stop the momentum momentarily without jarring the upper body and ultimately moving the head and eyes. We want the eyes to remain silent. They have locked onto their target and we don’t want to disturb that image.
From this point the energy is now moving up into the hips which begin to unwind toward the oncoming target (the ball). This creates a slight exponentiation in the energy when the lower body begins to release toward the target while the upper body is resisting. The upper body is resisting because the ball is not in the contact zone yet. The hands are staying back. Have you heard that before? The hands are staying back. The swing has begun. But, the hands are staying back. It isn’t time for them yet.
So, the hips are unwinding which then engages the next lever, the shoulders. The shoulders have an important role. They respond to the plane the swing must be swung on. In other words, the eyes have determined the location of the pitch and where the bat barrel must get to for accurate contact with the ball. Since the levers following the shoulders are closest to the bat, the shoulders must determine the plane with which these movements can attack the most efficiently, with the most power and accuracy. If the pitch were inside and low, the shoulders would react by releasing with a slightly upward plane. If the pitch were up and away, the shoulders would remain much more level. Take into consideration that the “locations” I mention are relevant to the 9 strike zones.
This is why we like dry swings to all nine zones of the strike zone. Let the body understand the movements. Create muscle memory. Start slowly and then begin to use increased leverage, torque and speed. We really like to see players exploding the hips. Concentrate on trapping the energy and really exploding the hips during your dry swings, especially when you are doing your 5 count sequences.
The next lever to get into action is the upper arms. The upper arms are basically just a vehicle for the energy to multiply through. The lead elbow acts as a guide now, directing the energy toward the oncoming target. Think of the motion your lead elbow has when you throw a Frisbee. It dictates the direction that the disc will travel to. This is the same effect it has on the barrel of the bat. It is setting the path of attack for the barrel.
The forearms are where the speed really begins to pick up. When the eyes determine that the speed of the oncoming pitch is such that it is time to attack it with the bat. The forearms whip the wrists and hands which snaps the barrel of the bat around at the oncoming ball. These movements happen very rapidly. The first sequence of moves should happen slowly. This is all preparation for the release of energy. The loading and stepping phases are done slowly. You get to choose when you start to get ready to hit. Great hitters have slow feet and fast hands. This means that they get the load done without being in a rush and then trying to snap off the whole sequence of movements to the swing in a millisecond. This is an important part of hitting. It relates to your timing and rhythm. Something all great hitters have. Slow feet fast hands.
The last sequence of moves happens fast. There are dozens of little minute movements taking place in the wrists and hands. This is where the strength comes in. Any last millisecond corrections that are necessary have to be handled by the last lever to touch the bat; the hands. Plus, the levers are moving very fast at this point and they are connected to a 30+ ounce club that is traveling even faster. You can see why you need to develop this part of your body to be a great hitter.
So, we now have the sequence of moves. We have a pretty clear understanding of why this sequence takes place in the order that it does. Now, all we need to do is have you work on the muscle memory to get this repeated each time with power and accuracy.
Get in your baseball stance with an XLR8 SpeedBat or light weight stick.
Load. Remember how to do that? Simply lift the heel of the front foot while turning in the front knee ever so slightly. Repeat this 5 times.
Step. Incorporate the stepping motion with the load. Load and Step. Be certain to land on the big toe. Softly. Just light enough to stop the forward motion. Repeat this sequence of movements 5 times.
Launch. Incorporate the release of the hips. Do not release the shoulder lever or the hand lever. Keep the hands back. This is where we like to see players concentrating on exploding those hips. The core body is so incredibly important to a hitter and developing the proper hip action will lead to increased success at the plate. Repeat this sequence of three moves (Load, Step, Launch) 5 times.
Contact. Release the shoulders to allow the upper arms and the forearms to release the barrel far enough into the center of the strike zone. Zone number 5 (refer to the nine strike zones above). Now there is a sequence of four moves (Load, Step, Launch, Contact). Do these 5 times.
Extend. Let the wrists and hands propel the bat barrel through strike zone number 5 and into a Power V position. The head looking right down the V created by the forearms to the hands and straight out the end of the bat. Now you have 5 moves to do. 5 times. Getting tired yet? Good, because you’re almost done.
Extend again. Release the barrel to the finished position. Now you have 6 movements to do 5 times. When you are done, start again:
Load 5 times.
Load and Step 5 times.
Load, Step and Launch 5 times.
Load, Step, Launch and Contact 5 times.
Load, Step, Launch, Contact and Extend 5 times.
Load, Step, Launch, Contact, Extend and Extend again (finish) 5 times.
That’s how you build a swing. See how many times you can do that. Do it slow, then do it fast, faster and fastest.
When you have a pretty good swing built up (approximately one thousand swings), you can then begin to incorporate this efficient swing into the nine strike zones. 5 to zone 1, 5 to zone 2, 5 to zone 3 and so on.
I want you to understand something very important about the nine strike zones and hitting. The closer the ball is to you in relation to home plate, the less time you have. The farther the ball is from you, the more time you have. In other words, pitches on the inside of the plate require you to meet the ball farther in front of the plate in order to successfully get the good part of the bat on the ball. This means the barrel of the bat must travel farther to make contact. Having to travel farther means you have less time. You have to get to that ball early.
The outside pitch is a different story. First, the outside pitch can be effectively hit when it travels farther (deeper) toward the catcher. Second, the bat barrel actually has a shorter distance to travel to hit the outside pitch. Third, the ball can be hit on the inside portion because the hands are naturally “inside the ball”. All of these factors add up to the fact that the hitter has considerably more time on an outside pitch than on an inside one. Knowing this you can stop complaining about pitchers throwing you everything on the outside. You should be thanking them. They are doing you a favor. Work on the 3 strike zones to the outside of the plate, create good muscle memory and start attacking those pitches in the games.
Ideally, you should make dry swings to the nine hitting zones at least three times a week. Think about it. 5 swings to the nine zones is only 45 swings. How long would that take you? A few minutes? Investing a few minutes in a drill that can make a significant impact on your hitting ability is time well spent. More importantly, you need nobody to help you with this… Just you and your DESIRE to BeABetterHitter!