The Best Defense Starts with the Core

Whenever athletes start a workout program, experienced coaches or trainers always begin with core exercises to provide a great foundation that will help make the other parts of the body stronger.

We can correlate that with building a sound baseball defensive philosophy.  

The best defenses in baseball start with great up-the-middle play. Whenever possible the best players on any baseball team should be playing the most challenging positions on the field: pitcher, catcher, shortstop, second base, and center field.

And like the core, if you are strong in the middle the other parts of the team will likely be stronger too. The best teams play championship defense.

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Poor Hip Rotation in Game Situations

Often time young hitters struggle with turning and releasing their hips during game situations or live batting practice. This can be quite frustrating for coaches, especially for those who see their young athletes demonstrate a solid understanding of hip rotation during tee work, soft toss, short toss, or simple dry swings. There are usually two causes for lack of hip rotation in game situations.

Initiating the swing too late
When hitters start their swing too late, all they can do is defensively throw the bat at the ball. Late swingers do not have the time to take an aggressive pass at the baseball. As a result, they immediately go into survival mode.

You may have seen this even at the major league level, when a hitter with two strikes is thinking curve, but gets thrown a fastball. All that hitter can do is throw the bat late at the ball—all arms and no rotation.

Eliminating the stride and simply having hitters pick the front foot up and drop it down in the same spot (no lateral movement) will help hitters start the swing earlier. The key is mirroring the pitcher. When the pitcher’s front foot lands, the hitter’s front foot should land as well.

Fear of striking out and/or just being content with making contact
Hitters who have a fear of striking out become passive at the plate. They are content with just making contact, and not using their lower bodies in the process.

Especially at a young age, coaches should reinforce the idea that they would rather see an aggressive swing and a miss rather than a passive swing and poor contact. After a live round of a batting practice, hitters should be dripping with sweat. This aggressive mindset will help young hitters translate what they already know about hip rotation into game situations.

Many youth coaches use the phrase "squish the bug" as a means of giving kids a visual of what hip rotation looks and feels like. “Squish the bug”—the turning of the back foot as a means of initiating hip rotation—is not something I am hugely in favor of. If you want to turn your hip, turn your hip, and then the foot will follow. Big muscles pull small muscles, not the other way around. In other words, it’s not that turning the back foot is wrong, but ideally this should be an effect of hip rotation, not the cause. It’s important to understand that a player can still turn their back foot yet not achieve full hip rotation.

Two MLB Hitters To Watch (If You Must)

In one of my previous articles I said to ignore pro hitters until you become one, largely because the pros' hitting approach is contrary to what youth hitters should be working on. However when I was a youth player I watched and imitated pro hitters all the time so I don't want to be a hypocrite. With that in mind I can suggest, if you want to watch hitters who possess sound approaches that youth hitters can follow, you should watch Miguel Cabrera and Joe Mauer. Miguel Cabrera, Detroit Tigers Cabrera has a great setup from the ground up—perfect balance and superb body alignment and hand position. He can hit the ball out of the park to all fields but will also take what the pitcher gives him. He looks for pitches away and reacts instinctively on inside pitches. He will occasionally get jammed, but great hitters do get jammed because they try to cover all quadrants. Pull hitters always look for inside pitches and hit .250 or below because they are easy outs when pitched away. Cabrera does look inside depending on the situation or pitching patterns and that results in a very hard hit ball. But that comes with experience, and hopefully youth players will become students of the game like Cabrera.

Joe Mauer, Minnesota Twins Mauer has a different style than Cabrera but it fits him and is extremely successful. Mauer has been a batting champion in his career. He also has perfect balance and superb alignment and hand position. He hits the ball to all fields while striking out infrequently. In his high school career he struck out once, which showed early in his career that he had a tremendous talent level, a great knowledge of the strike zone, and excellent plate discipline. In MLB Mauer very rarely gets himself out and takes his fair share of walks. He has a short, quick swing and though he is not a prolific homerun hitter, he has line-drive extra base power. He hits the ball off the barrel of the bat as consistently as anyone in the major leagues, which makes him dangerous in any situation. He’s a model for young hitters.

Preparation Will Help Pitchers Maintain Velocity

After observing Justin Verlander the past several years throw harder in the last part of a game than at the start, how do youth and high school coaches teach their pitchers to maintain their velocity throughout a game? Coaches can only develop the talent pitchers were born with. It’s what we call their sports DNA. What they do have control over is maximizing velocity and command of the strike zone through preparation.

Preparation involves conditioning, core and power training, pitching strategy, and teaching pitching mechanics correctly according to the individual. This program will help pitchers control the four quadrants, and with continued diligence and repetition, pitchers can correct mechanics and increase velocity.

Youth and high school pitchers can have success if they work at these facets of pitching and continue to accept coaching, no matter the body type or talent level.

Video Can Help Youth Baseball Coaches Correct Technique

A valuable method for teaching athletes is to show them video of their techniques and then correct their flaws. Coaches can show examples of players who exhibit game-sound ability to help with the educational process. But when should coaches use video?

First, coaches must establish a foundation of teaching the correct techniques in developing skills. Those techniques have to be repeated every time skills are emphasized in practice. When players are not comprehending what the coaches are teaching, then coaches should tape the technique in question and explain to athletes not only what they are doing wrong but what their strengths are.

Today's generation of players understand visual evidence because of their internet use, and they can correlate what they see and apply it to understand and improve their skills. In several instances as a high school coach it has helped our pitchers and hitters significantly, and with their improved performance they became all-conference players and college prospects.

Hitting and Pitching Are the Same: Bat Lag and Shoulder Lag

We always say teaching pitching and hitting are the same. So, what is bat lag and how can it be applied to teaching pitching fundamentals? According to professional hitting coaches, lagging the bat helps create power in the swing. So what defines bat lag? Bat lag occurs when the front foot lands after the initiation of the stride and the back hip starts to rotate. The hands start to move but lag behind the hip move and are loaded behind the ball. The hands then explode to the ball with the maximum bat speed and power, creating full arm extension. The swing is finished off by a high follow through and full shoulder rotation. You can see the correct shoulder rotation on a right-handed hitter if you can spot the player's back or number from the first base dugout.

A lot of professional pitching coaches use the term hip/shoulder separation. We will use “shoulder lag.”

After the pivot to start the pitching delivery, the front leg is lifted. The front foot then lands softly, beginning the back hip action. No rotation occurs until the foot landing. When the back hip starts to rotate, the shoulders remain square and the back shoulder stays behind the baseball until the hip rotation naturally pulls the shoulders through the pitching zone. This movement creates a powerful and complete shoulder rotation and the correct finish to the delivery.

It is the same action as hitting: bat lag, shoulder lag.

The Front Leg: How Hitting and Pitching Are Not the Same

The one technique that differs in execution in pitching and hitting skills is how the front leg lands. In hitting, professional coaches constantly preach about a soft landing with the front foot and swinging against the inside of a firm front leg. Those fundamentals are needed to maximize a hitter’s power. When done correctly, the hips and the upper body explode to the inside of the front leg while the head stays over the middle of the batting stance. However if a hitter lands with a bent front leg, the head and upper body tend to go with the stride, causing imbalance, head movement, and drift out of the maximum power position.

Professional pitching coaches also talk about a soft landing with the ball of the front foot or flat foot landing like Greg Maddux did throughout his baseball career. Like hitting, landing on the heel of the front foot stops maximum, efficient rotation of the hips, and jars the execution of the skill.

Unlike hitting, coaches want pitchers to bend their front knee at foot strike to get their back side through the pitching zone fully and correctly and to ensure a DOWNWARD plane on all pitches. There lies the major teaching difference: the bent knee for pitchers will help them keep the ball down for more ground balls, and the the firm front side for hitters will help them elevate balls for power hits.

Travel Baseball Should Focus on Player Development

When travel league schedules revolve around tournament play, winning inherently becomes the primary focus. Rarely do travel baseball teams have time to practice because of the number of scheduled games and the associated travel.

This is a glaring problem with travel baseball. Kids need a combination of practice and games to best facilitate athletic development.

Simply throwing young kids out on the field to play as many games as possible does not necessarily facilitate athletic development. Younger athletes need considerable practice time to develop their hitting and defensive skills in a pressure-free environment.

In its current state, travel baseball places 8-11 year olds in a setting where the pressure to win and perform takes precedent over the emotional and athletic development of the players themselves.

As a result, the travel baseball coaches act as if they were managing professional players. Yelling. Throwing equipment. Arguing with umpires. Sulking after losses.

To many parents it appears that these travel coaches know what they are doing with their custom-made dry-fit coaching shirts and Oakley Sunglasses resting on the brims of their fitted caps. In reality most of travel coaches possess the same amount of knowledge as your average house league coach. A majority of these coaches are parents who don’t know the first thing about teaching baseball or the social and emotional development of kids.

Rather than winning, the focus for youth baseball needs to be on development.

Athletic excellence and success cannot always be identified at an early age. If given the right opportunity to compete and develop their skills, inferior athletes will frequently blossom and attain success in later years. We’ve proved this time and time again with players we have worked with.

Watered-Down Talent: A Consequence of Travel Baseball

When I grew up in the 1980s, we all played house league. At the end of the season, the best players made the All Star team, which then competed against other community All Star teams in a post-season tournament.

Then youth organizations decided to create teams that played a part-time travel schedule and a part-time house schedule. This later evolved into the development of full-time travel teams with significant tournament schedules, sometimes requiring out-of-state travel and overnight lodging. Games increased from 30-40 games per summer to 60-70 games, sometimes more.

Not only did the amount of games increase, so did the number of teams. Towns and communities which once offered only one travel team now have several options to choose from. Previously considered an honor to be selected for travel baseball teams, now anyone willing to travel on weekends and afford the registration fee can play travel baseball.

The existence of numerous options is a major problem with travel baseball.

In the past when kids did not make their travel team, the lesson was to work harder and try out next year. However, with multiple options currently available for many eager travel players, this message has been eliminated.

Now, many parents shop their kids around like free agents. Parents look for teams with the best records and most trophies. Kids who were cut from one travel team simply tryout for another. Parents of those children who were unhappy with playing time simply form their own teams.

Last time I checked, sitting on the bench and learning how to support teammates from the sidelines is a valuable lesson that all kids should learn. No wonder we as high school coaches are seeing more and more incoming freshman with spoiled attitudes and a strong sense of entitlement.

Naturally, the existence of multiple travel teams waters down the talent level per team. Now, most travel teams have at least three or four marginal players on the roster because the best players in each community are spread out over several teams.

Not only does the existence of multiple travel teams water down the talent level of each team, but it also waters down the number of quality coaches. Let’s face it – great coaches do not grow on trees. And when I say great coaches, I don’t just mean coaches who know baseball (and believe me, there are very few of those).

Great coaches are those who can teach and manage the game, as well as understand the emotional and social development of kid. Great coaches carry themselves with class, honor, and integrity, and teach life skills. These coaches are so rare that the odds of finding several in one community are slim.

And while I admit that there are probably just as many bad high school coaches as there are bad travel coaches, many high school coaches are either trained educators or certified by respected coaching organizations such as the American Sport Education Program (ASEP). In addition, high school coaches must be accountable to school administrators and athletic directors while following various policies and guidelines as established by state high school associations. In contrast to this, the majority of travel league coaches do not possess the proper training and experience to work with kids, and most do not have to be accountable to anyone for their decisions, behaviors, and conduct.