For years, the game of baseball’s training environment hasn’t mimicked what occurs during a game. Throwing fastballs or curveballs every other pitch in batting practice hardly creates a random environment for pitches that hitters may see in a game. Though rotating between two pitches does get us further away from “block” training, it still lets the player know what is coming.
At Driveline, we try to challenge our hitters with consistent “machine work,” where we are have them constantly hit off the machine, chasing exit velocity and consistent barrel contact. But we run into the same problems mentioned above with this type of training: After a hitter has seen the pitch once, he knows exactly what it’s going to do and when it will arrive. Block training has been used in baseball for years simply because it’s easier to facilitate by coaches and trainers. Players will likely get in more reps, but are they learning and developing from those reps?
Block versus Randomized Training
A quick story can easily explain the difference between “block” and “randomized” training. Two golfers are on a practice putting green. One of them is a PGA tour player, and the other is his close friend that rivals the tour player in skill but hasn’t yet made it onto the PGA Tour. Now, the friend lines up his putt from 4 feet away and strikes 100 putts from 4 feet, he then strikes 100 putts from 6 feet, and 100 from 8 feet. This takes him about 3 hours to complete all 300 putts, because he is taking his time and making each stroke count. Meanwhile, the PGA Tour player drops 3 balls on the side of the green and putts from the same spot to 3 different cups. The Tour player then continues to bounce around all over the green to random cups from random angles and distances. In the 3 hours he’s on the green, he only rolls 30 putts. His friend comes off the practice green frustrated and says to his swing coach “I don’t understand, I work harder than almost every player on the Tour. I just rolled 300 putts in the time he rolled 30. Why is it I still can’t break through and make it on the PGA Tour?” The trainer replies, “You rolled 100 from 3 feet, 100 from 6 feet, and 100 from 8 feet, essentially you only rolled 3 putts in 3 hours.” He continues, “He rolled 30 different putts from different areas and you continued to strike the same ball an extra 99 times.” Once our brain has been given the job of rolling a 3 foot putt, it simply ingrains that one motor pattern. By randomizing your training, you will have a better ability to adapting to new situations and stimulus to complete the task at hand.
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Yes, I am claiming the way that we have been going about our training isn’t the most conducive for creating elite hitters. A problem that we face, like other facilities and programs across the world, is time and arm health. Would I like to have each hitter hit live every single day? Absolutely! The problem is that isn’t realistic in our current format for training. Also it can be difficult to work on mechanical swing changes while facing a live arm. Our pitchers are working on gaining velocity, strength, movement patterns, and at times designing new pitches. We simply can’t pull them in to throw live every day without issue.
So then comes the question, Who is in their mound-work phase and how many are there? Do we have enough arms to be continuously throwing live for 5-6 hours a day? The answer is no, not even close. Therefore, we are stuck back in our block training ways, running competitive pitches through the machine at hitters for hours on end. Luckily, our machine isn’t perfect, so during a round of 10 swings, only 3-4 pitches will be in the same location of the strike zone. In reality, they are only gaining a handful of quality reps each round in this environment, since they know what is coming out of the machine.
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Instituting Short Boxes
One thing we do have at Driveline Baseball is a lot of retired baseball players that still want to compete and mix it up. The combination of having former ball players on staff and the need for more randomized training created Short-Box Tuesdays. Every Tuesday, a schedule is created for which Driveline employees are throwing to which group. The only requirements are that the pitcher keeps fastballs under 77 mph, and that’s all. On Tuesday, we bring in the short mound used for throwing into the plyo-wall and set it up at 50 ft. Hitters will get 2 rounds of flips to work on whatever drills or feels they want. Then for the next 45-50 min., Driveline employees will be committed to making at-bats as realistic and competitive as possible.
The first few weeks were not promising in terms of success for the hitters. It’s hard to blame them since they have been conditioned to see multiple pitches at the same speed, spin rate, and break. Now they are having to account for picking up release points, more rhythm, and, most importantly, different pitches. They are in an environment where they have to hit, not try and PR off an 88 mph cutter from the machine.
From the employee’s standpoint, this isn’t a tough ask. They get a break from a normal day to go compete, and since we’re at a shorter distance, it’s easier to keep it competitive at a lower intensity. Yes, arms still get sore, but with 6 days between outings and a lowered intensity, bouncing back for the next Tuesday isn’t much of a problem. However, if a thrower doesn’t have the power to give hitters consistent live looks, then I suggest supplementing pitchers bullpens or flat-ground/short-box days with live at-bats (given their arm health). If it’s a short box, it can give pitchers a controlled and comfortable environment to play with a pitch they have been working on but are not yet prepared to throw in-game.
Having a coaching staff that can mix pitches in batting practice should be mandatory at this point. For instance, at least one adequate righty and lefty practicing with the ability to mix speed and location during normal batting practice will help tremendously in preparing them to compete. Making batting practice as game-like as possible will pay huge dividends come game time. Plenty of hitters need to “feel good” before they go out and compete. While confidence is something incredibly valuable to bring to the plate, a hitter’s rounds of “feel good” batting practice taken 45 minutes ago shouldn’t be the determining factor in how he walks to home plate. I would rather my hitters have their brains firing faster and adjusting to pitches on the fly, rather than toss 40 mph pitches in there so they can hit it into outer space and “feel good” about themselves.
We have even gone far enough as almost completely taking away underhand front toss flips in favor of an exaggerated front toss length, over-the-top throw. What we’re looking for is something far enough away where we can get a full arm swing, but close enough that we can locate each pitch in the location we’re aiming for. This gives the hitters a more realistic timing mechanism to work off and makes our standard front toss a little harder and more variable.
The front toss portion of our training is directed towards making swing changes and creating better feel for what each athlete is trying to accomplish in a relatively controlled environment. We don’t want to have guys go straight onto the machine and try and feel out if they’re getting their pelvis to start its rotation on time while trying to hit a slider. So while there is a time and place for working on mechanics and developing new feels, as soon as you have put in the work for what you’re targeting, challenge it with a more chaotic environment.
Balancing Challenging Practice and Tee Work
Since we constantly look for ways to make training more game like, let’s look at tee work. At long last, we find ourselves hitting a ball placed in an area we choose. It doesn’t move, and we spend hours on end tirelessly perfecting our craft at something that has very little translation to the sport we play.
I have never been to a driving range and seen a golfer throw a golf ball up and hit it when working on his distance wedge game. Don’t get me wrong, the tee is an incredible tool to work on things like sequence or feels. But once you have begun to accomplish your goal with the tee, immediately try and challenge it with a moving ball. Hitters say all the time, I can hit this ball 10/10 off the tee perfectly, but when I get to BP I just can’t seem to do it. More often than not, it’s because the feel they are working on was never challenged while it was fresh in their brains after tee work.
Slowly working swing changes from the tee, to constraints in front toss, to overhand toss, to BP, and finally to the machine is a way for an athlete to continuously be challenged on seeing if his new pattern is breaking down or not. You can see that if you go from tee straight to the machine or in-game situations, it’s going to be hard for whatever swing change to hold up.
Baseball must start working away from its “it’s just easier this way” mindset. If you’re really trying to create better and more competitive hitters, you must challenge them in the environment that closely resembles their sport. Part of this may involve more competitive batting practice from pitching machines, but it’s also incredibly valuable to mix in live pitchers.
Coaches that don’t start looking for different avenues to develop their players because they just print off last year’s practice plans are going to fall behind. Those that take the development and training of their players seriously will always find ways to make practices and repetitions resemble more game-like experiences. So, let the players fail so they can learn how to adjust. Nobody should hit .800 in BP, and no scouts should have to worry about if they’re “a 5 o’clock hitter for a 6 o’clock game.”
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Written by Hitting Coordinator Max Gordon