Oh, to be young again.
Too bad my big league dreams ended on a college baseball field. I’m not complaining. Playing baseball helped pay my way through college and led me to the broadcasting career I enjoy so much now. But, I had one of those, “I wish I knew that then…” moments Sunday after a fascinating conversation with Dale Sveum about the art of hitting. As the Brewers hitting coach, Sveum’s job is to unlock the many doors to hitting success. Needless to say, he carries a full set of keys. In the simplest of terms, he unlocked a big door for me. Too bad it was 20 years too late!
Sveum broke down hitting into three parts. The first two, the most important, depend on the eyes and the brain: One, finding and focusing on the ball out of the pitchers hand and two, making a decision to swing or not. The third is the most physical of the three, the actual swing, putting the barrel of the bat down the eye line to the baseball with hands, hips, legs, feet, etc…all at work together. The reason hitting a baseball is the hardest thing to do in sports is because all three have to be applied in HALF a second.
My “a-ha” moment was when I realized that most of the baseball world spends most of their practice time on the third and final step, swing mechanics. Google “hitting instruction” and you’ll find hundreds of philosophies and “gurus” on the proper swing. Truth is, there is no single “correct” way to swing a bat. There are basic fundamentals that have to be in place to hit a baseball but the heart of successful hitting is pitch recognition. It is THE most important aspect and THE least often practiced skill in amateur baseball.
In your baseball playing life, how often have you asked or been asked to “track” pitches? No swings. Just stand there with a bat and find the baseball out of the pitchers hand then make a decision whether it is a hittable pitch before it hits the catcher’s mitt? It is so easy in hindsight. It is so hard in real time. I played baseball from the age of five through college and NEVER spent any great amount of time tracking pitches and improving my pitch selection ability. On the flip side, I spent countless hours working on swing mechanics. Drills after drills, batting practice, tee work, soft toss, video, etc…all the while neglecting the very thing a pitcher is trying to do to me as a hitter, trick me with pitch selection.
I’m not saying pitch selection wasn’t discussed all those years, just that improving the specific SKILL of pitch selection was never made clear until my conversation with Dale Sveum. Defining the skill offers the opportunity to improve the craft. Your eyes need just as much practice as your below-the-neck activity. Your brain needs to be pushed, worked out, practiced, rested, and TRUSTED (some call that confidence) so the physical part of hitting can actually be applied.
So baseball coaches, I’m encouraging you to make time for your hitters to stand still. Stand still and practice seeing and thinking! Stand and track pitches. Get a good understanding of the strike zone. Implement eye training techniques like fighter pilots do. Make up your own games on vision and decision making. If you’re still an active baseball player, take my advice and work on these skills. Make it important before it’s too late. A (hitter’s) mind…is a terrible thing to waste!
The blog is back in operation. Thank you for your patience.
Having watched the Crew all spring and the first two weeks of the season, I’m starting to think this will be a streaky team. Ron Roenicke is hoping a more aggressive style will keep them a little more consistent (not always waiting for the homerun) but so far, this team seems like an up and down group. The offense can be explosive but, as in years past, they seem to struggle against pitchers above bat speed (hard throwers) and below bat speed (kitchen sink’ers).
I love the “attack” style of play. Many say it’s the “Angels way” but having seen Roenicke manage in the minor leagues (1997-98, San Antonio), this style is exactly the way he managed back then. The aggressive base running, the shifting, the “out-of-the-box” thinking was formulated by Roenicke and Mike Scioscia during their playing days with the Dodgers in the 80’s. The process continued when those two were coaching in the Dodgers minor league system in the late 90’s. I would venture to say that Roenicke had as much influence on the style of play adopted by Scioscia in Anaheim as anyone. It is a very similar style of play as the Rays under former Angels coach Joe Maddon, Charlie Manuel’s Phillies, John Farrell’s Blue Jays, and of course, the Angels. I love it. It certainly makes for entertaining TV every night.
I asked Roenicke about a few other “rules” he will abide by as a big league skipper:
Running game: It is simple math. Add the time it takes the pitcher to throw to the plate plus the time it takes the catcher to throw to second. Compare that with time it takes for the individual Brewers base runner to make it to second and make the choice. There are no secrets. You’ll see 1B coach Garth Iorg talking to runners in earshot of the first baseman with those numbers. If the math works out, the Brewers will run.
Double Switching: Don’t expect many double switches. Roenicke told me he subscribes to the Whitey Herzog philosophy concerning the double switch. He’ll ONLY double switch when he needs multiple innings out of a reliever. He does not like getting locked in the batting order. He’ll always keep as much flexibility as possible with pinch-hitters unless he absolutely needs multiple innings from a reliever.
Shifting: Roenicke was in charge of setting the defense in Anaheim and while Scioscia didn’t apply the same degree of shifting as we’re seeing now, it was always a big part of the defensive philosophy. If you see a shift, there is an overwhelming trend with that hitter according the spray charts.
Hope this helps you get to know what the manager a little better. Whether you agree with his philosophy or not, you can’t say the man doesn’t put serious thought into his plan.
Until next time…BA