“We’ve found that in baseball, and, generally speaking, in life itself, we are hindered not so much by what we don’t know, but by what we believe to be true that actually is not true.” — The Mental Game of Baseball
For many years, well-meaning coaches have relied on hitting cues that are either wrong or misleading. These cues result from not being able to really see what happens during the swing (because the movement is too fast) or not understanding physics and bio-mechanics. Slow-motion videos of MLB batters show that high-level players use a rotational swing; they do not follow these cues when they bat. Bad hitting cues discussed below include: swing down (to create backspin), swing level, squish the bug, extension at point of contact, get the front foot down early, keep the barrel above the ball, and hands to the ball/throw your hands at the ball.
SWING DOWN (to create backspin) – WRONG
This is probably the worst thing a coach can tell a hitter. Swinging down is not what creates backspin and it will make it more difficult to hit the ball. Backspin is created by a round barrel hitting a round ball. If the barrel hits the bottom half of the ball relative to the bat’s trajectory, then it will produce backspin. If it hits the top half, then topspin is produced. Backspin is a function of where the bat meets the ball, not simply the trajectory of the bat.
Swinging down also makes it more difficult to hit the ball because the contact zone (the area where the bat can actually make contact with the ball) is very narrow. In other words, there is little room for error in hitting the ball.
Compare the contact zone of swinging down to swinging “on plane” (slightly upward swing). When hitters swing on plane, the bat stays in the contact zone much longer and there is a much greater chance of “squaring up the ball” and hitting hard line drives.
SWING LEVEL – WRONG
What is the purpose of a level swing? Why should players swing level? At least the “swing down” cue has a rationale (create backspin) even though that rationale is wrong. In defense of the level swing, it does have a larger hitting zone than swinging down.
However, if the size of the hitting zone is the issue, then why not swing on plane with the pitch? Swinging on plane has the largest possible hitting zone.
Even if there is an advantage to swinging level (and I have never heard of one), the only time this bat path will work efficiently is if the pitch is in the upper part of the strike zone. Because of physical constraints on how the body moves, it is very difficult for a person to effectively swing a bat level and hit the ball if the pitch is in the middle to lower part of the strike zone. Finally, all MLB players swing with some degree of uppercut. They do not swing level.
SQUISH THE BUG – WRONG
“Squish the bug” suggests that batters should grind the sole of the back foot into the ground (because that is how you would squish a bug). This leads players to keep weight on the back foot during the swing, thus limiting ground force production. Players, in this case, are not generating any force from their stride or heel plant. Squishing the bug also impedes hip rotation during the swing. No MLB batters squish the bug. Their back foot is weightless on the toes, dragging on the ground, or in the air at contact.
If the goal of “squish the bug” is to have batters rotate their hips, then this cue is misleading. The rotation of the hips causes the back foot to turn not vice versa. Moreover, it is possible to turn the foot (i.e. squish the bug) without fully committing to hip rotation. So, just turning the foot to squish the bug will not lead to hip rotation. If you want batters to rotate their hips, then just tell them to rotate their hips.
If you watch an MLB batter it may appear that he is squishing the bug. However, that is because the movement is so fast you only notice that he sits back on the sole of his rear foot during the follow through. You do not notice that the back foot is weightless at contact.
EXTENSION AT POINT OF CONTACT – WRONG
MLB batters do not have their arms at or near full extension at the point of contact unless the ball is outside or in front of the plate. The arms are used to deliver the sweet spot of the bat to the ball. The arms will be bent at the elbows for pitches that are inside or over the center of the plate.
The extension cue is based on the misconception that arm extension creates power in the swing. Power is created by the rotation of the body. Extension is an adjustment to get the bat on the ball. Full extension (aka the power v) is a natural consequence of angular momentum as the body stops rotating. It should happen after contact occurs and when the bat is “pointing” towards the pitcher.
GET THE FRONT FOOT DOWN EARLY – WRONG
The foot hitting the ground initiates hip rotation in a high level swing. As the front heel lands, the hips begin to rotate against the front leg, which braces against the front foot. This allows the energy produced by the stride to be transferred up the kinetic chain to the hips. If a batter gets his foot down early, this essentially leaves him flat-footed and any energy generated by the stride is lost. The front foot needs to get down on time and in rhythm to properly transfer energy to the hips.
KEEP THE BARREL ABOVE THE BALL – WRONG
How can you keep the barrel above the ball and get on plane with the pitch? You can’t! More often than not, this cue is related to swinging down on the ball, which is about the worst thing you can teach a batter. It is possible that the coach is using this cue to get the batter to hit ground balls with topspin. But a better cue would be “hit the top half of the ball.”
HANDS TO THE BALL and THROW THE HANDS AT THE BALL – WRONG
These cues suggest that the hands act independently and consequently encourage a disconnection. They also imply that the batter should swing down (the hands typically start well above where the ball crosses the plate). These cues are associated with what some people call a linear swing. High-level hitters, however, do not move their hands like this. When the front heel lands, the elbow slot and shoulder tilt bring the hands down. The rotation of the shoulders (following the rotation of the hips) takes the hands and bat forward. The hands release as the rotating hips decelerate.