McKnight's Insights:

Combating High Octane Fastballs

June 3, 2021

This likely isn’t news to anyone that reads this blog, but the average fastball in 2021 is again at a record high- it’s now over 93 MPH, and leaning on history, it’s apt to only climb when pitchers typically see their velocities peak in the hot summer months of July and August. 

But it’s not just the big league hitters dealing with these heaters: college pitchers threw harder than ever in the 2021 season. So, the trickle down effect from these velocity gains are real. Anecdotally, I help coach my son’s 12u baseball team, and I’m amazed how hard kids are throwing at the youth level. I’m sure my memory is hazy from when I was 12 (it doesn’t seem THAT long ago), but I certainly don’t remember hitting off fastballs I can hear from the dugout!

And to steal an old baseball cliche: the toothpaste isn’t going back in the tube. Pitchers throw harder than a generation ago by using modern training methods, and those methods are here to stay. Hitters are simply going to have to get used and adjust to harder fastballs (well, unless someone moves the mound back...but that’s another discussion we can all have down the line).

We know an increase in fastball velocity leads to more strikeouts and fewer balls in play. We’ve also seen some hitters (and hitting coaches) try to combat this by trying to swing for the fences- if you’re not going to put the ball in play as often, you might as well hit it over the fence when you do. And while that approach might have some success against below average pitching, it works less well when pitchers throw harder and have a nasty breaking pitch that you also have to contend with. 

So, as hitters at all levels, what can we do to adjust high, hard fastballs at the top of the strike zone? This is far from comprehensive, but I’ve got 4 thoughts and ideas:

  1. High Tee Drill: the high tee drill is one of my favorites, not least because a hitter can do it even without a partner or coach. There’s a wonderful segment on the MLB Network where Sean Casey talks about the adjustments Kris Bryant himself made to catch up to hitters attacking him with hard stuff up in the zone, and one of his core drills was the high tee drill. The high tee forces a hitter to have a short, direct path to the ball with his or her barrel. If there’s a loop or length in the swing, the hitter will pop the ball up on the top of the cage. If you can hit a line drive to the back of the cage, you’re likely doing a lot of things right.
  2. Wiffle Ball Batting Practice: this is a staple for our team, and it’s again easy and safe to pull off. I throw batting practice to our kids at a short distance (15-20 feet or so) and put some mustard on each pitch. Some of our hitters with long swings struggled with this drill at first, but once I explained their need to be quick and short to the ball, they learned to simplify and keep their barrel above the ball as long as possible, and they all caught on. After all, the best way to practice hitting with less reaction time...is by hitting with less reaction time. This way, though, the hitter doesn’t risk getting hit by an errant hardball.
  3. Variable Timing Practice: sometimes I have a hunch that the MLB pregame routine may not set hitters up for success in games. We’ve all shown up to games early to watch our favorite sluggers hit ball after ball into the bleachers, but the pitches they’re doing it on are 50 MPH meatballs. While it’s a nice ego boost, I’m not sure what these hitters are actually practicing (unless it’s hitting against the other team’s backup catcher in a blowout). The best hitters have the best timing, and I tend to think timing is something that can be trained with practice. So, instead of allowing our hitters to simply swing away at slow pitches over the heart of the plate, treat practice more like a game and vary pitch location and speed during batting practice sessions. There’s certainly a place for a hitter to swing away to help make a swing change and/or boost their confidence, but if a player isn’t practicing his/her timing just as often, they probably need to adjust their practice sessions.
  4. Vision Training: this is a vision blog, after all! But we know an athlete’s ability to track objects can be trained and improved, and we know baseball players that score higher on our evaluations tend to outperform those that score lower. So, if you need to make faster reactions, you should be training your eyes to pick up objects more quickly and make quicker, more precise decisions about which pitches you want to swing at. We’ve got a tool for that, too. 

Baseball is fun in that it’s a game that is constantly evolving with pitchers and hitters learning new techniques to help get ahead. We’re currently on a low ebb when it comes to offense, but I’m confident that hitters will adjust. Use some of those techniques above to be part of the first wave that does. 

- Lukas

Follow Lukas on Twitter @LMcK_Baseball
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