Hitting is Timing
Hitting is all about timing. Too early and you look like you're whipping a garden hose around up there. Too late and you look totally over matched. In reality, these two things are not much different in terms of actual time. In fact the difference between early and late in hitting timing is only about 5 one hundredths of a second.
With this in mind, it becomes clear why practicing your timing mechanisms is so important. Your load, leg lift, hands, stride, weight shift...it's all a matter of timing. You can have the prettiest, most fundamentally sound swing in the world on a tee, and still not be able to hit a pitch. It all has to happen on time.
Hitting Timing Isn't Being Practiced
Most hitters go from a tee, to short toss, to full batting practice pitches during a session in the cages. I like this order because it allows the hitter to work on his swing first, and then progressively add the hitting timing element into the practice to make sure that his swing actually works. What alarms me is how often timing mechanisms are left out of batting practice all together.
Often, a kid will start on a tee and swing away with no regard at all for timing. Improper load, choppy feet, not enough weight shift, and a pretty "handsy" swing to get the line drive. This is where a lot of coaches say "inside the ball" every other swing, making the swing even more hands and arms dominated as the kid simply focuses on a cheap line drive. There are skills to be learned on the tee, but the swing described above is very common, and very limited.
Then the kid will go to short toss. The thrower typically doesn't give the hitter enough time during the throw, or between throws, to fully balance and treat each pitch like a competitive rep. So the kid basically continues what was going on at the tee...choppy feet, hands quick to the ball, quickly back to a hitting position because the next pitch is on it's way. Most kids make short toss look more like an aerobic exercise than a chance to get high quality hacks.
The third station is BP, where the hitter fouls off two or three, pops up two or three, hits a couple ground balls and then finishes with a hard line drive. He "finished on a good one" so he's out to the coaches yelling. "nice job, next hitter!"
One line drive out of 9 or 10 swings. Don't fool yourself, really watch the cage sessions and keep track of what each ball does. Especially if we're dealing with kids who play on a standard field, even a lot of those hard hit balls in the cages are easy ground balls to handle on game day.
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Slow down, and practice QUALITY
There are an awful lot of reasons why cage time is misused, and why our kids aren't getting better in there like they should be. Here we'll just stick with the timing aspect.
Your timing must be practiced, which means your timing mechanisms must be practiced with EVERY swing.
Just because the tee doesn't require hitting timing doesn't mean you can't practice it anyway. Visualize a pitcher, load with the pitcher, and slow down your feet. Load up, shift weight, and put a powerful swing on the ball, every single time.
In short toss, have the thrower slow down a little bit. Slow down between pitches and give the hitter a good arm swing to time. Full load into the back leg, slow the feet down. Good stride, good weight shift, powerful swing all the way through the zone.
In the BP cage, slow down the feet, and adjust to the pitcher. If the first two swings are early, slow down the timing mechanisms or start them later. ADJUST. Three groundballs to shortstop off a guy that's throwing 50 MPH from 40 feet in the cages is unacceptable. Demand more, and make the adjustments.
It is completely possible to make yourself worse in the cages, and far too many guys are doing it. We must train the things in the cages that will allow us to succeed on the field, and timing is KEY. Slow feet, quick hands, adjustments. Think about those three things next time you're working your way though the cages and you'll do yourself a lot of good.