Make it Effective or Don't Do It At All!
Perhaps the most difficult part of any practice is the organization of batting practice or as it is commonly referred to as BP. It is difficult for a number of reasons in youth baseball, far more so than in collegiate, professional or even older levels of amateur baseball. Trying to organize as many as 12-15 hitters in a timely fashion, under a supervised breakdown of tasks, with a certain amount of pitches, is certainly not easy and for many can be daunting to say the least.
Unlike collegiate or the professional ranks, where teams have multiple coaches on staff to throw batting practice, hit fungoes and work with baserunners, at youth levels it is the exact opposite. Moreover, because BP is a time consumer and literally permits one player hitting live at a time while others shag or run bases, the amount of standing around is significant. In college and the pros, multiple coaches means multiple stations or side stations, where the number of players standing around is limited and players actually make their wait time between BP groups much more productive.
How can you do this?
- Prior to any structured BP a number of items need to be covered before any type of multi-station work can take place. Baseballs are the most important inventory any team can have when taking batting practice. Simple, right? I can tell you right now, having a dozen or so balls, some that are water logged others that have ripped seams unquestionably will make the BP ineffective and useless. I have been to practices where this is what the team has. No good. Not even close. Make sure baseballs are plentiful and they get retrieved and brought in a timely fashion.
- While baseballs are the most important inventory, the most important piece of protective equipment without question is an L-screen. If you have not got one, DO NOT throw BP! Once again, if you want an ineffective and useless BP, throw with no screen and be more concerned about getting hit by a line drive right back at you, which is totally natural and completely understandable. That’s where the BP coach's thought goes, not toward the hitter and throwing quality strikes, which is his job and a critical element, obviously, of effective batting practice.
- Now comes the major youth level problem with BP. It begins with the inability to throw strikes and then kids are told to swing at everything, because it's BP, right? Well if it's BP, then working on offensive tactics, swing thoughts, tracking, etc…should be implemented, not "swing at everything". This swing at everything practice needs to change. The best hitters in baseball do not swing at everything, however we are asking our players to swing at everything. This does not make sense. The objective of BP is to get quality swings in with a purpose rather than just swing to swing the bat or swing the bat because there are only a dozen baseballs and the BP pitcher struggles to throw strikes. Listen, there is a simple and massively effective method that can be used to have hitter get more quality swings in the same amount of time. IF consistent strikes are a problem and as long as there is an L-screen, all you need to do is front toss from about 12-15 feet away. Hitters get more swings, baserunners get more reads for advancement and defensive players do less standing around and more shagging, as more balls are put in play, all contributing to a more effective batting practice.
- The next problem coaches will incur deals with the actual distance they will throw BP from if you indeed throw versus front toss. It need not be from 60’6 inches or from whatever the full game distance is. As a matter of fact, most BP is thrown from 45-50 feet away from the hitter. This will increase the number of strikes being thrown, saves the arms of coaches from becoming dead and will permit the BP coach a chance to firm up his pitches.
- Another problem and really a youth level epidemic is because it can be a struggle to throw good BP, players really only get about a dozen or so swings per at bat and each usually only gets a single round of hitting. Conversely, at higher levels BP is about 4-5 rounds, with 25-30 swings per hitter in their allotted time. This excludes what they do in their small ball or bunting rounds. Picture one or two BP sessions a week, for 12 weeks with each hitter only taking 10-12 swings each. That would mean from 120-240 swings in BP for the summer. That is not a great deal at all but it is reality. How can anyone get good at anything, let alone a motor skill, with 120-240 reps of practice. That should be a daily prescription, not a yearly one. So when your kids are struggling at the plate, don't yell, get mad, or try some silly "fix". They are just not practicing enough, I guarantee it. The body is brilliant at organzing itself, but a prerequisite of that is that it needs a lot of time to work it out.
- Lastly for this post, at the youth levels it is always better to have a BP pitcher throw live with a catcher. This will permit the catcher to work on his receiving; allow them to get used to hitters; give the BP pitcher a target to throw to and additional live practice (which again they do not get enough of); and when pitches are taken, it will allow the hitter a chance to see if the pitch was a strike or a ball that he took.
Anytime team batting practice is implemented, it is critical that it has a team focus with a number of elements of the game being worked on. It is not just a time for individual hitting work, but a time when all players need to bear down and accept the fact that there will be standing around, but that it can be made useful. Find ways to limit this as best as possible. The success of the offense is so dependent on the organization of efficient batting practice. Make it effective or don’t do it at all. Good Luck.
Rick is the Co-Founder of The Baseball Zone and has been coaching baseball for over 25 years in a career spanning the globe and garnering several championships and individual accolades. His main passion, however, is seeing concrete, individual development in his athletes on, and more importantly, off the diamond. See his bio here.
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