Last week, I had a great conversation with Hitting Coach Mike Ryan, Owner & Director of Baseball Hitting at Fastball USA. We broke down two articles that investigated the influence of changing ball, bat mass, and field dimensions in various sports such as basketball, tennis, and cricket. Find the two articles linked below:
Today, we want to share with you four key applications we took from this research and how YOU can take what you already do really well as a skills coach and add more tools to your repertoire for developing hitters.
4 Values of Scaling Equipment For Baseball & Softball Players
- Ability to clean up hitting and throwing sequences
- More opportunities to practice the skills of the game and COMPETE
- Speeds up and cements the learning process
- Higher bat speeds through the zone
1. Clean up hitting and throwing sequences
A negative trend I come across in some softball players is the player reverting to a thrusting pattern as opposed to a mechanically sound throwing pattern (interesting note..many of these athletes reported only playing softball growing up.) Randy Sullivan refers to this as an Elevated Distal Humerus and this is often associated with lower throwing velocities and even occasional medial elbow pain.
Visualize a shot put toss in track and field… or a boxer throwing a punch. This motion resembles how some players make throws across the diamond. Frans Bosch, in his book “Strength Training and Coordination: An integrative Approach,” describes a thrusting motion as
“ a movement of the shoulder towards an internally roasted position. Technically well-performed thrusting movement ends in a simultaneous extension of the elbow and twisting of the trunk around its longitudinal axis where the shoulder remains in a relatively abducted position.
Bosch describes a throw as:
“externally rotating and then internally rotating the shoulder joint, with the musculotendinous unit operating elastically.”
Interesting note, many of the best players I have worked with played baseball or spent a decent amount of time throwing a football growing up and then transitioned to softball (success leaves clues).
A recent 2010 study by Honedorff reported no differences in length, girth or finger diameter between sexes of children 3-10 years old. Now, with no significant differences in hand sizes then why do we see this thrusting motion more common in females than males?
Let’s look at a study involving 20 participants in four age groups (5-6), (7-8), (9-10), and (18-33), observed that throwing technique regressed when balls were used that were too large in relation to hand size. Specifically, the throwing technique.
A softball measures 12 inches in diameter and is heavier than a baseball measuring 9 inches in diameter and weighing 5oz. Buzzard’s study suggests we can see better throwing patterns at younger ages using a ball size and mass that best matches the lower strength and physical sizes of younger athletes. One way we could reduce seeing sub bar throwing patterns in young female athletes is by starting them out with a baseball over a softball. The baseball’s size and mass are lighter, affording the athlete the opportunity to get into favorable positions (shoulder external rotation) and the capability to throw it with more intent!
2. More opportunities to practice the skills
of the game & compete
In baseball, when players reach the ages of 13 and 14 years old we see a huge decline of players staying with the game and they simply quit. One of the major reasons why is the game is simply not fun anymore.
Why? Within 2 years, a kid goes from playing on a diamond that has a 50 foot mound, 70 foot bases, and a 200 foot fence, to playing on a major league size field. Yes, we are putting 7th and 8th graders on a field that was designed for professional baseball players.
The most exciting part of the game for a kid is that chance to hit a home run. The home run is virtually out of the game for most by age 13 and especially 14 years old because the fences back up to 330 to 400 feet. In 2 years the fences back up nearly 200 feet.
This is overwhelming for the average player.
The mound backs up from 50 feet at age 12 to 60 feet at age 14. This makes a 70mph fastball all of sudden seem a lot easier to hit. Even pitchers who threw with good velocity are now finding that no matter how hard they throw their fastball just isn’t fast enough. The pitcher now stops trying to throw hard and starts trying to trick batters by throwing more off speed pitches.
Coaches get frustrated with players when they do hit good fly balls because now they are just flyouts. With no chances of hitting home runs, with pitching and throwing from the field becoming harder because of the distance, many players simply quit.
Don’t get me wrong, you will still have the very mature players at 14 who can adjust well to the bigger field, but the large majority are left behind. Most boys have not gone through major growth spurts yet, and they quit the game before they even get a chance to grow.
Imagine if the fence only backed up to 250-275 feet at 13, and only to 300 by age 14. A home run would still be a legit possibility for more players. If the mound only backed up to 54 – 56 feet by the age of 14, pitchers would still be able to throw a fastball by some players instead of tricking them. It would also be easier to throw strikes, it would be less stressful on arms.
Lastly, the huge increase in distance in 2 years seriously impacts the speed of the game. For the average 14-year-old, he can hit a ground ball to the second basemen, and watch him bobble it twice and still have time to get thrown out at the first base.
This huge hurry to get players on a high school size diamond works for the minority, but not for the majority. A smaller field would increase the fun, and allow players who have not grown yet to still really enjoy the game.
3. Speeds up and cements the learning process
How do larger field sizes and overwhelming weights impact the goal of the athlete and how important is this concept?
The Berstein principle states that the body will organize itself based on the ultimate goal of the activity. For example, if I said the goal was to hit a 4 hopper back to the pitcher, imagine what that swing would look like based on the goal. If I said hit a high pop up to the catcher, imagine what that swing would look like based on that goal. I know those are extreme examples, but just a way to give you a visual of how goals and influence techniques.
Your aggressiveness, your techniques, and your movements are impacted and influenced by the goal of the athlete. The environment you are playing in can also influence the goal. This means the environment of the practice or the game can encourage you to swing or throw in a different manner.
Consider how the Bernstein principle plays a role in youth and high school baseball based on the field and the tools of the playing environment.
Why is this important to understand? If we want to develop more powerful hitters and more explosive throwers, we need to consider how the game environment influences and impacts the goal of the throwing and hitting athlete.
At 12 years old, when the fence is 200-225 feet away, the goal of hitting a home run still is at the forefront of the hitting mind for quite a few hitters. Hitting the ball hard and far has an immediate reward. It’s called a home run. At the very least, it’s an extra base hit.
This distance, if attainable for the athlete, can certainly change the way he swings.
When the fences back up nearly 200 feet in two years, this also influences the goal of the hitter. Now when a hitter crushes a ball, he is not rewarded the same way as he was just a year ago.
Many times hitting the ball well results in an out at age 13 or 14 or 15, when that same ball was a home run or extra base hit not that long ago. That is no fun for any player.
In fact, in order to win the game, these balls driven hard in the air become outs because the fence distance is so great. The goal of winning the game discourages hitting development because good contact can often become outs. A ball contacted solid could be an out today. A weakly contacted ball today could become a hit. The coach instructs the player not to bother hitting the ball in the air, because they are outs at 13,14,15,16 years old. Just hit it on the ground or hit a line drive and hope for the best. Don’t swing hard, because you have no chance of hitting a home run.
Aggressiveness is the #1 trait of any great hitter. When you add all of this up, aggressiveness isn’t always rewarded.
Trying to hit the ball hard over the fence is virtually an impossible goal for 90% of 13 and 14 year old baseball players. The effect is this overwhelming fence and field distance taking away from the goal of driving the ball and the aggressiveness that goes with it.
When you put a 14 year old on the same field that was designed for men, the field size and distance alone can change the ultimate goal of the athlete.
The goal is what influences technique and shapes movement patterns. The Bernstein principle is in effect in every at bat and every throw made in a baseball game. A bigger field creates a slower game, yet a varsity high school game or college game is much quicker. Are we really preparing players defensively for a faster paced game, higher velocity pitchers, and the aggressive swings needed to be successful at the older level?
We become what we do the most. Your goal shapes who you become.
If the weight of the bat becomes too much by forcing hitters into a drop 5, or a drop 3 too soon, we are also impacting the goal of the hitter. Swinging faster, although ideal, isn’t possible for the majority. Why? They are swinging bats that are beyond their current strength level.
The assumption is all of this prepares players to play at higher levels but it actually could have a negative effect. Hitters see slower velocity from pitchers when you back the mound up to 60 feet too early. For example a 14 year old pitching from 60 feet away rarely will throw a baseball near the reaction times the hitters were seeing at age 12. This is also nowhere near close to the reaction times a hitter will see at 17-18 years old facing 80+ mph fastballs.
In the last 20 years, it has become popular to put 14 years old on a MLB size diamond. The 20 years before that it was common for a 14 year old to play on fields with a 54 feet mound and 80 feet base dimensions.
Does it really help to put an underdeveloped player on an MLB sized diamond way before they have anywhere close to the strength level needed to play on that field?
How does this impact the goal of the pitcher?
Pitchers also can’t throw the ball past hitters as they could at age 12. This impacts the goal of throwing hard. The pitcher has to find a different way to get outs. The pitcher starts to rely on curveballs and off speed pitches at a younger age because throwing the fastball past a hitter is much harder to do when the mound backs up too fast.
The goal is no longer to throw hard because throwing harder is NOT rewarded. Tricking the hitter is easier to do, so now the pitcher doesn’t see much use in throwing faster, he sees success in the movement and off speed.
From a player development standpoint, we are forcing pitchers to have good secondary stuff before they have ever learned to become a great throwing athlete. That is backward.
Winning the game is the priority for most. What does this mean for a pitcher? Throw strikes, change speeds, and if you can’t throw it past them… then don’t even try! The field dimensions, along with the goal of winning the game, strongly influence the goal of the athlete.
Most importantly, the average player gets discouraged easily when the game is too difficult. The game that was already challenging at a young age, has now become almost overwhelming and a lot less fun as the average player reaches 13, 14, 15 years old.
I realize you have some man children that play the game but the reality is they are NOT the majority. Our current system of field size and bat size rewards the players who are physically 3 or 4 years above the rest of their age group.
In relation to the majority and the average player strength levels and sizes levels, we should consider this when it comes to player development:
If we were going to develop more powerful hitters and harder throwing athletes, I would encourage gradual distant increases in the game and be in less of a hurry to get youth players on a high school diamond.
Keep the home run a part of the game as it can influence a different swing type which is much more powerful and explosive. Keep the strikeout and high velocity a part of the game by not backing the mound up so quickly. If you want players to throw hard, they need to be rewarded for throwing hard.
As we know a 70mph fastball from 60 feet has a lot less effect as a 70mph fastball from 60 feet.
We are also not preparing hitters for the reaction time they will face at the varsity high school level or college.
The average big leaguer runs to first base in 4.3 seconds. When you put a 13 or 14-year-old player on a huge field, the defense has much more time to record an out. Is this preparing our players defensively for the speed of the game at a higher level?
Change the Distances/ Changes the Goal of the athlete:
Age 13: 250 ft. fence/ 53 ft. mound
Age 14: 275 ft. fence/56 ft. mound
Age 15: 300 ft. fence/60 ft. mound
Age 16: 325 ft. fence/60 ft. mound
Between the ages of 13 and 15 years old is when we lose the most players participating in the game of baseball. This is true for many sports. A big reason for the drop off is the game no longer being fun.
Simply put, if you want to get good at hitting home runs, then practice hitting home runs.
What happens when you take the home run away from the game?
Simply put, if you want to throw faster, you must practice throwing faster. What happens when you take away a pitcher’s ability to throw the fastball past a hitter?
The environment influences the goals of our athletes. The goal of the athlete will shape how he moves for the good and the bad.
It’s a huge difference between being challenging vs. being overwhelming.
Scale down the fields, the mounds, the fences, and let’s see how much more aggressive players will be and how much more fun the game will become. Could we consider player ability levels more than players ages when determining levels of play? For example, a 12-year-old who is 6 ft. tall and 185 lbs. might be better suited for 13u or 14u baseball.
4. Higher bat speeds through the zone
People of all ages are influenced more than what they would like to admit.
Over time, these small exposures can cause us to make subpar equipment choices based on looks rather than optimal fit– considering the player’s current strength levels, body size, and their ability to produce maximal rotational bat speed through the zone.
For instance, if you asked a high school athlete why they chose their specific bat you are likely to hear one of the following answers…
“ I liked the way it looks.”
“ It was the most expensive one so it has to be the best.”
“ Everyone on my team uses this one.”
“ So and so from this pro team uses it and he or she is the greatest hitter of all time.”
Our visual system likes to fool us. We all have experienced it. You look on Amazon to buy a pair of pants and the size and length all match up to what you normally get in the store. Then it arrives…. you slip them on in excitement and they just don’t feel right, they are too short or too long, tight in the wrong areas and now you have to go through the hassle of returning them. Our visual system failed us yet again.
That’s a big reason when it comes to buying clothing, or in this context, selecting sports equipment. The best spot to make this purchase is in store.
Why is that?
Because you can “try it on.” You can harness significant information through grasping, wielding, or swinging the bat and make a stronger choice using your sensory system rather than having to solely rely on your weaker visual system. This system is often referred to in the motor learning arena as Dynamic Touch.
What if players were forced to select a bat blindfolded and told to choose a bat they thought would best afford them the opportunity to produce the most hard hit balls?
Do you think they would choose the same bat?
The 2012 study by Hendricks, mentioned above, did just that but with youth cricket players. They took six rackets with all different sizes, lengths, and moments of inertia and gave them the task of choosing a racket they thought would give them the best chance at hitting the ball the furthest.
The study revealed that 63.7% of the participants preferred bats with the smallest masses and MOI.
That is completely the opposite of what Mike and I see on the field. Athletes have this preconceived notion that they HAVE to swing a bigger bat, but a bigger bat means it’s going to be harder to maintain high bat speed through the zones and more difficult to control the bat head (Southard & Groomer, 2003).
In reality, one of the greatest hitters of all time and Hall of Famer, Tony Gwynn used a 32 ¼ inch bat weighing a feathery 30-31 ounces. Gwynn preferred to swing a lighter bat because it gave him more control to place the ball anywhere he wanted, he could wait longer to swing and could create exceptional bat speed through the zone.
As a whole, maybe we need to take a step back from always trying to adjust mechanics when we start to see kids failing and simply take advantage of the lowest hanging fruit sitting right in front of us…. scaling down bat sizes! In reality, switching out a heavier 31/30oz bat for 29/28oz high school players could result in higher bat speeds, better bat control, more efficient sequence and an increase in confidence knowing that they CAN make adjustments.
Wrapping this conversation up
Going bigger is not always the solution. Bigger bats, bigger fields, bigger ball sizes can actually be slowing us down and hindering an athlete’s confidence and ability to showcase their true skills. Mike and I encourage you to play around with some of these thoughts in your own practice and let us know what you observe!