By Josh Staph
The Cleveland Indians began the 2005 season in dismal fashion, kind of like their big screen counterparts in Major League. The only thing missing was “Wild Thing” Rick Vaughn on the mound.
On June 5, the Indians were dead last in the AL in runs scored, batting average and on-base percentage. It was as if the Tribe’s offense was under the curse of Jobu.
Instead of sacrificing a live chicken, the Indians made hitting coordinator Derek Shelton their hitting coach. For the remaining 108 games of the season, the Tribe posted a league-best average of .285 at the plate. At the end of the regular season, the Indians were fourth in the league in runs scored (790), fifth in batting average (.271) and third in home runs (207).
Here are the instructions and drills that turned the Tribe into pennant contenders.
ELEMENTS OF THE SWING
Find Your Balance
According to Shelton, young hitters need to realize that maintaining balance throughout the swing is the most important element. “Good balance starts when you set up your stance and continues until you finish the motion,” he says.
Differences in body type compel players to find comfort and balance individually. “We have guys who distribute their weight 50-50, some 60-40 and others who start 70-30,” Shelton says. “It doesn’t matter as long as you’re comfortable and balanced. However, the common element in all good hittersfrom Little Leaguers to pros like Travis Hafneris that when their front foot hits the ground from the stride, their weight is on the inside of their back knee.”
Test Your Stance
Assume your batting stance, then have someone give you a good push on the chest or from the side. “If you are in a good, balanced position, your feet won’t move,” Shelton says.
As elementary as it sounds, keeping your head down is crucial. Shelton explains, “The tendency for young hitters is to try to hit the ball too hard. They end up pulling their head off the ball. When that happens, their shoulders and hips come off the ball too, since the head leads them. Concentrate on keeping your head down to alleviate these problems.”
Hands In Launch Position
“Your hands have to be in a strong launch position when you start your swing,” Shelton says. “This position is different for each guy. And it doesn’t matter if you set up with your hands in position or move them there when you start to swing. You just have to make sure that is where your hands come from.”
To find your personal launch position, follow Shelton’s guide:
PUTTING IT ALL TOGETHER
Even at the Major League level, hitters focus on fundamentals on a daily basis. Shelton says, “I think the best way to prepare all hitters is to develop a daily routine based on fundamentals. Each guy does something different, but all of them work on honing their craft and maintaining fundamentals.”
The following routines are done in the cage or on the field before a player takes batting practice. “High school hitters usually just want to go out on the field and hit,” Shelton says. “But first you have to nail down the fundamentals in a controlled environment. If we’re in the batting cage and I’m tossing balls underhand to a guy 15 feet away, I can control the speed and placement of the ball, and he can control the barrel of the bat, because things are slower and under control. This is when teaching and interaction take place.”
Once the Tribe takes the field for BP, they focus on hitting the ball hard (not necessarily aiming for the fences) and getting the barrel of the bat on the plane of the ball. At that point, it is about their bodies reacting and putting everything together.
Develop a daily routine with these fundamental drills.
Shelton Says: “It is sometimes hard to get younger players to hit off a tee, because they think it’s only for kids; but our guys work off the tee a lot.
“Begin with one tee in the middle of the plate. If you can’t master hitting a ball in the middle of the plate, you’re going to have some trouble; it is the best pitch to hit.
“The reactive aspect of this drill eliminates a player’s tendency to predetermine where he is going to swing. He doesn’t know where a pitch is going to be when he bats in a game, so teaching him to react to ball placement is key. This also improves plate coverage, because players get used to making contact on the inside and outside of the plate.”
Shelton Says: “Focus on releasing the ball so you throw it directly in the middle of the field. This indicates that you are bringing your hands through the correct bat path. If you release the ball to the right, you are not bringing the bat through the ball. If you release it to the left, you are bringing the bat across the plate and not maintaining a strong position.
“The key here is to work at being short to the ballgetting the barrel of the bat to the hitting zone as quickly as possibleand then keeping the barrel there as long as possible. Imagine you are swinging so your bat skims a tabletop. Focus on making your bat glide across the table as long as possible, just like you should try to keep your bat on the plane of the ball. This is what makes Centerfielder Grady Sizemore such a good hitter. He has the unique ability to get his bat there quickly, and then keep it there so he can work through the ball.
“In effect, you are driving the ball through the middle of the field. The ball’s direction is dictated by where you hit it and what kind of contact you make, but driving through the ball makes for a harder hit.”
Stuck in a slump? Shelton has the solution. “When a guy is struggling at the plate, we look at what causes the slump,” he says. “At the Major League level, it’s usually the result of pitch selection, or how opposing pitchers attack him as a hitter. Strategy and mental preparation help get these hitters out of a slump.
“The situation is different at the high school level. High school players usually hit a slump when their swing fundamentals break down. This is why it is so important to know your swing and stick to your routine.”