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Troubleshooting Baseball Hitting: Timing is Not Always the Problem

Written on October 23, 2012 at 10:01 am, by Eric Cressey

Today’s guest blog comes from current CP intern Jay Kolster, who has an extensive background in hitting instruction.

Great hitters are not born; they simply do things to put themselves in great positions to be successful. Hitting a baseball is one of the most difficult tasks to perform in sports, and with that in mind, experts have long-debated the biomechanics of hitting in baseball. Timing is agreed upon as being a crucial piece in being a successful hitter, but while it is crucial, it is not imperative!

Great hitters will be late on the fastball and out in front of sliders; they are human, too. With correct timing hitters are able to get themselves in the strongest position at the point of contact. The pitcher throwing off-speed is trying to pull the hitter out of position! A hitter is in the strongest position when the back elbow is tucked at a 90 degree angle into the back hip at contact.

Ideally, every hitter wants to be in Pujols’ position. However, even the great hitters have trouble getting to this position consistently. Further illustrating the difficulties of being on time, let’s consider the physics of baseball. A study performed by Yale professor, Dr. Robert Adair, detailed the amount of time from release point to the plate. A 90 mph pitch will arrive at the plate in 400 milliseconds. During that time a hitter must recognize the pitch type and location and get to a strong contact position.

According to Professor Adair’s illustration, it takes a hitter 150 milliseconds to complete a swing at 80 mph. This leaves the hitter roughly 250 milliseconds to locate the ball, process, decide, and start the swing. Professor Adair’s study helps piece together the physics and how difficult being on time is for a hitter. However, there are other variables that were not included in the study that can disrupt timing for the hitter. Let’s review some of these variables:

• Pitch velocity
• Pitch type (2-seam, 4-seam, change-up, slider, curveball, cutter, splitter, etc)
• Arm speed variability
• Arm angle and release point
• Pitcher’s method of delivery (windup, stretch, slide step, left hand pitcher hang and read, etc)
• Variability of the hitter’s bat velocity
• Situational hitting (hit and run, hitting behind runner at second, sac fly)

Professor Adair’s study does not include human variability. At any time, the pitcher can change his delivery and pitch velocity, which affects the timing aspect of the hitter. Professor Adair’s statistics are of one pitch! Each pitch thrown by a pitcher in a game is unique! It almost seems humanly impossible to be on time consistently. I can guarantee that the best hitters in the game aren’t always on time, yet they still manage to eclipse the .300 average mark. Hitting a baseball now becomes an equation of probability. After all, pitch recognition is a guess! It has been said that hitters lose track of the baseball within 5 feet of the plate….. so now what? Hitting a baseball now becomes an educated guess! You are starting your swing where you THINK the ball will be.

“Great hitters get the barrel on plane earlier and keep the barrel on plane longer than average hitters.”

Keeping the barrel in the bat plane is just as important as having great timing. I have already established that timing isn’t the be-all, end-all for becoming a great hitter. It’s the positions hitters put themselves in when their timing is off that allows for eclipsing the .300 average mark. Touching on a quick side note, I believe that contact percentage is a mark of a great hitter, not just overall batting average. In 1941, Joe DiMaggio set the hit streak record at 56 games, a record that may never be broken. Do you think that a contact percentage of 97% had anything to do with setting the record? I think so, as Joe only struck out 13 times!

Using Video Analysis to Determine Bat Plane

Cressey Performance pitching instructor, Matt Blake, utilizes the Right View Pro system when evaluating mechanics. For the purpose of discussing bat plane I have taken images from RVP to help illustrate the importance of the bat plane and how it relates to timing. The first image we will look at is MLB’s Triple Crown winner, Miguel Cabrera.

*Note: Red = pitch line/bat plane, Blue = distance knee traveled from start to contact, Green = Barrel from start to contact.

In this image, Cabrera is not in a great point of contact position, but he did great things during his swing to allow himself to stay on the plane. His contact position is out front and he is slightly early, which is why his back elbow is extended. Result? Line drive single to left field. Cabrera was able to maintain a good position to hit because of his ability to keep the barrel in the bat plane past his strongest point of contact. Cabrera’s success is not based off of having perfect timing, but instead putting himself in a position to be successful. So, how does he get the barrel to the plane early and stay through, even past the optimal point of contact? I think this is a question hitting coaches have been trying to figure out for decades. For the sake of keeping this short, let’s examine a few key components.

Early to the Bat Plane

Getting the barrel to the beginning of the bat plane is driven by the back elbow. Upon toe touch and heel plant, Cabrera’s first move is with the hips, which allows for the elbow to get clearance to move directly to the back hip. In being direct with the elbow, Cabrera avoids having an elongated swing.

Optimal Contact Position

A contact position with the back elbow flexed and tucked tightly to the body will allow for optimal power.

Consider the sport of boxing. Great knockout punches are not performed with full extension; rather, the punches land with flexion in the elbow because it is a stronger point of contact. This idea is evident in baseball, too!

Keeping the Barrel in the Bat Plane

Consider Cabrera’s lower body as the key ingredient in keeping the barrel in the bat plane. The distance his back knee travels allows him to keep his barrel in the bat plane, and in this case, past his ideal point of contact. If Cabrera “squishes the bug”, he either rolls over or his barrel is out of the bat plane by the time the ball reaches him. There are other factors that help Cabrera stay in plane, such as elbow extension. However, if we want optimal power, we do not want to have elbow extension to occur before contact. Cabrera’s ability to keep the barrel in the bat plane past the point of contact is what makes him a cut above most major leaguers and the reason he won a Triple Crown. On the flip side, if Cabrera were to be late with his timing, his barrel in this particular swing is in plane starting at the back of the plate; giving him an opportunity to be successful.

Timing is Only a Piece of the Puzzle

Timing is an important component of hitting, but raw hitting mechanics should take precedence over addressing uncontrollable variables against which players compete. In low levels of baseball, players can get away with not being in the bat plane like Cabrera is. Why? A majority of lower level pitchers have one or two pitches they can control, and a majority of strikes are thrown over the heart of the plate. The debate over linear, extension-based, and rotational hitting approaches can be saved for future discussions. Regardless of the hitting philosophy, keeping the barrel in the bat plane before and after optimal contact position increases the probability of making contact with the ball.

References: www.Baseball-Reference.com

About the Author

Jay Kolster, CSCS is serving as an intern at Cressey Performance. Prior to this internship, Jay was a teacher and head coach of baseball and softball in Lexington, MO. For more information or to reach Jay, please visit http://jaykolster.wordpress.com. You can also follow him on Twitter: @RollerKolster.

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19 Responses to “Troubleshooting Baseball Hitting: Timing is Not Always the Problem”

  1. Dave Says:

    For the most part I agree with your premise. A few points of consideration.

    You may want to change your terminology a bit. Gets confusing when you say keep the barrel in the “bat” plane. Makes more sense to say keep the barrel in the “ball” plane which is actually what you are trying to do. Red line should be “ball” plane, not bat “plane”.

    IMO your description of the ideal contact point is off. First of all it varies dependent on pitch. In the photo example of Hamilton, looks to me like an inside pitch he was totally jammed on. Contact is down on the trademark. On the Cabrera photo (also inside pitch) his extension is absolutely perfect which is why he put it on the barrel. Inside pitches you generally need to extend more (i.e. past 90 with back elbow). Not only does it put the barrel on an inside pitch the further out front you hit it, but once you get past 90 the bat head speed increases DRAMATICALLY past 90, which is why it’s physically easier to hit inside pitches farther. Often hear it called “lag” or “whip” of the bat had. You’re bat head doesn’t reach maximum velocity until after 90.

    On outside pitches where you need to let the ball get in on you farther your back elbow will generally be closer to 90 at contact, but again IMO you are more powerful when you are slightly past 90 (as in Cabrera’s photo), even on an outside pitch.

    Over all, pretty good analysis though.

  2. Scott Says:

    Hey Jay,

    Thanks for this. The gift of expressing a view is that it allows others to process it and clarify their own view and thoughts. So when you present something with an edge, people will come form different angles to that edge. So here I go…..

    I’m interested how you think timing and “raw hitting mechanics” can be separated. They both determine each other.

    Regards,

    Scott.

  3. John Says:

    I agree with Dave–that Hamilton pic is a bad example. Also note his back leg hasn’t rotated through by contact. One thing I notice with most of the hitters at our level (NCAA D3) is the tendency to try to pull the outside pitch. The hitters that have the most success at our level are the ones who can stay back on an outside pitch and still get to a good contact point. You also see this a lot with major league hitters. How many grounders to short happen on an off speed pitch away?

  4. Smitty Says:

    Good effort and a lot of science in that article, but in my experience (7 years in MLB) it’s best to let the hitting instructors deal with hitting. You guys at Cressey do an outstanding job in the weight room and getting/keeping guys in optimal playing shape. Keep that kind of info coming.
    Thanks.

  5. Damian Says:

    Jay,
    That was a great read and about as accurate of a representation of how hitting mechanics and timing are tied together. Most college pitchers pitch in the 68-85 range, and when hitters learn to plane the bat like you are discussing it opens up doors to cover that ranges. If they are looking for something in the 80′s but get something in the low 70′s only their legs will give them the opportunity to plane that bat head, be slightly early and still achieve quality contact.

    Great work and I can’t wait for your linear vs. rotational debate.

    Dave,
    I think you’re splitting hairs. I have numerous videos and pics of hitters that never reach any level of extension on an inside pitch and proceeded to hit a pull side laser. Belt did it in game 7 vs the Cards. The whole point is to get the barrel on plane with the ball and keep it in that depth as long as possible. And, simple physics says that a 90° angle is stronger than 105° or 110° angle.

  6. Kendale Says:

    I think keeping the bat in the ball path or staying in the ball plane is overrated. If you look at videos of hitters from an over head view you see the greats AP and many others pulling out or off the plane not forcing to stay in it. I think staying on the plane longer is nothing but a weak ground ball or weak pop up. Try it off a tee one day. JMHO
    Still love the site and anything that gets us thinking.

  7. Bill Says:

    Dave,
    Commendable job! I believe, given the forum, you have a great start and to others w/o getting into too much depth the idea of swing efficiency isn’t discussed here. I’m taking liberties, but I’m interpreting Dave’s comments to mean with the lead arm extended the body will produce a greater exit velocity. He is not saying you can not hit the ball hard, just not as hard if the hitter were locked out at impact.
    Further although there are similarities in swings each hitter uses his musculature in a completely different way.
    I’d also suggest studying Perry Husbands’ Effective Velocity in regards to timing and body position. Thanks!

  8. Travis Owen Says:

    Great points! You’re right- some other specifics can be debated, but like you said…bottom line is the longer the barrel stays in the zone (combined with bat speed of course) = better chance of squaring one up.

    Dave and Jay, your discussion reminds me of Derek Jeter (that might be taboo on here! :) ) who is notorious for taking an inside pitch to RF. I would be curious to see how much he is actually extended at POC when taking an inside pitch to RF.

  9. Dave Says:

    I’m not saying you can’t hit a ball hard with your back arm at 90. In fact, many times on inside pitches if you are late, you have to pull your hands in to get the barrel on it (see the Jeter comment) and you will be at 90. I’m saying it’s not the optimal position. The Cabrera photo is optimal. The farther you get it out front the more time the barrel has to speed up maximizing velocity at impact. To say that simple physics indicates 90 is optimal is simply inaccurate. Physics indicates no such thing. I guarantee you that ball Cabrera hit was a laser!

  10. Dave Says:

    Here’s a great video explaining what I’m talking about. The best shot is Cano at the 5:43 mark.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NrpyBrbu8co

    An observation, Gonzalez and Cano seem to get a lot more extension than Ortiz and Fielder. Ortiz is pretty much at 90. I think that the smaller guys need to get it out in front farther cause they can’t muscle it out as much as the bigger guys. Problem is that to get it farther out in front you need to start a little sooner. If you’re strong enough to still drive it hard while letting it get in on you farther you have an advantage because you can see it a split second longer.

  11. Jay Kolster Says:

    Dave,

    I appreciate the comments. I’ll agree with you in regards to the terminology.

    “IMO your description of the ideal contact point is off. First of all it varies dependent on pitch. In the photo example of Hamilton, looks to me like an inside pitch he was totally jammed on. Contact is down on the trademark.”

    Maybe consider that this was Josh Hamilton’s ideal point of contact given the location of the pitch. As you mentioned, it depends on the pitch location. Recall Hunter Pence’s broken bat line drive a few nights ago.

    “On the Cabrera photo (also inside pitch) his extension is absolutely perfect which is why he put it on the barrel.”

    I don’t believe there is such a thing as an absolutely perfect swing, but you are correct in Cabrera being in a great position. The sole purpose of the article was to emphasize bat plane and how timing will never be perfect. Hitters get themselves in great positions to allow them to be successful regardless of timing. BTW-Cabrera’s bat is on the way out of the plane at contact.

    “On outside pitches where you need to let the ball get in on you farther your back elbow will generally be closer to 90 at contact, but again IMO you are more powerful when you are slightly past 90 (as in Cabrera’s photo), even on an outside pitch.”

    In my opinion, you don’t need to let the ball get deep on you to be successful hitting an outside pitch.

    I think we can be honest and say that describing the entire biomechanics of the swing in baseball cannot be done in one blog posting. The intent was to highlight why I think bat plane is as crucial as timing in baseball.

    Thanks for the insight.

  12. Jay Kolster Says:

    Dave,

    Good points in your most recent comment. Hitters CAN be successful at extension; I am not arguing that point. I think we can agree that all hitters have 90 degrees of flexion in the elbow at some point during their swing. If contact is made slightly after 90, chances are the ball is still squared. However, would you teach a player to hit go directly to an angle of 100-110 degrees of elbow flexion? I think the 90 degrees must be emphasized, and aids in being in a good position past 90 degrees.

    “An observation, Gonzalez and Cano seem to get a lot more extension than Ortiz and Fielder. Ortiz is pretty much at 90. I think that the smaller guys need to get it out in front farther cause they can’t muscle it out as much as the bigger guys. Problem is that to get it farther out in front you need to start a little sooner. If you’re strong enough to still drive it hard while letting it get in on you farther you have an advantage because you can see it a split second longer.”

    Let’s talk about seeing the ball longer on an outside a pitch. In fact, recall Pablo Sandoval’s 2-0 count homerun off of Verlander last night to the opposite field. I may be going off on a limb, but I highly doubt Pablo intended to hit the ball to the opposite field, and he certainly did not have a split second to see the 95 mph pitch longer, otherwise he’s late. His barrel just happened to be on plane.

  13. Dave Says:

    You absolutely have to let the ball get deeper on an outside pitch. In order to drive it the other way you have to hit it back on the plate. Whereas an inside pitch you have to get out in front of home plate. It’s hard to speak in absolutes, location and speeds vary, but in general you hit an inside pitch anywhere from 8-12 or even 16 inches closer to the pitcher than you do an outside pitch.

  14. Damian Says:

    Dave
    Just stating something isn’t so doesn’t make your point valid. It is a fact that a 90° angle is stronger on the lower lever than the 105° angle. If you’d like to dispute that then please do explain. I’m not saying that a hitter can’t hit with the back elbow at 105° or even 130° for that matter, but I am saying that if you are trying to teach that type of specific angles in a swing than you are wasting a lot of time and energy. No hitter at any level can master that amount of flexion on every swing. Nobody has that much control of their levers while swinging a 30 plus inch implement at a high velocity. So, working for 90° of flexion allows for the randomness of our bodies. That is the optimum angle and slightly less or slightly more takes you towards diminishing returns.

    I believe every swing is a snow flake that will never be exactly duplicated. Husband touches on this as far as what pitches a hitter may see. With all the pitches that Jeter has seen, I’m willing to bet he’s never seen the same pitch in the same spot twice or taken the same swing twice. It’s simply too random. So, each hitter must have absolutes that allow for adjustments. Jay’s reference to the back knee allows for the randomness. So does the 90° angle in the back arm.

  15. Richard Todd Says:

    Finally, someone used the word “optimal” rather than perfect.

    Damian, is absolutely right with regard to “teach” vs “non-teach” – there is no way to break teaching down to a matter of a few degrees and expect a batter to improve as a hitter. That doesn’t mean coaches/instructors should not look for it… but how he communicates that adjustment to the student is what the “science of instruction” is all about.

    BTW, those who would criticize Eric for sharing others advice on specific like hitting on a strength-coaching site are missing the point. When we all share we grow in knowledge .. the more resources the better. I’m sure there are those in Eric’s audience who could pick apart some of the training info on my site (webball) but that doesn’t it make it a bad idea to point out the importance of understanding the process.

  16. Eric Cressey Says:

    Thanks, Richard. And, for the record, this was Jay’s article on my site. I just published it. :)

  17. Chas Pippitt Says:

    Eric,

    We at Baseball Rebellion have been following your stuff for quite some time now. Jay wrote a very good article but I’d love to hear your (and Jay’s) thoughts on creating ‘early bat speed’ or the acceleration portion of the swing that makes the barrel travel rearward towards the catcher and then sideways into the zone behind the baseball and on plane with the pitch.

    If done properly, the bat is not only on plane early, but also completely accelerated BEFORE entering the hitting zone. Creation of separation between the pelvis and clavicle angles is paramount to creating this torque and therefore making the bat head get to top speed before hitting the ball.

    Jay is correct, that hitting the ball deep at a 90 degree angle is optimal but only if the barrel has been accelerated with the turning torquing action of pelvis before the hips.

    How would you create and enhance this movement Eric?

    Chas Pippitt,
    Baseball Rebellion

  18. Joe Heisler Says:

    I like what everyone says. i especially agree with separation of hip and clavicle for speed, as long as front arm does not lock out. The only point was with John Hamilton leg not being turned. it may not be turned but his hip is and energy is being created by muscles and using the ball or knuckle of foot as the anchor point for the energy created and stored by hips and legs. Without the stop or wall to be able to rotate and still applying force to ground making sure energy travels up body and out of bat. It will sometimes come up off the ground at or a little after contact. It does seem to be at different angles going thru rotation depending on batter and inside or outside pitch. What I want to know is, how to best delay the rotation of hands until after contact? Does getting the back shoulder in a little behind and in, on the back of the ball allowing the top forearm to stay longer in the palm up position? I ask this because rolling of the wrist seems to be the easiest cause of a slump or bad habit they have picked up. Thanks I hope this makes sense. I am setting in hospital bed after surgery. Not sure actually what I have written.

  19. DAN Says:

    My question is different, why do a lot of gurus “MLB ANNOUNCERS? say , “he really got on top of that ball”. Is that a generic comment? If you het on top of the ball i doubt it’s going out of the park, “squaring it up yes”

    So why do they say “he’s trying to get on top of the ball”?

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