A Constraint Lead Approach to Hitting
Now that we have defined our pitch, and learned to implement some testable values we can use as constraints this would be a good opportunity to talk about how to continue to use those numbers and values to teach pitch selection. Pitch selection to me relates to a plan. Having a plan at the plate relates to more productive at-bats, and in turn translates to more runs. Pitch selection does not just apply to us trying to hit a double in the gap, or drop a bomb. It also applies to situational hitting. Hitting behind runners, scoring runners from third with infield in, and understanding what we need to swing at in order to accomplish what's best for the team. In order to have the most successful at-bats we have to understand both what the situation calls for, and what we need to do in order to create a positive outcome for that situation.
What are constraints, and why do they Promote Plate Discipline
A constraint is anything that puts a limit, or restriction on an outcome. When I talk about constraints, I am specifically talking about physical restrictions we can manipulate. For example, if I have 2 types of baseballs, red dotted balls and green dotted balls, and I say "you're only allowed to hit green dotted balls". That is a constraint. I have put a restriction on the balls they are allowed to swing at. By doing this, I promote a level of focus that I may not get if I were just to toss regular baseballs non-stop. These types of drills promote pitch selection by forcing hitters to recognize pitches more effectively, and make those pitches result in a desired outcome. If I see a curveball (red ball), I'm going to take. This trains hitters to have more focus on the pitch they are swinging at. They must, be prepared to swing, see ball, initiate swing, recognize color, and adjust to either taking the pitch, or finish the swing. This is a great opportunity to promote pitch selection, or to simulate recognizing an off pitch, and having an active take in a positive count. These constraints are something we can use to promote a higher level of intensity, and more focus with every drill.
Where can I use These Ideas
To me the best part of these constraints is being able to adjust them to whatever your needs are. If I want to create a more focused environment on the field, I can manipulate the "ball in play" zone. If I need to get more out of cage drills, and routines, I can create a new restriction and make kids have a higher attention to detail every swing. This not only gets more quality reps, but also forces your athletes to think. They are going to be thinking non-stop during a game, this reinforces that behavior during practice, and makes it become a habit.
Questions Before Using Constraints in Practice
What do my players need? If your players need to build a foundation, and need more reps of a certain drill adding constraints is probably not the best thing to do at the time. Promote a practice full of reps, take extra hacks at the end of practice, break down swings into stations, and not just look for outcomes, teach the basics before applying pressure to the outcome.
What is my focus? If you are testing out a new swing, or a new approach, adding constraints tends to add more stress to the environment. If you need to teach something mechanical, or a feel wise, it's sometimes better to create a less stressed environment in order to get what you want out of the session.
What's the feel of the team? Baseball is frustrating. And as players they will get frustrated. If you're in the middle of a losing streak, or coming off a tough loss in an extra inning game the day before it may be beneficial to come in and get your work and get off the field with a refresh rather than a constraint filled practice that can be a mental beat-down.
Where are we weak? You know your team best, and if you know that your team is struggling with pitch selection then work it, but if you are great at that, and need to work on situational hitting, manipulate other things in order to build those weaknesses. It's important to create a well-rounded team that can handle adverse situations. Having said that, you must first identify your weaknesses in order to get the most out of the team you are coaching.
What is the negative of not achieving the desired result? In order to promote the positive outcome, and force the issue there needs to be a consequence for an undesired result. I personally time rounds during practice, so having kids get the outcome and try to maximize swings by moving on to the next guy is a great consequence that promotes adjustments (find rules for that BP here). Even something as small as 5 pushups, or go touch the fence is an easy reminder to make adjustments, and try to push yourself to get the desired outcome.
How To Utilize Constraints in Practice
Launch Angle Strings
I've written about launch angle strings before. Using them in the cage is an easy visual for kids to see, and for you to put restrictions on. An easy one is you stay in the cage until you hit outside of the line drive strings. You stay in the box if you maintain the desired launch angle. This promotes looking for a good pitch to hit inside the strings. If you chase bad pitches you won't successfully hit within the range of strings. Also promotes a good attack angle and plane efficiency throughout the swing. The benefit of this is it can be done live as well as with front toss, or off a tee. Blast vision will also be a good way to utilize this tool. It's an app from blast motion that captures EV, and Launch angle. (https://blastmotion.com/products/blastvision/ )
One that we're probably already using often. Hit the top of the cage and you're out, or hit the ground and you're out. Same thing with promoting the L screen for consistency. I personally suggest if you're using this method to hang some LA strings, and use those as markers. You'll get better quality results, and can use something more scientific than just an L screen (which can be a negative attack angle at the bottom of the screen), or by not using the back top of the cage, which is usually a line drive. This drill promotes looking for the best pitch that the hitter is able to drive to the desired location. Can be used live, with toss, or off a tee.
In order to use this one you have to have tested Exit Velo with your players, and must have averages. Don't use peak EV for this drill. By having their average EV and a radar gun, or rapsodo set up to collect their EV values, you can test every ball hit, and place a constraint of "above Velo" on their swings. Every pitch they hit must be above their average Velo. By placing this one constraint I'm making sure the hitter is looking for a pitch that they can hit hard. A hitter will learn discipline, and not swing at every pitch if they have this constraint. This is a very good Positive count approach, and hitters can then see what pitches they hit hardest most consistently. If you only have a radar gun, this would have to be done either with toss, or off a tee, since you don't want to just get the velo off of the live pitching. But if you have a rapsodo, or access to a trackman, or hittrax using those would be just as reliable off of Live pitching as well. Blast vision also is a resource for this. (https://blastmotion.com/products/blastvision/ )
Perfect warm up for hitters mentally as well as physically. Something as simple as "Hit green balls only" will be enough to get athletes working. Hitters must be able to recognize the ball, and make adjustments mid flight. If you develop good enough focus with a normal setup of soft toss with this drill you can make it harder and put a direction on balls hit. Green=pull. Red=Oppo. Blue=Take. By adjusting your toss to match desired pitch locations for those types of pitches, and giving more restrictions on balls hit your hitters will have to lock in a bit more.
Pitch type selection
This one to me is a very easy one that can become very difficult if you continue to manipulate the drill. Start off by using the "take curveballs, hit fastballs" rule. This one really teaches pitch recognition, and helps hitters start to recognize pitches early. Great for a team that struggles with curveballs in the dirt, or continues to swing at bad pitches in positive counts. As this drill is mastered I have heard of coaches going as far as "hit 4 seams, take 2 seams" This is extremely difficult, and should only be done at upper levels, and even then it's still a difficult task to accomplish.
I have used this one multiple times to promote athleticism, and at the same time work on swings and pitch selection. I've written about Variability in Hitting before, and just am using this same premise with a constraint. By using bat variability within the Launch angle constraint, or an Exit Velo constraint you will promote a high level of pitch selection, and promote athleticism within the same drill.
Blast Motion Sensors
If you have access to a blast sensor (https://blastmotion.com/products/baseball/ ) using the feedback provided is a lot like using the Exit Velo information. Hitters have scores for Plane, Connection, and Rotation. Finding a baseline for players, and then putting the restriction of above average for any of those scores will promote the same idea of having to find a good pitch, and try and find something that they can put their best swing on.
On The Field
Easiest to setup, and use. Something simple like "on the right side of second base" will get hitters to look for pitches in a certain location. Hitters that don't look for middle away, to a righty, will probably pull the ball, and not get the desired outcome. Most fields have light poles in different spots, or even outfield ad signs. Giving the hitters a location and saying within this boundary hitters will have to look for pitches they can handle to that location. Our "Location Round A" is an easy way to utilize this batting practice. Placing cones is also an easy way to give objective feedback if you are lacking light poles in certain spots you want to hit to.
This one is using the situation to teach what to do in the situation. For hitters this may be some kind of simulated inter-squad, or a BP session in which hitters are given a purpose for their swing. Example may be something like runner on 3rd infield in, less than 2 outs. The hitter knows they are looking for something up in the zone preferably a fastball that they can hit hard to the outfield. I personally don't like saying fly ball to outfield, since a base hit scores a run also, but something "Over the Wall" of infielders. Putting a runner on second and saying "score him" with 2 outs. Hitters have to find a pitch that works for them. Pitch selection is our main goal for these drills, and finding a pitch that can work for us with less than 2 strikes in order to do a job and get a hit should be all that we promote. Location Round B and Situational Hitting Routine both make use of some situations during BP
Pitch Type Selection
This one is the same one as in the cage, except I wanted to make sure I posted it for on the field as well. Many of these constraints can be used both on the field and in the cage. They aren't limited to just one factor, and are open to interpretation and functionalism.
Putting constraints on hitters, and forcing the issue can help hitters to succeed under pressure. Simulating pitch types, and manipulating locations, or goals for hitters will keep practice upbeat, competitive, and interesting all year long. These drills don't just stop with what's listed, and if you have any other that you'd like to help promote to other coaches please send them in. I'm always looking for creative ways to get more out of our kids.
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