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Short to the Ball is one of the most commonly used, and misinterpreted, phrases in hitting. While it's generally interpreted as pertaining to DISTANCE — as the length of the path the hands or the barrel take to the ball — in fact what's most important is TIME.
What's most important is how long — in terms of TIME — it takes the hands to get the sweet spot of the barrel to get up to speed and get to the Point Of Contact.
The subtlety is that, due to factors starting with Loading and biomechanical Efficiency, a swing that is — truly — Short to the Ball is often LONGER in terms of Distance.
But shorter in terms of time.
And time is what matters.
Short to the Ball
Short to the Ball means taking the hands DIRECTLY to the ball.
A to B.
Or A to C; not A to B to C.
With no Hitch in the swing.
Which is why it's weird that, in the clip below of Albert Pujols in his prime...
Albert Pujols Home Run 2009
...his hands do NOT go directly to the ball.
They don't go A to B.
Or A to C.
Instead, they go A to B to C.
So what's going on?
Cars, HitTrax, and Acceleration
In automotive terms, Short to the Ball is like the difference between ACCELERATION and top-end SPEED.
While top-end speed — Exit Velocity — is fun, and yeilds ridiculous, cracking Cage Bombs, it's of limited value when you're facing a pitcher who is...
What's worse, tools — or, in truth, carnival games — like HitTrax measure and, worse, encourage the development of, SPEED.
As a result, they give hitters an incomplete sense of the quality of their swings.
That's why, when working with the hitters at HSSU, and having access to a HitTrax system for free, I never used it.
And were one of the top offenses in all of NAIA.
Before I get into the details of what I mean by "short to the ball," I should mention that one of the most common reasons why hitters aren't short to the ball is because of a flaw called...
Baseball & Fastb Pitch
Short to the Ball is one of the most common phrases, and most important concepts, when it comes to hitting , regardless of whether you're talking about...
The problem is most discussions about the concept of being Short to the Ball are detached from reality.
They don't reflect what actually happens in the swings of complete hitters; hitters who can hit for BOTH power AND average.
Hitters like Albert Pujols...
Albert Pujols Home Run 2009
...at least in his prime.
Instead, they are too often based on...
...and ignore some of the...
...of how the human body works.
Or, at least, works BEST.
The result is a set of problematic concepts...
...that don't reflect — or, worse, lead to players being coached out of — what the best baseball and fast pitch hitters do.
As a result, they too often focus on what I call Phony Flaws...
Combine that with carnival attractions like HitTrax and a myopic focus on Exit Velocity at the expense of Swing Length and you've got a toxic — and too often fatal — to hitters' swings and dreams combination and a rapidly growing but still largely un-recognized problem.
Everybody talks about how hitters need to be short to the ball, but what does that mean?
What do the best hitters do?
I ask because, while being short to the ball is one of the keys — if not THE key — to the high-level swing, and to hitting at the highest levels of baseball and fast-pitch softball, a surprising number of people still seem to have no idea what the best hitters do.
What's more, it's becoming increasingly difficult to achieve a swing that is (truly) short to the ball due to the proliferation of tools — or, in my opinion and experience, carnival attractions — like HitTrax that encourage hitters to develop long swings.
When I look at clips of hitters on YouTube, I'm seeing more and more of what I call HitTrax Swings; swings that look great in a cage — that produce LOTS of towering cage bombs — but don't work in games. In fact, I suspect HitTrax contributed to the struggles of Tommy Pham in 2016.
That's why, when I was working with the hitters at HSSU and had free access to a HitTrax system, I NEVER used it. Instead, I focused on whether my hitters were (truly) short to the ball.
And everything else fell into place.
The thing that got me thinking about the problem with hitting instruction — and how badly the concept of short to the ball is taught — was the release of Kevin Long's 2010 DVD.
And its cover artwork.
As soon as saw that picture, I knew there was something wrong with it, but I couldn't put my finger on what that was.
And then David Freese went off during the 2011 world series and I came across this picture of his Game Seven double.
And I saw it.
Then, when David Freese fell apart in 2013, was a non-factor during the World Series, and was traded to the Angels, I saw it again.
Or, really, the absence of it.
At the same time I was researching the idea of a "long swing" and was finding quotes like this one by Dave Hudgens — that I reference in my piece on David Hudgens and hitting mechanics — and that made clear to me the mainstream, MLB view of what they thought it meant to be short, and long, to the ball.
During the swing, the back elbow should come close to the rib cage and the barrel of the bat should stay above the hands. With a high back elbow, the elbow has to travel a much greater distance and at a much faster rate of speed. When this happens, the barrel of the bat will drop below the hands, the front elbow will rise, and you will have a long swing. If this goes on for very long, you have created a habit - a very bad habit.
I compared the words in that Dave Hudgens quote to what the video clips I was shooting showed.
Look at the clip above and focus on what Albert Pujols' back elbow does and compare and contrast it with Dave Hudgens' words.
And that led me to start digging into the reality of what the best hitters do and why.
The biggest problem I see when people talk about the concept of being Short to the Ball is a basic one...
Focusing on BAT SPEED
Bat Speed is great because it creates Exit Velocity and helps to get the ball to and over the wall.
But all the Bat Speed and Exit Velocity in the world are useless if you can't catch up to the fastball, while also giving yourself time to recognize, and adjust to, the curveball.
That makes how QUICKLY you can develop Bat Speed THE key and brings to light a second mistake...
Focusing on SPEED
Unlike in slow pitch and golf, where the ball is moving slowly or not at all, in baseball and fast pitch the pitcher is trying to strike you out.
And is throwing HARD as a result.
That changes everything.
And brings up the third mistake...
Focusing on DISTANCE
When Time becomes the main concern, Efficiency becomes critical.
However, and as the Brachistochrone Curve demonstrates, the quickest and most efficient movement and/or path is sometimes complicated.
Yes, a straight line is the SHORTEST distance between two points. But, as the Brachistochrone Curve shows, and because of outside, hard to see, and hard to understand factors — a paradoxical subtlety — it isn't always the QUICKEST way to get there.
In the case of the Brachistochrone Curve, that paradoxical subtlety is the force of Gravity.
It gives the ball on the red slope a greater acceleration then the ball on the slanted slope.
The human body is similar.
For reasons of efficiency, biomechanical and otherwise, when you're talking about the human body, the most DIRECT path to the ball isn't always the FASTEST path to the ball.
In the case of the human body, that paradoxical subtlety is the Stretch Shortening Cycle.
And that's why so many discussions of what a short to the ball swing SHOULD look like don't match up with what the best hitters ACTUALLY do.
Which is why so many hitters fail to live up to their potential.
There are a number of ways that the concept of being short to the ball can help a hitter.
Hands Inside the Ball
One of the main phrases that you will hear in terms of being short to the ball is, "keep the hands inside the ball." The general idea is to keep from barring out the front arm and casting or sweeping the barrel around to he point of contact.
Applied correctly, that can increase the rate at which a hitter will be able to get the barrel around to the ball.
However, one of the problems that I have with teaching the concept of teaching extension at the point of contact is that it can very easily lead to casting.
Keep the Barrel Up
You can find any number of swing analyses on YouTube that describe the difference between a short swing and a long swing. In truth, these analyses are actually discussing the problem of Bat Drag.
One of the cues that is used to help (try to) create a short swing is to keep the barrel up. While that cue can create problems, especially when reinforced with certain drills, in moderation this cue can help a player develop the high-level swing by reducing a problem with Bat Drag.
Unfortunately, while some ways of teaching being short to the ball will help hitters, the truth is that the best hitters aren't as short to the ball as is widely believed or taught. As a result, many well-intentioned fixes will tend to take hitters farther away from, rather than closer to, the high-level swing.
Hands Directly to the Baseball and Hitches
According to Don Mattingly, one of the characteristics of a swing that is short to the ball is that the hands go directly to the baseball. However, and as I discuss at greater length in my piece do as they did, not as they say, a problem quickly crops up if you compare Mattingly's actual swing to the swing that he now teaches.
While Don Mattingly may FEEl like he takes his hands directly to the baseball, in truth he loads his hands just before he launches his swing.
In many cases such loading movements are referred to as a hitch in the swing, particularly if they are relatively significant. However, this ignores that fact that you can see hitches in the swings of many of the best hitters.
You can see a small, Mattingly-esque hitch in the swing of George Brett.
Albert Pujols has a slightly larger hitch in his swing.
Barry Bonds, one of the greatest power hitters of all time (regardless of the steroid thing) had a very large hitch.
I'm not saying that a hitch is never a problem. Of course, it can be. What I am saying is that too often, in a well-intentioned attempt to simplify the swing, you can over-simplify it and remove the thing that makes it effective (much less powerful).
Chicken Wings, Loops, and Uppercuts
While I absolutely loved watching Tony Gwynn hit, his hitting instruction tends to make me cringe. The biggest problem is that he coaches people out of doing what he himself did.
To Tony Gwynn, one of the biggest flaws that lengthens the swing is when the front elbow rises up, causing the barrel to drop and loop around the hands. The problem is that you can see Tony Gwynn do just this in the clip below.
As I discuss at length in my piece on keeping the barrel above the ball and the hands, that may work for some as a cue, but it doesn't reflect reality.
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