Everyone worries about the fastball. At the amateur level it seems like most players and coaches are so afraid of the 1 or 2 pitchers that they might face that throw really hard that they continually practice at really fast speeds. I see players jump into batting cages and face pitching machines that throw way too hard, much harder than they are ever going to face on a game by game basis. I see coaches throwing to their players at high velocities from close distances, throwing much too fast for the players to handle. All of this because they believe that this is going to increase bat speed and get the players ready for facing pitchers that throw hard. Usually when I try to explain that this technique of practice doesn’t help the player and that the player is probably never going to face a pitcher that throws that hard I get a response of, “Oh no, there is this one kid in our league that throws 70 mph.” or whatever the speed might be.
In baseball we have a tendency to train for the 10% of what we are going to see and let the 90% suffer. What I mean is we spend most of our time worried about, focused on, and training for the minority of what we are going to see in games. Coaches spend 90% of practice time on 1st and 3rd plays, bunt defenses, and pick plays, allowing the 90% of them game (hitting, throwing, and fielding) to suffer. In hitting we train so that we can hit the hardest thrower while sacrificing our ability to hit the average pitcher. Where does this come from? Primarily it’s our ego identification that velocity and power means good player. If we throw hard, hit the ball far, and can hit pitchers that throw hard then we must be a good player. Try telling that to Greg Maddux or Jamie Moyer.
Anyway, what we don’t realize is training in this way doesn’t accomplish the goal of allowing us to hit faster pitching while at the same time diminishes our ability to repeat proper mechanics, which leads to consistent success and allows for maximum bat speed which ironically allows them to hit the harder throwers. Players who engage in overspeed training (for lack of a better term) have to cheat to hit the pitch. In doing so they increase their effort and overall muscular tension causing the swing to breakdown and lengthen out which causes slower bat speed and an inability to make consistent contact (not to mention kill their confidence). Do this a few times and now the hitter has created new movement patterns and not only can’t hit the hard throwers but can’t hit the average pitchers as well.
We need to understand that a hitter’s ability to hit a particular pitch speed has very little to do with bat speed. Most hitters (especially those with proper mechanics) have the necessary bat speed to hit faster pitching. It has more to do with the eyes’ ability to recognize the pitch and effectively communicate to nervous system when to swing the bat. Major League hitters for example are usually very late on the fastball early in spring training, not for a lack of bat speed but rather due to the fact they need time for their eyes and mind to adjust to seeing pitches after a long layoff. They don’t take 100 mph batting practice because they know that the only real way to adjust is to get at-bats and wait for their eyes to adjust.
Even still there are pitchers out there that can blow the ball by them. Why? Mainly because it’s outside of “hitting speed” which is the consistent pitch speed that you’re facing on a daily basis. Anything above and below that speed is going to be very difficult to hit and there is very little you can do in a practice setting to prepare for it. This is why pitchers who change speeds effectively are so difficult to hit. Let’s say for example you are consistently facing pitch speeds from 80-85 mph. 90% of the pitching you face falls into the 80-85 mph range, as such your mind and body are accustomed to seeing pitches in this range. A pitcher who throws 75 mph or a pitcher who throws 90 mph are going to be difficult to hit. However if you were consistently seeing 90 mph then over the course of a few at-bats your body would naturally adjust and it would be easier to hit and 80 mph would then become more difficult.
For the most part that’s all it is. It’s not a matter of “you can’t hit harder throwers” it’s just a matter of seeing it more often in live game situations. Faster bp doesn’t help because it’s not conducted in the right environment with the same factors of seeing the pitcher go through his motion off of a mound which helps you time the incoming pitch. For the most part all that needs to take place is a simple adjustment in the batters box. In order to hit faster pitching it helps to simply get your stride foot down earlier. This allows for head stability which allows you more time to recognize pitch type and location and execution of a mechanically sound swing.
You can also make an adjustment to your approach and play off the pitcher’s ego. Remember we all equate velocity with ability and as a result hard throwers love to throw hard and show everyone how hard they throw. They are most likely going to throw fastballs the majority of the time so this takes much of the guess-work out of hitting since you know what’s coming. Just get that foot down early, stay relaxed and wait for the pitch.
If however you insist on practicing at faster speeds then my recommendation is not to swing at the faster pitches. Edgar Martinez who is considered to be one of the greatest hitters of the 90’s and probably the greatest DH of all time was known for overspeed training. However he never swung at the pitch. He understood how that could potentially damage his swing and that hitting the faster pitching had more to do with his eyes. He would take a tennis ball machine and track pitches of 100-120 mph. He wouldn’t do this all the time but just a few to train his eyes and get them acclimated to the speed of the pitch.
I can’t stress enough as to how damaging trying to practice at faster speeds can be. Especially when you consider that it does much more harm than good it just doesn’t make sense. Your practice time would be better spent working on proper swings and then when you do face the harder thrower just get your foot down earlier. You will be in a much better position to succeed and will notice much more consistency when facing hard throwers.