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NFCA Coaching Tip Of the Week

I went on a recruiting trip and, as always, I watched the two teams warm-up in their respective pre-game rituals. Both teams, as is the case with many softball teams, had team soft toss sessions. As I watched one team, every player got a chance to hit 10-15 balls tossed from the side by their coach into a sea of young, giggly outfielders.

The tosses were surprisingly consistent and so were the hits. Ground ball after ground ball after ground ball. An occasional line drive and on a rare occasion a gust of air from a "whiff" at a soft toss. On the positive side, no young, giggly fielders were beaned with a ball because they were talking about "Party of Five" reruns. On the negative side, I knew this team was in trouble in its upcoming game. The team was about to face one of the best pitchers in the state, who happens to have a very good dropball.

While the level swing is well-intentioned, it may be one of the biggest deterrents from making a hitter great. Parents, coaches and players yelled aimlessly to "swing level," and I suppose that's a good thing at age 12 when the ball approaches home plate on a relatively straight plane. But, as a hitter gets older, she no longer has the benefit of hitting pitches that remain on the same "level." Thus, a level swing against a ball that is on different levels is ineffective.

Let's use the example of the pitcher I saw on this given recruiting trip. She throws a very good dropball among other breaking pitches. When she throws her dropball, her goal is to force the hitter to hit a ground ball or, on her best breaking pitch, fool the hitter into taking a low strike or swinging and missing completely. If the hitter swings level at the pitch that is knee high, a number of things will happen; most of those are bad. The most common result will be a ground ball out. The level swing appears to be on track with the ball as it approaches home plate but its gradual downward movement makes contact with the bottom half of the bat.

Secondly, because the hitter chooses to swing level at the low pitch, other hitting mechanics break down. To swing level at the low pitch, the hitter must collapse on her front leg to get to the ball. When collapsing on the front leg, the weight shift is forward incredibly early. With the commitment of early weight shift and a collapsing front leg, the hitter now hits the ball with much less authority. Often times, hitters who are out on their front foot early also commit their hands early. To top it off, if they roll their wrists early (prior to or during contact), they became a dropball pitcher's best friend since everything else commits early.

This is why we teach a "diagonal" swing. The hands must attack the pitch from the "ready" position diagonally before ever leveling out (which only really happens on the pitch belt-high). At first this is difficult to grasp, until the hitter realizes "Hey, I'm hitting less ground balls against dropball pitchers and I'm hitting the ball with more authority." The beauty of the diagonal cut is that it applies to more than just the dropball. Think about it. What happens when your hitter tries to swing at the riseball? She approaches the ball on a level plane and she fouls the ball back to the backstop or she misses completely on the pitch with great upward movement. The same principles apply for the rise as the drop. A level swing will hit the bottom half of the ball. That's why riseball pitchers live on fly ball outs and strikeouts. Hitters also tend to drop their bat head when going level to the high pitch because they raise their hands to meet the ball. While the diagonal cut on the rise is the most difficult to master, it is the most effective. The hands take a diagonal approach to the ball while the bat head stays upright, almost in a tomahawk-throwing motion. The most exciting benefit from the diagonal cut against a riseball pitcher is that the hitter's diagonal hand movement will send a message to hitter's brain that the ball above her hands is one that she should refrain from swinging from. We all would love to get that message into our hitters' brains!

In summary, a level swing is ineffective against a ball that does not cross the plate on the same plane it was on when it left the pitcher's hand. When a hitter masters the "diagonal cut," balls that are hit find the outfield gaps instead of the shortstop's glove!