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Mudville: May 22, 2024 1:59 am PDT

Stay Hitting, My Friends

Hitting is hard. Don’t make it harder.

They’ve overcomplicated hitting in the major leagues to such a (launch angle) degree that 18 teams could not manage to hit a measly .250, and that was with a universal DH in short-season 2020. That’s pathetic. The Reds, a playoff team in Rob Manfred’s new playoff system, were the worst at .212.

Perhaps the Designated Hitter should be renamed the Designated K. Lucky Reds fans. Once there was the Big Red Machine. Now there is the Little Red Automatics.

As in outs.

At BallNine we are here to supply answers and that’s why The Story this Sunday focuses on the art of hitting. We are going to keep it simple. Especially for young ballplayers. Those are the ones who really need to put the ball in play. Not only to have fun in the game, but to keep them playing the game.

You can’t have baseball without kids loving to play baseball and not running away from the game because they can’t put the ball in play.

That’s what we are all about. Some of these drills would help pro players too. So here goes, and let’s start with one of the greatest hitters of all time, who is no longer with us but his knowledge of hitting is still around.

I once asked eight-time batting champ Tony Gwynn, who put out a book in 1998 titled: The Art of Hitting, what’s one of the best batting drills he would recommend. He didn’t hesitate and told me about his simple wiffle ball drill, something he did all the time.

“You take the tee, place the net in front of it or if you don’t have a net, hit against the garage door,’’ Tony began. “You’re looking to bring the the knob of the bat to the ball, and when you do it correctly, it comes off the tee like a knuckleball and you will hear the air whooshing through the holes, not a whinier spinning sound.’’

Got that? What could be simpler?

A couple of finer points here. Gwynn, who died six years ago, was talking about using not the well-known Wiffle Ball but plastic balls with circular holes all around. Also, and this is huge, the tee is NOT home plate, that is one of the biggest mistakes youth coaches make. The tee represents the hitting area and you can move the tee around to simulate inside pitches, outside pitches, pitches down the middle. Never put the tee directly on home plate.

For much of the country this time of year is indoor hitting time unless you are lucky enough to live in a warmer climate. A lot can be accomplished indoors. I would recommend following the #shegone movement through former major leaguer Jeff Frye on Twitter because he is not afraid to call out some of the more, let’s say, interesting hitting gurus of today that are all over social media. Frye knows hitting.

But again, hitting is hard and unfortunately if young players don’t have success hitting the baseball, they soon aren’t playing baseball. Listen to Kevin Gallagher who wrote a new fun how-to book called Teach Your Kid to Hit… So They Don’t Quit.

Tony Gwynn with his wiffle ball

The Story always digs deep. We don’t want kids to quit baseball. We want lifelong fans who understand and cherish the game.

“The main point of the whole book, it’s written for the parents, is that any parent can teach their kid to hit,’’ Gallagher told BallNine. “Sometimes the hardest thing for someone who has played ball, has been successful, is that when they try to teach their kid how to hit it’s hard to teach something that you just know how to do.’’

There’s a lot of truth in that. Gallagher, 67, was a three-time conference all-star at Pace University and has coached at many levels, including high school, college and the Atlantic Collegiate Baseball League. His website is hittingsimple.com. He is all about top hand hitting.

“You need a process so what I wanted to do to convince the ordinary parent, and Little League coach, and high school coach – even, that they could teach someone the process to hit. Ordinary kids, when they make contact with the baseball, they stay with the game,’’ Gallagher explained. “If kids aren’t hitting the ball, if they aren’t making contact, they are going to quit the game. They are going to play lacrosse or soccer and run around for two hours where nobody knows if they did good or bad because they’ll just blend in.

“In baseball you’ve got to hit the ball to have fun.’’

Go past any athletic fields in-season and you can see that for yourself, how lacrosse is taking off as a youth sport. Gallagher had numbers to back up his comment.

“Youth participation is down,’’ he said. “The Sporting Goods Association has a study out that between ages 7-11 it is down 31 percent and between 12-17 it is down 36 percent. That’s mainly baseball and that is the future fan base of baseball. We have to keep them in the game and the only way to do that is for players to make contact with the ball, run it out, have some fun and develop as things go along.’’

Kevin Gallagher

The book has an eight-step process, and illustrations showing “Riley Dude’’ working the process. There are two-minute videos available as well on YouTube that work in conjunction with the easy to follow illustrations.

“The main thing is to get the barrel of the bat on the same plane as the ball for as quickly as you can, for as long as you can to create multiple points of contact for the kid to hit the ball,’’ said Gallagher, who works in the technology field. “Most kids pick up bats, they are too heavy, they have an uppercut swing and there is only one spot to hit the ball. The bat is coming up, the ball is coming in, mathematics will tell you there is only one intersection point.

“We want them to hit a ground ball to first sometimes, that’s good for a kid.’’

That is a simple but brilliant point and a lot of major league hitters would do well to follow that advice and create multiple points of contact, especially with less than two outs and a runner on third.

BallNine friend Rico Petrocelli endorsed the book. He mastered the art of top hand hitting saying, “This method helped me hit 40 home runs one year in the majors. Kevin knows it works by his experience playing and his extensive research on the subject… Top hand hitting will help the athlete make more contact and still be able to hit the ball out of the park.’’

That 1969 season Petrocelli hit 40 home runs and struck out only 68 times.

“In 2019 it took three minutes and 40 seconds between balls put in play. You can walk the dog, make a bologna sandwich and the same guy is at-bat. It’s a long time before something happens.’’

Certainly, putting the ball in play is better than striking out, no matter what you might have heard from the Nerd crowd. Striking out may have no consequences now in the majors but watch a Little League game and you can see the consequences of striking out, opposed to putting the ball in play. It’s sad to watch a youngster strike out and head back to the dugout, shoulders slumped in despair.

Solid contact pays off in solid ways.

One small but interesting point Gallagher makes is that if you hit off a tee, face the backstop and hit into the backstop if possible. Why? The focus then is on hitting the ball not watching where the ball is going in the field. Tell the hitter the ball isn’t going anywhere, you are in a cage.

Head on the ball works wonders for the swing.

Different approaches can have the same result. Tony Gwynn was all about the bottom hand. In that respect he differed from Ted Williams, who was a top hand hitter.

I was lucky enough to hear some of those incredible one-on-one conversations between Gwynn and the San Diego born and raised Williams, two of the greatest hitters in the game. It was fascinating and the ultimate lesson in the art of hitting, two icons talking in-depth about their craft.

Noted Gallagher of his philosophy, “It all comes down using the top hand to get the barrel of the bat on the same plane that the ball is traveling.’’

As for launch angle…

“Wherever the top hand goes, the barrel goes. If you drop that down for launch angle it has to get back up there to that one spot,’’ he said. “That’s going to create a lot of swings and misses.’’

Riley Dude taking some hacks

Hitting gurus may take issue with that, but remember Gallagher is trying to keep players in the game by making contact and not striking out again and again. This is a kids’ book intended for parents, regardless of their baseball expertise, and it’s 118 pages, an easy read. Little League International is carrying the book in their online store, the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum will carry the book as well. This book is for boys and girls to find the true love of putting the ball in play. That’s the essence of baseball and softball.

Youth baseball is a social event as well as we all know: Who remembered to bring the snacks today?

“One of the things I point out is that when kids swing and miss, swing and miss, and wind up leaving the game, there is a lot of frustration and embarrassment that comes with that,’’ Gallagher said. “It helps pick who your friends are and you hang out with, there are a lot of psychological effects on kids.

“When I wrote the book the first response I got back was from a 64-year-old guy. He said, ‘Thank you Kevin, I am that kid.’ He didn’t say he was that kid. He is that kid. He remembers vividly swinging and missing, swinging and missing, he didn’t make the team, he didn’t fit in with the cool guys, he remembers it and so many people have told me similar stories. I want the kids to have a positive experience, get on the field and get dirty.

“I’m not trying to make your kid the best kid, I want him to be the happiest kid. Hit the ball. Put it in play.

“There is plenty of stuff out there for the exceptional kid, but this is the kid who could be the exceptional kid, he could be a major league ballplayer one day, but if he quits too soon because he is embarrassed with everyone watching him swing and miss, you have to keep him in the game.

“Major league fan base is going to dwindle because the game has slowed to a crawl and I think launch angle has a lot to do with that,’’ Gallagher said. “In 2019 it took three minutes and 40 seconds between balls put in play. You can walk the dog, make a bologna sandwich and the same guy is at-bat. It’s a long time before something happens.’’

This is the first book Gallagher has written. It’s about keeping the game alive with the younger generation. Key points are made like the fact Willie Mays hit 660 home runs yet averaged only 66 Ks a season. Hank Aaron blasted 755 home runs, yet he never struck out more than 100 times in a season, and only four times did he go over 80 strikeouts in a season. Sadly, he points out the drop in participation of African-American players in the major leagues. In 1981, 18.7 percent of the players were African-American. By 2019 that number plummeted to 7.7 percent.

The game has been over-complicated on every level and Gallagher takes direct aim at the Launch Angle Revolution as being a major problem. Bill Ripken, Cal’s brother, knows how important it is to make contact and in his book State of Play, he offers a wonderful passage on the term “Hit Probability’’ stating that hit probability “refers to the chance of a batted ball being a hit depending on several factors. I prefer to think that if it’s a hit, it had a 100 percent chance of being a hit. Bloopers, Texas-leaguers, and seeing-eye ground ball knocks included. A ball finding its way around the Pesky Pole in Boston could have a 5 percent chance of being a hit even though it went in the seats for a home run.’’

Common sense needs to return to the game at all levels, but especially in the batters box.

Like Tony Gwynn said to end his book: The Art of Hitting: “There is nothing better than the sound of a bat on a ball.’’

Through the years I heard Tony say that often. In his Hall of Fame way that was his mantra. In 1984 when he led the NL with a .351 batting average he struck out 23 times. Over his career and 10,232 plate appearances, Gwynn struck out only 434 times.

There was only one Tony Gwynn. Same for Hank Aaron and Willie Mays and so many other Hall of Famers. But the philosophy of making contact with the baseball is something all young players should try to achieve. You can pick your spots to go Launch Angle crazy, but making contact with the baseball is what the game is all about and it is refreshing to see someone like Kevin Gallagher try to get that message across to young players and parents.

“The book shines a light on some of the reasons why baseball’s popularity is declining and kid’s participation is disappearing,’’ Gallagher said. “If the kids quit, well there goes a baseball fan for life. MLB needs to pay attention.’’

MLB could use some common sense.

45+ years, columnist at NY Post for the last 23 years prior to joining BallNine. Elected to the NY Baseball Hall of Fame. Former SportsTalk Host (KFMB), ESPN’s First Take and Cold Pizza contributor. Frequent guest on radio shows and podcasts nationwide. Author of seven books. Seen in episode 10 of ESPN’s “The Last Dance” (the one with Dennis Rodman). First baseball interview he conducted was with Thurman Munson. Now you know why he is America’s Most Beloved Sportswriter.

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