Hitting: Cage Swings to Game Swings

Inside Pitch is proud to introduce our latest guest contributor, Justin Hogan. He played college baseball at Southern Polytechnic (Ga.) State University where he helped his team to the conference tournament title in 2004, and began his baseball playing career at Hiwassee (Tenn.) Community College. Coach Hogan is currently in his third season as the assistant baseball coach at Union University. He has previous coaching experience at Tennessee Tech University.

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One of the most frequent problems that hitters confront me with is “How can I take my cage swing into the batters’ box in the game? ” During cage batting practice, hitters are more relaxed with less pressure than when they are hitting in the game. Hitting competitions, mental approach, and specific drills will transform the hitter’s cage swing to the game. I consider the hitter’s cage work as a student preparing for a test by studying and spending time breaking down and analyzing the material. When the hitter hits batting practice on the field, he needs to be confident about the mechanics of the swing and to focus on being successful at each round of batting practice. When the game begins, the hitter needs to know that he is physically and mentally prepared to step into the batter’s box and to be successful.

During cage work, my first objective is to have my hitters focus on understanding the fundamentals of their swing. Next, we stress that they take a game-like swing every time. To do this, we implement specific drills to make our hitters focus on every swing. Prior to cage work, our players have to complete a list of eight drills before entering the cage. By doing these eight drills, the hitters are loose and ready to take game like swings when they walk into the cage. This segment of eight drills consists of forty-five swings in a ten-to twelve-minutes time frame. Our cage work begins with several rounds of short toss. Each round will be made into a competition to put game type pressure on the hitter. After the hitters have completed their cage work, we will move to rounds of live throwing. These rounds will have a specific purpose for the players to execute, which I will discuss later.

Listed below are eight hitting drills which we do prior to getting into the cage:

Tee or Side Tossed Drills ( 5 swings maximum each station) :

  • Hands Drill: This drill is designed to teach the hitter to gain trust in his hands. The hitter takes no stride while taking his hands to the ball. There is very little movement of the hitter’s shoulders or body in this drill.
  • High Tee- This drill is designed for the hitter to work on shortening his swing to achieve a short, compact swing. The tee should be placed about chest high. Each swing the hitter is trying to get on top of the ball.
  • Balance Board- This drill is designed for the hitter to stay focused on his balance throughout his swing. After each swing, the hitter should hold his follow- through and check his balance.
  • Power Bat Drill- (hitting a soccer or basketball off the tee) This drill helps the hitter build strength in his swing as well as working on driving through the ball.
  • Top Hand Drill- This drill is designed to help the hitter focus on having control of his top hand and staying through the ball throughout his swing.
  • Bottom Hand Drill- This drill is designed to help the hitter focus in having control of his bottom hand and staying through the ball throughout his swing.
  • Inside Tee- This drill is designed to help the hitter focus on staying inside the ball with his hands and relying on being explosive with his back knee turning toward the pitcher. .
  • Outside Tee- This drill is designed to help the hitter to focus on driving the ball the other way. Hitters have a tendency to try to guide the ball instead of taking an aggressive swing when hitting to the opposite field.

Front Toss Rounds” (6 swings max each station)

  • Middle to Opposite Field Round- The focus in this round will be to hit each ball off the middle to opposite field side of the lower part of the L-Screen. This teaches our hitters to take the correct bat path through the zone in hitting the ball up the middle and to the opposite field.
  • Middle to In-Pitches- The focus in this round will be to have the hitter stay insisde the ball and try to hit the ball off the L-Screen or the pull gap of the cage. We want to avoid hitting the ball into directly into the pull side of the cage.
  • Three Plate Drill- This round is designed for developing timing and quick hands. The coach places three plates every three feet from each other in a straight line. The first round, the hitter will start at the back plate and move forward to each plate every time he centers the ball. In the second round, the hitter will start at the closer plate and move back each time he centers the ball.
  • Six Ball Game- This round the hitter focuses on how many balls he can barrel up out of six. In this game, the hitter receives one point for a good hit and two points for a bad hit. The hitter can hit as many as six balls or a few as three.

These previous four drills are an example of the drills we do every day. In each drill, we stress taking each swing with a purpose as well as making a competition between each player. During each drill, the player will have some type of punishment according to the number of swings that were unsuccessful.

Live Batting Practice with a Coach Throwing or the Batting Machine

  • Situational Hitting Round-We always start out with a situational round. During this round, we stress an aggressive swing on each pitch. Hitters have a tendency during situational rounds to let up on their swings just to get the job done.
  • Hit It Under the Line Game- In our cage, we have two lines going across the back of the cage. One line is three feet from the bottom of the cage, and the other line is seven feet from the bottom of the cage. We stress to our hitters that their goal is to hit every ball under the top line. During this drill, we will challenge our players to see how many balls out of six they can hit under line. We keep a score giving one (1) for every ball hit below the line and two (2) points for every ball hit between the lines.
  • Game: ” How Good Are You?” – For this drill, the hitter will tell the coach where he wants to hit the ball. ( Ex: Pull, up the middle, or opposite field). If the hitter hits the ball where calls it, he is able to pick a different location, but if he misses the location, he has to go back to that same location.
  • Recognition Drill- This drill is focusing on hitters taking advantage of good pitches. During this round, the coach will throw fast balls and breaking balls. The hitter’s objective is to recognize and take the off speed and hit the fast ball. A coach may alternate the variation of which pitch the hitter should hit.

During the Live Hitting Rounds, we stress that our players compete on every pitch they see. These rounds will be charted during practice and be posted in the locker room for the players to see where they stand as compared to their teammates’ scores. On the day we use the machine, I focus on the breaking ball one day and velocity on the next. During the breaking ball segments, I stress to our players to try and drive every breaking ball to the middle or opposite field. The reasoning behind this is designed for the hitter to stay inside the ball as well as staying through the ball. On our velocity day, I have two plates set up at a distance of five feet apart. This is designed to keep our players working on understanding how to deal with the change of speed of a fastball as well as to simulate a changeup. Hitting in a cage can be the most productive time for a hitter if the hitter understands the right way to approach hitting in the cage.

Hitters should not change their approach from cage work to on- field- batting practice. During our batting practice, we take a traditional batting practice. We always start off with two situational rounds, two gap-to-gap rounds, and two barrel-it-up rounds. The main difference during our hitting rounds is that we make everything competitive between the hitting groups and individuals. We chart our guys on every round. During on field batting practice, we rank our players due to the success of this batting practice results. During situational rounds, hitters have a tendency to take weaker and slower swings to satisfy getting the situation completed. When grading batting practice, we will count off on their grade if the hitter takes a weak swing. The most significant competition we have between our players when grading them is at the end of each day the bottom three guys have to skip the next day’s batting practice, spending that time working in the cage on those same rounds. Every pitch I want out hitter to take a true aggressive swing during batting practice and in the game. I believe if the hitters train themselves in taking aggressive swings, every pitch in the cage, as well as in the game, the two swings will become the same.

The mental approach for the game and batting practice should be the same. I believe when the hitter steps into the batter’s box, his swing should be aggressive on every swing. Every round our hitters take, we do not allow them to hit more than six (6) pitches per round. I believe the more pitches a hitter hits in a row, the slower their swing becomes during the round. We stress to our players when they commit to swing, to go full out every pitch. When I talk about being aggressive, that means a quick swing, not strong. There is a big difference between the two. Each round of cage work or batting practice, we try to explain to our players what we want as a result of the round as well how they should go about to make it successful. Each time our hitters step into the batter’s box during the game, they have to believe they have worked harder and are more prepared than the person they are facing.

Hitting a baseball is one of the hardest things to do in sports. With hard work and preparation, a hitter can take his skills and perfect them in the cage. By understanding that there is no difference in the mechanics of the swing that he has perfected in the cage and the one he takes to the batter’s box, he can become a consistent hitter. By taking the right mental approach in the cage, the hitter will be able to translate the mental side of hitting to the game as well .To become a great hitter, one must be consistent in the cage as well as in the game.