Sure, there’s a few rudimentary basics that everyone has to learn such as bat grip, batting stance, hip rotation, keeping your back foot planted, and keeping your eye on the ball. Beyond that it gets confusing fast.
Should coaches spend a lot of time teaching hitting mechanics during practices and give tips during game at-bats? Should kids take private hitting lessons? Will spending time improving hitting mechanics have an immediate impact on game performance? With all the disagreement among pros about finer points of hitting technique, how to even know which mechanics are correct? Do mechanics even matter all that much if you have the right mental approach and a good batting eye?
I’ve been confused about this topic for years. My 10-year-old son recently began taking private hitting lessons for the first time, which helped me sort out why and when mechanics matter. I’m ready to share what I’ve learned.
Good Hitting Results Require 3 Components
Hitting isn’t just about swinging a bat with good technique. As I discussed in my youth bats post, there are three components to being a good hitter at any level:
- Be mentally ready
- See the ball (good eye, plate discipline)
- Hit the ball (good mechanics)
In addition to mechanics, how hard you hit the ball can also be impacted by:
- Bat size, weight, and quality
- Kid size and weight
At the professional level, all hitters have good mechanics and can always hit fastballs down the middle well. Even by the high school varsity level, it’s rare to see players with poor mechanics who have much success at the plate.
However, at the ages of 12 and under (and especially 10 and under), it is possible to put the ball in play and arrive safely at first without good mechanics. Some of the hitters who achieve average (or better) results have poor mechanics.
How is it possible to hit as well as (or sometimes better than) one’s peers with poor mechanics?
Short answer: Avoiding strikeouts is all it takes to get good results at this age, and it doesn’t take great mechanics or solid contact to do it. Poorly hit balls such as pop flies, weak grounders, or harder grounders hit to a fielder can and often do result in the hitter getting safely to first base. In detail:
Let’s start with pitching. High school pitching is tough to hit. Youth pitching, for the most part, is not. Through the age of 8, the idea is to make it as easy as possible for the batter through some combination of coach pitch, machine pitch, or at the very youngest ages, hitting off a tee. Hitting certainly gets harder when kid pitch is introduced at the age of 9, but most pitchers are struggling just to get a fastball over the plate for a strike. It will be several years yet before hitters must deal with fully developed pitching.
Another reason is fielding. Sloppy fielding at the youngest ages becomes okay by the ages of 9-10, and starts to be pretty good by the ages of 11-12, but still not what you see at the higher levels. Faulty mechanics resulting in many poorly hit balls may give the impression of good hitting, because imperfect fielding allows the batter to arrive safely to first base from errors or hesitation.
Related to fielding is the distance between bases. At 50 feet for 7-8-year olds, 60 feet for 9-10-year olds, and 60′ or 70′ for 11-12-year-olds depending on the league, this is a much shorter distance than the 90 foot distance that is standard for high school and up. Smaller fields favor the base runner. Anyone who hustles will beat out a lot of infield singles and/or pressure fielders into making mistakes.
The combination of small fields, poor fielding, and easy-to-hit pitching means that all it takes to achieve average hitting results at the youth baseball level is mental readiness, a good batting eye, and/or good plate discipline. It is possible to achieve above-average results with poor mechanics, especially for a kid who is much bigger or more physically advanced than average.
Despite being 3″ below average height and having several mechanical flaws in his swing, my son’s rec league batting average was over .500 this year and he reached first base safely in over 2/3 of his plate appearances. His flaws were casting, stepping out, and occasionally dropping the bat head. He more than made up for these flaws with a good mental approach at the plate (readiness), a good batting eye, and using a light bat for a fast swing and good bat control. On top of that, he hustles to first with a head start of several feet (he’s a lefty). While he did occasionally hit nice line drive singles, more typically he hit either hard grounders that found a hole or weak grounders to the shortstop or third baseman that he beat out for a single.
With these kinds of numbers, it was hard for me to take seriously the idea that we should invest in improving his mechanics. It was easy to overlook low hit quality. However, against the tougher pitching and fielding that he faced in all-star play, his average dropped to .300. Left uncorrected, his mechanical issues likely would have meant lower averages each year until he reached high school, when he really would have struggled against tough pitching.
How Difficult is it to Learn Good Hitting Mechanics?
So it’s possible to hit well at the younger ages without good hitting mechanics. Some kids are clearly playing rec league baseball to socialize and have fun, without any thought to a long-term future in baseball. If your kid fits in this category, then I would question whether learning good mechanics is a good use of time and money. It takes considerable effort and could possibly take the fun out of the game. Most kids drop out of baseball by the age of 12, before good mechanics become a requirement for achieving good hitting results.
However, if you’ve read this far, it’s likely your kid is really into baseball and in it for the long haul. To make the high school team, your kid will have to learn good mechanics somewhere along the line. So how can a kid learn good mechanics?
Many a well-intentioned dad attempts to teach hitting mechanics to his son or daughter. He may have even played a few years of baseball as a kid, and maybe he’s watched a few dozen YouTube videos by experts to supplement his knowledge.
This is usually good enough to teach the rudiments but I haven’t seen many kids learn really good hitting mechanics from their parents, just as I haven’t seen too many really good cellists learn to play well from a parent. The rare parents I’ve seen teach good mechanics to their kids all played baseball at the high school level or beyond.
So how about learning from rec league coaches? It’s even worse. Few rec league baseball coaches have much experience teaching mechanics or the relevant baseball experience at the high school level or beyond. What time they do devote to hitting mechanics is typically in the form of rotating each kid for 2-3 minutes of tee work, several times per month. How much can a kid learn with occasional 3 minute sessions? When I took cello lessons as a kid, it was an hour/week of lessons combined with 20-30 minutes/day of practice.
What’s even worse about coach-taught mechanics is getting a different coach every year. Each coach has different ideas about what mechanics to work on, and they sometimes contradict what a coach from a prior year tried to teach you.
But it’s even worse than that, for psychological reasons. If each time you work with a kid on hitting, you’re bringing up several flaws, then that kid may start thinking about mechanics at the plate, or suffer an erosion of confidence, which hurts readiness and an appropriate mental approach at the plate.
Worst of all is when coaches make corrections during games. Even pros who practice their mechanics for hours each week will tell you that you don’t have time to think about mechanics during a game. You just have to be ready, see the ball, and hit the ball. You learn mechanics by working with a batting tee, soft toss, front toss, batting cage work, etc. With enough repetition, improved mechanics becomes part of your muscle memory and it then happens automatically during games. You are not going to learn better mechanics by tinkering in the middle of a game.
I have only occasionally seen kids get much better at hitting during a youth baseball season, perhaps 1-3 kids per team. It happens mostly with the kids who start as total beginners and finally get the hang of it. Similarly, kids first exposed to kid pitch may have poor results at first but when they overcome their fears and/or get the hang of it, they suddenly hit much better. I have also seen kids suddenly improve by switching to a lighter bat, or learning better pitch selection. However, I rarely see kids improve their hitting results due to mechanics improving throughout the baseball season.
So this is why there is so much confusion about hitting mechanics. Great hitting mechanics aren’t critical to success at the 12-and-under rec league level. And it seems as though parent or coach attempts to teach mechanics don’t usually help get better hitting results.
Yet, for kids who hope to play at the high school level, good mechanics are a requirement.
How and When to Learn Good Mechanics?
In my opinion, the best time to work on mechanics is during the off-season. Find an instructor who has taught kids of a similar age with good success. Make sure the lessons are combined with daily practice, using a tee and net in the back yard.
Some of the better travel ball teams have access to experienced hitting instructors that work on hitting mechanics with the team. For private lessons, parents usually have to pay extra though they may get a rate discount compared to kids who aren’t on the team.
Many kids learn mechanics during the regular season, either with private lessons or via group instruction on their travel ball team. I have seen some kids really struggle at the plate while this is happening, and not improve their actual results until the following year, if ever. Other kids seem better able to “turn off” thinking about mechanics during games, even while taking lessons – and these kids achieve faster results. Setting expectations can help. A player who is trying to overhaul mechanics mid-season will be well advised to expect poorer results at the plate for the short term, lasting at least a few weeks, and possibly longer.
You do need to understand what mechanics can and can’t do. As I mentioned above, there are three components to hitting. Hitting instruction can help a great deal with mechanics. But it may not have much of an impact on mental readiness or seeing the ball. If your player has good mental readiness and sees the ball well, then improving mechanics during the off season will almost certainly lead to improved hitting results. On the other hand, kids who have difficulty seeing the ball and/or being appropriately ready may not necessarily get great results after receiving batting instruction. They may turn into what I call, “batting cage hitters.”
I have run into entire teams of “batting cage hitters.” They look great at the cages. Throw nothing but fast balls down the middle and they will hit many line drive singles. Clearly, these kids have been taught good hitting mechanics. But as soon as a pitcher starts to vary location, movement, or speed, they flounder. What’s happening here is that they have good mechanics, but the mental approach and/or ability to see the ball is not yet good enough to handle trickier pitching. They may develop a better mental approach and/or batting eye over time, but learning better mechanics won’t necessarily help with that.
In an earlier article I wrote about youth baseball bats, I posed the question, “If you’d like to spend $300 to improve your player’s hitting, is getting a top-of-the-line bat the best way to spend it?” I didn’t really answer the question directly. I did say that for an 11-12 year old with average swing speed, a top-of-the-line bat could potentially add about 16 feet to perfectly hit balls. Of potentially more benefit is that bats with very large sweet spots can help a kid turn many mishit balls into solid hits, partly compensating for faulty mechanics. I have seen some kids get better results at the plate after switching to a high-end bat, though I have seen even more kids who don’t noticeably improve after switching.
Getting a high-end bat may be a reasonable way to spend $300 for a kid who is just playing for a couple years. But I have now seen the impact of private hitting lessons on several kids in my league. These are all kids who really love baseball and clearly hope to play on a high school team in a few years. For these kids, spending $300 on 6 lessons, combined with practice between lessons, will have a far greater and more lasting impact on their hitting then getting an expensive bat.
Nearly all players I know who have taken private lessons have improved their mechanics, eventually seeing that translate into better results at the plate. It doesn’t always happen right away, especially for kids getting lessons in the middle of a season. But after new mechanics are practiced enough to become part of muscle memory, they automatically become part of a player’s swing during games. That’s when it makes a difference.