Whether you are a parent or a coach, by far the easiest way to improve a kid’s real game hitting results is to switch to a lighter and/or smaller bat. Of course, that only works if you first determine that the bat is too long or heavy.
This post explains several methods for determining whether a bat is too heavy, starting with a reliable method any parent or player can use without a coach. I used to think it required substantial coaching skill to figure this out. It doesn’t.
Just observe soft toss. If the player hits mostly line drives, the bat is fine. If not, try a lighter bat.
How Anyone Can Determine if a Bat is Too Heavy
To elaborate on the soft toss test:
Soft Toss is when someone kneels at a corner of a net with a bucket of balls, tossing each ball diagonally to a batter with considerable arc. The batter attempts to hit the ball square with the sweet spot of the bat into the net. This is not as easy as it sounds. The ball is not thrown identically each time, so this requires not just good mechanics, but also good hand/eye coordination and bat control for mid-swing adjustment.
It’s unreasonable to expect a first-year baseball player to reliably hit soft toss well. Even many second-years will struggle. These beginning players (or also very young players) may still lack even the most rudimentary mechanics every hitter must have, and may still need more practice to get better hand/eye coordination as well. But most kids who have played baseball for a few years will be able to contact almost every soft-toss pitch. You want to see these more experienced players getting good hits off soft toss the majority of the time.
You know it’s a good hit when you see a line drive. I’ve written in more detail elsewhere about the benefits of using a net in the backyard to improve hitting, but when checking bat weight/length, just count line drives.
Here’s how you recognize high quality line drives: you are looking for hits that come off the bat hard and straight. Not up. Not down. It is fine (desirable, actually) if a right-handed hitter hits the ball slightly to his/her left on inside pitches, or slightly to his/her right on outside pitches. But hits should still not go up or down. Good hits are ones that come off the bat hard and parallel to the ground, which is what we call line drives. Down slightly but very hard is next best, as these would be hard grounders during games, which are harder to field than all other hits but line drives (on average).
If, during soft toss, a player can’t hit a majority of line drives, then there’s little hope for that player hitting line drives during games or reliably getting to first base safely (actually, at the 10 and under age, there’s ample chance for error on even the weakest of hits, but as kids get older the value of poorly hit balls diminishes). Either the bat is too heavy, or the player has mechanical issues that need to be worked out.
The next step is to have the player swing a lighter and/or shorter bat and see if he or she hits mostly line drives. If yes, you have your answer. And maybe you have your new bat as well.
You can try a similar test without a net. Use whiffle balls or soft balls pitched a short distance. If they can’t hit mostly line drives, then there’s either a bat size/weight issue or a mechanical issue.
However, I don’t find the pitched whiffle test to be as reliable. One player on my team this year reliably hit line drives when we tossed him Smush balls. But during his first two games, he never hit the ball in play, let alone line drives. When I tried soft toss into a net, he hit line drives less than 20% of the time. The culprit was his 21.9oz, 31″ Easton XL1 (since renamed Mako XL). Great bat, but he couldn’t control it well enough when he had less time to predict where the ball was going to go. For both soft toss and live kid pitching, ball trajectory is much less predictable than with coach pitch, machine pitch, or hitting off a tee.
When I had this player try a teammate’s lighter and less end-weighted 21.1 ounce Easton S3, he hit mostly line drives into the net. Next game he hit bombs to the outfield for both of his plate appearances with the lighter S3.
Another very simple test that anyone can do is to hold the bat out straight. If right-handed, use right hand to hold the bat straight out, parallel to the ground. If he can’t easily hold it in this position for 20 seconds, it’s too heavy. I haven’t used this test. I care about line drives, which is more likely to be influenced by mechanics which are far above (or below) average than arm strength.
How I Do it as a Coach
The first practice of each new season, and then a couple more times during the season, I used to check the printed bat lengths and weights to see if any bats were too heavy. Turns out that was a flawed method, because bat makers print weights with more of an eye to marketing than accuracy:
Actual bat weights range from printed weight to 3 ounces heavier.
Starting this year I stopped relying on the weight printed on bats. I brought a scale and asked my wife to weigh bats, measure player heights, note bat lengths (which ARE listed accurately), and record bat models. I didn’t have all the information compiled until several weeks into the season as it turned out to be moderately time consuming and disruptive. Next season I’ll simply have a coach do this at a station at one of the first 2 or 3 practices.
What did I learn this time around? Out of 12 players, there were 4 players whose bats were heavier than I expected they could handle based on their height, body build, and bat weight/length. A couple more players were borderline. But I reserved final judgement until I watched them swing during soft toss.
At this point I could baffle you with various hitting mechanics lingo, such as slow swing, long swing, loopy swing, bat drag, over loading to compensate, dropping the bat head, dropping hands, etc. The easiest of these is to just see how fast the swing is—if it’s obviously far slower than the team average, there may be an issue with bat weight.
Any coach reading this will have heard of and be able to notice some of the too-heavy mechanical issues I just mentioned, or maybe all of them and then some. I’m getting better at noticing them myself.
But now that I’ve started using the line-drive-into-the-net-test I outlined above, I don’t see a need for a highly experienced hitting coach in order to diagnose “too heavy.” I am probably typical among youth baseball coaches when it comes to knowledge of hitting mechanics. After several years of coaching, I know enough to be dangerous, but it’s still not at the level where I can reliably correct most mechanical flaws, or reliably identify who is swinging a bat that is too heavy. However, I can very reliably identify which hits into a net are quality line drives.
UPDATE: Less than 2 weeks after posting this, we had our first 2 regular season games. How did we actually do as a team? First game, 17 hits, 3 strikeouts. Second game, 7 hits, 5 strikeouts. The most interesting part is what happened to the 3 players present who switched to different (usually lighter) bats. One player didn’t get a good ball to hit, so mostly walked. The other two were players who I knew from prior years. Historically, these two had low batting averages and few line drives. One of them hit 3 line drives in these two games (4 for 6, 1 HBP, 1 BB). The other had many quality at bats that led to 2 hits (2 for 3) and 5 walks. I expected them to do better with the different bats, but not this much better.
Do NOT automatically assume that a player can’t swing a heavy bat. I have a player on my team this year who is only 4′ 11″ and is the youngest player on my 11- to 12-year-old Bronco team. He is stocky, with a massive upper body. He’s swinging a 31″ 24.6 ounce Easton Mako Torq. Despite his big upper body, I was skeptical. But he can hit line drives most of the time during soft toss, and he hits the ball hard into play during games. Him, I leave alone.
There are also times to suggest a player use a heavier bat. The most obvious is when a player has a slow swing with a light bat and is not amenable to making the mechanical changes needed to speed up the swing. There was a player on my team last year who fit this profile exactly. He hit the ball very weakly into play with his light bat and slow swing. So one day I strongly suggested he try the end-weighted Techzilla 30″, 22.9oz bat. His swing speed was identical. The weak hits turned into screaming line drives and very hard hit grounders.
Ideally, you’d want a kid like that to improve his mechanics. But if he’s going to insist on his slow-swinging ways, may as well hand him a heavy bat.
What About Better Mechanics?
In the last section I mentioned that poor mechanics are also a frequent cause of difficulty hitting line drives. In fact, the vast majority of recreation league ball players have, at best, mediocre mechanics. Typically, the only players with good mechanics are those who have taken lessons, or who have a parent that has played at the high school level or beyond and knows how to teach mechanics.
There is a line of thought that says that using a very light bat is simply a Band-Aid for poor mechanics. To some extent, I agree. Better mechanics will enable a player to swing a heavier bat properly, and therefore hit the ball much further. Better mechanics is key to being able to advance to the high school level.
However, in my experience, players don’t much improve their mechanics during the regular rec season. Most coaches don’t know how to teach mechanics well, and even those who do generally don’t have enough time. The only players I ever see improve their mechanics during rec season are those who have little or no experience. Most beginners start at such a low level that there are some very simple things a coach can change for dramatic improvement.
For those who hope to play at the high school level, learning good mechanics is a must. I explain how and when to do this in my hitting mechanics post.
But given how difficult this is to do during a regular season, the “Band-Aid” approach of getting players to hit more line drives by using a lighter or smaller bat is going to be the most practical approach to improving game results. For kids who are very frustrated with their hitting results, this fix will be quick and appreciated. Apart from the occasional extraordinary coach who spends a great deal of time teaching mechanics one-on-one during the regular season, kids aren’t going to be improving their mechanics fast enough during a rec season to make much of a difference.
More Anecdotes on Switching to a Lighter Bat
At one point my son insisted on switching to a 30″ bat when he was the shortest 8-year-old in the league. It was a very light 16.5oz bat, but too-long also harder to swing. He still got contact and often beat out weak grounders for a single but his hit quality plummeted for years. He hit mostly weak grounders and popups, with only occasional quality line drives. It wasn’t until he was 10 1/2 years old that he was consistently able to get quality hits with a 30″ bat. In retrospect, I should have talked him into using a 27″ or 28″ long bat of a similar 16 or 17 oz weight.
I could tell many stories about “batting cage hitters,” but I’ll just sum it up: Many a decent hitter gets super excited about a great new bat with a ton of pop. He tries it out at the cages, or with coach pitch, and is absolutely crushing the ball, typically loading up big with a really long swing to add power. In games, he rarely even puts the ball into play, with lots of foul balls, weak grounders, and strikeouts. The culprit is always a bat that is too heavy or long, which he is able to control well enough with predicable fastballs coming in from the pitching machine or coach pitch. But once exposed to kid pitch, and especially tougher pitching, difficulty controlling the too-heavy bat becomes apparent.
Then there is the 9-year-old player on our team last year who had below-average mechanics, a below-average batting eye, and fear of bat vibration. One day I strongly urged him to borrow a teammate’s bat, the lightest bat on the team. His first two swings off coach pitch resulted in a line drive single and a hard grounder through the gap. He was really excited, and said:
“Wow, this bat really has pop!”
No, it was not a bat with really great pop. It was an inexpensive single-piece aluminum bat that was super light and short and therefore easy to control. Now it was easier for him to square up the bat to the ball, hitting it with the sweet spot.
The real story was bat control. With his sub-par swing, he couldn’t do much with an appropriately sized bat. But hand him a light bat and he could control it.
Control the bat well, and you will reliably hit the ball into play. For players not hitting the ball reliably into play, the single simplest way to improve bat control is to reduce the length and weight of the bat. Yes, it really is that simple.