LOS ANGELES—Perhaps the most frequently repeated cliché in baseball is this: “Hitting is the most difficult thing to do in sports."
Teaching hitting is the most difficult thing to do in sports. Ask any baseball coach, from tee ball volunteer to big league hitting instructor, and you’ll hear a litany of nightmarish anecdotes.
Among the commonly experienced classics are: The parent who thinks he knows everything but in reality knows nothing; kids who are shown the correct methods but go right back to bad habits; advice yelled at a player during a game from an adult who in his own youth couldn’t hit the ball if it was glued to his bat.
Reggie Smith is determined to change this unfortunate situation. A switch-hitting all-star outfielder for the Red Sox, Cardinals, Dodgers and Giants from 1966 to 1982, Smith banged out 314 regular-season home runs and added eight World Series homers. In baseball history, the only switch-hitters with more career home runs are Chili Davis, Chipper Jones, Eddie Murray and Mickey Mantle.
This past week, the Major League Baseball Urban Youth Academy in Compton, Calif. has served as Smith’s classroom and laboratory. The Academy is the site of the second-annual Breakthrough Series, in which high school players from around the nation participate in four days of workouts, games and advanced instruction.
On July 21, Smith held a seminar on hitting mechanics in the Academy’s conference room. Soft spoken and intelligent, Smith was tutored in his own youth by Ted Williams—the equivalent of being taught painting by Rembrandt.
His goal as a youth hitting instructor, Smith said, is to counter almost everything being taught to young players. “There’s a lot of nonsense out there,” Smith said.
To prevent being taught or acquiring bad habits, Smith prefers to start working with players at an early age—around 8 years old, preferably—and Smith’s students swing wood bats only.
Smith is careful to approach each student differently. For instance, there is no such thing as a common stride length, since players have different body structures. Smith uses his trusty yardstick to help determine the proper stride length for each of his pupils.
However, there are several key tenets applicable to each hitter, Smith insists. First, a batter should not “load” by swaying his weight onto his back leg, but by turning his front shoulder inward. It is vitally important, Smith insists, that a hitter not sway from back to front when swinging but instead “turn around the center of your body.”
Balance is also a critical component. Smith believes that each hitter should center his weight on the arches of his feet. Shifting weight onto the toes or heels causes a subtle loss of balance.
Smith stated that the ideal swing is a slight uppercut, not the downward hack taught by most youth coaches. The uppercut keeps a hitters swing on plane with the incoming pitch, and permits the hitter at contact to create backspin on his drives.
“You want to square the pitch up by hitting the bottom of the ball with the bottom of the bat” Smith said. Williams imparted that idea to Smith, who later relayed that knowledge to Mike Piazza, Smith’s star student.
The goal in hitting, Smith insists, is to deliver the barrel of the bat to the ball. Instead of the common notion of letting the ball “get deep,” a hitter must let the ball travel to the point in space where the bat can intersect with the ball without the arms being restricted and allowing the body to rotate. “You let a pitch get too deep, and you wind up swinging at it with T-Rex arms,” Smith explained.
When connecting with a delivery, “The goal is to achieve a kind of trampoline effect,” Smith added, having the barrel of the bat cause “resistance against deflection, using the energy of the ball against itself.”
Proper vision is the most important factor in hitting. Smith is adamant that a hitter should look directly at the pitcher, and never move, tilt or angle his head. Doing so, said Smith, “changes your vision from 20/20 to 20/200.”
Tracking the pitch is crucial, Smith explained, because “a ball leaves the pitcher’s hand and travels about 54 to 56 feet to the edge of the plate. No one can see the ball hit the bat. The poor hitter loses sight of the ball about 20 to 22 feet from the plate. The good hitters see the ball until it is only 6 to 8 feet out. A longer look at the ball makes all the difference.”
During the first two days of the 2009 Breakthrough Series, Reggie Smith was omnipresent. He counseled hitters as they emerge from the batting cage; he gave demonstrations and lectures; and he patiently answered questions from anybody that inquired.
Smith’s preeminent teaching feat occurred 10 years ago, when he taught hitting fundamentals to actors Barry Pepper and Thomas Jane on the set of Billy Crystal’s “61*.” Pepper (Roger Maris) had never swung a bat lefthanded; Jane (Mickey Mantle) had never swung a bat in his life.
If Smith can teach actors to hit, he can teach anybody.