Switch-hitters work twice as hard, earn big benefits


December 16, 2007|By CAL RIPKEN JR.

DEAR CAL -- My son is a sophomore varsity baseball player and has been able to switch-hit since he was 11. I have been told by many people that they are impressed that he can hit well from both sides of the plate. I have also been told by others who seem to have my son's best interest in mind that there is no advantage to being able to switch-hit and that he should concentrate on making his dominant side better. What are your thoughts on switch-hitting?

R. Gary Jenkins, Odenton

DEAR GARY -- I would question anyone who says that there is no advantage to being able to switch-hit. If your son has nearly equal success hitting from both sides of the plate, it is a tremendous advantage for him to be able to do so , especially as he moves up the ladder and pitchers begin to develop better breaking balls. It's a lot less comfortable for a hitter for a breaking ball come at him and then break across the plate than it is for the pitch to break toward him.

One thing to consider about switch-hitting is that it takes twice as much work to be consistent from both sides of the plate. In theory, a switch-hitter should do all the same drills and put the same amount of effort into hitting left-handed and right-handed.

The other consideration is the player's performance at the plate. Many players hit really well from both sides of the plate in batting practice but show a noticeable difference in production and power in a game setting. That can have a negative impact on the team, in which case I would recommend that the player stick with the stronger side. But if your son seems to perform at close to the same level from both sides of the plate in game situations, I would not discourage him from switch-hitting.

DEAR CAL -- There are so many batting practice "machines" out there, it's very confusing, plus many are expensive. What do you recommend for a 5- and 6-year-old to get started on the basics of hitting? I'd like to start with my grandsons in spring.

Mike O'Toole, Genesee, Wis.

DEAR MIKE -- For players as young as your grandsons, a machine is generally not necessary. Machines tend to toss balls consistently to the same location, but often at greater speed than children those ages can handle. It also can be difficult to adjust a machine so that it puts the ball in the best location for a young hitter in the beginning stages of development.

You are going to want to start out by tossing balls slowly and consistently to the same general location for a couple of reasons. First, tracking thrown balls is a difficult motor skill for the youngest players to develop. You want to introduce your grandsons to the idea of seeing the ball travel and then timing his swing to meet the ball as it approaches the plate. This is best done with a young player by tossing balls underhand from out in front of the plate.

Second, by tossing the ball to approximately the same location consistently, you allow the player to better time the pitch and to begin making contact. Making contact is the fun part of hitting and is what brings young players back for more, so you want to do all that you can to make sure that your grandsons experience some success.

Traditional soft-toss drills from the side tend to cause young players to jump away from the ball because it is coming toward the center of their bodies. The batting tee generally is used in game settings with players in this age group, but youngsters sometimes resort to dropping their hands and swinging up on the ball in hopes of elevating it. Young players who swing properly aren't going to hit the ball as far as kids who get elevation, which might cause them to develop bad habits in hopes of getting the ball into the air or hitting it farther.

I would recommend finding a bat that your grandsons are comfortable with and one that is not too big (even if it's a plastic bat), teaching them how to stand and hold the bat properly and then tossing balls to them from the front in an effort to help his mind and body adapt to tracking the moving object.

Consistent contact is the first goal. Once that is accomplished, it is OK to start tossing the balls to different locations to see how they adapt. As they get more adept at making contact with pitches in different locations, you can start working on refining the mechanics of their swings. No matter what you do, celebrate the successes and make sure that they are enjoying the experience.

Have a question or issue arising from your involvement in youth sports? Send it by e-mail to askripken@baltimoresun.com.

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