Using technology to create better hitters

The tees are all lined up one simulating a high and inside pitch, one over the middle of the plate and one simulating a low and outside pitch. The goal: hit each ball separately without making contact with the other two tees. The lesson: a level swing gives your bat the most time in the strike zone and generates the most power.

This drill is among several that Robin Jennings, a former Major League Baseball player who spent time with the Chicago Cubs in the late-’90s, teaches to Park City youth baseball players at The Turf (located by Jupiter Bowl at Kimball Junction.)

It’s all a matter of common sense, Jennings says. Which sounds more likely to produce a hit a swing designed to intercept the ball at a certain point in the strike zone, or a swing that spends as much time in the strike zone as possible, following the trajectory of the baseball?

"I need a swing that’s on plane with the baseball," Jennings said. "Sports science tells us that a Major League fastball has a two-and-a-half foot downward trajectory. I certainly don’t want to take a downward plane swing on a 95 mile-per-hour fastball going down. Now I want to get my barrel on plane and give myself almost a meter of contact zone."

His challenge as a hitting instructor is to make that level swing as natural as breathing. The comparison he likes to make is to skating in hockey. Hockey players, he says, don’t think about skating while they’re on the ice they’re thinking about where the puck is, making the right pass and putting themselves in the right positions.

Baseball players, he notes, can’t be thinking about the mechanics of their swings while staring down a fastball. They need to be determining speed and pitch location.

Thanks to the technology of high-speed cameras used break down swings, a player’s swing can be analyzed and practiced in batting cages until it becomes second nature. Now a person needs nothing more than an iPad or a cell phone camera to go in-depth into the mechanics of a swing.

"Technology has surpassed what was available to the experts back in the day," he said. "You have guys like Don Slaught, who was a hitting coach for the [Detroit] Tigers, who revolutionized the way people broke down the mechanics and the technique of hitting a baseball because they have 300-to-600-frames-a-second high-definition cameras now that weren’t available to Mike Schmidt and Rob Ellis and all the great hitting instructors of the ’70s and ’80s. They were still working off eight-frame-a-second photographs."

Now a lot of the guesswork has been taken out of hitting instruction, allowing coaches to focus on teaching what all the great hitters have been doing since the invention of baseball.

"I heard something once that I’ll try to paraphrase," Jennings said. "It was like, ‘Let’s stop trying to see how everybody’s so unique and let’s see what all the greatest hitters in the game are doing the same.’"

So that’s what Jennings does now.

But, as baseball continues to grow in Park City, thanks to recent improvements by the Park City High School squad, the Park City Avalanche teams and The Turf, Jennings is quick to note that winning games isn’t what matters most to him.

"My goal is not to go 29-2 with a 10-year-old traveling team," he said. "My goal is to teach them work ethic, self-confidence and the ability to worry about the process and to want to make adjustments and get better. "

After all, he notes, baseball is a cruel sport for those who are overly worried about their statistics.

"As you get older, there’s a ton of failure in baseball as a hitter," he said. "If I dwelled on every time I failed as a hitter in baseball, I’d be a miserable human being. You’ll see kids who’ll hit .600 in youth baseball and all of a sudden that becomes some kind of benchmark. It’s unrealistic. Baseball is one of the only sports that, as you become a world-class athlete, the success rate goes down.

"In high school, I hit .500. In college, I hit .400. If I could’ve hit .300 in professional baseball for more years than I did, I would have been an All-Star."

Jennings recently hosted a workout where he put several Park City youth coaches through the same drills he teaches their kids.

The purpose was threefold. One, the coaches expressed a desire to understand the drills Jennings was teaching to their kids. Two, it’s important for terminology to be somewhat consistent as players progress through different age levels. And three, it’s important to Jennings to make sure coaches aren’t teaching out-of-date philosophies.

"You don’t want to overanalyze an 8-year-old, but you also want to make sure that you’re not making the same mistakes that we all made 20 years ago because we were talking about something that wasn’t actually happening," he said.

Shortly after the impromptu clinic, Gregg Ratkovic, the head coach of the Skullcandy Crushers 12U team, was at The Turf working on the three-tee drill. Several hours before his players would arrive at the facility for practice, Ratkovic was making sure he could perform the drill so that he could properly teach it to his players. That kind of dedication, Jennings says, is all it takes to be a great teacher these days.

"You don’t have to be a tech wizard or a Major League Baseball player to be a great instructor," he said. "It’s simply that you have to want to remain a student of the game and still be willing to learn."


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