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Short to the Ball

One phrase that you hear constantly when it comes to hitting, and in the worlds of both baseball and fast pitch softball, is "short to the ball."

While that phrase is certainly true and helpful at a high level, the problem is that the "short to the ball" swing that is commonly taught tends to create as many -- if not more -- problems than it solves.

Definition

So what does "short to the ball" mean?

This quote by Dave Hudgens, that I also reference in my piece on David Hugens and hitting mechanics, is representative of the mainstream view of what it means to be short to the ball.

During the swing, the back elbow should come close to the rib cage and the barrel of the bat should stay above the hands. With a high back elbow, the elbow has to travel a much greater distance and at a much faster rate of speed. When this happens, the barrel of the bat will drop below the hands, the front elbow will rise, and you will have a long swing. If this goes on for very long, you have created a habit - a very bad habit.

What Hudgens says is completely consistent with Tony Gwynn's Hitting 101 video.

The Good

There are a number of ways that the concept of being short to the ball can help a hitter.

Hands Inside the Ball

One of the main phrases that you will hear in terms of being short to the ball is, "keep the hands inside the ball." The general idea is to keep from barring out the front arm and casting or sweeping the barrel around to he point of contact.

Applied correctly, that can increase the rate at which a hitter will be able to get the barrel around to the ball.

Power V

However, one of the problems that I have with teaching the concept of teaching extension at the point of contact is that it can very easily lead to casting.

Keep the Barrel Up

Many hitters with long swings actually have a problem with Bat Drag, a problem that typically affects kids but that you can see in the swing of major leaguer Mark Reynolds.

You can find any number of swing analyses on YouTube that describe the difference between a short swing and a long swing. In truth, these analyses are actually discussing the problem of Bat Drag.

One of the cues that is used to help (try to) create a short swing is to keep the barrel up. While that cue can create problems, especially when reinforced with certain drills, in moderation this cue can help a player develop the high-level swing by reducing a problem with Bat Drag.

The Not So Good

Unfortunately, while some ways of teaching being short to the ball will help hitters, the truth is that the best hitters aren't as short to the ball as is widely believed or taught. As a result, many well-intentioned fixes will tend to take hitters farther away from, rather than closer to, the high-level swing.

Hands Directly to the Baseball and Hitches

According to Don Mattingly, one of the characteristics of a swing that is short to the ball is that the hands go directly to the baseball. However, and as I discuss at greater length in my piece do as they did, not as they say, a problem quickly crops up if you compare Mattingly's actual swing to the swing that he now teaches.

Don Mattingly

While Don Mattingly may feel like he takes his hands directly to the baseball, in truth he loads his hands just before he launches his swing.

In many cases such loading movements are referred to as a hitch, particularly if they are relatively significant. However, this ignores that fact that you can see hitches in the swings of many of the best hitters. 

George Brett

You can see a small, Mattingly-esque hitch in the swing of George Brett.

Albert Pujols
Albert Pujols

Albert Pujols has a slightly larger hitch in his swing. 

Barry Bonds
Barry Bonds

Barry Bonds, one of the greatest power hitters of all time (regardless of the steroid thing) had a very large hitch.

I'm not saying that a hitch is never a problem. Of course, it can be. What I am saying is that too often, in a well-intentioned attempt to simpify the swing, you can over-simplify it and remove the thing that makes it effective (much less powerful).

Chicken Wings, Loops, and Uppercuts

While I absolutely loved watching Tony Gwynn hit, his hitting instruction tends to make me cringe. The biggest problem is that he coaches people out of doing what he himself did.

To Tony Gwynn, one of the biggest flaws that lengthens the swing is when the front elbow rises up, causing the barrel to drop and loop around the hands. The problem is that you can see Tony Gwynn do just this in the clip below.

Tony Gwynn

As I discuss at length in my piece on keeping the barrel above the ball and the hands, that may work for some as a cue, but it doesn't reflect reality.

Bat Path Perception vs. Reality

Bat Path
Perception vs. Reality

While the hitter's preception may be that they are taking the hands and the barrel directly to the ball, the reality is quite different.

Again, that isn't necessarily a problem when used as a cue, and it can often be helpful, but problems arise when those cues are reinforced with drills.

Joe Mather

Given that the product of this drill is a ground ball, why would anybody expect the result of this swing to be something different in a game situation?

In Sum

At the end of the day, too often the phrase "short to the ball" is simply used to describe hitters who can hit. Similarly, the phrase "long swing" is used to decribe hitters who can't hit. While in some cases hitters can hit because they do the things that people mean why they use the term "short to the ball," in many more cases hitters can hit despite not being short to the ball, at least as it's defined. That should lead us to take a closer look at what we mean when we use phrases like "short to the ball" and "long swing."

For More Information

I have put together a number of essays that discuss ideas related to the topic of being short to the ball...

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