to the ball.
It's one of the most frequently-uttered phrases in baseball
and fast-pitch softball.
But what does it mean?
That's an important question, given that being short to the
ball is one of the keys -- if not THE key -- to the high-level
swing. And that question is becoming even more important due to
the proliferation of tools -- or, in my opinion, carnival
attractions or toys -- like HitTrax.
The problem is HitTrax doesn't measure Swing Length.
What's worse, the things HitTrax DOES measure are best, most
easily, and most quickly produced by NOT being short to the
But by lengthening the swing.
As a result I see more and more of what I call "HitTrax
swings;" swings that look great in a cage -- that produce LOTS
of towering cage bombs -- but don't work in games.
That's why, in 2016 when I had access to a HitTrax machine
with the HSSU hitters, I NEVER used it.
Instead I focused on whether my hitters were short to the
ball and let power take care of itself.
Short to the Ball
The biggest mistakes people make when they think, talk, and
about being "short to the ball" are...
- Not understanding what a good swing looks like,
- Thinking in terms of DISTANCE when they should be
thinking more about TIME.
- Thinking in terms of VELOCITY when they should be
thinking more about ACCELERATION.
Although, typically, many don't even get the distance part right.
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.
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.
However, one of the problems that I have with teaching the
concept of teaching
the point of contact is that it can very easily lead to
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
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
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.
You can see a small, Mattingly-esque hitch in the swing of
Albert Pujols has a slightly larger hitch in his swing.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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...