There’s a bit of a controversy that’s been brewing within the circles of those who teach hitting for a living, and it involves one of the most time-honored traditions of baseball — the batting tee. A growing number of well-respected coaches and teachers are bucking the belief that tee work is an essential part of developing the “muscle memory” required to learn the “perfect swing.” They’re actually going a bit further than that, saying that practicing your swing off a tee actually HURTS your development as a player. Should we scrap tee work? If we do, what replaces it? And why do these “tee-haters” believe what they do? Let’s take a look…
First, what’s the controversy? Well, the argument really boils down to swing path. Now, let me say that I am NOT a hitting instructor…professional or otherwise. My son learned to hit off a tee, as I suspect most kids did. But he quickly transitioned from a tee to having the ball tossed to him underhand, then overhand, then seeing a pitching machine, then kids throwing with varying degrees of velocity or movement. So kind of what you’d expect.
First, just learn how to swing a bat. Then learn how to hit a ball, albeit one that’s sitting still, then hit a moving target, then a moving target where someone is actually trying to make you miss. Natural progression, right?
I read a while back, when I was first teaching my son how to hit, that young kids actually have an easier time hitting a ball that’s tossed with a bit more pace than you might expect. It seemed counterintuitive, but these studies showed that, for whatever reason, kids have an easier time tracking objects that are thrown harder, rather than simply weakly tossed up there. I found it kind of interesting, if nothing else, but didn’t really pay all that much attention. (It DID give me the confidence to go ahead and stop babying him with “meatballs,” but it didn’t radically change my view of hitting or anything.)
And then I started to learn about…
Coaches Who Can’t Stand Hitting Tees
I first came across the tee-hating school when I started watching Paul Reddick’s videos. And this was pretty recently. Reddick, who I highly recommend by the way, comes from the school that anything that doesn’t mimic what a player sees in a game is really less than of no use — it’s actually harmful.
A lot of this is based on watching video of what players do on the tee versus what they do in a game situation. Admittedly, if you watch videos of pros side by side, their swings in a game look almost nothing like their swings off a tee.
The contention of Reddick and others is that players modify their mechanics on a tee in a way that changes their stance, approach, weight shift, swing plane…basically everything…which doesn’t teach the most important part of hitting. So what is the most important part of being a good hitter?
As Ted Williams put it, getting a “good pitch to hit.” Reddick goes so far as to say that we shouldn’t be teaching “hitting,” we should be teaching “BATTING.” A lot more goes into being a good BATTER as opposed to being a good HITTER. And this argument does kind of make sense.
Getting a Good Pitch to Hit
If you’ve watched any amount of Major League Baseball, you know that every hitter has a location, or locations, where they absolutely crush the ball, and locations where they struggle. The art of hitting, or batting, is reading all the cues you get about where a ball is going to wind up in the zone from what happens even before the pitcher releases the ball.
You see, hitters (let’s just stick with using that term) process all kinds of information — from arm angle to release point to the rotation of the ball once it leaves the pitcher’s hand — to help them “guess” where a pitch is going to wind up.
In fact, MOST of what hitters do hinges on the 70% or so of what they see before they ever start their swing.
So, the theory goes, why are we ignoring the most important part of the hitting process — the part where the batter is making crucial decisions about whether or not he’s about to get a good pitch to hit?
Kind of makes sense when you think about it. So Reddick, and others, eschew the batting tee for other types of practice that allow hitters to build up that mental library of cues that help them make smarter decisions. And that ONLY comes from seeing live pitching.
We’ll cover some of those at a later date, but let’s just say that I’m slowly moving to the side that’s a bit dubious when it comes to putting so much emphasis on tee work. Again, I’m far from being an expert on the subject, but what Reddick and others say makes sense to me.
How to “Load Like Goldschmidt”
When it comes to the swing itself, there are any number of drills or techniques you can call upon to craft that sweet swing. Below are two videos that use Major Leaguer and All-Star Paul Goldschmidt as the proverbial guinea pig. Why did I choose these for this post? Because, as you’ll see, the issue of why there’s such a stark contrast between what a player does in a game against live pitching versus what he does off a tee is addressed.
Although this video kind of defends tee work, a lot of what he says, I think, makes sense when you view from the perspective of NOT using a tee. You’ll see what I mean when you watch it. The second video focuses on “load” — or how to properly prepare your body mechanics to truly drive a baseball.
I found these both informative and interesting, and also good food for thought for the whole tee versus no-tee debate. What do you think?