March 12, 2014
Southeast Missouri State hitting coach Dillon Lawson decided that he wanted to improve all of his batters’ pitch recognition skill during fall 2013 practices in order to achieve the team’s goal of disciplined at bats and improved run production.
“I couldn’t find anything really solid on coaching pitch recognition,” Lawson says.
“Just painting numbers or dots on balls, that sort of thing. But as I searched around, I kept coming across Dr. Fadde’s research. So I e-mailed him, and he was very enthusiastic about helping us train pitch recognition.”
Dr. Peter Fadde, a professor at Southern Illinois University, has researched pitch recognition for over 15 years and published numerous studies in sports science journals along with making presentations at the American Baseball Coaches’ Association and MIT Sloan Sports Analytics conferences.
Dr. Fadde also patented computer technology for testing and training pitch recognition that has been licensed for commercial development by Axon Sports.
“But the more I talk to coaches,” says Fadde, “The more it’s clear that we have to get pitch recognition training into the batting cage. So when coach Lawson described what he wanted to do, that sounded like just what’s needed.”
SEMO head coach Steve Bieser approved the project. “There’s nothing more important than seeing the ball,” says Bieser. “Right out of the pitcher’s hand. Reading fastball or breaking ball, making the swing adjustment, and not getting fooled.”
Lawson also received interest from pitching coach Lance Rhodes, whose pitchers would be needed for pitch recognition drills.
“It’s good for my guys, too,” says Rhodes. “The more feedback they get about what hitters see, the more they can work on their deception and delivery.”
The fall pitch recognition program had two goals. The first was to use sports science methods and second, to fit it into regular team practices without disrupting established routines or adding contact time.
Initially, Dr. Fadde tested batters’ pitch recognition skills by having players watch video clips of pitchers, from the batters’ view, that were cut to black shortly after the ball left the pitcher’s hand.
The method is used by sports scientists and called video-occlusion. Batters identified fastball, breaking ball or changeup.
“Testing the players does two things,” says Fadde.
“It gives us a baseline to see if they improve. It also lets players see the occlusion method as scientific, and that leads them to take pitch recognition drills more seriously later.”
Coach Lawson turned several traditional batting cage drills into pitch recognition drills. Instead of just hitting the ball off a tee, for instance, a coach or teammate stood behind a pitching screen and simulated throwing a fastball or curveball. The batter would call the pitch type out loud, visualize the trajectory of a fastball or curveball out of the pitcher’s hand to the tee location, and then put a good swing on the ball.
Two-ball side flip was adapted by having the batter hit the higher ball unless the coach or teammate flipping the baseballs called “change.” Then the batter had to adjust mid-swing to hit the lower ball. “Fastball/changeup at the bottom of the zone is something we have struggled with,” says Lawson.
“It’s not necessarily swing and miss but bad contact, rolling over the changeup. So I wanted to work on that specific recognition and swing adjustment.”
When the pitchers did bullpen work, the hitters joined them for a Stand-In Pitch Recognition drill where batters took their stance in the batter’s box but did not swing. Batters were asked to call out the type of pitch or ball/strike before the pitch hit the catcher’s mitt.
“Calling out the pitch before it hits the catcher’s mitt forces the batter to focus on the release point and pick up cues, like skinny wrist for breaking ball,” says Fadde.
“Players sometimes say, ‘we’ve been standing in for years.’ But they weren’t calling pitches right out of the pitcher’s hand. That makes this stand-in drill a version of the video-occlusion method.”
“It takes some coaxing to get guys calling out loud,” says Lawson. “We had to remind them, ‘Loud and early’ quite a bit at first.”
Pitching coach Lance Rhodes adds, “I wanted them calling it loud so my guys could hear. When batters are calling your changeup every time, that gets a pitcher’s attention.”
Lawson and Rhodes developed a rotation of pitchers and batters working from two bullpen mounds to incorporate the Stand-In drill into team practice sessions one or two times a week throughout fall practice.
After the drill was established, Lawson introduced a sawed off ghost bat.
“The hitters still needed to call out the pitch,” says Lawson, “But now they could also swing and get their timing. Putting together what you see and where it will be.”
In addition to on-field drills, batters used a prototype of the Axon Sports laptop computer program to practice recognizing pitches from three different video pitchers. The players came to the baseball office on their own time to work on pitch type, location, and zone hitting drills, earning higher levels like a video game.
“Some guys really took to the computer drills,” says Lawson. “The best part was being able to talk about reading the pitchers because I did all the computer drills, too. Like picking up that the lefty muscles up on his slider and fastball, compared to the changeup. That’s language we can use.”
Dr. Fadde plans to conduct more video tests to compare SEMO batters’ pitch recognition to players on other teams. The ultimate test, though, will be how well the team achieves the coaches’ offensive goals in the coming season.
“We already got some confirmation on our pro day,” says Lawson. “Several scouts commented to Coach Bieser and me that our hitters weren’t striking out much and didn’t seem to chase breaking balls out of the zone.”
For more information on pitch recognition research, see Dr. Fadde’s website www.peterfadde.com
For more on the SEMO project, e-mail Dr. Fadde at firstname.lastname@example.org or coach Dillon Lawson at email@example.com
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