|How to Get the Most Benefit from Live BP Sessions
by John Cohen - Head Baseball Coach for Mississippi State University
The actual hitting part of live BP ranks a distant 3rd in terms of importance to us at Mississippi State. That sounds a little crazy, but that's our opinion. In terms of offense, many coaches believe that it starts and ends with live BP. It's our belief that the focus of live BP should be in two other areas. BP offers the opportunity for live defensive reacts, and live game-like base running. The act of hitting in batting practice is a far distant 3rd in terms of priority, because it is un-game-like. During BP, the defensive reacts are live, there's very little difference between what you're getting in BP versus what you get live off of the bat in a game. It's the same with base running – the tempo is a little bit different, but it gives you your best opportunity to react from a base running standpoint.
BP swings are from a shortened distance, with less velocity and movement. You will rarely see a BP pitcher throw full speed breaking balls. So, in that respect, BP is highly overrated from an offensive standpoint. From a defensive and base running standpoint, I think it's outstanding.
I've always been a big believer that the drill does the teaching. One of the things that we do is limit the number of swings taken off of a BP pitcher. What we do in virtually every BP session is set up a pitching machine to deliver very good breaking balls. It is important that our players have to pick up the spin of some kind of breaking ball in every BP session, because that's what we are going to see in a game.
I also believe in the "homework principle." That is, the player should spend as much time practicing on his own as he does practicing with the team. So if we have a two or three hour practice, the player should spend at least an hour working alone. That's usually tee work, or it can be off a machine or with a buddy. A player's focus is so much greater when he is working on his own. My coaching staff and I can always tell when one of our players have been logging significant "alone" practice time.
Similarities among Golf, Football, and Baseball
I believe that golf and baseball have their similarities. Standing on a tee box on a golf course and standing in a batter's box in a competitive situation both require a crafted swing which is the result of thousands of hours of individual work. The golfer who has not put the individual time into developing the necessary skills with his driver or 3-wood is the same as the hitter who has not worked by himself on his swing. The difference between baseball and golf is interaction. There's not much interaction in golf. In other words, I'm not throwing the golf ball to the golfer. I'm not trying to deceive or fool the golfer.
I've always believed that baseball is like a combination of golf and football. It is both gentile and physically brutal. A baseball player can get run over or struck in baseball just like on a football field. While at the same time, like golf, it's all about your swing and not letting anything affect your plan at the plate. What can affect your swing in the batter's box during a game? Is it the pitcher? Is it the people in the stands? Is it the fact that you haven't worked enough on your craft? All of those things really come to fruition in that one moment in the batter's box. I always ask my pitchers and my hitters, "are you the puppet or the puppeteer?" For a pitcher, it's all about "what can I do to affect your swing, or what can I do to affect your delivery as a hitter?" It's amazing, because the best hitters in baseball always affect pitchers and the best pitchers always affect the hitters. You can turn on the TV and see someone like Albert Pujols with a 2-1 or a 3-1 advantage count all the time, and that's because he is affecting the guy on the mound. His very presence influences the location of pitches.
Make Your Hitters Uncomfortable in Practice
A hitter's discomfort is caused by many factors. A pitcher's fast ball movement, velocity, deception, breaking pitches and change of speed seem to be the major culprits. Because these factors of discomfort show up with regularity in a baseball game, we must put ourselves in these uncomfortable situations in practice. It's amazing to me when I hear a player say, "Coach, that drill makes me uncomfortable." My answer is "How are you going to feel when there are 8,000 people in the stands and the pitcher is throwing you an 87 mph slider?" It takes time and an individual willingness to be uncomfortable during practice so that we may feel comfortable in a future game.
By the time we get an 18- or 19-year-old at this level, preparing them for what he is going to see in the SEC in a short amount of time is very difficult. That's why, for the most part, older players are the ones who have the most success. There is only one way to speed up this process, and that is for the player to spend a lot of time working on his own.
In basketball you hear the expression "gym rat" all the time. The "gym rat" can certainly work on free throws and jump shots, but inevitably what he is doing is recreating game scenarios. He can do this alone. Baseball doesn't work that way – it's very difficult to recreate a live at-bat scenarios on your own, but not impossible. The individual has to re-create the game situations in their mind. Generally speaking the 21-year-old player is going to be better at doing that than the 18-year-old player. The younger player, coming out of High School, has been able to rely on the fact that he is just more gifted than most everyone around him. That's the difference between the professional and the college level player as well – the 28-year-old has a greater capacity to focus and has seen more and created more game-like scenarios than even the 18- or 21-year-old.
Work on Strengths AND Weaknesses
I'm also a believer in working on your strengths AND your weaknesses. I see so many hitters tee up belt high pitches and hit them in the middle of the field, over and over again. I think this is great, except that nobody struggles with belt high pitches in a game. And, unfortunately, we can't convince pitchers to throw those pitches in a game. Hitters tend to gravitate toward what's pleasant instead of what's difficult.
The other challenge is that hitting alone does not create runs. Good offense is a series of events that accompany good productive swings. HBPs, BBs, errors through pressuring the defense all contribute to big offensive innings. Running your best time to 1st base; holding your ground in the box; dominating the strike zone all contribute, along with the solid physical swing, to run production. It's not always just about the swing. Many young hitters think "I've got three strikes so I'm going to take three great swings." Well, if you're swinging at a pitch out of the zone, you're just creating momentum for the other side. In other words, taking that marginal pitch that's a ball is every bit as much of a victory as taking that great swing and fouling it off. One of our coaching thoughts is that everybody is different. There are some hitters who will never be comfortable with a two strike approach. So as a coach, you have to try to get that hitter into early contact situations. Some hitters are better once they get 4 or 5 pitches into an at bat. So we have to figure out a plan for this hitter also.
Every hitter is different, and every hitter needs a different set of drills. That's why I named my latest DVD "Prescription Hitting Drills". It allows us to prescribe various scenarios for our hitters to master on their own, so that those uncomfortable game situations become more comfortable over time.
About the Author...
John Cohen is the Head Baseball Coach for Mississippi State University. Prior to MSU, Cohen was at University of Kentucky (Head Coach), the University of Florida (Assistant), Northwestern State University of Louisiana (Head Coach), and at the University of Missouri (Assistant). You can find his various training DVDs at his website, www.johncohenbaseball.com. When you sign up for his newsletter at the website, you can get access to several recent clinic presentations.