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Fastpitch Hitting – Swing Like "the Best in the World"
Many people who follow fastpitch softball consider Jessica Mendoza to be the best all-around player, and best overall hitter in the world over the past several years.
Mendoza can do it all at the plate. She is a great bunter, a very effective slap hitter, and hits away for a very high batting average and with terrific power. In fact, baseball fans can compare Mendoza side-by-side with most any major league baseball hall-of-famer, and see that they swing the way she does.
Although Mendoza isn’t the first fastpitch player to adopt a Rotational swing, she does it at least as well as anyone who’s ever played. More and more fastpitch players are turning to her method of hitting. Increasingly, Division 1 college coaches are converting their players to Rotational hitting (for example, Mike Candera, Head Coach at the University of Arizona, whose teams have won 6 College World Series National Championships, is teaching a peculiar variation of Rotational hitting).
While softball players can continue to have success using the Linear method of hitting, there are reasons for the shift to Rotational.
A Very Short History
Many in the fastpitch community are under the impression that Rotational is relatively new, and that Linear hitting has always been the norm. Actually, Rotational hitting was introduced to Major League Baseball by Shoeless Joe Jackson in the early 20th century, and after Babe Ruth copied Jackson’s method, it became the swing of about 95% of Major Leaguers until the introduction of synthetic turf on many Major League fields from the 1960’s to the 1990’s.
Those early synthetic turf fields were nearly as hard as concrete. Major League batting coaches quickly realized that ground balls hit on it moved so fast, that many balls that were routine ground outs on natural fields were hits on ‘turf. Many that would have been outfield singles bounced so hard they became doubles or even triples. So many began to teach Linear hitting to their weaker hitters. And in many cases it worked.
(Most of the Big Leaguers who hit over.300 in those years, and nearly all the RBI and Home Run leaders, continued to be Rotational hitters. As synthetic turf disappeared from the Major Leagues, so did Linear hitting. There are very few nowadays, and although many still use Linear terms to describe their swing, they actually use Rotational swings.)
The increasing use of Linear hitting in MLB coincided with the introduction of lightweight aluminum and composite bats. These bats were not only much lighter than wood — and so could be swung much faster — they also had more “pop.” The ball came off the bat harder and faster, so grounders hit with metal or composite bats got past infielders more often than with the old wood bats.
While MLB rejected Non-wood bats, they were quickly adopted by youth baseball leagues, middle and high schools, and the NCAA. Along with the bats, coaches at all these levels began to teach Linear hitting. Boys and young men who might have struggled with heavy wood bats became good or even above average hitters by using aluminum/composite bats and Linear hitting.
During all this, fastpitch softball experienced a rebirth as a game for women and girls. Fastpitch softball was originally played with wood bats, and Rotational hitting was the dominant method for both women and men playing the game. In fact, relatively few women played fastpitch until the 1970’s.
As young ladies took up the game, they used aluminum and composite bats, for the same reason their male counterparts were. Most of their coaches were men — dads — who were enthusiastically embracing the cutting-edge Linear hitting movement. So most ladies learned Linear hitting, which tends to create more grounders as we’ll see.
Linear Versus Rotational
So what’s the difference between Linear and Rotational hitting? Andy Collins has a pretty good definition of Linear hitting: “Linear hitting is a hitting style that has been used for many years in fast pitch softball and by many little league coaches, some high school, college, and even minor league baseball coaches who still prefer this method of hitting instruction.
“It is used to achieve solid contact hitting, producing… sharply hit ground balls which are designed to shoot through the drawn-in infielders on the hard dirt surfaces of softball (and astroturf surfaces in baseball). It is especially useful in slap hitting (fast runners who hit it on the ground and beat it out to first base).
“Baseball players who use this style, do so especially when they use the ultra light aluminum bats and… if they play on artificial surfaces.”
A Linear hitter will normally hit ground balls. Most Linear coaches teach “hit the top half of the ball,” and “swing down,” which naturally produces grounders. They also teach “lead with the hands” or “take the knob (or hands) to the ball,” and to set up with most of your weight on the back foot and then shift your weight to the front foot as you swing. All of these work together to lengthen the swing (producing slower bat speed and therefore less power) and cause a lot of ground balls.
Since softball infields are clay (a hard surface), and the bases are relatively close together — and so the infielders are close to the batter and have less time to react to the ball to field it — if you hit a ground ball hard enough, you will get on base. So Linear hitters can be very successful.
Linear hitting works really well when playing against younger or less accomplished fielders and pitchers. But as the defense gets better, whether it’s because the ladies at the level you’ve been at are more mature physically and more experienced fielding balls, or if it’s because you’re moving up from the Silver division to the Gold, fewer and fewer ground balls get through for hits.
And as the pitching gets faster, Linear hitters often struggle to get the bat around quickly enough, hitting more and more weak grounders to the opposite side. If you get a chance to watch Division 1 college softball games, you’ll really see this happening. The lightweight bats allowed in softball go a long way in addressing the problem of slow batspeed. However, when you get to the very top level of competition at a given age, Linear hitters often struggle.
Also, if you are doing a correct Linear swing and happen to hit the middle or lower half of the ball, you will create backspin on the ball – which will usually result in a pop up or a very slow grounder. Slap hitting, a variation of Linear, can help overcome these problems. An accomplished Slapper can place the ball very accurately, and so, “hit ’em where they ain’t,” as baseball legend Wee Willie Keeler said 120 years ago (Willie was a Linear hitter, like all ballplayers of his time).
Rotational hitting emphasizes even weight balance, leading with the hips, using the legs, hips and torso muscles to produce a short, compact swing, and hitting the center of the ball. These combine to create more bat speed than Linear hitting can, and because the intention is to hit the middle of the ball, it produces many more line drives. No one swings perfectly every single time, so of course, there will be ground balls and pop ups, just as with Linear, but overall, there is more power, and many more balls hit in the air to the outfield. And, because the swing is faster, ground balls are normally hit harder than with Linear — and so are more likely to get past the infielders for hits.
Perhaps the biggest problem with Rotational hitting is that many people who have very little understanding of it try, with the best of intentions, to teach it. They often combine bits of Linear with a partial understanding of Rotational, with horrible results. Some have grasped portions of the Rotational, and teach what they know. Their results are very uneven. Some hitters do fairly well with this partial swing, most do no better than with Linear, and some don’t have any success.
Mike Epstein, former MLB baseball player, and the person credited with coining the phrase “Rotational Hitting,” ask the question, “Do we coach what we REALLY see?” Very few coaches take the time to do the frame-by-frame video analysis of great softball and baseball hitters to see all of the components of a productive Rotational swing. (Epstein’s hitting course is one of the better ones available. Thousands of players have benefitted from his instruction.)
What a Rotational Swing Looks Like
The photos at batting.wordpress.com in the Nov. 5 post, “The Best Hitter on the Planet?” show how the key components of Jessica Mendoza’s swing work together to make her such a great hitter. A true Rotational hitter. You may see that it’s very different from what most local coaches teach, even those who call their style of hitting “Rotational.” (In her 5-minute video lessons on YouTube, even Mendoza teaches something very different from the way she actually hits! It seems to me that her using Linear hitting phrases — “shift your weight,” and “take your hands to the ball” — can be confusing to most players, because Mendoza doesn’t do these things in a Linear way at all, as you can see in the photos.)
Mendoza keeps her hands back and high as she begins her swing. As she takes a very small step, her entire body moves slightly toward the pitcher (the “weight shift”), but her weight is balanced equally on both feet. Her hips begin to rotate as she brings her back hand down slightly. Her front foot pivots. Keeping her elbows close to her body, the hip rotation brings her bat around at very high speed. Her wrists remain in the same position as at the beginning of the swing.
Her back shoulder moves lower (how much lower depends on the pitch — if it had been high in the strike zone, the back shoulder would have lowered less, but still would have “dipped”). At contact, both elbows are in an “L” position, head directly on the ball. At the moment of contact, the front knee is straight, the back knee in almost an “L” position. The bat extends straight from her lead arm, looking as if it is part of her arm.
The elbows remain in the “L” until well into her follow-through. Her back hand remains on the bat until the swing is 98% finished.
That’s how the best fastpitch hitter in the game does it. And the ball is on a powerful line drive trajectory. If you can get a look at Crystl Busto, the most powerful fastpitch hitter who every played, you’ll see that her swing is the same. If you can find video of Stacey Nuveman from 2004-2007, you’ll see the same swing. If you look at the Texas A&M team, nearly everyone has the same swing as Jessica Mendoza.
Is One Better Than the Other?
In the fastpitch softball community, the discussion over the two styles is often very heated, and passions frequently run high. Often people are so emotional about their chosen method that they cannot see that both have a place. But look at the 2006-2009 USA National Softball teams. The ladies who made up the team were deemed to be the best players in the US at the time. Both methods of hitting were represented on the team, and they won 3 World Championships and a Silver Medal in the Olympics. Clearly there is room for both Linear and Rotational hitting.
What to Look for in a Coach
In general, everyone who teaches Linear hitting teaches the same principles and the same swing. While each coach will have their own way of teaching it, there is a great uniformity in Linear instruction. A player will get the same advice and tweaking of her swing, but perhaps with different words used from coach to coach.
Unfortunately, while Rotational hitting is fairly simple and straightforward, many coaches haven’t really learned the components of the swing. Simply latching onto key words and phrases, they teach what sounds like Rotational hitting to them and the player. Of course, this doesn’t produce a sound swing, and causes many to abandon and reject Rotational hitting. Those who have learned Mike Epstein’s system can teach a pretty effective swing. Jack Mankin has taught many coaches how to teach the swing used by Mendoza and nearly every Major League Baseball Hall of Fame member.
Even worse than those who teach Rotational hitting without understanding it, are those who try to combine the two methods. This simply doesn’t work, except for a very few extremely gifted athletes whose hand-eye coordination is so superior they can overcome this disastrous combination swing. Avoid this swing at all costs!
Use the photos at batting.wordpress.com and the description above of Mendoza’s swing to guide you in finding a Rotational hitting coach. These are the fundamental elements of the swing, and each is crucial. Ask the coach to describe the components they teach. If it sounds very different, move on to someone else. If it sounds similar, ask more questions. Be sure they are teaching what you see in these photos. This particular swing is about as perfect a Rotational swing as humanly possible.
In the End, It’s a Choice You Have to Make
As we said, there is a place for both Linear and Rotational hitting in fastpitch softball. However, as they move up in skill levels, Linear hitters will find it increasingly difficult to achieve the greatest possible success at the plate.
The best hitter in fastpitch, Jessica Mendoza, is a Rotational hitter. So are Crystl Busto, Stacey Nuveman, and many of the best players in the US. More and more top Division 1 college softball coaches are adopting Rotational hitting for their teams.
The method has been around for nearly a hundred years and is proven to be very effective. If you’re serious about taking your game as far as you can, if you dream of playing college softball or even playing for your national team (and why NOT dream that?), you should look into Rotational hitting. But try to be sure you find a coach who really understands this simple method and knows how to teach it.
Whatever you choose, keep practicing, especially in the off-season, keep working hard at getting better, but also take some breaks from the game! Don’t get burned out on the game you love!!
©2009 Joseph M. White
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