Last July we purchased a eHack machine and ball feeder from SportsAttack. The eHack is the top of the line HackAttack machine, mostly seen in top college programs and pro teams. Key features of this machine:
- Incredibly stable and consistent. Set it up once and it will throw strikes in a small diameter zone for hours.
- Precise digital control – change speeds, location, etc.. with simple electronic controls. No knobs.
- Can move from 95 mph fastball inside to a 87 mph slider away in 8 seconds, with up to 10 pitches in a pitch sequence. Can throw literally any pitch by controlling spin rate and direction.
- A ball feeder that holds 150 balls and visibly feeds a ball every 8 seconds down a 2 foot ramp.
Our hitters now see game velocity and movement a lot more frequently. The impact was directly measurable last fall. HS age hitters hit 50 points better with 80 points higher Slugging Percentage compared to the previous fall. Our goal is to continue this transition to challenge our hitters more frequently with more game like velocity and movement.
For this offseason, we built a new cage to house the eHack plus the new version of Hittrax. We want players taking around 25% of their swings at this station. So, at least 20 swing off eHack/Hittrax, with the same number off BP, front toss and tee drills in the regular cages. This is in addition to the Gamers bat speed program that is roughly 50 swings each practice. The goal is 150 monitored swings, 2x per week during practice. Non-pitchers get more swings than this. Two way players and catchers need to really work to get their 150 swings in.
We began the offseason hitting with the eHack at 35 mph from 35 feet. We have progressively worked back to 74 mph from 55 feet so far, and will end up at 85 mph at full distance in February (we are running a little ahead of plan right now!). We are also alternating the eHack between 2 feet from the right side and 2 feet from the left side to mimic pitcher release point and will add offspeed and breaking balls in February.
Every eHack swing for 90 high school age Gamer is being measured and recorded with Hittrax. This is now being expanded to an additional 100 middle school age Gamers. It’s been impressive to watch players continue to improve their metrics despite the increasingly challenging pitching from the eHack. Here is an video explanation of this using data from one of our impressive 2019 hitters:
There is no doubt that hitting off a pitching machine is different from hitting off of a live pitcher. There is a lot more information to pick up from a live pitcher compared to an inanimate machine with a ramp. That is why we have partnered with Axon Sports on pitch recognition for our HS players. You cannot see enough live pitching.
But once the ball is in the air, it does not matter whether it comes out of a machine or a pitchers hand. MLB hitters do not get their stride foot down until well after the ball leaves the pitchers hand.
A lot of players struggle to hit off the eHack and end up getting frustrated or worse skipping the hitting rotation in the eHack cage. This has increased as the velocity gets cranked up to more game like conditions.
Hitting versus game pitching is supposed to be hard!
After watching thousands of eHack swings since July, here is what I have concluded:
- 100% of players that hit well off the eHack also hit well against very good live pitching. Success off the eHack translates to success off high level game pitching.
- Some players that do not hit well off the eHack still hit well off good live pitching.
- There are a handful of swing issues that make hitting off the eHack difficult. These are the same issues that we often see in games versus live pitching.
What are those swing issues?
Rigid, inflexible timing and rhythm approach – everything that leads up to firing the swing is so choppy and timing in so rigid that the player has to be perfect to square a ball up. It’s the old 1 – 2 – 3 – swing approach. The start/stop swing doesn’t work with a ball moving 80+ mph. You cannot be perfect every time. You still need to hit the ball hard without being perfect.
Hands and/or bat start from a weak/stalled position when firing swing. This is related to the issue above. It is hard to get a barrel moving if it starts out stationary (physics term is inertia). Same thing with muscles, it’s easier to change directions or go from slow to fast that it is to go from a dead stop.
Barrel is not on plane with the ball on time, or long enough. A 80 mph pitch is moving 117 ft/sec and is in the hitting zone for 0.03 seconds. That is not much time! A BP pitch at 40 mph from 30 feet may have the same reaction time as a 80 mph pitch, but the ball is moving a lot slower — only 58 ft/sec and is in the hitting zone 2x longer. To succeed consistently against baseballs moving 110+ ft/sec you need to get the barrel in the zone on time and keep it in zone as along as possible.
All of the swing issues above are things players have been working on and need to continue to work on to improve. For example, the med ball drill is great for the first two issues above. The details are highly individualized and left to our hitting coaches to address with support from the Hittrax data and video, Rapsodo data and Diamond Kinetics swing data and Google Classroom assignments that are available to you.
But, it is not all swing mechanics! Here is the process that I see that leads to struggles hitting off the eHack at game velocity:
- A hitter misses a few pitches due to the higher velo (it is hard!)
- He then starts overswinging, becoming off-balance and disconnected. This leads to all three issues above. Rigid timing, locked up hands and late/short barrel path. Is this mental or physical? Who cares — it is real and we can see it.
- The more he fails, the harder he tries, making the problem worse.
- He extends the round by 5 swings because of failure, which makes it even worse. After the round, the player is frustrated and loses focuses, either blaming an inanimate machine, his bat or something else. Everything except for the process factors that where just explained above.
Sound familiar? It looks a lot like in-game hitting to me. It is a complicated maze of mental and physical factors as you continually process information, deal with failure and face another pitch or another at-bat.
What should the process look like instead?
- A hitter misses a few eHack pitches due to the higher velo.
- He takes a deep breath, clears his mind and does the hard take drill on the next pitch. Or maybe he grabs med ball for his front foot to help with timing and rhythm.
- Instead of speeding things up and cranking up effort, he does the opposite. He simplifies and slows things down.
- He does not extend a bad round with “one more”. He gets out after 8-10 pitches.
- After the round, he goes to to the open area beside the cage and uses the Swingaway station or dry drills to reinforce good swing patterns.
- He gets back in against the eHack with a clear head and takes another round
Maybe he checks out his Diamond Kinetics data to understand what is going on with eHack swings versus BP/Front toss swings. He checks to make sure that Barrel Speed, Approach Angle, Hand Cast and Time in Zone are the same (hint — they probably are not!). Then, he shares the information with Coach Cooper, Aboussie, Beckmann, Keeney, Schrimpf or Rosen.
We know this change in practice approach is hard. We are challenging you with game velocity and movement in practice on a regular basis. With the right mental approach, this can be a lot of fun and you are going to get a lot better. The mental aspect of this is a big deal. Over the past year we have talked a lot about GRIT and Heads Up Baseball 2.0. Those are great resources to start with if want to improve your mental process around this.
Is summary, failing off the eHack at game velocity and movement provides a unique opportunity for you to work on your mental game and get better as a hitter. OPPORTUNITY IS KNOCKING.