Updated: Jun 16, 2020
Whether you like it or not your hitters will take more swings inside your cages than they ever will on the field. We all understand the importance of game like reps and how much we all enjoy hitting on the field more often than cages, whether player or coach. Many coaches are using the cages as an designated area to let the players have their own time it can be beneficial, but it can also be costly. I want to talk about cage culture in the team setting.
Every swing has a value, it is going to effect whether that player is taking a step forward or staying stagnant, or possibly making them worse. As coaches we can't just allow the players to go use the cages and swing aimlessly at front flipped balls from teammates or hit off the tee with no purpose. You need to make it clear the importance and value of each swing they take and what is necessary to produce those swings each time they look to attack a pitch. Personally I do not believe in "warm-up" rounds. I cannot stand seeing a hitter walk into the cage and take 4-6 lack luster swings with no purpose than just "to get loose". I make my players understand each swing we take we are training our bodies to move that way. Then ask them, do you want to train your body to move slowly? Do you just want to be able to get loose throughout the game? Of course there are rebuttals to justify why they do that and it may be "part of their routine". However, that is what the active warm-ups are for, that is where we get loose. If a player steps into the cage after the active warm-up and takes a swing to get loose, I will always send him back to the warm-up area to get hot. We only get so many swings each day and I don't want to waste them on getting loose. Speaking of the active warm-up, that's a huge factor into this. We need to make sure our hitters have a pretty good sweat and the heart rate is up. Get them moving in all different directions and prepare them to move efficiently. I like to think of it as a mini workout.
If there aren't coming back with a sweat, then we aren't quite preparing them to partake in high intent swings to do damage in the cages. Now to go over some of the different tactics to train in the cage. Definitely keeping the constraints led approach in mind.
I will start by saying that if a player is adamant about using the tee, I'm not going to prevent him from using it. I prefer they use the tee when they are in a solo session with themselves or one on one with a coach. Tee work won't kill him. However in my personal belief, I have gotten away from wanting to use tee work as often as I used to. I simply do not see the value in using a tee as often. We can "warm up" with more effective front toss drills. I don't think time allows us to get the most out of an half hour session with 4 guys. We are working with athletes that should be or want to be at the highest level, we shouldn't need the training wheels anymore. Unless you are working with younger athletes or less experienced, I just do not see the point. Our hitters will be facing velocities from 65-100mph with deception in deliveries, the tee work isn't helping us track pitches and develop timing. I have heard hitters tell me they like to use it to work on things and slow the swing down, but I would rather them take dry swings with a mirror and video on the dry swing and fully focus on the movement. Then move into an easy overhand BP, again with video to see how the swings are matching up. Rather than incorporate a ball on a tee and not always have a moving ball they are working with, I want my hitters to be able to track a pitch as often as possible. Keep one focus, that is the beauty of practice, we don't need to take all factors into account if we are wanting to develop a part of a hitters swing. Then we can progress to the next stage of development for any individual hitter.
This goes along with tee work for me, and I am not completely against front toss. But why would we prepare to hit a under handed toss pitch from an angle we never really see as hitters. Let alone the pace of the pitch? We should at least be mixing the speeds and shapes of the front toss, OR working through low variability drills. There are progression methods to be had when looking to feel a movement, but I don't want that player to be working off front toss just to take swings. As soon as he has it, move on to normal arm BP. We are basically using the same development methods a mother in the backyard is using with her 3 year old. Then you wanna step into the box for the game and hit an 78-83 mph slider? Good luck. Again this is something where you need to gauge the level of your athlete but whether high school, college or professional level I am confident they are able to hit the under hand front toss with ease, and I do not believe it is going to translate to the game environment well if you are simply taking mindless reps. Don't get me wrong, even a big leaguer will hit off front toss, but in order to have some growth, work through some movements, and set tasks/goals. I prefer to limit the amount of front toss work in team setting for the cages. It must be through movement exploration with the swing.
Seated Overhand Toss:
This is a great linear progression when working through movements. Again, if it is simply just to take swings without an external goal or focus, where are you improving? There needs to be a goal, or constraints being used to promote learning.
Short Distance Batting Practice (Coach Pitch): 35-50 ft.
I can't stress enough how important it is to be able to go through an actual delivery to simulate a pitcher. This is valuable for the hitter to develop timing and try to pick up the window the pitch is coming out of. Again, mix speeds, locations, arm angles, anything you can do to make it different and not the same pitch every time. Where you have the luxury of wider cages, it's great to have slightly angled BP and challenge the hitters pitch tracking abilities and swing plane.
Longer Distance Batting Practice (Coach Pitch): 50-60 ft.
Hey if you can get on the mound even better for the hitters, the challenge would be to keep the velo up to a high enough level to match game like velocity. Same constraints apply here from short distance BP.
Hack Attack (Velo Machine) Batting Practice:
Always creates a challenging environment to see how hitters will compete when presented with a difficult task. The goal here is not to lose intent, don't sacrifice bat speed for simple contact. Chances are that simple contact will be weak contact anyway. We want to develop consistent hard contact, that won't happen by swinging slower. Personally love using multiple hack attacks in a variety of ways.
Most importantly in my opinion, we must monitor swings and keep conversation going in the cages. Go through game situations, go through full at bats, go through particular counts. see how your hitters are thinking, literally ask what they were thinking after some swings, can't tell you how many times hitters don't even have an answer to that question. Ask for an external focus from the hitter, what is there goal with the swings they are about to take? Create competitions with the small group, start bringing more intensity that just having normal get loose rounds or home run derby in the cages. The biggest thing is creating conversation and picking your hitters brains, see what they think if it were a game situation. You won't be able to do that in games and creating these flows of discussion better helps you understand what your hitter thinks in the box, what type of hitter they think they are, what pitches the generally hunt and if they ever make any adjustments on their own. This will be of tremendous help to you once you see your hitter struggling in game and this way you will probably have your finger on the pulse already. You will be ready to remedy the struggle.