The Five O’clock Hitter Label no one should want
One of my friends and fellow coaches asked me this the other day, “Jack, what’s the five o’clock hitter?” He was making a point to his student and wanted me to explain the player who knocks the cover off the ball in batting practice but rarely does in games. I added that there were a lot of the five o’clock hitter sorts around. Perhaps nowhere in sports is the difference between practice and game play so pronounced as with hitting a baseball. It is tough to simulate game action when it comes to hitting a baseball. Good coaching can minimize that difference.
One of my goals while playing in the major leagues was one that I am not proud of admitting to my baseball students. My goal was to, one day, be able to say that I hit a home run in every major league park. Before I sound crazy, because I hit only two major league home runs in my major league career, let me explain. During batting practice, I would try to “Jack” one out of the park, which is terrible advice for batting practice, especially for young hitters who should be working on hitting mechanics.
Having become a hitting instructor after my playing days, I always preach to young players to work on their fundamentals at this time and not just try to hit home runs. The practice of hitting the ball as far as you can leads to over-swinging and to a lack of focus on timing, which is crucial for game hitting. Both over-swinging and bad timing lead to hitting fundamental breakdowns and prolonged hitting slumps.
Concentrating on other things like rhythm, seeing the ball, bat control, balance and hitting the ball where pitched leads to the best use of batting practice. I tell my hitting students that maybe, on their last few swings, they can try to blast a couple out of the park. After all, confidence grows after hitting a home run. In case you were wondering, I never did reach that ill-advised goal. Parks were much bigger back then – at least, that is my story and I am sticking to it.
In all seriousness, though, one of the most repeated comments I hear from parents of ball players is that “My son/daughter kills the ball in practice, but never in games.” Obviously, that is one of the most perplexing situations in baseball for parents, players, and coaches. The phenomenon creates much frustration and many sleepless nights for all.
The two major reasons hitters hit in practice but not in games.
- The swing fundamentals are not as good as they look. Any fundamental hitting flaw shows up when facing more challenging game pitching. It may appear to the untrained eye that hitters have great swings but in reality, their swings have fundamental flaws.
I tell people that if I had the choice between good fundamentals or confidence, I would choose the first option. Ripping the ball in batting practice leads to more confidence, but, it is still batting practice and without the correct fundamentals, successful game hitting is rare. There were many instances in my career when I had confidence-building batting practices, only to struggle during games. The opposite happened too when I had terrible batting practice and good games. Maybe the bad batting practice led to the solid game hitting because of greater attention to the fundamentals and not over swinging.
- Batting practice hitters do not get the same challenges as they do in games. Coaches have good intentions in batting practice of building the hitter’s confidence. They do that by laying the ball in the strike zone at hittable speeds. However, when batting practice pitches are easy-to-hit, and the same speeds pitch after pitch, it is not game-like and does little to benefit hitters. The five o’clock hitter gains false confidence but struggle in games.
How to avoid being The Five O’clock Hitter
- Once the season starts, do not stop the drill work they do in preseason. Before every batting practice, players should perform hitting drills that address their problem areas. Batting tee work, dropped ball drills, and straight on soft toss keep players focused on contact points and mechanics. These “short distance” and “small focus” drills help players stay sharp, and should continue all season long. Of course, players must be careful of overdoing things. Players must learn their bodies and recognize the days when less is better. Fatigue, mental or physical, leads to poor play, too.
- Instead of trying to hit the ball as far as they can in batting practice, hitters should work on the fundamentals of staying back, using the hands and maintaining balance. Of course, when hitters concentrate on these things, the result may be home runs, and that is the reward for doing things correctly.
- Batting practice is also necessary for just getting used to seeing the ball so hitters should not neglect the importance of bunting for that reason. Hitting balls to the opposite field also requires players to wait longer and see the ball hit the bat.
- Bat control is crucial for the good game hitting, so hitters should work on hitting the ball where pitched, as well as practicing hit-and-run and get-them-over swings. Outer half pitches should go to the opposite field, and inside ones should go to the pull side. Hitting all balls back through the middle is a good batting practice plan, too.
- Players should treat the strike zone as they do in games and swing at good pitches only. At batting practice speeds, players get a false impression that they can hit anything and everything, so they swing at about everything.
- Hitters should ask batting practice pitchers to try to throw pitches to the part of the strike zone the batter wants to work on for that day. Based on the pitches players struggle with in games, this can help them improve on those pitches.
- Reward hitters with more swings when they hit the ball where pitched. The extra swings get players’ attention, as most hitters want them.
- Have batters practice game-like situations, as often as possible. Hitters will begin to develop game confidence with the feeling that they “have been there many times before,” when in actual games.
- Challenge hitters in batting practice with game-like speeds and speed changes. Hitters may adjust without much help with the appropriate challenge. Throwing game like pitches is more difficult at the higher levels, but using pitching machines and throwing batting practice closer to home can help coaches achieve game-like speeds.
- Recognize the pitches and locations players have trouble with and work extra on those with drills, tee work, and batting practice. For example, players, who have trouble with outside pitches, should practice outside pitches as much as possible.
- Bring an experienced hitting coach to practice to help hitters. The expense may be well worth it. Video analysis is a good thing from time to time too. Expert coaches and slow motion video analysis determine fundamental flaws in players’ mechanics. Often, just one little tip can lead to greater success.
- Coaches should make sure players do not get too high or too down after batting practice. Those that get too high may be setting themselves for a huge letdown in games and those that become down after practice may defeat their chances before games begin. The five o’clock hitter does not go into games with the best frame of mind.
Of course, another reason for good hitting in practice is the absence of fear and nervousness, which exists in games. The five o’clock hitter tenses up in games, which throws their focus off and leads to poor game hitting. The added game pressure lessens with supportive coaches, who teach their players to “expect success,” and not just hope for it. Building confidence in players is a gradual thing that comes from consistent positive coaching. Teaching visualization skills is another helpful thing for successful game hitting.
Adhering to the above batting practice tips will lead to better game hitting, which ultimately leads to real confidence and not just false hope. Of course, hitting is one of the most difficult things to do in all of sports. No guarantees exist from doing anything different. There is a reason the best in the world at hitting at seven o’clock and not at five, pays well.
Jack Perconte has dedicated his post-major league baseball career to helping youth. He has taught baseball and softball for the past 27 years. His playing, coaching and parenting stories create better experiences for athletes and parents. Jack has written over a thousand articles on coaching baseball and youth sports. Jack is the author of “The Making of a Hitter” and “Raising an Athlete.” His third book “Creating a Season to Remember” is in the works. Jack is a featured writer for Baseball the Magazine. You can also find Jack Perconte at YouTube with over 80 fun and innovative baseball instructional videos.