“It’s a curveball, and there is another swing and a miss!”
“He takes that curveball out of the yard; another monster blast!”
Why do so many batters struggle hitting a curveball while some seem to have great success against this pitch? There is a simple approach to having success hitting the curve…
Let’s Start By Understanding The Curveball
I’ve spent 40 years in baseball as a player, coach and instructor. In addition, I’ve had the good fortune of being around my younger brother, Todd, who played in the Major Leagues, which exposed me a bit to that level of play. Over the years, I’ve heard a zillion conversations about how to hit a curveball.
A couple of thoughts before we get into the ‘How to’ part.
Youth pitchers, as well as young teens and some high school age pitchers, are just beginning to learn how to throw a curve. Most don’t throw this pitch well on a consistent basis.
The advantage a youth pitcher has in throwing a curveball, good, bad or ugly, is the batters facing the pitch have seen very few curveballs in their lives. A pitch that is different visually, then a straight fast ball, is a strange and uncomfortable experience for a young batter. Simply showing the batter a different look can make the curve an effective pitch as long as its somewhere near the strike zone. But what about hitting the curve? Keep reading.
I attended a baseball coaching conference years ago where I sat in on a discussion by a well-respected college coach who broke down the statistical results of curveballs thrown by pitchers. I’m quite sure his numbers were not scientific, but feel they make the point and I believe most coaches at higher levels of the game would agree his numbers are pretty solid.
He said that a good curveball pitcher will locate, maybe, half their curves in the strike zone. The other half miss the zone and a fair number of those bounce in the dirt. Of those that are in the zone, about half will be good ‘pitcher’s pitches’ (at the knees and on the edge of the plate). About half will catch a larger portion of the strike zone. I will come back to these points in a bit.
Various Approaches for Training a Batter How to Hit a Curveball
Like most topics in baseball, and in sports, we can find a wide variety of ideas of how to address a given issue. Here are some examples of ways to address ‘How to Hit a Curveball’ that you may have heard:
- Know the pitcher’s patterns, so to anticipate when a curve will be thrown
- Factor in the game situation and what the batter and pitcher are each trying to accomplish, so to better anticipate the curve
- The depth in the strike zone to best contact a curveball
- Practice hitting the curveball to the opposite field
- Set up a JUGS pitching machine throwing curves that are knee-high on the black and practice, practice, practice
Some of these, in my opinion, can be helpful depending on the age and type of player we are working with; some I am not personally a fan of. In most cases, much of what is offered is beyond what youth baseball players can take on; or they require more time than we realistically have with our players, or with our own child.
The approach to teaching kids how to hit a curveball, that I suggest, is very simple and is the same approach that many MLB batters take when hitting the curve.
First, we must recognize that even the best MLB batters rarely hit a well-located curve ball for a base hit. So, the answer to the question, ‘How do you hit a (good) curve ball’ is……….“You Don’t”.
A batter who is successful in hitting the curveball doesn’t swing at the well-located curves. They let those pitches go by, even if they are going to be called a strike. A good batter understands that hitting a well-located curve ball, in most cases, ends up as a ground out.
So what is the Secret? “How do you hit a curveball?”. …….Let the good ones go and swing at the bad ones.
Yep, that’s it……seriously.
Again, he best batters in the world don’t hit a [good] curveball very well.
Identifying a ‘Hittable Curveball’
Success in hitting a curve starts with seeing the spin of the pitch. This is not easy to create in a practice setting by a youth baseball coach or player. However, we can at least explain the difference in the look of the fastball spin versus that of the curveball spin.
A fastball has greater RPM. It’s spin simply looks like a ‘blur’; there is no distinctive spin to identify. A curveball, on the other hand, has a lower RPM and an angled ‘spin’. It has a much different look when seen from the batter’s perspective.
Rule of thumb…when the batter ‘sees spin’ (this is also applied to a slider) and the pitch is coming in belt high or lower, chances are it will ‘break’ out of the strike zone or to a point in the zone where making contact will likely result in the ground out mentioned earlier…..a good batter let’s this pitch go by.
When the batter ‘sees spin’ and the pitch is coming in above the belt, that pitch, more than likely, is going to be a ‘hanger’; a pitch that is easier to hit and will be at a point in the strike zone where the ball can be hit harder and further. Also, when a pitcher throws a curveball that starts out high like that, they have not produced good ‘down leverage’ at release point (forgive me for getting technical) and the pitch will have less break.
Note: when I am working with young batters and their coaches/parents, I suggest they dedicate their practice time hitting pitches at belt to belly button height, be it off a tee (video), during soft toss (video), wiffle ball batting practice (video - watch 0:39 - 1:22) or front toss (picture). When batting in a game, we instruct our batters to anticipate a pitch being higher in the zone and when they get that pitch we want them to be very aggressive in swinging at those pitches.
Following this rule is simpler for a novice batter who has not gained the ability, comfort level and confidence in seeing and recognizing the spin of different pitches.
Few youth pitchers can consistently command their pitches low in the strike zone. In most cases a batter at the youth level of play will see a pitch or two in the middle to upper part of the of the strike zone in most at-bats. Having our batters practice the majority of their swings on pitches higher in the strike zone will result in them developing the habit and discipline for swinging at pitches in this area, and the ability to hit them well.
If you have access to a JUGS pitching machine (many indoor batting facilities have cages you can rent that have JUGS machines). Set up the machine to throw ‘bad’ curveballs where the majority of the pitches are coming across the middle of the plate at belt to belly button level.
Instruct your batter(s) that this is the curveball they want to swing at (not the ‘good’ curveball that is crossing the outer edge of the strike zone at knee level). We want to have our batters seeing and practice hitting the ‘bad’ curveball that comes in higher in the zone and with less break.
(One of the catch phrases in baseball, in recent years, is ‘Pitching to Contact’. This refers to a pitcher getting batters to hit well-located pitches and getting themselves out. It takes a lot more pitches to strike a batter out than it does to get a batter to hit the ball into an out. This is a concept we might like to share with our pitchers, while reminding them that in most cases they are subject to being pulled off the mound by a pitch count rule.)
In a perfect world, we would have the ability to throw live curve balls to our player(s) in a practice setting. This is ideal because they get valuable reps at ‘seeing spin’ and developing the discipline of swinging at the ‘bad’ curveballs and letting the ‘good’ ones go by. Even if we are unable to throw many hitable pitches, there is value in this exercise; giving them reps in seeing the curveball spin. All said, I wouldn’t count on this option too much. Most youth baseball coaches aren’t practiced in throwing curves. And for most, this is going to result in quite a bit of arm soreness the next day: )
Preach to your kids: “Let the good ones go; swing at the bad ones” …that is ‘How To Hit a Curve Ball’.