Ochart OK with failure in practice

Last week during batting practice, the Williamsport Crosscutters’ Kendall Simmons broke a bat. In the past, doing that would have induced more heckling from his teammates than a bad stand-up comedy show.

But his teammates understood his pain. With a new approach to batting practice this season throughout the entire Philadelphia Phillies’ organization, broken bats happen. So do swings-and-misses. Fouling balls straight back into the cage is pretty common, too.

That’s just what Phillies minor league hitting instructor Jason Ochart wants. The new philosophy on preparation within the entire organization is about simulating game-like conditions during batting practice instead of just lobbing 50 mph fastballs belt high and having a home run derby.

“As a hitter, you’re going to hit .300 if you’re lucky,” Ochart said during the Crosscutters’ last homestand. “So there’s no reason you should hit .700 in practice. There’s no other skill which trains that way. So getting these guys used to failing in practice, that’s how you develop skill and failing is actually a good thing, and that’s how you can learn and how you can refine your skill.”

Asking for failure is a bold strategy, but in a game where failing 70 percent of the time at the plate can get you to the Hall of Fame, failure is a reality. So what the Phillies and Ochart have tried to do is to make practice as tough, or tougher, than actual game situations.

They’ve always had rounds of batting practice where the focus was to hit the ball the other way, or where hitting situationally was the goal. But the Phillies have ratcheted up the different teaching tools in the minor leagues.

More often than not there will be a pitching machine on the field during BP. Some days the machine is there to throw curveballs to the hitters. Some days it’s there so the players can see increased velocity to prepare for a harder throwing pitcher.

There have also been days where two machines on the field and coach Greg Brodzinski is alternately feeding both the fastball and the curveball machine. This is to help train the eyes and decision-making of the hitters as they prepare for the game.

Instead of batting practice being a teeing off session on grooved, slow pitches, it’s now another teaching tool. There is still time to focus on swing mechanics with traditional batting practice and other traditional teaching techniques.

“Our pitching machines are purposefully a little wild. We’re making sure it’s not on auto-swing. There’s no decision-making if it’s on auto-swing,” Ochart said. “So we really talk about are you swinging at good pitches in practice? We’re going to be mixing location and we’re going to hold you accountable to that. We don’t expect you, in practice, to swing at everything and then be able to turn it on between the lines.”

That takes us back to the day Simmons broke his bat during batting practice. Not a word was said when it happened by anyone around the cage because it’s expected to happen occasionally with these new techniques.

These training techniques have been used throughout the system, including in the big leagues where just a few weeks ago the Phillies were hitting off a curveball machine during batting practice. It’s all about optimizing the body’s ability to recognize different spin and velocity and translate it into quick decision-making.

It’s not as if these are new training developments. Cutters manager Pat Borders said he was hitting off a curveball machine back when he was playing in the late 80s and early 90s. But these techniques are new to the Phillies.

It’s part of the philosophy Ochart has brought with him in his first year as the team’s minor league hitting instructor. As the Director of Hitting at Driveline Baseball in suburban Seattle, Ochart’s method of teaching was driven by both these body-training techniques along with data received from instruments like the TrackMan system in stadiums and a Rapsodo machine which sits about 10-15 feet in front of home plate and records information such as exit velocity and launch angle.

This use of data-driven teaching is part of why the Phillies hired Ochart despite not ever having been a professional hitting coach or having played in the big leagues. The data allows Ochart and the other hitting coaches within the system to give hitters detailed statistics which turn their coaching from theory to proven fact.

“We can show them the data of the best hitters in the world and compare that to theirs and it makes things really clear,” Ochart said. “The technology is so beneficial to creating buy-in. Hitters are so used to hearing just theories or coaches’ thoughts, and now we have some cold, hard data which says if you hit the ball with a below zero launch angle you’re probably going to be out. And if you hit it between five and 25 degrees, you’re going to hit .650, and that generates buy-in.”

The data their showing to the players includes pitch location of the pitches they are taking and at which they swing. It includes the data generated from a sensor which is strapped to the knob of their bat which shows bat angle and bat speed. Using this information allows Ochart and the other hitting coaches in the staff to create the batter’s optimal swing plane and approach to attack every pitcher they face.

Creating a plan for every hitter in the system was the first thing Ochart did when he was hired last year by the Phillies. He leaned on those people who have been part of the system for years to help create those plans. And he allowed the players to have their own say on what they wanted to work on and where they wanted to improve. It was a process which took Ochart a lot of time, but he wanted the players to have a hand in their own development and be a bigger part of their own process to get better.

“Every hitter is a little unique, and where other people go wrong is they throw out the same program for every individual hitter,” Ochart said. “A lot of times, players don’t care what you know until they realize that you care about them. So for me, it was about getting to know them. So I was always asking questions. I would ask them how I can help them. I want to give them ownership of their career and be there to help them. It’s more like I’m here and we have these tools and information and we want to help you become a big leaguer. So let’s work together and make that happen.”