An athlete whose skill level and work ethic are equally matched is a rare find. Grady Sizemore is one such athlete and the league has officially taken notice.
Sizemore was called up from the minors by the Cleveland Indians in July 2004, and he's been a fan favorite ever since. His non-stop motor and willingness to do whatever it takes to win have helped the Tribe become regular and realistic American League pennant contenders for the first time since the '90s.
The one-time football superstar [he signed a letter of intent to play both football and baseball for the University of Washington] sets himself apart on the diamond with his hustle. "It's always been a part of who I am," Sizemore says. "I think ever since I was growing up, I always tried to leave it all out on the field and give 100 percent—outwork everybody else."
Sizemore's father was the catalyst for his hard working lifestyle: "I try to attack life that way, and my dad was kind of the same way. He . . . passed that along to me," he says.
The 2005 season was when Grady really turned on his power and showed the caliber of his talent. The Indians had always known he was an intense worker and a skilled player, but it took the rest of the league until then to realize that this guy was for real. That season, the Tribe's leadoff hitter almost single handedly led his team to the playoffs, as he batted .289, smashed 22 homers and drove in 81 runs. The next two seasons were more of the same, as Grady continued to dominate opposing hurlers with ever-growing authority at the plate.
As Sizemore's dominance increased, so did the accolades. He made the AL All-Star team in each of the past three seasons. This past season, he belted 33 homeruns and drove in 90 runs, leading the Indians in two power categories usually reserved for middle-of-the-order hitters, not leadoff men.
With all this power unleashed, one might think Sizemore is looking to knock the ball out of the park on a consistent basis. But that's not the case. "I try not to be a homerun hitter," he says. "I want to be getting on base, scoring runs, driving in runs. Homeruns just kind of come. Hopefully I can continue this and progress and continue to get more power. But like I said, I'm not trying to hit homers, they're just mistakes."
Having pop in your bat doesn't necessarily mean you have to look like a beast at the plate. Sizemore is a perfect example, as he is able to combine his slender 6'2'', 200-pound frame with immaculate mechanics to squeeze every ounce of power out of his body.
"You try to work on mechanics as much as you can before the games and be prepared, whether it's using your hands or staying back [to] stay strong in your legs," Sizemore explains. "Everyone has a different swing, so you're trying to find what works for you."
Preparing for and scouting your opponent, another critical part of hitting, will help you gain an edge when you're in the box. Knowing each pitcher and his favorite pitch helps you understand what to expect during your at-bat. "Not only do you study your swing, you study the opponents, the pitchers, how they attack you," Sizemore says.
Just because the rest of the league now realizes what Sizemore brings to the table doesn't mean he'll be contained. He will continue to outwork and out-prepare his competition to maintain his place among MLB's superstars.
Follow these five hitting tips and a drill from Sizemore and Indians hitting coach Derek Shelton. Soon you'll see a boost in your power numbers.
1. Balance & Stance
Sizemore: The best thing is being in a good strong position. You want to stay balanced and be strong in your legs; that will help you hit any pitch.
Shelton: Good balance starts when you set up your stance and continues until you finish the motion. The common element in all good hitters—from Little Leaguers to pros—is that when their front foot hits the ground from the stride, their weight is on the inside of their back knee.
Test Your Stance
Shelton: Assume your batting stance, then have someone give you a good push on the chest or from the side. If you are in a good, balanced position, your feet won't move.
2. See the Ball
Sizemore: Obviously, you definitely need to see the ball. I think tracking the ball is probably the second biggest thing. If you can't see it, you're not going to be able to hit it.
Shelton: The tendency for young hitters is to try to hit the ball too hard. They end up pulling their head off the ball. When that happens, their shoulders and hips come off the ball, too, since the head leads them. Concentrate on keeping your head down to alleviate those problems.
3. Hands in Launch Position
Sizemore: For me, it's just try to keep the bat loose in my hands. I think the biggest thing with my hands is swinging too hard or maybe trying to do too much. So I try to keep them relaxed so I don't overswing or try to get big in certain situations.
Shelton: Your hands have to be in a good strong launch position when you start your swing. This position is different for each guy. And it doesn't matter if you set up with your hands in position or move them there when you start your swing. You just have to make sure that is where your hands come from.
Finding Your Launch Position
• Stand at plate
• Hold bat loosely in fingertips with arms forming "V," bat pointing down first base line [third base for lefties]
• Swing bat toward backstop, like taking backswing with golf club
• Stop bat at furthest point back, which is your strongest position
4. Mental Preparation
Sizemore: I look at a lot of film. I try to pick up little things here and there—how they attack me, if they're tipping pitches, if they're running into certain tendencies in certain counts. I like to watch film . . . and see how my swing was the night before. If I notice anything, I'll go from there.
I think the biggest thing is [to] do all your preparation before the game. You work on mechanics; you study film of the pitcher; you try to keep everything before the game so when you go up to the plate, you've got a clear head and just see it and hit it. Just focus on where I want the ball, what I want to do with it, and go from there.
Shelton's Tee Ball Hitting Drill
• Place one tee on inside of plate and another on outside
• Assume balanced stance with hands in launch position
• As you begin swing, coach calls "inside" or "outside"
• React with hands to hit appropriate ball
Shelton Says: It is sometimes hard to get younger players to hit off a tee, because they think it's only for kids; but our guys work off the tee a lot. Begin with one tee in the middle of the plate. If you can't master hitting a ball in the middle of the plate, you're going to have some trouble; it is the best pitch to hit. The reactive aspect of this drill eliminates a player's tendency to predetermine where he is going to swing. He doesn't know where a pitch is going to be when he bats in a game, so teaching him to react to ball placement is key. This also improves plate coverage, because players get used to making contact on the inside and outside of the plate.
Photo Credit: Getty Images // Thinkstock