Ted Williams’s “Science of Hitting” landed in Jason Ochart’s hands in high school as a Christmas gift. The seminal tome, co-written with John Underwood and first published in 1970, shaped how Ochart thought about a craft with which he would become obsessed.
In many ways, the book set Ochart on a path that has him guiding how the Red Sox develop their hitters. He was hired this offseason, after four years as the Phillies hitting coordinator, as minor league director of hitting and program design.
“Williams’s understanding of the swing, mechanics, bat path, the lower half, and swing decisions was so ahead of his time and so miraculous,” said Ochart. “It lit a spark when I was a kid. I still have a copy on my desk.”
Williams outlined three fundamental tenets: get a good pitch to hit, do your homework to understand a pitcher’s plan of attack, and be quick with the bat. In 2023, all of those principles are part of how the Sox are trying to train hitters. But they have taken a new approach to the third element, training hitters to swing faster with weighted bats.
Ochart, who in 2016 founded the hitting program at Driveline Baseball — the sport’s most prominent data-driven development facility — was hired as part of an effort by the Red Sox to take a more systematic and data-driven approach to player development. They want to implement programs across the farm system whose effectiveness could be tested and measured.
A weighted-bat program — implemented for what Ochart estimates as slightly more than half of the system’s hitters — is the most widely introduced of the new undertakings.
In batting cage work, players swing three different bats — two “overload” bats that weigh roughly 20 percent more than a hitter’s game bat, with one adding weight in the handle and another at the top of the bat, and an “underload” bat that weighs roughly 20 percent less than a game bat.
“[Weighted bats] make your movement throughout a swing more efficient,” explained Double A Portland second baseman Nick Yorke. “Once you get to your regular bat, you have more efficient moves, quicker moves, which correlate to the bat speed going up, which correlates to hitting the ball harder and hitting even farther.”
The average big leaguer has a maximum exit velocity of 111 miles per hour, according to Ochart. For minor leaguers who are short of that, the Sox have made bat speed a focus.
For instance, during the Rookie Development Program in January, speedster David Hamilton was introduced to weighted bats.
“He’s a perfect example of a guy that needed bat speed training just because he had really every other skill that you need to be a successful hitter,” said Ochart. “He made a lot of contact. He hits the ball on a line and in the air at a really high clip and his swing decisions are good.”
The Sox sent Hamilton home from the program with weighted bats. Since reporting to spring training, he has been a different hitter.
Hamilton, 25, is hitting .268/.346/.537 with 11 homers through 41 games for Triple A Worcester — one long ball shy of his 119-game total in Double A in 2022. His top-end exit velocities have reached 111-112 (up from 107) and his hard-hit rate has nearly doubled. His quality of contact has gone from well below big league average to that of a solid big leaguer.
“It’s a huge jump, especially for someone his age,” said Ochart.
Ochart identified several other players who have shown large jumps. Yorke is among them.
“I think my max exit velo this year is already 2 or 3 m.p.h. harder than it was last year,” said the 21-year-old. “The only thing really different I’ve done is the bat speed training with the weighted bat.”
Top prospect Marcelo Mayer was given a goal of hitting a ball 110 m.p.h. this year, up from a previous high of 108. He surpassed that in the first week of the season, hitting a ball at 112.
In Single A Salem, outfielder Roman Anthony and middle infielder Luis Ravelo have shown major jumps in how hard they’re hitting the ball. Same in Greenville with Bryan Gonzalez, a 21-year-old whose top-end exit velocities rank among the highest in the minors. In the upper levels, Phillip Sikes (Double A) and Nick Sogard (Triple A) are taking steps to emerge as big league depth options with increased bat speed.
Some bat-speed improvement undoubtedly is just a natural outgrowth of physical maturation. But in the same way that pitching has been transformed by velocity development, the Sox believe they’re employing proven processes that will impact the future.
“We’re seeing improvements across the board,” said Ochart. “That’s where you really start to get the buy-in. [Players are] seeing improvements, not only in their training, but they’re seeing it in the game.”
Increased bat speed isn’t the be-all, end-all of hitter development. But in an era when hitters need to handle 95+ fastballs to compete, the ability to swing faster — if complemented by sound swing decisions and mechanics — offers a better chance to compete at the highest level.
“You’re going to hit the ball farther and more productively,” said farm director Brian Abraham. “It’s something that our entire department, players, and staff are pretty locked in on and realize that it’s something that big leaguers do really well.”
▪ Bobby Dalbec is crushing the ball in Worcester, posting a .375/.464/.750 line with five homers in 13 May games while lowering his strikeout rate to 27 percent. He also played three games in right field, his first outfield action.
▪ Anthony, 19, is hitting .291/.412/.418 in May with more walks (11) than strikeouts (9), and recently was ranked the No. 49 prospect in the minors by ESPN.com.
▪ Another Salem outfielder, Juan Chacon, has shown a strong offensive approach while hitting .275/.412/.404, playing strong defense, and handling lefties well (.333/.538/.500).
▪ Lefthander Shane Drohan was hit hard in his first two starts since a promotion to Triple A, allowing 10 runs and 4 homers in 7⅔ innings.
▪ Matthew Lugo has been unable to build upon his promising 2022 in Double A Portland, where he has posted a .258/.282/.423 line with a concerning 2.9 percent walk rate.
▪ Tyler McDonough, a 2021 third-round pick with the versatility to move all around the field, is hitting just .216/.293/.333 with a 33 percent strikeout rate in Portland.
Alex Speier can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @alexspeier.