By STEVE KRAH
Jeff Mercer spoke at the Indiana High School Baseball Coaches Association State Clinic in Indianapolis for the first time as head coach at Indiana University.
His presentation was “An 8-Week Offensive Progression.”
Mercer, a Franklin (Ind.) Community High School graduate, addressed the group a few times when he was coaching at Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio.
“I was raised by many of the people in this room,” said Mercer. “We are in essence as young people as we grow, we are the product of our environment. We truly are. I’m the product of this environment.”
The coach emphasizes individual development at IU and does not attack anything without a plan.
“I’m a firm believer in systems and processes,” said Mercer. “When we got to Wright State we implemented a system on everything.
“From an offensive standpoint, there has to be an identity in the way we develop and coach our players.”
Mercer was proud to announce that 10 of the 14 everyday position players at Wright State the past three seasons are either in professional baseball or will be at the end of the coming season.
In his system, baseline testing is done at the beginning.
“I let a guy show me what he can do,” said Mercer. “We start start at the most basic concepts. We don’t want to leave guys behind.”
Mercer called The Talent Code by Daniel Coyle the “most important book I’ve ever read.”
One of the concepts in the book: Whatever you’re practicing, chunk it up into the smallest, possible units.
“We’re going chunk it, repeat it and understand what we’re learning,” said Mercer. “We’re going chunk it and repeat it over and over.
“We need to chunk it and blend it and take it into the next phase very slowly.”
In Week 1, Mercer introduces drills for players to feel tempo, pace and sequence of their swing.
“I want to work up from the ground,” said Mercer. “I want the legs to work first, the hands to work second and the lower half to turn the barrel (of the bat).
“I don’t want the hands to pull the barrel across the body. I don’t want that disconnection.”
The base stealing system will be implemented in Week 1.
“We’ll be very uptempo, very aggressive,” says Mercer.
IU volunteer coach Casey Dykes comes from Virginia Military Institute, a program that was among the nation’s leaders in stolen bases (The Keydets swiped 95 in 117 attempts in 2018).
“We will run a lot of bases,” said Mercer. “From the very beginning, we don’t necessarily do conditioning, we do base running.
“If you want to run bases, you’ve got to run bases. If you want to run fast, you’ve got to sprint.”
Mercer wants his hitters to have a feel for the entire strike zone, including depth and width. To do this, they need to have constant feedback. This is done in Week 2 by using numbered plates (going from 1-6).
Movement and flexibility assessments are done.
“If guys are rigid in their hips, it’s going to be difficult for those guys to drive the ball the other way,” said Mercer. “It’s the way God made them. We have to work that into their approaches.”
Mercer said it is important for players to begin seeing fastballs of 90 mph off the machine in Week 2. He doesn’t want the first time they see them be at game time.
“The machine punishes guys who are long and steep,” said Mercer. “I’m not a big believer in abusing guys. I don’t want to hurt their ego. I don’t want to hurt their feelings. I want them to punish the machine unless they’re doing something really wrong and the machine gets them.
“Find a velocity that works for you.”
Week 3 brings the team offense.
“It’s really important how we handle a stolen base during an at-bat if we’re going to be a team that steals bases,” said Mercer. “If you get a good jump and your batter is swinging every time you get a 1-0 count off a breaking ball, you’ve got a problem.
“We’re one offensive unit. We have to work together as such. Are identity has to come together.”
Mercer wants his players to know what to do in given situations and how to adjust if there is a chance in game plan.
Game approaches are emphasized in Week 4.
It’s all about getting an advantage on the man delivering the baseball.
“If Plan B was as good as Plan A, it would be Plan A. Every pitcher has a Plan A, even if it’s no good,” said Mercer. “Our job (as the offense) is to put together an approach and a system as a offensive unit that’s a virus that attacks that guy and gets him off Plan A and on to Plan B. Nobody has Plan C.”
Mercer said if his team wants to put up a “crooked number” — two our more runs in an inning, it takes five quality at-bats in a row unless there is a two-run home run in the mix.
In Mercer’s system, ways to beat a pitcher include elevating the pitch count and “beat his brains in.”
“We’re going to hunt pitches early and knock him out in the first couple of innings,” said Mercer.
How about timing pitches?
“I always want to be on fastball timing and adjust down to breaking ball,” said Mercer. “Know the height of the pitch you’re going to face. Is it going to be a 12-to-6 curveball? We have to do our scouting reports and do our due diligence.
“If I’m on fastball timing, it has to cross the middle 8 to 10 inches of the plate. It’s a pitch I think I can drive (right on right or left on left). I’m going to chase the inside bottom of the ball with my eyes. I’m not going to change my swing.”
Mercer said repetition is the key in recognizing and hitting breaking balls. This can be done off the machines or live.
Running a program based on development, Mercer has always gone with weeks of individual work first then adds the team element in his time as a head coach.
In the progression, team practice begins in Week 5.
“We’re going to have a defensive emphasis,” said Mercer. “As good as you want to be offensively, it comes and it goes. If we can’t play defensively, we’re going to lose anyway.”
Mercer will begin increasing the degree of difficulty with pitch distances, speeds and locations.
“The hardest part for young hitters is they don’t have a sense of timing,” said Mercer. “They don’t know when to start. They don’t know how to be malleable in that regard.”
Mercer said knowing how to take batting practice is incredibly important. There is drill work followed by four or five rounds in the cage.
“We have to ramp up to be able to compete everyday,” said Mercer. “We structure it everyday so they get the same routine.”
Full-game setting with scouting reports and live scrimmages come in Week 6 of the progression.
Coach-pitch scrimmages help address weaknesses.
“All teams struggle with first and second and less than two outs,” said Mercer. “We’re going to get used to it.”
Wright State (3.12) was the No. 1 offense in the country scoring in the first three innings in 2018. The Raiders did this through buying into an approach based on a scouting report on the starting pitcher.
Tempo/rhythm drills are incorporated in Week 7.
Mercer said hitting needs to go at a quick pace.
“It’s unfair to ask a group of guys to do something they have not been explicitly prepared to do,” said Mercer. “We’re always growing and trying learn (as coaches). At the end of the day, these guys only get one career.”
In Week 8, coaches set game situations to practice weaknesses. Videotaping will reveal these things.
“It’s not about trying to show guys up, it’s about trying to get guys better,” said Mercer. “Our criticisms matter. We have to build them up.”
Mercer wants to be sure he prepares his players. So it goes back to repeating the message.
“I’m going to beat a dead horse,” said Mercer. “I’m going to be super redundant. You’re going to look at me and go, ‘would you please stop talking about that?’ I don’t care.
“My greatest fear as a coach is a guy looks at me from the batter’s box and they give me a look that tells me ‘you didn’t get me ready for this.’ That’s a terrible feeling as a coach.”
Mercer said that if his team is going to be able to consistently put up crooked numbers, hitters have to be able to hit with men on base.
“We have to be able to apply approaches and data and streamline,” said Mercer. “I’m an analytics guy. But only in the way it applies to winning baseball games. If we can’t be builders and confidence growers, we’re missing the boat in my opinion.”
Fall practice at the NCAA D-I level typically takes 12 to 13 weeks. After the eight-week progression, Mercer’s team will chunk it, repeat and learn it.
AN 8-WEEK OFFENSIVE PROGRESSION
Jeff Mercer, Indiana University
Week 1: Offensive Points of Emphasis
• Video initial swings, swing measurements.
• Discuss basic movement patterns.
— Feet Crossover drill series, short bat hand load series.
• Base stealing system begins.
Week 2: Offensive Points of Emphasis
• Introduce numbered plate.
— Short bat with numbered plate front toss.
• Outline specific drill work for personal swing issues.
• Introduce pitching matches.
— 78-80 mph from 52 feet, use as BP.
• Introduce small ball: bunt technique, hit/run, slash.
Week 3: Offensive Points of Emphasis
• Role of team offense – handle stolen base during AB.
• Introduce 3 approaches and 2-strike approach.
• Breaking ball breakdown – off machines.
Week 4: Offensive Points of Emphasis
• Game approaches – how they apply to situations and role in team offense.
• Breaking ball variances.
— Begin changing velo and variations.
• Introduce offensive signs.
Week 5: Offensive Points of Emphasis
• Team practice begins.
— Early work offensive routines, team practice = defense.
• Increase difficulty as identity takes shape – machines 82-85 from 52 feet.
• How to take BP, rounds etc.
Week 6: Offensive Points of Emphasis
• Live game scrimmages begin, still use coach pitch scrimmage to address weaknesses.
— Short scrimmages during week daily, long on weekends.
• Introduce scouting reports and how to use information.
Week 7: Offensive Points of Emphasis
• Tempo/rhythm short drills.
— Drills focused on movement feel more than mechanical breakdown.
• Machine work variations.
– 3 plate fastballs, 2 plate breaking balls, off set machines, extended legs etc.
Week 8: Offensive Points of Emphasis
• Set game situations to practice weaknesses.
— Base stealing emphasized; start every inning with runner on base.
• RBI situations are priority; preset situations often and emphasize approach.
Indiana University head coach Jeff Mercer talks about “An 8-Week Offensive Progression” at the 2019 Indiana High School Baseball Coaches Association State Clinic in Indianapolis. (Steve Krah Photo)
Jeff Mercer is entering his first season as head baseball coach at Indiana University in 2019 after achieving success at Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio. (Indiana University Photo)