April 4, 2014
By Victor Diaz ’15
When it comes to finding success in the competitive world of sports, winning the gene pool lottery for good size is half the battle. Regardless of what sport you play, chances are that smaller players will have a difficult time keeping up with their bigger competition.
Softball is no different.
While being small comes with the obvious advantage of a smaller strike zone, the drawbacks of lower hitting and throwing power tend to balance out the higher walk percentage. That being said, size can be overcome, and a smaller player can play at a skill level way above her own head. One such player is Jenna Simon, a junior infielder and one of Notre Dame softball’s star players.
Standing 5 feet 4 inches tall, Simon is the shortest player on her Irish squad in terms of height, but that has not stopped her from doing big things. She has started every game for the Irish this year and sits near the top of almost every offensive statistical category.
What’s the secret to her success? At a young age, Simon taught herself how to slap hit in order to best utilize her speed as a runner.
“It allows me to do a lot more in the game,” she says. “I can bunt, slap, soft slap, which is just like a little dinker hit, or more of a power slap which is a harder hit, so it depends on the situation. I can do each one at different times.”
While the arsenal of hits that she has at her disposal throws opposing infielders off their game, the true key to slap hitting, according to Simon, is the footwork.
“Your back foot goes forward, and the objective is to hit off your back foot,” Simon explains. “Your back foot comes to your front foot, and you want to hit the ball on the ground because you’re pretty much two steps closer to first base.
“So if you can hit the ball on the ground, you have the advantage because you’re already running towards first. It just makes more of a chance to get on base.”
“More of a chance to get on base” may be an understatement on Simon’s part. She has managed to get on base nearly half of the time that she goes up to bat, and currently leads the Fighting Irish with a batting average of .403. What is remarkable is that 22 of Simon’s 29 hits thus far in 2014 did not leave the infield.
Her skills are also the key for moving runners around the diamond. Last season Simon notched a 55.7 percent success rate in advancing runners, which was good for third overall on the team. That number has risen to a 61.4 percent clip thus far in 2014.
Although her impressive batting average and amount of runs scored (17, fourth most on the team) this season make it seem like Simon is a natural left-handed hitter, she is actually a natural righty. While she still throws, writes and does everything else right-handed, Simon taught herself to bat lefty at a young age and hasn’t looked back.
“I switched over in sixth grade,” Simon recalls. “My hitting coach pretty much said that if I wanted to succeed and go far in this game and play at the highest level possible, I was going to need to become a slap hitter. ‘With your speed it can add a lot to your game.'”
Asking an 11-year-old kid to learn how to hit with her opposite hand is a tall order, but Simon was up for the challenge.
“I said, ‘All right, let’s do it!’ And I just completely switched over one winter,” she says.
As you can imagine, hitting lefty didn’t come naturally for the right-handed Simon, and her transition was filled with frustration.
“The first season that I hit left-handed, it was very difficult and challenging, and I wanted to stop sometimes,” Simon says. “But just sticking it out, and making sure that in the long run it pays off, kept me going.
“I would go to lessons multiple times a week, and I would make myself hit left-handed,” she adds. “I would have to do a lot of tee work on my own too, multiple times a week. I would just go into my garage and hit off the tee.”
At first, progress was gradual. Just like with anything else, the finished product took time to perfect.
“I actually learned how to hit left-handed first – well, hit and drag bunt – so I would feel more comfortable on that side,” Simon says. “Then I got into the footwork and moving my feet and my hands, the timing and everything.”
Stats don’t lie, and Simon’s offensive numbers so far this season are quite impressive. It is safe to say that all the time she put in with her batting coach and hitting ball after ball off a tee in her garage paid off.
See Simon’s slap hitting style for yourself when the Irish play this season as Melissa Cook Stadium. She’ll be the player who looks like she’s halfway down the line before the pitch gets there.