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February 13, 2015

Going Yard

The Greatest Swing That Ever Lived

by Ryan Parker

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There are good hitters, there are great hitters, and there is The Hitter. Ted Williams is the gold standard when it comes to honing and crafting a swing. While there were other hitters who put up better statistics or had better raw physical tools, there is no one who could more accurately be described as the physical embodiment of what it meant to be a hitter. Let’s take a moment to appreciate the pure genius that was Williams’ swing.

It’s not like Williams is the only elite hitter in baseball history, yet his swing has been in a league of its own, one that has been much celebrated over time. How did the smooth stroke of Teddy Ballgame attain this status? There are two main factors that stand out to me. The first is Ted was vocal in the fact that he actively worked on his swing, that was something to which the general public could relate. Here was a man who didn’t just luck into the genetics to hit the cover off the ball, Williams was just a regular person who needed to put in the time and effort to find success. Thus, his process was relatable to the public.

The second factor that has kept Williams atop the hitting mountain is the idea that his swing (just like his process) was relatable to the average person. A typical person watching baseball when Williams was playing was lucky enough to watch a slew of tremendous hitters that seemed almost super human in the way they swung the bat. Mickey Mantle could hit from both sides of the plate and swing harder than just about anybody. Stan Musial had that crazy stance that only he could pull off. Joe DiMaggio was so smooth that it was almost unfair. There was something about all the swings of all the elite hitters around Williams that made their swings seem unattainable.

Williams swing differed from his peers in that it looked like something you could learn. He had a nice relaxed stance and even had a bit of a “hitch” when he first got started. Remember the one thing your coach said you should never do? Step in the bucket. Williams did that once in a while. He was dominating big-league pitching in a way that allowed the public to imagine themselves doing the same.

Of course nobody can really replicate that swing, and that’s the beauty of Williams. Parts of his swing looks like something you could accomplish, but the end result is something only Teddy Ballgame can know.

Starting with his feet about shoulder width apart and hands held low, Williams takes a small stride out to the ball with his left foot. Look at all the little movements going on in this sequence. What looks like one small movement (the stride) encompasses a handful of other movements that are so seamlessly blended together you don’t even notice them.

Watch his stride again. As soon as his foot starts, the rest of his body is positioning itself. Before his foot touches the ground, he has coiled his hips inward just a tiny bit. His bat has gone from its vertical starting position close to his body to a more angled alignment further from his body. Like his bat, his body has gone from a nearly vertical posture to a more tilted posture at foot strike. His front foot has changed orientation going from nine o’clock (imagine a clock face laid over home plate) to somewhere around 11 o’clock. Even though his foot has rotated slightly, his hips are still primed and ready to fire.

Even with all these movements going on does his swing look busy or rushed? Not in the least. Everything is timed out so well that all these moves just blend into the overall aesthetic of his swing. It’s art.

Once his foot lands, art gives way to violence. The side view of his of swing is picturesque. The moment when he turns the end of the bat from pointing skyward to getting the bat nearly parallel to the ground is perfection. Obviously his hands are helping this movement happen, but they are not the only actors involved in this time frame of his swing.

Using the side and back view, we see the relationship between the angle of his bat and his shoulders. There are three items to watch here: His bat, his back arm, and his front shoulder. They all move in perfect harmony. As his bat begins to flatten out, his back arm starts to turn over. While it turns, it maintains that ‘L’ shape and prevents the bat from casting away from his body. His front shoulder is also turning and angling up just a bit. Look how little his hands have really moved. He uses the much bigger muscles through his back and shoulders, saving his hands for the moment of truth in his swing.

In his lower half, his hips are rotating well before contact. As he turns through the hips, the big muscles in his legs are pulling his back knee forward and forcing his heel to release from the ground. While his hips are going, his upper body is active as well. His shoulders are rotating with his perfectly timed upper half. Watch his back elbow and front shoulder. When his back elbow starts to turn and go forward, his front shoulder is an active dance partner. The back elbow turns and fires in synchronization with the front shoulder turning. Nothing is moving in a vacuum in his swing. His timing is perfect.

His path to the ball is just like his timing, perfect. There is an uppercut in his swing, but it’s done in the easiest, most repeatable way possible. Instead of selling out for extra tilt or trying to manipulate his body, he simply positions the barrel in the perfect spot. Look at these three points: front elbow, hands, and barrel. Look at where those points are the instant before contact.

Front elbow: above ball

Hands: slightly above ball

Barrel: slightly below ball

Hitting coaches have had a tendency to go a bit overboard with bat path. Many grew up hearing swing down on the ball. Nowadays, the pendulum has swung the other way. I love the fact there is the constant search for knowledge. The problem is Williams set the standard for bat path 60 years ago and could have saved all of us some time.

At contact, Williams has gotten every bit of energy from his swing into the ball. How can we be sure of this? Look at the big muscle groups in his legs and back. Prior to contact, they are active movers in the swing, but post contact their activity is essentially a support role. His back knee doesn’t keep driving forward after he hits the ball, his hips were already fully rotated, and even his upper half is done creating force. Yes, his shoulders rotate after contact, but that’s due to the mass of the bat continuing its path and Williams not wanting to hit the brakes on his swing.

Even the follow through of his swing is awesome. His shoulders keep rotating while his hips have stopped, this was a flexible human being. His arms end up in a textbook position. His top arm has cleared his body and looks like it could put him into a chokehold, while his bottom arm is in a solid 90 degree angle.

Williams’ swing is the gold standard for swings and with good reason. There are so many small moves that occur in his swing that are tough to notice because everything is timed out so precisely. Teddy Ballgame crafted a swing that has gone down in history as the best of all time, and it’s not likely anyone will be coming for that title any time soon.

Ryan Parker is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Ryan's other articles. You can contact Ryan by clicking here

Related Content:  Boston Red Sox

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