March 12, 2014
The Science of Swinging
Let’s cut through the noise. My name is Ryan Parker, and I love the violence and beauty of a baseball swing.
I’m passionate about hitting and about making sure the next generation of hitters gets the right advice. In this article, I'll tackle some modern hitting “truths” that I've seen too often throughout my career as a player, scout, coach, and instructor. These are the phrases that get repeated endlessly and threaten to harm players' swings:
I will use Jose Bautista as an example throughout this article, not because his swing is ideal but because his movements are so pronounced and easy to see that they make for great teaching moments. I'll also include shots of two of the best swings in the game, those of Miguel Cabrera and Buster Posey.
Mechanical Efficiency and Batter’s Identity
There is no perfect swing. Every hitter moves his body in a particular way. Some hitters can move in small controlled movements (Albert Pujols). Some hitters need bigger movements (Hanley Ramirez). Some hitters have a “hitch” or another idiosyncrasy, like the Sheffield bat wiggle or Adam Laroche’s hands. These unique movement patterns and stances all play into a hitter’s natural identity. The concept of a hitter’s identity is somewhat nebulous but can be thought of as his innate mechanical qualities. If you were told to imagine Gary Sheffield with no bat wiggle or Ken Griffey Jr. with a crouched stance, you'd have a hard time.
Coaches have to be aware of their players’ mechanical identities. Good hitters (and their coaches) work within their own identities to find a movement pattern that maximizes results. Far too often hitters need only the mechanical equivalent of a haircut, but instead they panic and their swings enter the witness protection program.
Hitters with “smooth” swings typically have great timing. Everything fires within a narrow window. The swing looks like one fluid movement rather than several different checkpoints.
Every mechanical change alters a hitter’s internal timing. Coaches hope that any changes they make are positive. For the hitter, frustration can arise when these changes negatively affect timing. A classic example is a coach telling a player to get the front foot down sooner. This is done, in theory, to give a hitter better balance while aiding his timing. In reality it tends to wreck timing, as many hitters (particularly young hitters) launch the swing immediately after the front foot touches the ground. Putting the front foot down forces them to stall the swing and saps momentum.
Slot and Foot Strike (toe to heel)
When I talk about a hitter slotting the hands, I'm referring to the movements he takes to reach this position. It’s not only critical that a hitter reaches this position; the timing of the slot is critical as well.
The back elbow being nearly level with the back shoulder characterizes the slot. The bat is cocked with the end of the bat over or just beyond the player’s helmet. Even with the bat cocked there is still a sliver of daylight between the back of a player’s helmet and his bat.
Most hitters slot their hands right before or at the moment when their front toe touches the ground. There is some variation, as some hitters land with a pointed foot and some land with a flatter foot. Bautista lands with a flatter foot, so he slots his hands slightly earlier than his peers. Some hitters land on the toe and continue to track the ball before planting their heel and launching the swing. David Wright is a great example of this type of toe-to-heel progression.
The hands don’t truly begin to move until the front heel touches down. Look at the back elbows of the hitters above: They've already begun to move down just a bit. By moving the elbow rather than the hands, a hitter can generate bat speed early in the swing, leading to a blurring of the bat when seen at regular speed. The back knee drives forward and down without the back foot rotating.
Barrel entering the zone
Before the hands enter the hitting zone, high-level hitters have already begun opening their hips and driving the back knee forward and down. This is a short but important moment in the swing, when the shoulders stay squared but the hips have already started. This is the other type of separation in a swing. The rotation of the hips is separate from the rotation of the shoulders. The hips go first and then torque the upper body around.
The hips rotate while pulling the back knee down toward the plate. The upper body also rotates, bringing the hands to the start of the hitting zone. In the examples, none of these hitters is “taking his hands to the ball,” “swinging down at the ball,” or “keeping his front shoulder down.”
The end of the bat and the elbow of the top hand stay behind the hands as they explode through the zone. The hips continue to open, and the back foot begins to move forward in some fashion. The longer a hitter can stay in this zone, the bigger the timing window he allows himself.
Most hitters keep the front knee slightly flexed at this point. Bautista shows more bend in his front knee than a typical hitter. If a hitter locks up the front leg too early, it terminates the momentum built up during the gather and approach phases. This leads to a stiff swing, usually accompanied by noticeable recoil in the follow-through.
The wrists snap the bat head around. The shoulders have rotated about 90 degrees and have caught up with the hips. The back knee is just about lined up under the back hip. The palm of the top hand is facing the sky, and the back elbow is at a 90-degree angle. The amount of bend in the lead arm will vary based on the location of the pitch.
The back foot is fully rotated, and some hitters (like Bautista) end up with the back foot off the ground. Whether or not the back foot comes off the ground is not a huge concern. If the toes stay in contact with the ground, look for the foot to be fully rotated.
Great hitters make contact with the ball out in front of the front foot. They won't "let the ball travel" or "hit it deep in the zone.” They drive forward and attack the baseball. They are facing magicians on the mound who can make the ball dance. Why allow these pitchers an extra six inches to make the ball move even more?
The front leg is firm and the heel is down. This allows all the momentum and energy a hitter builds up in his swing to be transferred to the ball.
At this age, both arms are fully extended somewhere between the chest and base of the neck. Even hitters who have a two-hand follow-through will get to this point before bending their arms at the conclusion of the swing.
I won’t address the follow-through except to say that the rotation of the shoulders finally catches up to the hips well after the ball is off the bat. Pay attention to extension and having some sense of balance, and the follow-through will take care of itself.
Swinging a bat is an akin to a slam dunk. Violent and smooth, it requires incredible athleticism and internal timing. How a hitter goes about swinging a bat is a miniature risk vs. reward situation. Too often hitters try to minimize the risk. The goal should be to maximize the reward. This means different things for each hitter depending on his physical gifts, and going the opposite way is not a prerequisite for success.
Next time we’ll look at Chris Davis, who provides a case study on how different organizations teach swings and how the mechanics of a swing affect production. Later this spring we’ll talk about the rebirth of Carlos Gomez, the aesthetic violence of Javier Baez, classic hitters vs. the modern swing, and more. What aspect of hitting would you like to know more about? Specific mechanics? Your team’s hitting prospects? Some 2014 breakout candidates? Throw it all at me.