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March 12, 2014

Going Yard

The Science of Swinging

by Ryan Parker

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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:

  • Get the front foot down early
  • Rotational vs. linear hitting
  • Take the hands to the ball
  • Keep the front shoulder down
  • Let the ball travel and hit it deep in the zone

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
Poor hitting mechanics can be a roadblock to a player’s success. Hitting a baseball is a reactionary movement. A hitter can’t control what or where the pitcher throws, and he can’t control whether the defense will make an incredible play. The only thing a hitter has domain over is his own swing. This is why having an efficient set of mechanics is so crucial. If the swing is flawed, it introduces another obstacle to an already uphill challenge.

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.

Timing
Obviously, timing a baseball to contact is important to a hitter. When I talk about timing, I'm referring to the timing of the movements within a swing. When do the hips fire? When does the bat start coming into the hitting zone? When do the hands reach their deepest point behind the batter?

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.

Stance
The stance is the base of the swing. Hitters need to find a comfortable position from to begin their swings, but there is no ideal stance. I focus on how they transition from that stance into the rest of the swing. If a hitter changes some aspect of his stance, he'll also alter the point in the process at which he launches the bat through the zone.

Gather/Load
A gather or load is the first movement a hitter makes coming out of his stance. Usually this is characterized by the front knee moving back toward the hitter or up in the air. Some guys are different and accomplish this load with a simple heel raise or an initial tap of the front toe. Most hitters begin to load sometime between the pitcher’s leg lift and the separation of the pitcher’s throwing hand from his glove. The key to this process is to load early enough that there is time to react to the pitch, while not loading back too far and having weight stuck on the backside. Even though hitters might bring the front foot back, they never end up being completely straight over the back leg.

Approach
Mechanically, the approach is the phase of the swing where the front foot begins moving forward and toward the ground. Usually this movement is accompanied by the hands moving back and in toward the body. You may have heard the term “separation.” The approach is where one type of separation occurs. The foot goes forward and the hands go back.

Slot and Foot Strike (toe to heel)
This position is what I call the slot:

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
From the slot position the bat will enter the zone almost tracking an outline of a Nike swoosh logo. The end of the bat will stay behind the hands before the entirety of the bat is moved forward.

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.

Contact
The moment of truth.

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.

Extension

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.

Miscellaneous Notes
You may have noticed that I used a good number of qualifiers—around, near, about—when talking about these positions. Hitting is a science, but no two hitters are the same, and no two bodies move the same way. No hitters are purely rotational, and none is purely linear.

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.

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

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