Thursday, April 6, 2017

The Art of Being a Pull-Side Hitter

We have entered into an era of baseball where bringing in a new set of knowledge or way of thinking tends to be met some hesitancy. In all fairness, for some things that often work and work well, why try to fix what isn't broken? However, if you know about a way that allows you to separate yourself from the rest of pack and without cheating, why not take the chance to put that idea in action?

Enter the pull-side power hitter. These guys are arguably the experts at going yard in today's baseball. There's a part of me that wonders how little people have thought about this, and are now considering hitters like Jose and Josh to be revolutionary based on their plate approach. Not to say that they aren't, most of us here know the story about how Jose had changed his swing that lead to his power surge. And even Donaldson had a feature on MLB network explaining his approach at the dish. Both of these are smart when it comes to their approach in their own respective ways, but they still get label of being a"one-dimensional" hitter from some people. In some respects, that label isn't entirely unfair, but it mostly depends on scenario. If Donny's coming up to the plate with 2 guys on and no one out, I'm not going to hold it against him if he's gonna try and wait for a pitch on the inner half to crush. However, if he has 2 guys on with 2 outs, and he's not swinging at a pitch that isn't "in" enough for him to pull but he could drive it the other way to gap in right-center, that's some arguably some foolish stubbornness. But all great athletes have some aspect of stubbornness and arrogance in their personality. Don't believe me? Look at Kobe Bryant and Lebron James, they almost model what I just said perfectly, and are phenomenal players. It's a part of what makes them good, since they know they can be a difference maker when it matters. But back to the matter at hand.

Dunn, Carter, Valbuena: "Why do you look so confused?"
Davis: "People told me this thing is capable of hitting balls to opposite field."
All: "Don't listen to them..."

The sad part is, guys like Donaldson and Bautista get the "one-dimensional" label because of other guys that taint their image as being pull-side power dominant, but not much else. I'm talking about guys like Chris Carter, Luis Valbuena, Adam Dunn, Chris Davis (he's kind of coming to this type of player). Some fans will look at these guys and may automatically refer to them as a "one-trick pony", and it wouldn't surprise me if managers and front offices around the league did as well. Having "too many" of these types of players can be a blessing and a curse. You know they are capable of going yard almost any time, but if that's the only way of hitting the ball for them it leaves you with only one way of trying to generate offence. Putting team construction off to the side now, I think it's time to focus on the more technical aspect of what makes these types of guys great.

That thing of beauty leads to sweet tears of joy for some and sadness for others. I stole the gif/jif above from Ian Hunter's piece on Jose injuring his wrist from a few years ago (a great piece of reading if you haven't seen it already). A thing I like to note about Jose's swing is something that he doesn't necessarily talk about in the video that I had linked above. Jose talked about the fact he used to start his swing late, so it resulted in him not being to get the barrel to the ball fast enough, but if you watch some of the brief clips from his early days with the Pirates in that video, his swing looks nowhere near similar to what it does now.  My take is that most of his power actually comes from a region of his body that Dosh had talked about quite a bit in the bit he did with MLB Network.

The hips, it's all in the hips (sorry for the A's uniform but it's one of the best gifs I could find with a full, full-speed swing). Donaldson even says he wants his load stored in his back hip, and it honestly makes perfect sense. Some people may say that he's just loading onto his back leg, which is a cue that coaches will sometimes teach to young players, which is both right and wrong at the same time. If you've known anything about sports that involve some time of rotational aspect in them, you've most definitely heard someone say that all or almost all your power comes from your core. So what makes more sense: trying to store all your potential energy in your lower extremity of your back leg, or having it transfer upward into a region where your rotational forces are their strongest? You'd probably want the latter. I look at these clips and attribute Josh storing his power in his back hip due to what is happening with his front leg. Raising it that much for the leg kick is causing his hips to enter into an optimal range of flexion that allows all that energy to go there, along with the slight bend in his back knee. Without the leg kick or bend in his back leg, I don't think he's getting enough momentum to help generate all that bat speed. The other big thing that Josh talks about is the position of his plant foot. By trying to have it pointing almost directly at the mound, he's trying to ensure that his hips are going to open up as much to allow that pull. No open hips = no pulling the ball (not that this should be seen as a bad thing, but more on that later).

If you want a very technical explanation of everything going on and like numbers, the guys at ESPN Sports Science did a break down of his swing:

The only thing that kind of contradicts what Donny was saying in his piece with MLB Network is the bit about his wrists firing. The sport science guys have a point in referring to his wrists firing, but I think it's more so due to the fact of all the rotational force Josh has generated in the previous parts of swing cause his wrists to snap forward and roll-over on the follow through. Less so of Josh consciously firing them himself, otherwise, he runs the risk of bat going into some less than optimal swing planes. But if his wrists never moved, that swing would look pretty chicken-winged.

Now, I don't know how much anatomy or biomechanical aspects Josh knows off the top of his head, but that fact that he talked about the swing height of his bat being determined by his shoulder height, is probably one the smartest things I've heard. Especially because he's trying to store all the energy in his hip region and transfer it to his shoulders, which is much shorter distance than trying to draw all the power out of your upper leg. Making sure his shoulders are the first thing that moves in his top half is sound logic as they'll ultimately be determining his swing level, as your shoulder joint is what ultimately determines how much you can raise and lower your arm. Trying to do that with your hands for the whole thing works for some, but I'm kinda with Dosh in saving that for emergency hacks or trying to drive the ball the other way. And I'm not trying to hold it against guys that like to hit the ball the other way or can do so with power, but if you want to send one over the fence, why try and do it while extending all your power away from your body? You ideally want to try and keep all the energy compact/centred (whichever way you want to say it) within you as long as you can until you need to let it travel to the bat.

Keeping all of this in mind, we can still see guys that can still pull the ball over the fence well without maybe employing everything that Dosh had talked about in his video.

Mike Trout is far and wide the best player in the game right now, but his swing is fairly different from Donaldson's. His leg kick isn't as high, his hips open up but their a little quieter in his rotation, and he seems to drive his hands towards more towards the ball - I look at his swing as a nice powerful chop to a tree trunk. I do kind of like the fact that Trout's hips don't open up as much as it would allow him to drive the ball the other way; people know he's also insanely quick on the bases, so he's definitely going to be stretching some hits that might be singles into doubles. You could say that he's maybe not reaching his full power potential, but how are you going to look the best player in the eye and say that to him?

Mookie Betts will become probably the RedSox best hitter for next coming of years, and again his approach looks to be more "handsy". Small leg kick, not a massive weight shift, but he's getting his hands through the zone QUICK. Bat speed is a significant component in determining how far a ball is going to travel after it connects, and one guy I've seen on Twitter that advocates this is Matt Lisle. He's a very active person on social media talking about all aspects of coaching, but the stuff he brings up about hitting, are things some may overlook. Definitely worth checking out. I also found a video comparison between Betts and Donaldson, in which the guy talking explains how Betts uses more of what some hitting coaches would call "linear" aspects, as opposed to Donaldson's almost pure rotational style swing.

If I left Stanton out of this conversation, I'd almost call it an injustice. This guy is just an unbelievable genetic freak of power of a human specimen. Listed at 6'6 and 245 (of pure muscle), you could have 8 of the other best power hitters in the league bat in front of this guy, and I would still be the most afraid of him. His swing looks like all his power strictly lies in his hands. Leg kick? Pffft, he just steps forward 6 inches. Hip rotation? Doesn't look like a whole lot, but it's lightning quick. Combine that with those long arms which help generate huge levers of torque, and it's just not fair...

Another aspect of hitting these huge bombs is launch angle, another thing Coach Lisle talks about quite a bit (he had a tweet at one point saying one of the hardest hit balls of 2016, was a groundout). Now, players only have so much influence over this, but they all know that the ball has to get up to get out. If we take a step back to Dosh's vid, he says that the next time a coach tells a 10-year-old to "get on top of the ball" that kid's response should be "NO". Good and bad advice at the same time. A coach obviously doesn't want their players taking downward chops at fastballs coming right down the pipe, but he doesn't want them taking massive uppercut hacks at them either. My take is to use it as a corrective cue for kids at a young age, not players that are entering their late teens unless their swing is truly brutal. Now, Josh's thing for bat flight path was his shoulder/arm height, but the other thing that will help improve chances of lifting that ball up is the hip angle.

I had read something recently about Brian Dozier's power surge during the season last year, and it highlighted how Dozier's ability to get the ball out of the park was due to how he angles his hips. His stance is very different from Donaldson's in that his feet are set wider, and has virtually no leg kick - more of toe-touch or slight step-forward, and uses more of his hands. The one thing you may notice though in the photo is how his front hip is orientated; it's kinda pointing skywards. If he's keeping his swing nice and level, that change in hip angle from 0° to let us say, 5-10° is likely going to help get the ball in the air. The other option to help influence fly balls is that hitters will lower their hands and cut upwards more (some call this a hitch), but I've had coaches tell me the past that you'll hit more sac-flys that way than dingers. Keep it level, and go for hard liners that will elevate. If your looking for even more insight on things regarding power generation and hip movement/rotation BaseballPDS' Instagram page has some cool stuff you can lurk.

Last on this list are players that have a swing that some refer to as "violent", and depending on how you see them move, you may look at it and be doing something like this:

Probably because it looks like something is going to severely disconnect from their body by the time they get to their follow-through. One guy that comes to mind for me in this regard is Bryce Harper.

I would not surprise me in the slightest if there are some kinesiologists out there looking at his swing and think it's a bio-mechanical nightmare. Don't get me wrong, you can watch it and just tell that Harper has a whole bunch of torque/power that he's unloading with that whip of the bat through the zone. Couple that with his relatively high leg-kick and the big step on the ground with his weight shifting to his front leg, and I'm surprised that he hasn't torn something in his oblique area. Leaving that aside, he's still getting a lot of the previous points mentioned into his swing to help generate pull-side heavy power. If you want a more detailed breakdown, check this video.

Nolan Arenado will be the last guy I talk about in this piece. His swing to me is bordering "violent" territory due to what's happening in his front leg. This video sums up the whole swing pretty nicely, but the point that the author/commentator makes about his front leg kinda hyper-extending as he rotates is something that slightly concerns me long-term. Ian Hunter's piece that I previously mentioned talks about how Jose snapping his wrist back after hitting bombs could be what ultimately be what caused his injury. All the repetitive action taking place with each swing, and I think Arenado's front knee could potentially pay the price of something similar down the road (here's hoping it doesn't, he's a stud for years to come). Other than that, once again, he's got a lot of the things previously mentioned to help him get the ball out of the park (I know he plays at Coors, but we shouldn't discredit him that much).

Now I realize that they are a fair amount of good players who can slug that I left out of this piece; guys like Bryant, Rizzo, Encarnacion, Cruz, Tulo, Carlos Gomez, Carlos Gonzalez, Adrian Beltre, Buster Posey and Johnathan Lucroy (considering they're catchers), Madison Baumgarner (I kid), and so on and so forth. But if we wanted to try and look at every one of the big names who can mash, we'd be here for quite a while. The bottom line is most of these guys have a good sense of what it takes to make a ball go over the fence. Move to Coors Field! (I joke again, sorry.) But seriously, they know that they need to hit the ball hard, and they need to hit it up. Are there going to be some balls that fall just short of the wall and land on the warning track? Absolutely. Pop-ups to the infield? Good chance. Jacking a big slicer to the opposite corner? Sure. But it's not going to stop them from trying to get the ball over the fence with the shortest distance, and that's their pull-side. It's a beautiful craft to witness and analyse, and I am glad we've had to opportunity to see some of the best in the game do it while wearing our jersey.