Wednesday, September 4, 2013

What We Can't See On TV - Swing Path

When pro ball players hit a baseball a long way on TV it often seems that the batter just threw his barrel at the ball and "caught it good." Take a look at Evan Gattis of the Atlanta Braves. He is big and strong and can crush the ball. He just throws his big ol' bat at the ball and blasts it, right? At least that's what it looks like in full speed:

But hitting a baseball in the big leagues is one of the quickest actions in all of sports. Unless analyzed in super slow motion, we can't really see the details of what happened.

I teach youth players to try to swing like what we can't see on TV - not always an easy task. That's why video analysis is so key. We use it in the cage, but we also need to do it when watching a game at home. The DVR helps - I occasionally like to rewind a great hit and enjoy it frame by frame. But YouTube helps even more. There are countless slow motion videos showing quality hitting and pitching mechanics for young players to try for themselves.

I think one of the main things we can't see on TV, because of both the camera angle and the speed of the live footage, is swing path - the path the bat takes to best get to the ball. Almost any pro ball player does it correctly, but it's often difficult to see this important aspect of the swing.

A good hitter doesn't just throw the barrel at the ball. Doing that would be more like what you might imagine a fisherman does to cast his rod. The barrel of a baseball bat shouldn't be cast out away from the body around the outside edge of the ball. If you've watched enough games on TV with a decent player analyst lately, you've probably heard at least once or twice that a good hitter "stays inside the ball." This means that the hands and bat should be pulled forward, not pushed, toward the inside edge of the ball. This is the quickest way to get the barrel to the ball (shortest path - point A to point B), and the best way to prevent the barrel from either falling under the ball or rolling over to the upper and outer edge of the ball.

The knob of the bat should, at least during the initial parts of the swing, be pulled from behind the head directly toward the ball. I often tell my hitting students - those whose swings determine they need this violent analogy - that pulling the knob in a direction out away from the ball toward 3rd base is like a slap across the face; pulling directly toward the ball is more like a punch in the nose. Which carries more force?

In order to stay inside the ball and punch it in the nose, the front shoulder should stay closed until the front heel is down, and both elbows should be bent on the approach to the ball. Every good hitter you see on TV tucks his back elbow into his body to a spot at or below his lower right ribs if he is swinging at a strike. This is one of those absolutes that you can see in almost every slow motion big league swing. But I have also come to focus more and more on that front elbow in recent years. If it straightens on approach, the knob is probably pulling away and you'll get a slap across the face at best.

I like to sometimes stand just in front of a hitting student's front foot and ask him to start his swing and just elbow me sharply into my stomach. 90% of them inevitably just graze me on the first try. They pull out too early and nick the outside of my body. After a few more tries they start to get closer to center, and when it starts to hurt me, I know they are taking the correct path to the ball. As I tell these young hitters, it's the parts that can bend - elbows and knees - that are vital to a good swing.

So what kind of swing path can we actually see when we break down a good approach to the ball on slow motion video? One of the best examples is this swing by Allen Craig of the St. Louis Cardinals, provided by PastimeAthletics. They have so many great videos, I could watch them all day.

Craig has a fantastic swing, even though he gets a little jammed on this pitch. When the front heel touches down (0:12), the back knee and hips have correctly started a hair early, but you can see the front shoulder is still closed off to the ball, with the hands back behind the head - no flying out early. He takes a very direct path forward to the ball - he gives the barrel no time to fall, as it stays above the knob and hands on approach. If you pause it at 0:14, you can see the front elbow is pointed right at the ball and bent almost 90 degrees. The rear elbow is tucked in perfectly. The correct positioning of those elbows allows the hands and bat to stay very close to the rear shoulder. He's pulling the knob forward to the inside edge of the ball rather than casting away from his body. Doing it anywhere close to this well is rare in a youth swing. Take it a second further and the barrel is still back nicely, before automatically whipping forward to the ball. Never mind for now that the legs are in a perfect position as well.

You just can't see those things in full speed. But it's all over YouTube. Here are a couple of other good ones:

You can't go wrong watching and learning from Joe Mauer of the Minnesota Twins. Starting at the 0:13 mark in that video, watch how instantly he tucks his back elbow and how close the bat stays to his rear shoulder. Same goes for Justin Upton of the Braves, who has one of the quickest swings in the game. His approach to the ball happens instantly, which allows him to crush inside pitches. Neither hitter allows the barrel to fall below the hands until right at contact.

Now back to the same home run we saw above by Evan Gattis, "El Oso Blanco."  He is so strong, and that strength helps so much. But he doesn't just rely on his strength. You don't make it to the bigs on strength alone. While his swing isn't perfect, his path to the ball is very quick. If you break it down in super slow-mo below, you can see many of the same mechanical components as Craig, Mauer and Upton. The front heel is down at 0:13 and the shoulder is closed off to the ball. He makes his approach at 0:14-0:15 and the bat and hands are very close to the body, with the knob being pulled directly to the inside edge of the ball. The bat then whips forward to punch the ball in the nose with incredible force. And while Gattis gets great extension, he isn't making contact out beyond his front foot. Much like Mauer and Upton, he stayed inside the ball with the knob leading the way and, as we've already seen, drove it to right-center field. Sometimes it's best for young hitters to focus on where they are trying to hit it, and the mechanics may fall into place. Right-center is your friend. Hit it there and it most likely came off the sweet spot of the barrel.

Many thanks to PastimeAthletics for their terrific YouTube channel that is updated often. I highly recommend it. Use it to teach your own young players to swing correctly.

Postscript: After writing this, I happened to come across the current top MLB fastball hitters, posted on the website of Peter Gammons. Numbers 1 and 3 are Joe Mauer and Allen Craig. It helps to get to the ball quickly and correctly.

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