When I get a new hitter in for the first time I will get him loose, get video from a couple different angles and then we will sit down at the computer and talk. I will ask him what he has been taught and what he is trying to accomplish with his swing. I will then pull up some MLB hitters and go over the things that I think are most important in a baseball swing. Once that the hitter has a rough idea of what a high level swing looks like, I will ask him what he sees in his own swing that are similar or different from the MLB swing. This allows us to begin a dialogue that will lead us into the creation of a plan for the hitter going forward. These first time evaluations typically take 45 minutes to an hour. By the time the hitter has warmed up and we have captured some swings, I have about 30-40 minutes to describe what I believe to be a great swing. So what do I say in those 30 minutes? How can I possibly describe a movement as complex as the swing in just 30 minutes? It’s impossible to get in too in depth but I can provide a foundation to build on. I can create context that will allow the hitter to understand why certain things are important. I focus on the principles that I see in every great hitter and how they help the hitter be successful.Put simply, all great hitters do three things. They get loaded, they get sequenced and they get on plane. That is the easiest, most understandable way I have found to communicate what I believe the high level swing is to hitters of all levels.
The load is probably the most misunderstood move. It is a critical because it sets hitters up to be dynamic into their launch pattern. The load is the squat before the jump, the stretch before the snap, the tension before the release. Below you can see the loading pattern of Miguel Cabrera. Notice that he is loading while he is going forward. Also, notice the balance. The head is centered between his feet, his shoulders stacked above his hips. You can see that while Cabrera is in fact moving forward, it looks like he is trying to avoid going forward. There is a fight taking place where parts of his body want to go attack the baseball while others are doing everything they can to stay back. This battle is resistance. Resistance creates explosiveness, it creates pace, it creates adjustibility. The swing is resistance!
The question of precisely which parts are loading is a complex one. Let’s focus on three areas (notice how I like to work in threes?). First, the back leg, ground zero. How does a hitter load the back leg? Often you will hear that you need to shift your weight back to your back leg, but we can see that there is virtually no backwards weight shift in Cabrera’s load. But you can see his belt buckle turn back towards the catcher as he loads forward. This coil twists the back leg up like a candy cane and prepares it to fire the hips forward.
Next, an area that I believe is a true separator between good and great hitters at the high school and college levels, the core. The loading of the core is most obvious by looking at the shoulders in the load. The shoulders themselves contribute a little bit of the “downhill” look but the majority is created by lateral bending. Lateral bending puts the backside lats, obliques and small muscles in the lower back into stretch (right side for righties, left side for lefties). Muscles are able to produce increased force when put into stretch followed by an immediate contraction or shortening of the same muscle. I will discuss why the forceful contraction of these muscles is so important a little later when I discuss sequence and plane.
Our third area of focus is the back arm. Cabrera’s hands are moving back while his rear elbow works up. This is internally rotating his rear arm and putting his shoulder joint into stretch. It is also working to put additional stretch in the lats. Different hitters will use different patterns to load the back arm. Some will start with hands and elbow high then rotate the hands down and back while keeping the elbow up. Others will start with the hands and elbow neutral then work the hands back as the elbow works up. The important thing is to create some space and at least a little bit of internal rotation. These moves also have the added benefit of putting the bat in a close to vertical position which is helpful in creating early bat speed into entry plane.
Remember, all of these areas are being loaded simultaneously while the hitter is moving forward. They should work together to create balance and rhythm. And even though the words “stretch” and “load” imply tension, the move should be relaxed, easy, and paced.
The load is critical because it creates the resistance necessary to launch our swing from the ground up. There is a chain reaction of stretch then contraction that starts in the back leg and finishes with the bat whipping though the zone. Proper sequence allows force to flow from the ground up and gives each body part a chance to add a little force as it works its way up. When the pieces fire in the correct order we get massive amounts of bat speed without massive effort. “Top down” swings, or swings that do not use the kinetic chain to their advantage are effort filled because each part is starting from square 1. There is no multiplier effect, no momentum of force. In addition, they tend to be steep and they offer limited adjustability.
You can see what proper sequence looks like in the “Launching Pattern” of Cabrera above. You can see all the areas that were previously “loaded” are now being launched in the opposite direction of their load. The hips which loaded into a coiled position now fire forward and into extension. The core which loaded downhill now works uphill. The rear lats and obliques which were put into stretch are now contracting and getting the backside on plane. The rear arm which loaded into internal rotation now goes into external rotation, creating resistance and stretch across the trunk just before it contracts and rotates the shoulders and hands forward. That external rotation also puts the hands close to the back shoulder where the barrel can begin to be whipped around the “corner” and enter the zone on plane. This is the meat and potatoes of the swing, the rest is easy! This sequence, this launching pattern is 90% of the swing! It also is crucial in allowing hitters to perform the last principle, getting on plane.
The idea of getting on plane has been around for a long time but is often either oversimplified or just plain wrong. True plane must be thought of from a 3 dimensional perspective. It’s not enough to say that bat plane should match pitch plane from the dugout view. We also have to consider where the force of our swing is concentrated. We want focus (for lack of better term) our bat speed through the middle of the field. Hitters that top spin a lot of balls to the pull side or flair balls off oppo are often in need of better swing direction. There are a couple mistakes that really negatively impact plane and direction that I will discuss in a later article.
The goal is to get the barrel on plane early and stay on plane for a long time. “Short to it, long through it” Right? Another well-meaning cue that can be easily misunderstood. Whenever I hear a coach use this cue it is, almost without fail, followed by a demonstration of the hands disconnecting from the body and going straight down at the ball then pushing forward to stay “through it”. Not only is this a sequence killer but they also aren’t getting on plane very early or staying on it for very long. You can see in the image below, on the left Pujols is on plane well behind his butt. Because the barrel is on plane so early, he truly can stay through it for a long time. The vertical blue lines essentially represent his margin of error in timing. Now compare it to the hitter on the right. You can see the hands have disconnected and are working “short to it” but the barrel doesn’t get on plane until it is in front of his body. You can also see the lack of margin, hardly “long through it” when you compare it to Pujols.
So, if the hands don’t create plane, what does? The core. Remember when I talked about the shoulders going from uphill to downhill in the launching pattern? The back shoulder is working down, not only to help generate force, but also to get the barrel on plane. This only works if the body is in sequence and the hands work closely with the back shoulder. This is the only “connection” that matters. Here are a couple pictures that show Cabrera’s adjustments to pitch location. You can see that the bat is very close to parallel with the shoulders.
This means the bat is perpendicular to the spine, the most efficient angle to deliver force. Think of a string tied to a pencil, now spin that pencil quickly, what happens to the string? It rises up perpendicular to the axis it is spinning around (the pencil). Anything other than perpendicular is fighting angular momentum and slowing your swing down!
There you have it, the framework for which I build swings around. My hope with this article was to provide some context for future posts. Moving forward, I will be able to dig into some of these pieces with even more detail and hopefully this post provides the foundation for your understanding.