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Defining the Efficient Baseball Swing

A position player’s value is determined by their ability to hit, more than any other skill, because it contributes so much to winning. Two of the five tools a player can have center around hitting production – power and contact.

For years, hitting instructors have remained locked in the debate on which players represent the most efficient swing, using labels like “linear” or “rotational” to explain the swing approach. On a scale from contact hitters like Tony Gwynn and Ichiro, to pure power hitters like Chris Davis and Adam Dunn, lies a middle ground of balanced hitters like Mike Trout and Barry Bonds who seemingly represent our ideal swing approach.

Only recently, however, has technology allowed us to trace the full swing to have a clearer understanding of what makes up the best baseball swing.

Sabermetrics has established new ways of valuing hitters and understanding efficient offensive production, while modern technologies (Trackman, HitTrax, ZEPP, SportsVision, etc.) have finally enabled us to analyze and truly define the efficient swing. This has helped us begin to answer some of the common questions surrounding the baseball swing:

  • Do we focus on swinging up or down at the ball?
  • Do we focus more on hand path to make contact or on torque with the lower body while allowing our hands to be passive?
  • What professional hitters should we emulate?
  • Which hits have the most value and what is the exact value of each hit?
  • What should my bat speed and swing angle be in order to square the ball up more consistently and increase my likelihood of getting the most valuable types of hits?

 

Physics: What Angles Create Optimal Baseball Swing?

Let’s start with a simple illustration….

We have a pitcher and a hitter both 6’0’’ tall. The pitcher is on a mound, meaning he’s now 10” taller than the hitter at the top of the mound and roughly 5” taller at landing. He’s most likely throwing overhand (99% of all pitchers do), so using an estimated wing span, the ball is now 5” plus 85% of the pitcher’s 1’6” wing span taller than the hitter at release.

As soon as the pitcher lets go of the ball, the ball is constantly slowing down due to wind resistance. If our pitcher is throwing from higher ground to a lower target with the ball constantly slowing down, we know the ball is ALWAYS going down, even at 100mph with exceptionally high spin rates. In fact, the documentary, “Fastball,” makes a point to disprove the idea that even the fastest fastballs do not rise, so we are safe to say the ball is traveling down no matter the pitch.

In order to consistently square up two round objects, the surface of one bat and one ball, given the downward trajectory of the ball, a hitter must swing even or slightly up through contact.

In his article in the Hardball Times, “Optimizing the Swing, Part Deux: Paying Homage to Teddy Ballgame,” Dr. Alan Nathan of the University of Illinois points to a study using Statcast data, in which on-base average is shown as a function of exit speed and launch angle.

The two regions of high on-base average are primarily red. One is the narrow strip extending from 110 mph/100 to ~66 mph/300. The high exit speed part of this strip represents hard-hit line drives with small launch angles, leading to a high on-base average. For the batter, these types of hits are highly desirable. The second important region occurs at high exit speed and launch angles in the 200-350 range. These are largely extra-base hits, primarily home runs.

Additionally, Dr. Nathan looked at BABIP (on-base average with home runs excluded) as a function of attack angle and offset paired with home run probability.

For BABIP, the red/orange strip results in an on-base average greater than about 0.75 and corresponds to launch angles in the range 90-170. The optimum swing parameters for high BABIP are 100and 0.5 inches for attack angle and offset, respectively, corresponding to an exit speed of 100 mph and launch angle of 120. On the other hand, home runs require a larger attack angle and larger offset, the optimum being 240 and 1.05 inches, respectively, corresponding to an exit speed of 101 mph and a launch angle of 290-300.

In simple terms, a professional player can get a base hit by either hitting the ball very hard between the infield and outfield or by hitting it hard enough over the outfield in the gaps or into the stands.
We’ve known these to be the best ways to get on base, but for the first time we have been provided a measureable understanding of what makes the hitter’s bat be in position to produce these types of hits.

The next question is: Does Dr. Nathan’s heat map data correspond to the swing data of players we statistically label as the best baseball hitters?

Based on these charts, we’d expect the best offensive players to consistently perform within the range of angles and exit velocities corresponding to extra base hits for higher run production and a higher BABIP, so launch angles of 90-300 with exit velocities of 100mph.

 

Statistics: How Do We Value Hitters and Who Do We Value Most?

Thanks to Sabermetrics, the statistical definition of an “efficient” hitter has been linked to maximizing run production by assigning linear weights, or run values to various types of hits.

Since maximizing runs is the ultimate goal, the statistically efficient hitter falls somewhere between pure power (a lot of homeruns with a lot of strikeouts) and pure contact (very little strikeouts, but not high slugging).

Weighted On-Base Average (WOBA) is the current “gold standard” by which we now measure a player’s offensive production, because it assigns actual run production values to types of base hits. Think of it as the very accurate version of Slugging Percentage. Since Major League Baseball statistically defines the “efficient” swing as the one that offers the most potential run production, WOBA serves as our finish line for the “efficient” swing approach. WOBA is defined as:

 

wOBA = [(0.69 × uBB) + (0.72 × HBP) + (0.89 × 1B) + (1.27 × 2B) +( 1.62 × 3B) + (2.10 × HR)]

/ (AB + BB – IBB + SF + HBP)

For simplification, let’s limit our sample of players to those who finished in the top 25 in WOBA in each of the last three seasons. We can look for consistencies in the mechanics and swing data of these players to validate the data in Dr. Nathan’s analysis.

The only players to be in the top 25 in WOBA for the last three seasons (2014-2016) are David Ortiz, Mike Trout, Miguel Cabrera, Anthony Rizzo, Nelson Cruz, and Edwin Encarnacion. Therefore, these hitters represent some of the most consistently high value MLB offensive producers in the last three seasons.

Over the course of the season, each of these players’ average launch angles range between 100-150 according to Statcast. The common denominator with these high value hitters is they elevate the baseball.

We’ve now statistically defined the efficient swing as the highest producing WOBA, and physically graphed an efficient swing as launch angles of 90-300 with exit velocities of 100mph. The last piece of the puzzle is defining the mechanics and approaches that produce these measurable results.

 

Mechanics: How Do We Swing Like the Best Hitters?

Using high-speed video to look at current high-value hitters (players with the consistently highest WOBA’s), we can see the commonalities in their swing mechanics.

By seeing where these mechanics overlap, we can determine hitting absolutes versus individual style. Below is an illustration of such mechanics among today’s top hitters. It is a visual road map for training the “efficient” swing as defined earlier. Notice the individual styles allowed in the beginning and end of the swings, but the absolutes that must be accomplished by all hitters between phases 3-7. Notice that every top hitter uses their feet/hips to create bottom-up torque, allows their hands to be relaxed and passive, and swings even or slightly up to match the incoming pitch plane and put the ball in the air for maximum potential run production.


 

Key Points

We want to swing and perform like the best MLB hitters. We define “best” as highest offensive production, or highest run producing potential, represented by the stat WOBA.  The defined best baseball hitters overlap in their swing mechanics and resemble swings like Mike Trout, Miguel Cabrera, Anthony Rizzo, Nelson Cruz, and Edwin Encarnacion.

Those hitters’ swing approaches share many common points:

  • Use the feet/hips to create bottom-up torque with relaxed/passive hands.
  • Swing even or slightly up to match the incoming pitch plane.
  • Put the ball in the air for maximum potential run production success.

 

These swing mechanics overlap our observed ideal swing angles from simulated bat/ball collisions, heat map data, and stat-cast data to confirm these swing mechanics represent the efficient baseball swing – the swing with the highest run producing potential.

In conclusion, if we want to perform like the best MLB hitters, we must train to use our feet/hips to create bottom-up torque with relaxed/passive hands, swing even or slightly up to match the incoming pitch plane, and put the ball in the air for maximum potential run production success.

 

 

3 Important Exercises Baseball Players Should Perform Inseason

Baseball season is right around the corner and hopefully our athletes have participated in an offseason strength and conditioning program. Achieving optimal weight, improving movement patterns and getting as strong as possible are prized during this time.

But now that the season has arrived, what should you implement into baseball players’ fitness programs to maximize performance?

 

3 Important Exercises Baseball Players Should Perform Inseason

Players will begin to hit, throw and sprint with significantly more intensity and volume as the season kicks off. When players try to match this volume in their fitness program it is often detrimental to success.

At our facility, we aim to provide players with lower body exercises that limit soreness, maintain power and help players recover before their next practice session or game. Remember that the minimal effective dose of exercise is always the goal.

Here are three exercises that can be included in the same training session to maximize in-season performance.

 

Elevated Trap Bar Speed Deadlift

The deadlift is arguably the king of all lower body lifts and a staple in our athletes’ programs.

Some players struggle with maintaining good posture from the start of the lift, especially those who are taller or struggle with loading the hips. This variation uses 45 pound plates or 2 inch blocks under the loaded bar to ensure the start position is perfect.

Move the weight as fast as possible with great form to maximally recruit the glutes and create force into the ground. Normally we like to see the athlete slowly lower the weight to encourage muscle growth, but this variation only focuses on speed from the ground up. Slowly lowering the weight will encourage muscle soreness, and this is the last thing a young athlete needs while trying to perform optimally!

Long Stride Sled Push

We use multiple variations of the sled push for getting kids strong, and this version encourages good hip movement with minimal stress on the low back.

You will notice how the athlete below really flexes the hip towards the trunk prior to pressing the foot back into the ground. Direct training of the hip flexor muscles is often ignored, and this exercise is a great way to sneak in some extra hip flexion work. The added benefit of this is the ability to really load up weight to maintain leg strength without waking up sore the next day.

Single Leg Box Squat with Counterweight

Standing on one leg creates a significant demand for core and hip stability, especially when loaded with weight. The box is there to ensure the athlete is using the hips to sit back and control the motion. The weight does not need to be heavy here, with only 5-10 pounds in each hand to provide some weight in front of the athlete.

This exercise is usually programmed towards the end of a training session to train good body control, even with fatigue after a tough session. If this variety is too difficult, have the player use the non-working leg to apply a little force into the ground to make the move easier.

 

Players work all offseason to maximize strength gains, put on quality mass and develop power to deliver during game situations. In-season training is often an afterthought, but remember that movement quality and maintaining strength are vital to success for baseball players. Try incorporating these exercises into fitness programming during the season to help players dominate games and recover faster.

 

 

Exercises For Baseball Players Installment 1: Knee-to-Knee Rotational Med Ball Shotput

Throwing and hitting can take a toll on the body.

Here is an exercise that baseball players can use to not only groove appropriate hip loading but also teaches power with the movement, without actually throwing or swinging a bat. Usage of medicine balls is the closest training tool players and coaches can adopt, to practice the sport specific movements in baseball.

I thought of this exercise because it is my favorite drill to use with the pitchers that I work with. The movement performed when a knee-to-knee is executed correctly, is what pitchers and hitters need to create in order to build optimal tension into the ground, to transfer force into the delivery or swing. Remember to stay athletic, and not to use too many cues in this exercise, so the athlete doesn’t get robotic and methodical.

Also, baseball is an explosive sport; so don’t teach your body to be slow.

 

Knee-to-Knee Rotational Med Ball Shotput

 

 

Should you swing at the first pitch?

Should you swing at the first pitch? Is being “ready to pounce” on the first pitch a quality hitting approach? Let’s talk about it. 

Swinging at the first pitch, affectionately known within baseball as “ambushing,” is controversial. Some coaches will tell you that you need to be patient, and see a bunch of pitches. Others strongly encourage their hitter to be ready pounce. The idea for this article came to mind when reading an intelligent tweet in response to a chart about batting averages on first pitch strikes:

should you swing at the first pitch

Ken Spangenber replied to this graphic with the following: “You realize that stat is only if they actually swing at the first pitch right? Any of these guys could’ve only swung at 5% of 1st pitches.”

What Does This Photo Tells Us?

Kudos to Ken, as his comment was right on track. This photo simply tells us that good hitters (the guys above are All-Stars, and the worst average shown was Catcher Salvador Perez, whose position is widely accepted as defense-first) are good at choosing to swing at pitches they can hit hard, with Mike Trout being unreal at it. This is going to lead me to my conclusion for the question, Should A Person Swing at The First Pitch…

 

Only If You’re Extra Sure It’s Your Pitch

I’ve pitched since I was 8 years old, including the last 7 years in pro baseball. The resounding commonality between good hitters – at any level – is that they’re better at selecting pitches that give them a higher probability of hitting hard. Pick only the fastballs down the middle and leave everything else.

And that appears to be exactly what Mike Trout does, right? To hit .632 in 0-0 counts is absurd, and really all he’s doing is narrowing his focus so much that the only pitches exist to him are pitches in the exact location he wants. When he gets them, he smashes them. When they’re not there, he takes them. That’s simple, but it’s not easy to do.

Most hitters think it’s their pitch, then realize it’s off-speed or not in the location they initially thought. Or, they get into an ambush mentality and get too aggressive, making poor decisions on what to swing at because they’re excited to hopefully get a hit in a certain count or situation. I’m not a hitter, but I know this because I’ve watched it and exploited it personally for many years.

But I used the word EXTRA SURE because if you ground out on pitch #1 too many times…  Clayton Kershaw will be pitching into the 9th inning (and no one wants that).

 

Guess What? There is No Magical Count

Your bat doesn’t know it’s a 2-2 count. The baseball doesn’t know it’s 0-2. The count you choose to hit the ball in makes absolutely zero difference as to the outcome. The only difference maker is the hitter – how well can he barrel up the pitch he chooses to swing at? A line drive in an 0-0 count flies just the same as a line drive on a 3-2 count.

There’s no magic and no advantage to putting bat to ball in a certain count…unless you’re a pitcher.

 

Swing First Pitch. Please and Thank You.

Here’s the thing, though. You hitters suck. Even the best of you only get a hit 3/10 times and most of you, only 1 in 4.

So, as a pitcher, the odds are good for me when you swing at the first pitch. I’ll even entice you by throwing a bunch of fastballs early in the game. If you swing at the first pitch, I get a one-pitch out 3 out of 10 times, and now my innings are nice and easy.

And even if you get a hit, chances are it’s not a bomb, and I’ve still only thrown one pitch. 4 pitches later, I’ve gotten a ground-ball double play and have two outs on five pitches. I’ll still pitch deep into this game.

What really hurts pitchers is 3-2 walks, 3-2 hits, 2-2 bloopers. Those cost us much more dearly, as we wasted 5-7% of our available energy (assuming 100 pitches) and got zero outs to show for it. If I’m a reliever and want to be fresh for tomorrow, I want to be back in the dugout in less than 15 pitches.

 

Pitchers Miss Their Spots

But here’s the thing: pitchers miss their spots even when grooving fastballs. Even Big League pitchers don’t hit their spots as much as you think they do. So when you get super hell-bent on ambushing the first pitch, even if he tries to groove a first pitch fastball, it may end up on the outer third, and now you’ve grounded out to short. If he throws an off-speed pitch for a strike, you’re definitely on your front foot if you even make contact. And like I just said, if you’re going to swing at a bad pitch, it’s better to swing at bad pitch #6 than #1.

 

Rules To Swing By

Based on all of this, I’ve come up with 4 rules that I coach my athletes.

 

#1: (Almost) Never Swing at An Off-Speed Pitch First Pitch.

If you’re sitting on one…ask yourself why? Are you even that good at hitting breaking balls when you know they’re coming? If it’s down in the zone you’re still probably rolling over. If you’re sitting on a slider that shows up much less frequently…you’ll let fastballs (literally) pass you by.

And if you’re looking fastball and decide to swing at a first-pitch slider, you’re probably not going to barrel it up well. In the Majors, more 0-0 off-speed stuff is thrown, because hitters are so good. But at lower levels, first-pitch breaking balls freeze and eat guys up. When hitters swing at them, the result is usually a weakly-batted ball.

 

#2. Never Pre-Choose A Specific Count To Swing

Your goal as a hitter should always be to select the pitch that you can barrel up with authority. The best hitters I faced in pro baseball were always exceptionally picky – they knew the strike zone and knew what their limits were; if they couldn’t hit my fastball on the inner third or closer, they’d choose a looking strikeout rather than a deviation from their plan.

So, if you’re getting yourself excited to “jump on the first pitch,” without having any idea what that pitch will be until it’s on it’s way, you’re setting yourself up for a poor decision; you’re making your mind partly up without any clue if the pitch is in your comfort zone.

I yelled at my 16U Warbird Senators team last year when they started getting excited about a pitcher who was throwing a lot of first-pitch fastballs.

He’s throwing first pitch fastballs! Start swinging first pitch, guys! Let’s get him!

What happened? The kid went through two consecutive innings on like 13 pitches. It was embarrassing, as he had quick innings and forced our pitcher back into the 96 degree heat after what seemed like a 30-second break in the dugout.

Sure, he was throwing first-pitch fastballs. But, this pitcher also barely had a second pitch to speak of, so he was throwing first-pitch fastballs, second-pitch fastballs, all the way down to 7th-pitch fastballs. Most 16U pitchers don’t have much else. We just helped him until I set us straight and reminded guys to swing if they could drive it and that there was nothing special about getting a first-pitch hit.

 

#3. X-Out Pitches That You Don’t Want.

Make a list for yourself by asking, “What pitches do I hit really well?” If it’s not on that list, then it’s definitely not for you on an 0-0 count, and you need to X it off your list; you don’t even consider swinging at it on 0-0. Offspeed in general is probably on this list.

 

#4. Remember: Picking a Bad Pitch Early is Exactly What the Pitcher Wants

Pitchers talk scouting reports on the opposing team, and every pitcher is different in his approach to pitching. The topic of “Who Ambushes?” is prevalent – we don’t want to get burned on 0-0 counts if we can help it.

But really, it’s about knowing who swings 0-0 more often than not. For those guys, I don’t get nervous about throwing a fastball. Rather, I get excited – I know that if he sees fastball, he’s likely to swing. So, I just focus a little harder on making an 0-2 quality fastball on 0-0; if he swings at my outer-corner fastball on 0-0, he’s out. If I jam one under his fists…he’s out. If I elevate well…he pops up. All I have to do is not toss it down the middle. And, even if I do…he’ll probably still just fly out.

And, in my experience, though flipping in a breaking ball to an ambusher is a good idea, it often results in a freeze – he expects fastball (he’s trying to smash it) and freezes on any spinning pitch. So, it’s either 0-1 or 1-0, rather than that 1-pitch ground out I’d much prefer. I WANT those ambushing idiots to swing (Mike Trout excluded).

 

A Story to End On

I pitched in relief against the same team twice within a week, and struck the same 4-hole hitter out twice on the exact same pitch – a fastball that was a ball-and-a-half inside. Clearly a ball both times, and nearly the exact same pitch. It was good for me, but he definitely got screwed each time.

I’m not usually very social, but both teams went out to the bars after a game, as it was the birthday of one of the players. I saw the guy, and I half-jokingly apologized for my strikeouts; I told him that both of them were balls. I’d take it, but he definitely got screwed. He laughed and replied:

Man, I’m not even worried about it. I’m never going to swing at that pitch – I’ll strike out looking 10 out of 10 times on that pitch because I can’t do anything with it. I’m trying to drive balls, not ground one through the hole. So don’t worry about that, I wasn’t swinging anyway, even if it was on the black. You just got me.

I liked that conversation. He was a veteran guy and knew what he could barrel up, and what he couldn’t. I was trying to make the pitch I made – I wanted to jam him (he had a lot of power if he extended his arms. So as soon as I got ahead in the count, I was living under his fists. If he swung, he’d get jammed. If he didn’t, then we’d see.

 

Are You An Ambusher?

Let me know if you think we should swing at the first pitch in the comments below!