Part 4: Baseball Swing Theory 101 (good for hitting a softball as well)
Part 4 of a 6-part series
There is more than one way to swing a baseball bat
It seems like everyone who has ever made it to the pros has their own theory about hitting. There are several different "schools of thought" on the proper way to hit, and they regularly fight it out on internet forums. People get their feelings hurt and they ban people who disagree with them from their site. What's lost in all of this is that we're talking about one aspect of a game that's mostly played by children.
So what is the right way to hit? The two main schools of thought are often designated linear and rotational hitting theory. Linear hitting is often credited to Charley Lau, a former major league catcher who taught cues that are still popular with coaches today, such as "bring your hands to the ball". Some of the other cues that were once popular with linear hitting techniques, such as rolling over with the top hand, have now been thoroughly discredited. Why? Because we have high-speed cameras capturing major leaguers hit and nobody at the pro level does that.
The basic idea behind linear hitting is that you should take the shortest path to the ball as possible. By bring your hands directly "to the ball" and then rotating the barrel of the bat with your hands you are eliminating the loop of a rotational swing and increasing your chances of making contact, in theory.
Mark McGwire used to do this to an extent and he hit a lot of home runs, so it must work, right? Take your shirt off and look at yourself in the mirror. Do you look like the Incredible Hulk minus the green skin? If you answered "no", then McGwire's version of linear hitting probably isn't for you. Most people cannot hit home runs with the power of their wrists.
In many hitting circles, Charley Lau is seen as a villain who damaged the sport of baseball in the 1970's and 1980's. They say he taught a type of hitting that is basically slap hitting, and that it only worked for a sort period when about half the stadiums in MLB had turf fields. Slap the ball on the ground and it'll race through the infield. That just doesn't work on grass, because the ball is slowed down too much.
One Charley Lau disciple was Walt Hriniak, who worked with the Boston Red Sox and helped spread the Lau way of hitting around baseball. Former Red Sox great Ted Williams reportedly once said that Lau set back hitting 50 years with his teachings. Let's take a look at some videos of what Lau actually teaches.
Players who support linear hitting
There are several players who either were students of Lau or have at some point or another supported some of his teachings on hitting. George Brett credited Lau with teaching him how to hit like a pro during his Hall of Fame speech in Cooperstown. I suspect more credit should be given to people who taught Brett when he was growing up (after all, his brother Ken became a major leaguer as well), but I digress. Don Mattingly might not be a student of Lau, but some of the things he currently teaches have striking similarities. Tony Gwynn also sometimes teaches linear hitting cues.
Now I'm going to show you some videos of what Don Mattingly teaches. You can watch these videos all the way through or skip over them, I just want you to see what is being taught out there. A little later on I'll show you why I believe most of what he says is just wrong, and it's also not at all similar to the way he hit when he was in the majors. There is some good stuff in the videos, such as Mattingly's hitting theory (what to expect in certain counts, how to prepare at the plate, etc). This segment of my hitting school isn't about hitting theory; that comes a little bit later.
What's wrong with linear hitting?
There are two major problems with linear hitting. The first one is the lack of power. By bringing your arms directly to the ball, you are using some of the weakest muscles in the swing chain to power your swing. As I noted in my home run conditioning program, a good power swing should be powered by the big muscles in the legs and the core. The arms play a minimal role in the swing. They basically just connect the shoulders to the bat and make sure the bat is tilted correctly to make contact. Ever see pictures of Ted Williams with his arms exposed? He had skinny little arms, and he crushed some home runs well over 400 feet, even when he was well past 40 years old. If he was a linear hitter he would have been lucky to have been drafted into pro ball.
The second problem with linear hitting is that it doesn't actually help produce contact. Shortening the swing path to the ball might seem like a good idea, but let's take a moment to really think about this. The barrel of your bat starts out high, usually above your back shoulder. A ball passing through the strike zone is going to be about thigh-high. If you bring the barrel of your bat directly to the ball you are going to be swinging down. The ball is also moving downward thanks to our old friend Mr. Gravity. If you're swinging down at an object that is moving downward, you are limiting the opportunity you have to make contact with that object. Instead, you want to be swinging on a swing path that matches the path of the object. In the case of hitting a baseball, that means your swing should be slightly upward.
That's right, folks. An ideal swing has a slight uppercut to it. Watch Ted Williams, Mickey Mantle, Albert Pujols, and just about any great hitter who ever played the game and you'll see their bat is moving slightly upward at the point of contact.
One of the great lies of linear hitting is that by hitting downward on the ball you create backspin that will make the ball fly a lot farther. The truth is, the ideal contact for hitting a home run is by matching up the bat path with the ball path in the opposite direction and striking the middle of the barrel about 3/4 of an inch below the center of the ball. That will put the nearly maximum force on the ball and with backspin to provide extra lift.
Rotational hitting is an umbrella term that describe swing theories that focus on using the body to rotate the shoulders and in turn the arms. The arms should stay mostly in the same position until the point of contact, with the elbows also maintaining a nearly constant angle from "Go" when you decide to swing until you make contact with the ball. The back elbow moves down into what is called the slot position against the rear hip and only straightens slightly before the point of contact. To see what I mean, take a look at this slow motion clip of Albert Pujols, one of the best hitters in the game and a great example of rotational hitting:
Who teaches rotational hitting?
Unfortunately, not enough people teach rotational hitting. Even at the pro level, there are still some hitting coaches (most of whom developed their skills in the 1970's and 1980's when Charley Lau was the oracle of hitting) who teach things that we just don't see major league players do. In the past generation, it's tended to be the computer nerds and stat junkies who have noticed that the best hitters were not hitting in the same way that everyone was teaching.
One of the best websites about the baseball swing in general is from a guy who never played organized baseball at any level. He now instructs professionals and fixes flaws in their swings. His name is Chris O'Leary, and his website can be found here: http://www.chrisoleary.com
I think part of the reason why rotational hitting was so slow to catch on among people teaching the swing is that it seem so unnatural when you look at it. If you showed a linear hitting guy a photo of a 12-year-old at the point of contact with a rotational hitting swing, he'd probably say it's an example of what's wrong with rotational hitting. Take a look at this photo of Albert Pujols below:
Pujols got jammed badly, right?
Wrong. This is a photo of Pujols hitting a game-winning home run. That ball coming off his bat traveled over 400 feet. Notice where Pujols' arms are in this swing. The back elbow is in the slot position, and the front elbow has already rotated around his body.
While you've got this photo in front of you, I want you to notice some other things that Pujols is doing right. Note the tilt of his shoulders. Note the straightened front leg at contact. Note the bend in the back leg and how the upper part of the leg is vertical. Note that his upper body is over the back leg. See what his back foot is doing? He's not "squishing the bug", as so many are taught. Only his toe is touching the ground. Almost 100% of his body weight is on his front leg. His front foot is angled toward first base, a sign that this leg started the rotational process. Notice how his front foot is not flat on the ground. That's because it still wants to rotate more with the rest of the body. That foot is the pivot that the rest of the body is rotating around. The upper body is only able to rotate as quickly as it does because that foot is resisting rotation.
Who else teaches rotational hitting?
Although it wasn't called rotational hitting in his day, Ted Williams certainly is the forefather of this approach. Some of the things Williams thought were correct have since been discredited by video evidence, but the basics are all there.
Steroids or not, Barry Bonds was the best hitter of this generation. Statistically, he might be the best hitter of all time. Take a look at his swing, especially his trunk and his arms. It's textbook rotational hitting. Some have even claimed that the elbow protector he used on his front elbow gave him an advantage because it helped him keep the elbow bent through contact. A straight front arm is called "arm barring" and it's something often found with linear hitting. Charley Lau once referred to having both arms straightened at contact the "Power V" because of how the arms looked from an overhead camera. I call that position the "ground out to 2nd base".
Putting together the perfect baseball swing
The perfect baseball swing should have the following elements:
- Weight starts back
- Front leg counter-rotates back toward the catcher. Some batters even turn their front foot back toward the catcher.
- While front leg counter rotates, the hands move in slightly toward that front leg
- The front leg begins to move forward and rotate in the opposite direction, away from the catcher. As it does so, the hands once again move back toward the back shoulder. We are creating separation between the front leg and back shoulder.
- The front leg lands with the toe pointed toward first base (right-handed batter) and the knee slightly bent. The moment the heel of the front foot lands is the "Go" point. This triggers the rotational action that will eventually bring the bat forward.
- The front knee straightens as the back hip rotates and thrusts forward. The front knee straightening helps rotate the front hip. The shoulders should not be rotating yet. This is creating separation between the hips and shoulders.
- The body tilts to get the bat to where the ball will be. The spine should remain neutral (that means straight or natural curvature) throughout the swing.
- The shoulders begin to rotate, bringing the arms and bat forward. Imagine that there is a solid bar connecting your left and right elbow. That bar will not bend or stretch, and it will remain between your elbows until the point of contact with the ball.
- The front elbow is rotated up and the back elbow is rotated down into the slot position against the side.
- You make contact with the ball at a point about even with your front foot. This is a lot farther back than most people realize. You should remember this point when hitting off a tee.
- You allow your bat to slow down naturally as it rotates around your body and your arms reach a point where they cannot rotate back and more.
- Trot around the bases.