Welcome back to LL’s series on basic, basic, kindergarten-level scouting. Last week’s installment was all about my favorite thing, pitching. This week I poke my nose into hitting, which...well, as the infomercials say, results may vary. If you google “best baseball swing” you get a whole host of results, with very little agreement among any of them. Some will say a high elbow creates a better swing path; others argue the elbow must be lowered to create a shorter swing. Some say a leg kick creates power; others say the leg kick is a writhing nucleus of evil that must be stamped out at all costs. I’ve tried to keep this to the generally-agreed-upon advice that I found from cross-checking info I found in what I consider reputable sources (articles in BP and Fangraphs), but there is a good chance many coaches or players would disagree with what I’ve outlined here. Disclaimer disclaimer disclaimery disclaimer.
Okay, seriously, a lot of people love scouting hitters, because hitting is exciting, right? The crack of the bat, the arc of the ball, the roar of the crowd. Dingers are great, but we all know that dingers at the sub-MLB level carry a warning label. Here’s how to evaluate good process versus good results.
The load period is the part where a hitter shifts back in anticipation of the pitch arriving to the plate. In a split second, the hands move back, the hips shift, and the weight moves to the plant leg. That’s a lot, and it happens quickly. But you, the casual observer, are looking for movements that are fluid and tranquil and balanced, with the shoulder and hip aligned (not open to the mound yet) as the batter’s body cocks back in anticipation of the pitch. The hands should drift back gently, not snap back. The loading phase starts the chain of kinetic energy that will eventually power the contact of bat meeting ball, so it’s important that the mechanics are smooth and clean, not herky-jerky. Here’s a good example of Kyle Seager’s load, slowed down so you can see the fluid weight transfer as his hips and shoulders are perfectly aligned, with his hands drifting, not jerking, back:
This is the exciting part. As tranquil as a player’s body should be during the load, it should be equally or more explosive in triggering, when the hips fire towards the mound, creating torque in the upper body, and the hands begin their path to the ball. Think of the load-trigger sequence like a nuclear foxtrot—slow, slow, QUICK SO QUICK EXPLODEY NOISES. Here you’re looking for fast hands that stay close to the body that trigger a compact, efficient swing path. It’s all physics—the further the hands drift away from the body, the more energy is transferred in that direction, away from the ball. Angle of swing path is a little more open for debate, although most hitting experts seem to agree that a slight upswing through contact is desirable. Leg kick is another thing that varies from hitter to hitter, although it’s generally agreed upon that a giant leg kick can sap some of that kinetic energy away from where it’s most needed, in the hands driving forward to meet the ball. A big leg kick can also throw off a batter’s balance, which is just as important for them as it is for pitchers.
Here’s Robi—not necessarily known as a power hitter—absolutely unloading on a pitch in spring training last year. Look how close to his body his hands stay as his (mercifully unherniated) top half twists to meet the ball, sending it to live in a new zip code. This pitch isn’t a meatball, either—Robi has to reach a little for it—but because he has such good mechanics, he’s able to make the kind of authoritative contact you want to see hitters be able to make with regularity.
Just as pitchers should finish in a balanced position that leaves them ready to field a quick comebacker, hitters should also finish their movements with a clean, balanced follow-through, leaving them prepared to take off quickly and run to first base. This is more important for speed and contact guys rather than power hitters (which is part of what made watching Aoki at-bats so frustrating, for example), but the follow-through or back end of the swing is sort of a fingerprint for what happens in the first part of the swing. For all the talk about Junior and his sweet swing, I’ve always enjoyed the follow-through the best, that perfect grace note at the end.
The best swings become iconic because they are easy, mechanically sound, endlessly repeatable, and consistent. We see them over and over again and they look the same every time. That’s a lot to ask of a prospect who’s still figuring out what kind of hitter he is, but if you watch closely you might be able to see shades of who he will be.