Alan Zinter on Swing Planes, Launch Positions, and Tutoring Young Padres

Alan Zinter has a challenging job. The 48-year-old former first baseman is San Diego’s hitting coach, and the position players on the Padres roster are, with few exceptions, young and inexperienced. There is a plenty of raw talent, but there are also plenty of learning curves. Works-in-progress abound.

Zinter embraces the challenge, in large part because he enjoys teaching. By all accounts, he is very good at it. Prior to joining the Padres a little over a year ago, he served as assistant hitting coach in Houston, and before that he was Cleveland’s minor-league hitting coordinator. He began his coaching career in the Diamondbacks system.

He’s anything but old-fashioned in his understanding of the craft. Zinter is well-versed in launch angles and exit velocities, and as a result, he’s not interested in seeing his hitters — not even the speedy ones — slap balls on the ground and run. He wants them driving through the baseball with a swing plane that opens up a window and results in gap shots. From his perspective, it all starts from the launch position.

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Zinter on teaching proper swing mechanics: “With technology being what it is today, with the slo-mo cameras — the ability to slow down the swing — we can actually see what a good swing looks like. A lot of times, what’s taught is ‘chop wood, swing down on the ball, knob to the ball’ — things like that, which make for a shorter compact swing. But some guys who feel they’re doing that end up swinging improperly.

“A lot of hitters, when they try to swing down, lead with their hands. They’re too steep into the zone. Other hitters, for whatever reason, think the same thing and do it properly.

“As coaches, we have to be careful. For example, it would be difficult to take what Josh Donaldson said on MLB Network and start teaching that without a full understanding of his fundamental swing. I agree with getting on plane, slotting the back elbow, and driving through the ball.

“There are many coaches that just tell a kid to get on plane early and slot the bat, but there’s a pretty good chance he’s going to drag the barrel. There is something to being short and quick to the ball, but it’s not literally being short and quick, in a measuring way. For me, it starts with the launch position. You have to start there. If a kid never knows about a strong launch position, he’s not going to understand how to slot the bat and his body isn’t going to work the right way. There are steps involved in teaching how to swing properly.”

On being short to the ball and keeping the bat through the zone as long as possible: “There is often a misunderstanding there. Some guys who think they have a short quick bat actually have a long hand path. They have a long hand path that gets out in front of them, and then there’s a quick snap, in and out of the zone.

“A proper swing has a short hand path and a long barrel release through the zone. A lot of guys who are focusing on having a short quick bat are entering the zone too steep. There are also guys who… Mark McGwire thought down-on-the-baseball, but he was slotting his hands properly. He had a short hand release, and his bat was in the zone a long time.

“As a coach, you have to know your players. I like teaching what the swing actually does. I’m confident enough to take a hitter through the launch position, and through the progression. I’ve seen so many coaches doing lessons trying to teach this — get on plane early — and the kids end up with their barrel so far away from their shoulder as they trigger. There’s no tightness, and there’s not any consistency, which makes it very difficult for them to have success.”

On driving through the baseball: “Not all swings are the same, but good swings cover multiple pitches in different areas of the zone. What the best hitters today are doing, the elite hitters, is trying to put themselves in a strong launch position to where they can get on plane with a sinker coming down and in, and impact the ball. I talk about the two hinges, the elbow and the wrist. Can they actually drive through the baseball, as though it was down the middle, rather than reacting to it and going down, steep to it, where they just have the wrist hinge?

“Hitters are evolving, because of technology. They’re able to see what they’re capable of doing. You hear the good ones, like a Miguel Cabrera, talking about plane. Really good hitters are able to take multiple swings, but at the same time, in reality there’s just one swing — it’s just the depth of the baseball, or the height of the baseball. But with the initial movement to the baseball… you’re trying to take the same swing on every pitch.

“They key is when the pitch gets away from the middle of the plate, can you recruit muscles to be able to take your best swing and drive the ball? Can you do that without losing the barrel, dragging the barrel?”

On Travis Jankowski and the right way to be handsy:Travis a work in progress. He’s also come a long way. We’ve had to revamp his swing, revamp his trigger to the baseball. He was triggering with his hands. His hands were way ahead of his back hip, and he was dragging the barrel as he was trying to get inside the ball and tap it on the ground, and run like hell. That’s not going to play at this level, at least not with any consistency. Good hitters have more barrel release through the zone.

Tony Gwynn was very handsy, but he was also very good at keeping his back hip in front of the elbow. That would create bat path. Guys often take ‘hands in front’ too literal. It all stems from… We’re holding the bat — we know the bat is our weapon — but the body controls it. Guys grow up with good hand-eye coordination, but they don’t really know how their body works. We’re trying to teach the biomechanics of how the body actually moves, and how it sequences.

“Travis has learned a lot. I’ve been working with him since I got here last spring. I’m not asking him to hit home runs. I’m asking him to get into a position where he can drive the baseball. I don’t want him pounding balls into the ground. I want him to hit line drives. Guys who just slap the ball on the ground… you’re not getting the most out of them.”

On Manny Margot and not guiding the ball:Manny is a line-drive hitter to me. He’s going to be a gap-to-gap guy who can hit to all fields. He’s definitely not a guy who should hit the ball on the ground and run. He’s a speedster, but there’s some developing power there. Not to the point where he’s going to hit 25 home runs, but he’s a very exciting player with an explosive swing.

“We’re trying to get Manny to not manipulate the barrel. When he lands and triggers the baseball, it’s like go — give it a good swing with your backside and go through it. Don’t be, ‘Ohh, it’s a little inside, just hit it to right-center field.’ Don’t guide the ball to an area. Swing through the baseball. We try to teach direction with the backside, not direction with the hands.”

On Hunter Renfroe and backspin:Hunter is big and strong, so for him a good swing and a line drive to the gap might be a home run. He doesn’t want to talk about hitting home runs, but he’s strong enough to where he can hit many in a row during batting practice, with the proper swing.

“A Travis Jankowski can’t drive every ball out of the park, but you still look for the correct backspin, the trajectory of the ball off the bat. It’s not slicing, it’s not drawing. When they impact the ball, are they giving it ‘Bam!’ where it’s true backspin, and not topspin? Hunter Renfroe has a different kind of power that way.

“But the game is changing. There’s more to a Jankowski, a Margot, or a Carlos Asuaje, than just having them be handsy and trying to put the ball on the ground. First of all, you’re asking a guy to be more perfect if his bat head is going to be in the zone with a smaller window. He has to be more perfect than a Miguel Cabrera or a Mike Trout.

“With guys who use their hands more, the barrel of the bat usually comes in steeper. There are only a few points of contact, because they’re not matching the plane. We want our guys to not have to be as perfect, so we’re working on that.”

On continuing to learn: “You build relationships with guys, and you want to challenge them to see how much better they can get. If I had a bunch of veteran guys here, there’s a pretty good chance they’d know what they were doing. At the same time, you have guys who have been around, like Cabrera, who are evolving. A hitter should never stop learning about his swing.

“Most hitters at this level — this includes the younger guys — have good swings, but you need to have timing, you need to have an approach, you need to have discipline. There are things you might tweak. You can take a guy who has a window that’s a foot and a half, and hopefully extend that to three feet. A young kid who is just being taught might have a six-inch window. If no one teaches him properly, he’s never going to open that window up.”

On using the right language to teach: “I’m not telling guys they need to get launch angle and exit velocity. Those are byproducts of getting on plane and slotting properly. Trying to create launch angle without any knowledge of how to get there… if you’re trying to do the result without the process, your body isn’t going to being doing the right things.

“What I’m trying to do is teach that process, teach sequence, teach torque, teach how to get to where all of a sudden it’s ‘Bam!’ you’re exploding through there.

“It’s meticulous, like in golf. I think we’re getting closer to what they’re doing with golf, understanding the swing. But you can’t take all of this information, this metrics stuff, and say, ‘We want you to have 30-degrees launch angles today, we need you to get your exit velocity going.’ Hitters don’t even need to know that. That’s my job.

“There’s so much involved in hitting that it’s ridiculous. I love where it’s going. At the same time, it’s hard, because there’s a new way to teach, and you have to be careful with that. You can’t teach any one part of it without teaching the whole thing. But it all starts from the launch position.”





David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from December 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.

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