Breaking Down the Swing: Best Hitters of 2012 Part II

Yes, this is Part II to a study that you probably haven’t read Part I to yet.  Like a James Bond movie, you do not have to see the first one to be able to enjoy the next.  Exactly like James Bond.  To get the full background of my project, you can find Part I HERE in the Community Research Blog archives from earlier this season.

For those of you that choose not to look back, I am looking at the top 50 hitters in Major League Baseball from 2012 according to FanGraphs Batting Runs stats, with an eye on quantitatively measuring how they swing the bat.  I hope to use this data to apply specifically to amateur players eligible to be drafted, and by extension any player that is an unknown in regards to how they will perform in American professional baseball.  This project was designed to assist anyone who is unable to watch a player in person but wants to get an idea as to what kind of hitter he is through video.

Evaluating players is about minimizing risk in an investment, and I hope to find that quantitative mechanical analysis can prove to be a useful scientific approach to that end.  Video analysis has been around for years, but quantification has either been held private or misappropriated by not looking at the most important parts of the swing.  You have to look at the movements that are most innate to a player’s body; the ones most difficult to change through training.  It also cannot be expected of an organization’s minor league system to be able to teach every hitter the intricacies of the swing.  Those who are closer to MLB hitters in how they swing the bat should, on average, have better careers than those who start from a lower floor.

Though I relate most of these topics to ideas taught by various hitting coaches, this information must not be used as a recipe book for creating a good hitter.  Whereas I hope to further define the science of evaluation, coaching a hitter or developing your own swing is much more of an art.  Everybody is born with a different body type, athletic ability, and awareness that requires different positions and moves to maximize each player’s ability as a hitter.  I definitely do not recommend picking out one hitter and teaching one swing to every player.

Some of the hitters even in this select group of talented players do things that are not mechanically sound, but they do enough things right (or are just physically more powerful) that they can overcome many shortcomings that would ruin the swing of a younger or less physical player.  Emulation is an important form of learning at a young age, but as you develop you need to understand concepts, not try to find the magic step-by-step to being a big league hitter.

Part I served as an introduction to the research while also dispelling a couple common myths floating around the coaching world.  I will still interject a few nuggets regarding the popular notions about hitting, but that is not the main focus of this research.  Perhaps after this series is finished, I will come back to these hitters to explain the mechanical strengths and weaknesses of each to provide information more useful to coaches and individual players trying to get better.  For now, however, back to business.  In this piece, I will be focusing exclusively on the motion of the upper body.

Last article I measured the movement of the hands and elbow and the angle of the bat at Stance, Negative Move, Toe Touch, and Heal Plant.  However, this was more useful for defining the lower half than the upper body, so it proved insufficient for this stage of the project.  To better isolate how the hands and elbow work, I separated the measurements of these moves into 9 stages:  Stance, Gather, Stride, Elbow Attack, Hands Commit, Bat Vertical, Bat Lag, Contact and Extension.

“Stance” is simply the starting point right before the hitter began to organize his body to swing.  Any movement of the hands while beginning the stride constitutes the “Gather”.  “Stride” refers to the movement of the hands and elbows during the body’s move forward, usually falling in right before the front toe touches the ground.  “Elbow Attack” is the point after the completion of the stride when the back elbow first begins to drop down behind the body.  The hands begin to descend and join the elbow in the swing at “Hands Commit.”  “Bat Vertical” delineates the position when the bat is at 90° directly over the hands, and “Bat Lag” is the point when the bat is parallel to the ground with the barrel pointing toward the catcher.  “Contact” is self-explanatory, and “Extension” is the point after contact where the barrel is parallel to the ground and/or the hands are farthest out in front of the body.

The two most important things to look for in a hitter’s upper body are the bat path and how the back elbow and hands sequence.  Since the path of the bat itself is hard to follow in low-resolution videos, I mapped out the position of the hands and back elbow relative to the head instead of the barrel of the bat.  I used the head as a reference point for these measurements to isolate these movements from those of the lower half.  I decided to first include the raw positions of the hands in graphical form, both because of its awesomeness and to show how diverse yet similar some of the moves are.  As a reminder, the positions were scaled to the batters’ height in the video as in my previous article, due to the variation in camera positioning.  In this format, -10% refers to beings 10% of the batter’s height below/behind the head, depending on the axis.

First let’s look at the hands.

Hand Path

Chart 1.  Position of the hands relative to the head from Gather to Extension.

The first part of the path is pretty incoherent, with no real pattern in raw positioning.  However, it is apparent that the hands drop down behind the head before they come forward.  In case you are interested, the lowest arc is that of Ian Desmond, which also represents the lowest pitch of the 50 homeruns, coming in at just 18.6% of his height.  Another interesting aside is that Carlos Beltran smashed the highest pitch in this group at 46.4% of his height, or 53.6% below his head for non-math majors here.

In other words, the highest pitch came in lower than the lowest hand position of these 50 hitters, that of Ian Desmond all the way at the bottom at 50.1% below his head.  In order to hit the ball this way, the barrel must come underneath the hands, even on higher pitches.  No good hitter tomahawks baseballs, at least according to this sample.  From an evaluation standpoint, guys who get on top to beat the ball into the ground and utilize their speed can be great players, but that does not qualify them as great hitters.  This study is designed with the goal of evaluating the hit and power tools, not speed.

This is one of the many faulty idioms taught by hitting coaches, that you must swing down on the ball either to create backspin and loft, or to hit more groundballs, depending on whom you talk to and what their philosophy is.  The hands do in fact come down, but they do more so behind the body, only to come slightly up as they approach contact.  This makes sense if you think about it; the ball is coming in at a slight downward angle from the pitcher’s mound.  This is partially due to release height, but more importantly because of gravity.  Gravity makes everything fall, and baseballs are no exception, even those that appear to “rise”—feel free to peruse any of the Pitch F/X numbers and articles around FanGraphs if you disagree; they are only fastballs that fall less than others.

If I want to have the best chance of squaring up the baseball, I want to match the plane of the ball by swinging slightly up.  At first glance, Chart 1 may appear to show hitters swinging down to hit the ball.  However, it is not labeled which part of the swing is at the bottom of the path curve.

Take a look at the abridged version below, beginning at the Bat Lag position.

Abbreviated Hands

Chart 2.  Position of the hands relative to the head from Bat Lag to Extension.

Everything looks like it’s going uphill from Bat Lag through Extension.  The hands come down behind the body as they drop in on top of the back elbow, and then proceed through the zone at a slight upswing.  For a numerical illustration, here are the statistics for the slopes of these swings from Bat Lag to Contact only, measured in degrees:

Average 8.76
Std Dev 6.96
High 25.39
Low -0.72

The only hitter to post a negative slope—swinging down from Bat Lag to Contact—was David Wright with a slight downward change at -0.72°.  Matt Holliday, Jose Bautista, and Adam Jones all came in at perfectly level, with no change between Bat Lag and Contact.  Everyone else’s hands moved up during this part of their swings.  Remember also that this is measuring the hands and not the barrel of the bat.  Since the barrel of the bat works underneath the hands in every one of these swings, the bat is still going up and out through the ball even when the hands stay level or go down slightly.  Look at Wright’s swing and see:

David Wright

If you look closely, you can see his hands go down slightly, but at most you could say the bat is coming through the contact zone level, if not a bit up.  There is some wiggle room for the hands to continue moving down while still managing to swing up with the bat, and there is a tight enough pattern here that this should be included in the amateur analysis.

Along the same lines of measuring swing plane, let’s refer back to Chart 2.  As you can see, the vast majority of the hitters get into Bat Lag roughly between the +10% and +20% range.  It stands to reason that a hitter could get into Bat Lag further out in front and still swing up to hit the ball, but getting on plane earlier seems to be a useful component of a good swing.  Here are the parameters for the 50 hitters’ hands’ horizontal position at Bat Lag:

Average 15.80%
Std Dev 4.94%
High 26.12%
Low 4.63%

Pretty solid grouping of numbers here.  There is enough of a pattern here to explore this in the amateur study as well.  Getting on plane is important to accomplish early in the path, but not so early that the barrel drags behind the body.  In case you are interested, the average horizontal position of the hands at Contact for these swings is 35.78%.  Since speed and location can greatly alter how deep in the zone contact is made, I felt it was best not to use this as an analytical point for this study.  Extension can also be a function of the qualities of the pitch being hit, with fast, high and/or inside pitches representing the most difficult to get full extension through.

However, to fully evaluate hand path, I felt this was important to look into regardless.  The longer a batter can stay through contact, the more direct his force is applied to the ball and the more room for error he has on different speeds.  No correlation was found to the type of offensive player each hitter was, so we will again be looking for an acceptable range.  Here is the composite of the horizontal movement of the hands from Bat Lag to Extension, approximating the length of the swing path that the batter could make contact with the ball:

Average 27.40%
Std Dev 6.82%
High 41.05%
Low 11.19%

It remains to be seen how useful this data will be for evaluating unknown hitters, since more extension is likely to be better.  This will be revisited in future analysis.

On top of just the hand path, the action of the back elbow was also tracked.  On its own, the graph of this motion is similar to that of the hands; it is very diverse in the early part of the swing, with things coming together the closer it gets to contact.

Elbow Path

Chart 3.  Position of the back elbow relative to the head from Stance to Bat Lag.

On its own, this does not provide any further information, since there is even more variation than there was with the hand path.  However, I mentioned before that the sequence of the hands and back elbow is another important aspect of a hitter’s swing.  This was explored in Part I as well, but not in as much detail.  The amount of elbow movement can vary based on the hitter’s timing and the location of the pitch.  Though it is an important move both to generate bat speed and allow the hips to initiate the rotation of the swing, it will drop in more if the hitter starts before the ball is on him.  The degree of movement may change, but it is still important to see if a hitter’s elbow moves independently from the hands.

To measure this, I looked at how the elbow moved relative to the hands from the Stride position on, since there is so much variation in the early parts of the swing.  As we found in Part I of this study, some hitters start with the elbow high, others start low and move it up as they gather and stride.  Let’s look at a stage of the swing where there would seem to be less variation.  The first elbow measurement we’ll analyze is the relationship of the hands and elbow at Bat Vertical.

Vertical Horizontal
Average -13.67% 3.34%
Std Dev 3.81% 4.48%
High -2.58% 13.54%

On average, this means that the elbow is 13.67% of batter height below the hands and 3.34% in front when the bat is 90° to the ground. To help understand these numbers here are three pictures representing the highest, average, and lowest elbows in vertical position, relative to their hands:

Picture 9 Picture 10 Picture 8

Austin Jackson, Adam LaRoche, and Giancarlo Stanton are the three hitters pictured.  Alex Gordon, Carlos Quentin, and Prince Fielder represent the spectrum of horizontal elbow position relative to the hands:

Picture 3 Picture 2 Picture 1

A decent range of different positions in both categories is present, but some distinct patterns are still apparent.  The elbow goes below the hands in all 50 swings at the Bat Vertical position, even if only slightly in a few.  In most of the hitters’ swings, the elbow was slightly ahead of the hands horizontally, though a reasonable minority were slightly behind with the elbow.  Position is not everything though, so let’s look further into the moves that get them to this position.

Initially I hoped we could look at the angle created by the elbow and hands and how it changes throughout the swing.  Complicating this solution is the fact that the hands are sometimes behind the elbow and switch to the front during the swing, and vice-versa, making it difficult to define the movement by a simple angle.  So again we will have to look at horizontal and vertical moves.  I looked at a myriad of combinations for start and stop points in the data, and found two that showed the most obvious patterns:  the vertical movement of the elbow from Stance to Hands Commit and the vertical movement from Elbow Attack to Bat Vertical.  Let’s first look at the move from Stance to Hands Commit.  Again, these numbers refer to the movement of the elbow relative to the hands, not just raw movement in space, since we are trying to find evidence of the elbow moving independently in the early parts of the swing.

Average -9.75%
Std Dev 5.50%
High 1.10%
Low -23.17%

The average of these swings shows that the elbow drops 9.75% of batter height compared to the hands, with the biggest drop coming in at 23.17%.  There was only one hitter in the sample whose elbow ended up in a higher position relative to the hands, Edwin Encarnacion.  For illustration, let’s see what the average movement here looks like, as well as Encarnacion, to see better what we’re talking about.  Giancarlo Stanton was the closest to average at 9.64%, pictured first.

Picture 4Picture 5 Picture 6 Picture 7

It’s tough to see on Encarnacion’s swing, but his back elbow moves down slightly, just not as much as his hands do.  Interestingly, there was a slight but not definitive correlation between this move and wOBA, with a correlation coefficient (R, not R-squared) of .244.  The more the elbow dropped relative to the hands, the better the wOBA.  Remember this is for the top 50 hitters last year, so all of their wOBA’s are pretty good.  Nothing crazy, just…interesting.  Since you’ve made it this far, you must like this stuff, so let’s look at another two pictures of the biggest elbow drop of the sample in the form of Prince Fielder:

Picture 12 Picture 13

He starts from a pretty high position and drops it down without committing his hands while his hips begin to rotate.  Here are the numbers for the elbow movement from Elbow Attack to Bat Vertical:

Average -9.09%
Std Dev 6.40%
High 3.87%
Low -30.93%

There is a similar pattern shown here.  I think with the previous table going from Stride to Hands Commit, coupled with the simpler positional information of the hands and elbow at Bat Vertical from above, there are enough data points to warrant putting this on the backburner for now.

The last topic for this beast is an adjunct to the independent elbow movement data we just looked at, but from a slightly different approach.  One of the less common coaching queues has to do with what angle the bat should be for best results.  There’s a huge variation in the Stance with a lot of extra movements before the pitch, so we’ll look at where the angle is at the Gather and Stride positions:

Gather Stride
Average 60 50
Std Dev 18.3 13.9
High 125 83
Low 22 13

There is a huge spread in angles in these hitters’ swings, even during the stride right before the elbow starts to attack and begin the swing.  Granted, this is only from the side view, and there are certainly cases to be made about a flat bat angle (pointed more toward the dugouts) making a hitter’s bat path too level or on a downward slope.  However, that is outside the scope of this research.  Definitely not seeing any evidence here to support an ideal side-view bat angle, and there is no meaningful correlation with any of the main hitting statistics I used for comparison (wOBA, OBP, AVG, SLG).

Instead of just positioning, let’s see how much the angle of the bat changes over the same moves we discussed with elbow movement, from Stride to Hands Commit.  If a batter is truly moving just his elbow to start the swing, not only will his hands stay relatively still during this time like we showed above, the angle of the bat will not change either.  If the angle of the bat increases a lot as soon as the elbow starts, the swing has to go right then; there is no chance to make last-second adjustments to the pitch.  Here is a summary of the data:

Average 2
Std Dev 7.4
High 19
Low -16

On average, the bat moves very little, though there is a range of moves here that would seem to indicate there is no useful pattern.  However, these are smaller changes than you might expect.  The +19° and -16° changes belong to these two guys, Billy Butler and Justin Ruggiano:

Picture 14 Picture 15 Picture 16 Picture 17

Looking at Butler in particular, even though his barrel starts to go back and the angle increases, the elbow still leads the swing and moves further.  And this is the most dramatic example of the elbow and barrel going at the same time in this sample.  Perhaps this will not be as important in future analysis, but I feel it may be worth looking further into.

In Part II here, we have dispelled a few myths about the swing path while also getting more information with which to evaluate amateur hitters.  To be honest, I am on this excursion with you; I cannot guarantee whether there will be any predictive value in these measurements with hitters that do not have an established track record.  Predicting future hitting performance without statistical information is a difficult task normally reserved for first-hand reports from scouts.  I have no intention of making an argument for eliminating scouts; any notion of ignoring information is ridiculous, regardless of the source.

If it turns out that there is nothing useful to looking at a hitter’s mechanics when he’s young and still developing, that is still a very valuable lesson.  Teams will continue to look for the best athletes with present mechanics as a secondary concern, and put a player development system around them that will maximize their potential.  But if we can find a slight correlation to performance at the professional level, even explaining only 10% of the variation, it will be worth it.  Though you have to know a bit about the swing to know what you’re looking for, it doesn’t take much skill to make these measurements.  As I said, ignoring information from any source is not a great way to operate a billion dollar business.

From my experience, the topics covered in this installment seem to be the most important of any that we will cover in determining a hitter’s success.  I have come to believe it stands to reason that a hitter with great lower body and poor hands will occasionally rip the cover off the ball but struggle to find consistency.  The player that has great hands and a poor lower body can be a consistent .300 hitter, with spouts of hitting for power.  For the third and final installment of the Major League portion of this series, I will look more at core and lower body movements to complete the analysis of these 50 hitters.

Dan is Fangraphs Lead Prospect Analyst, living in New York City. He played baseball for four years at Franklin & Marshall College before attending medical school. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter @DWFarnsworth.

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8 years ago

Sweet Jesus, the teacher gives you an A+!! Now if I ever have a kid, I can craft him into the perfect hitter from the age of 3!