Doug Latta Talks Hitting

Doug Latta’s name is well known in the baseball world, and for good reason. The long-time hitting instructor has worked with a plethora of players over the years, including a number of major league notables, at his Ball Yard facility in Northridge, California. Latta has been featured here at FanGraphs previously — most recently by Sung Min Kim in 2019 — and we’ll hear from him again in the latest installment of our Talks Hitting series.


David Laurila: I’ve asked a lot of hitters if they view hitting as more of an art or more of a science. A lot of people reading this might assume you’d say science, but is that actually the case?

Doug Latta: “No, and it’s not just both. It’s more than that. It’s a combination of science and art and everything in between. People look at a swing as a mechanical thing, and they’ll look at all of the [physical] elements, like movements, but there is an incredible psychological-and-mental side that plays into hitting in a game. You’ve got to transcend the mechanical side, because hitting is quite a feat at the major-league level.”

Laurila: Does the swing itself get overemphasized by some hitting instructors?

Latta: “I think a lot of instructors look at the swing itself, and part of that is, ‘This was a swing that did X in a game versus the swing you took the other day.’ I’ve always seen it as how we move. The things that may or may not affect us happen long before we initiate the swing. We talk about movement patterns and how that plays a role in what swing is going to come out. If your body isn’t working in an optimal way, the swing that’s going to come out is going to be affected.”

Laurila: You shy away from addressing guys you work with, but I assume Hunter Pence is fair game given that he’s spoken openly about what he learned from you?

Latta: “He would definitely be an outlier example of a body that moves in a different way than most other people. It’s almost an awkward movement pattern. Hunter came to us and make some changes during the 2018 offseason, and his 2019 year was incredible. He was able to integrate the changes, which were so different than everything else his body had been doing for 28 years.

“It’s also not only what his body was patterned to do, but how he would think about hitting — the concepts of hitting and how he would regard his moves. So, when the changes were made, it wasn’t just movements. It was thoughts. I love hearing Hunter talking about hitting now, because late in his career he was able to tap into the movements.”

Laurila: With the caveat that not every hitter is the same, what do all hitters need to do to be successful? What are the core components?

Latta: “I think the biggest core component is they have to move athletically. I’m constantly talking about balance, because balance is the integral element to athletic movement. And in hitting, a lot of moves we make really aren’t based on balance. When we start moving better, from the standpoint of clean moves to a position to hit, this changes a lot of things for the positive. For instance, timing and vision are improved. These are intangible elements that people often don’t consider. They’re looking at a hitter and saying, ‘Let’s change a swing,’ whereas when we move better, we see the ball better. If seeing the ball better isn’t a good thing for a hitter, I’m not sure what it is.

“When people start understanding that small compensation moves will affect how you see the ball — and how you move to do that — it makes sense that you essentially need to make hitters more efficient. Pitching has been getting really far ahead from the standpoint of development over the last 10 years, and not just in the major leagues; it runs all the way down to the minor leagues into the amateur side. The quality of pitching is going up, so hitters need to be more efficient. When the body moves efficiently, hitters are so much more effective, and that goes well beyond ‘executing a swing.’

Laurila: When I talked hitting with Edgar Martinez, he told me that he wanted to have his hands close to where he was firing to hit a fastball. A lot of hitters will say that hand movement is part of their timing mechanism, part of their rhythm.

Latta: “It’s about comfort levels. It’s ‘This is what I’ve done, this is where I’m successful.’ But it can come to a point where you realize that something you’re doing — something you’re really comfortable with — is actually getting in your way. That’s something we look at here. I completely agree with Edgar. We don’t want a lot of moves, especially on the way to the ball. The farther our hands get away from us, a lot of other things that can happen.

“How each hitter handles his hands… you’ve got hitters with higher handsets that drop into the hitting slot. You’ve got hitters with lower hand slots that pop up into the hitting slot. But when you look at most hitters, the hands fire no matter where they start. When they start their swing, they’re usually in a pretty tight space. If you draw a circle, everybody’s hands are probably close to that position when they’re right.

“You have to look at the individual dynamics of the hitter. Are they tall with long levers? Are they short with smaller levers? This may not necessarily change where they’re going to be, but it may change how they move. And that’s the key. There’s no model for a hitter. You can’t rubber-stamp and say, ‘You’re going to hit like this.’ You’ve got to kind of evolve each hitter, because some are going to do things that are different than others. Very importantly, the best cues are the ones that are internal to the hitters. A lot of times, a hitting coach might feed a cue, but when a hitter can find it himself and say, ‘Wow, I feel this,’ well, that’s his.”

Laurila: And different hitters have different cues.

Latta: “Yes. I’ve heard swinging down on the ball, I’ve heard swinging up on the ball. And while you have all these different cues that seem to be contradictory, for the hitter expressing those comments, that’s how it feels to them. People will parse that to say, ‘Oh, then everybody must hit down, because so-and-so hits down,’ or it will be, ‘Everybody must hit up, because so-and-so hits up.’ In reality, it’s going to be personal to that very hitter.”

Laurila: Texas Rangers prospect Josh Jung recently told me that he thinks ‘swing down,’ but if you watch him hit, he’s not doing that at all.

Latta: “And when we look at a swing, are people looking at what the body is doing in the swing, or are they just looking to see what they believe the bat is doing? You can have 10 people look at a picture, and they’re all going tell you what’s happening in that picture. But the most important thing you’re going to talk about with the person in that picture — the guy swinging the bat — is ‘What are you feeling?’ As a hitting instructor, that’s what I’ve got to go on. It’s not what I think it is. I’ve got to hear what his feel is, because that way we’ll be on the same side of the paper. If we’re not, there’s going to be a disconnect.

“We really have to be careful about establishing models, or absolutes. The most important thing we have to remember is that with the advancement of pitching, hitters have to be more athletic and efficient. There’s not a lot of room for error when you’re competing against a 98–100-mph fastball with movement. We have to move in a way that allows for some margin, but more importantly, our athleticism gives us adjustability. A lot of people look at hitting as needing to learn to be really fast. It’s, ‘speed, speed, bat speed; OK, wait for that off-speed and then be really fast.’ Unfortunately, it doesn’t work like that. It sounds like it works, but it won’t. Remember, we’re working in a timeframe that’s less than a second.”

Laurila: I’ve asked hitters if they basically just have an A-swing, of if they have multiple swings to account for different pitches and situations. The answers have varied.

Latta: “We talk about the A-feel. There’s no way that we have multiple swings. It’s impossible for hitter to see a four-seam fastball at the top of zone and say, ‘Oh I need to swing this way,’ and then the next pitch is a sinker down-and-in and he says, ‘OK, now I need this swing.’ Again, there’s no time. You’re in reaction mode. But thought can slow us down, and you can be in predictive-reaction mode. If you’re working a swing, and you’re working different areas of the zone… at the major league level, you have to be able to cover. You’ve got to be able to handle the top of the zone, you’ve got to handle east and west, and you’ve got to handle the bottom of the zone. Handling doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re driving balls out of the park, but you’re able to cover, even if it’s just to clip a tough pitch foul.

“In terms of changing a swing, again, once you recognize a pitch it’s impossible to say, ‘OK, I need swing B,’ But if you’re in an athletic position and balanced, that will allow you to move to cover a pitch. It’s not that that swing was intended to come out as a swing B or swing D, but it all started from balance, and then the athleticism took over to where you could get that bat on the ball.”

Laurila: When I interviewed Justin Turner for this series, he said that he needs to be less in his legs, or at least needs to think less about being in his legs. You’ve worked with him, as well.

Latta: “If you look at the setup — most setups — if we’ve got the easy stance, we can move quickly, fluidly, without any other movements to get to a hitting position. When we land in that hitting position, that’s our load. That’s where we establish the ground. Once we’ve got the ground, that’s when we’re ready to fire. All we need with legs is to land in them. I don’t mean that you have to land with the legs compressed, like you’re doing the squat. You just have to land in them, and then affect the body movement that allows you to continue your direction. Through other sources, our direction is aligned. We want to continue and exploit a hand path that’s aligned to allow us to stay in the zone as long as we can.”

Laurila: You’ve said there are things being taught that can actually hinder a hitter. Is focusing too much on the legs one of them?

Latta: “I’ve seen hitters told to get into their legs, in their setup, and sometimes they’re going to end up moving slower. Remember, we’re working in timeframes of less than one second, so anything that slows us down is going to work against us. If we’re heavy in our legs, when we move, we’re really not going to have our legs. Generally, what we see in that case is what we call upper-body torso hitting. The torso is taking the swing outside of the legs, and you’re seeing front shoulders heading east-to-west. Now the body is actually spinning off the bottom half, rather than engaging it and driving it through the line.

“But yes, with a lot of conventional thoughts and even new thoughts that are being promoted, people aren’t looking at what do we need to do in a game — what gives us the best chance for effective contact in the zone. Sometimes they’re just looking at, ‘How can we get to hitting the ball hard?’ Sometimes that leads to torso hitting, and you actually lose power and direction. But if the body is working athletically, it carries you through the move. It’s no different than in any sport. I know of no sport that doesn’t work from a position of balance first. Without that, you’re basically compensating and just hoping to run into a ball.”

Laurila: What is the key to backspinning a baseball?

Latta: “One of the keys to hitting is being able to spin the ball with true spin, with backspin. That’s a lot of our work here. A hitter could pop up a ball on the infield, but if he backspun it, it was the right swing. That’s what we’re trying to create. We don’t want topspin. If you’re able to backspin the ball, it’s going to carry, and we’re not talking just carrying out of stadiums; it’s going to create its own loft where you’re not out there trying to force balls and create ‘launch angle.’ If you pop up with backspin, that’s not your swing, it’s the contact point. I think Justin once said that if he goes 0-for-4 with four fly outs, his swing is fine.”

Laurila: When I talked hitting with Rick Eckstein, he said that launch angle is a measurement, not a philosophy.

Latta: “I’d agree with that. I really don’t like ‘launch angle,’ because it’s caused people to try to create launch angle. You don’t need to create launch angle. If you take the right swing, you’re able to elevate the ball, because you’re making different contact points available to you. The key is being able to get on plane with the pitch and have a margin to be able to have more effective contact points than less-effective contact points.”

Laurila: What about exit velocity?

Latta: “Exit velocity… there are a lot of people trying to train, ‘hit the ball hard, hit the ball hard, hit the ball hard.’ What generally comes out of that training is swings, bad movements, that don’t translate to seven o’clock at night. We talk a lot, here, about tempo and reduced effort, which flies in the face of exit-velocity teaching. Taking a smoother swing… when you watch good hitters hit, they almost never look like they’re grinding or rushing. They look very smooth. The harder you try to do something… for most hitters, the upper body, his shoulders are going to disconnect, trying to make moves, and be more tense.

“A lot of hitters from ages past made it look easy, because they had a controllable tempo that allowed them to basically impact the ball more effectively, which is counterintuitive. There are a lot of things that we’ve found with hitting that are counterintuitive to what we want to think, or what we’ve been taught, or what we think we see. But yeah, less is more.”


Earlier “Talks Hitting” interviews can found through these links: Jeff Albert, Greg Allen, Nolan Arenado, Aaron Bates, Bo Bichette, Cavan Biggio, JJ Bleday, Bobby Bradley, Jay Bruce, Matt Chapman, Michael Chavis, Jacob Cruz, Nelson Cruz, Paul DeJong, Josh Donaldson, Rick Eckstein, Drew Ferguson, Justin Foscue, Joey Gallo, Devlin Granberg, Andy Haines, Mitch Haniger, Tim Hyers, Josh Jung, Jimmy Kerr, Trevor Larnach, Evan Longoria, Michael Lorenzen, Gavin Lux, Dave Magadan, Trey Mancini, Edgar Martinez, Don Mattingly, Ryan Mountcastle, Cedric Mullins, Daniel Murphy, Brent Rooker,, Drew Saylor, Fernando Tatis Jr., Justin Turner, Mark Trumbo, Zac Veen, Mark Vientos, Luke Voit, Jordan Westburg, Jesse Winker, Nick Yorke.

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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