Last week’s ‘Talks Hitting’ interviews featured a pair of prominent big-leaguers. Daniel Murphy and Nolan Arenado have combined to make seven All-Star teams over the past five seasons. Today we feature a far-less-accomplished player. Drew Ferguson, a 26-year-old outfielder currently in camp with the San Francisco Giants, has yet to make his major league debut.
Ferguson has a finance degree from Belmont University, but his true passion is the biomechanics of hitting. He can definitely swing the bat. In 316 plate appearances last year — all but 24 at the Triple-A level — Ferguson slashed .304/.432/.443. He did so in the Houston Astros organization, from which the Giants selected him in December’s Rule-5 draft.
David Laurila: I understand that you have a strong interest in analytics.
Drew Ferguson: “I’ve been interested in analytics for many years — dating all the way back to high school — but numbers can only tell you so much. From a player development standpoint, it’s more about the biomechanics of the swing. How does the body move? What are we trying to do as hitters? What are the angles of the pitch versus the swing? What is a good approach based on your swing, based on the pitcher’s repertoire?”
Laurila: Hitting analytics are obviously becoming a big part of the game.
Ferguson: “100%. A lot of [hitting] is intuitive to players — guys describe things in different ways — but with the technology we have to describe a swing … I was just talking to one of my teammates about how angles are going to line up. For example, your posture and the direction of your swing can tell you that you should probably hit four-seam fastballs at the top of the zone easier than a sinker at the bottom of the zone. You can see that by looking at video, and at the metrics of your swing.
“Every swing is different. And a swing is reactive. It’s going to change based on the location of the pitch. At the same time, guys have pretty specific swing profiles. How in-plane are they? The general direction of their usual path is pretty much within a range. It’s not completely consistent, but it’s pretty consistent.”
Laurila: By usual path, are you referring to what hitter’s often call their ‘A swing’?
Ferguson: “They may think of it as their A swing, but I think it’s really just how they learned to swing the bat over years and years of repetition. And it probably started when they were very, very young. A lot of the characteristics that vary from person to person would be the mobility in their hips, thoracic spine … things of that nature. How well you can move? And what you’re trying to do at the plate will affect how you move. There are a lot of things to consider.
“I guess I wouldn’t consider it an ‘A swing’ so much as players having been conditioned over the years to hit a certain way based on their bodies, and what’s allowed them to have success. How they swing … it’s based on what they feel, and what results they’ve gotten, trying to do certain things.”
Laurila: Do players get trained into swinging a certain way based on their build?
Ferguson: “The reality is that basically everyone is strong enough to hit a home run if they pull it right down the line — if they have perfect direction. Lost in the glamour of hitting a 29-degree-launch-angle home run is that the best-expected outcome, from any angle, is still a line drive. Guys don’t hit the ball on the barrel every time. It’s too hard to do that. The most consistent good outcome is from hitting line drives. Hard line drives, of course.
“My idea of hitting is … I don’t think of it as a launch-angle swing. For example, every swing has a component of up and down. If you’re being direct, and rotating to the pitch directly…”
Laurila: Rotating from your core…
Ferguson: “The kinetic chain is from the ground up, but yeah. I think it’s easier if you think about your swing being perpendicular to your spine. If you decide to swing at a pitch, what is the quickest way from Point A to Point B? It’s a straight line. It’s being direct. You get these semantics about ‘swing up, swing down,’ but in reality, if you’re not standing perfectly straight up, every swing has a component of up and down. So that conversation doesn’t really resonate with me at all. I think about directness of path, and being straight to the ball.”
Laurila: Against elevated fastballs, hitters need to get on top of the ball.
Ferguson: “I’d say that what you need to do is go directly to the high pitch. If you’re lined up, if you’re hunched over… for example, Mike Trout has a very steep posture and lines up his swing to the bottom of the zone. He crushes the bottom of the zone. How does he get away with not hitting the top of the zone as well? He doesn’t swing at it.
“Your posture is going to line you up for different pitches differently. If you’re a guy who stands taller, I’d expect you to be able to hit the high pitch better than somebody who would line their body up to move toward the bottom of the zone. I don’t think about getting on top of any pitch, or under any pitch. I think about lining myself up against the plane of the pitch and then being direct to it — the idea being to square up a line drive. A slight under-miss could be a home run, and slight over-miss would be a ground ball.”
Laurila: You came here from the Houston organization. Did the Astros have a particular way of teaching hitting?
Ferguson: “I think every organization has some sort of philosophy. Houston is definitely forward thinking with their player development and what they think about the swing. Jeff Albert, who is now with the Cardinals, was a big influence on me from the standpoint of how the body moves, and for using that knowledge to train my swing.”
Laurila: You’re definitely into the biomechanics of hitting a baseball.
Ferguson: “I think you have to be. Actually, you don’t have to be. There are plenty of guys who just do it naturally. But to have an overarching philosophy about hitting, and to apply it, you need to understand how the body works. If you’re just going off of generic mental cues, like, ‘So and so thinks swing down,’ or ‘So and so wants this slot for his elbow’ … these old school mental cues … of course, a different person’s brain is going to interpret that differently. I think it’s more useful to take information and really understand what’s happening, then come up with your own cues to accomplish a particular move. You can personalize it.”
Laurila: Every hitter needs to get his foot down in a timely fashion.
Ferguson: “You can’t really initiate your swing until your foot is planted, but I think that kind of happens organically. For me — and I think a lot of players do this without thinking about it— the most important part of the load would be in your hips. Rotation … this is borrowing from golf. You never really hear people in baseball talk about this, but what is the swing? What is rotation in the swing? It’s flexion at the hips, an internal rotation to extension. In my mind, that would be the load.”
Laurila: Where do you start your hands?
Ferguson: “I basically preset my hands on the plane I’m going to swing at. My bat is already very flat, and pretty much perpendicular to my spine. I load my hips, but then my turn is basically straight and direct. I don’t want to worry about moving my bat, or my hands, in a different plane. For example, the bat tip. Why would I be loading my bat toward the first base dugout just to bring it back, then swing? You might be able to add a marginal amount of bat speed with a big running movement like that, but I think the speed-accuracy tradeoff is huge.”
Laurila: I’ve asked a lot of players if they consider hitting to be more of an art or more of a science. I think I know what your answer would be to that question.
Ferguson: “It’s definitely more of a science for me, but it varies from player to player. A lot of guys have success thinking about things like rhythm, and being smooth. That’s fine. But the reality is, they still have to tell themselves something to move their body in a way to have an effective swing.
“For me, it’s easier to just cut out what is essentially a flowery guessing game. If you understand how the body moves, it basically becomes, ‘OK, I have to do this. Now I just need to figure out a good way to practice this, to repeat it.’ That’s how I think. And not just with hitting. I think about that with most topics. I like objective information, versus doing things off of conjecture.”
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.