Jarred Kelenic’s Spring Swing Is Another Sign of Forward Progression

Jarred Kelenic
Rick Scuteri-USA TODAY Sports

Last October, I wrote a piece about Jarred Kelenic’s small sample success in the final month of the 2022 season. After a rollercoaster start to his career, he had kept pushing along trying to find the version of his swing that would allow him to adjust at different heights of the zone and be formidable against big league breaking balls. For much of 2022, he could hardly make contact against quality breaking balls, but at the end of the season, his swing began to look more connected. It led to slight improvements in breaking ball contact and contact in general against lefties. It was also a positive way to head into the offseason, where he could have more time to explore his swing and find the best version of himself. Since Kelenic was constantly tweaking during the season while jumping between the majors and minors, it was inevitable he would look at least a little different once spring came around.

That was indeed the case on his first day in Peoria, and so far in spring training, the adjustments he made have been paying off. Yes, it’s only spring training, but sometimes if you read in between the lines and try to find sticky characteristics, this month of baseball can be more than just a tuneup. And Kelenic has been nothing short of incredible at the plate. In his 38 Cactus League at-bats, he has 16 hits, eight of which have gone for extra bases all over the field — many of them crushed at over 100 mph. It’s great to see such a dominant performance from a results perspective, but one key piece of his ongoing changes focuses on the mental aspect of hitting: approach and quality at-bats. That piece has a direct influence on his swing mechanics.

In an interview he did with Seattle Sports in the beginning of March, Kelenic talked about being focused on things you can control as a hitter and battling through unfortunate circumstances. He spoke under the context of an at-bat from the day prior, where he thought the umpire missed two calls that put him down 0–2; he flushed those pitches and ended up scorching a line drive over the center field wall. This mental side of hitting is an important step in the quest to becoming a mature hitter. He talked more at length about this mentality in a separate interview with the Seattle Times. Specifically, he has focused on the idea of “winning the pitch” regardless of the count. This keeps a hitter competitive and able to maintain a short-term memory — a necessary skill in baseball. Kelenic has provided several quotes this spring that give us a better idea of how he is approaching the game, and it allows somebody like me, who has been keen to analyze his changes, to follow his story with better prior knowledge. And the changes have been quite interesting, too.

As I said earlier, it’s great to see the results and stellar performance from Kelenic, but I think it’s important to focus on the process of his swing. We’re limited with data in spring training, making it difficult to wrap that piece into this analysis. That means a full mechanical breakdown and evaluation of his adjustments is necessary to understand why these changes are more than just a March blip. That begins with his setup and hand row, the swing itself as his barrel works to and through the zone, and lastly the reciprocal movements following contact or the finish of the swing. That last piece will be very telling of how Kelenic is shifting his weight as he rotates. If he has balanced his movements and is better able to hold his posture, he will be in a better position to make hard contact against varying speeds.

Let’s start with the hand row and work our way to the finish. On February 18, Ryan Divish showed the internet Kelenic’s new setup and swing:

My first thought when watching each of the videos in this thread was that Kelenic was swinging similarly to Mookie Betts. His hand rowing movement that sets up his entry into the zone is aesthetically pleasing, but more importantly, it’s functionally effective, letting him stay loose and rhythmic in the lead to his down swing. For a hitter like Kelenic, who often looked quite stiff and unable to adjust his body to different pitch speeds and locations, staying loose is a huge potential development. It’s a great first step to staying athletic and being able to adjust his body and shoulder plane depending on what pitch he recognizes. I’m not saying he is Mookie Betts now, but the similarity is a big positive; if you can move like one of the best in the sport with demonstrable success, that is always a good thing.

Here are two swings from March 11 that give you another angle:

This ground ball isn’t crushed, but it’s a good swing on a near perfectly located pitch. Kelenic didn’t dive out in front of the plate, lose his posture, or leak his front hip too early. His hips were strong and steady as he rotated, and he adjusted his shoulder plane to go get a pitch that he recognized would be in the lower third of the zone. The only place he went wrong was in making impact a little too far out in front, leading to contact off the end of the bat, mainly due to an early rotation as he was landing and his front knee/quad directing his rotation toward right field. His swing two innings later was almost identical, but it came against a sinker instead of a changeup, allowing him to hit the ball in his upswing through the zone. Both were good swings where Kelenic wasn’t perfectly on time but still maintained his posture and an upright position through the entire swing.

The takeaway is that Kelenic had a good process in place with both swings despite the different outcome. That’s something he has been focused on: good swings versus good results. Lucky for him, he has had a bit of both so far. The next clip comes from his best swing all spring against lefty, Roenis Elías, on an 0–2 count (the at-bat I previously mentioned when talking about Kelenic’s mentality):

There aren’t any MLB highlights of this swing anywhere, so we will have to settle for this angle. Even though it’s hard to see, you can freeze the clip and notice how Kelenic’s direction differs from the previous two swings I showed you. Through contact, his front knee is directed toward left center field, the location where this ball eventually sails over the wall. This is an even better swing and process than the two swings from March 11. If he can make this movement with consistency, he will be in a better position to stay on lefty breaking balls and keep his center of mass over the midpoint of his body for varying speeds — a necessary position for being adjustable.

That’s where I want to pivot to the reciprocal movements. I’ve talked a lot about being in better positions, and that can be visually proven by analyzing where Kelenic is after he finishes his swing. Is he falling off in any specific direction? Is he losing his posture before contact? Is he able to stick his landing after his swing? These are questions that can be answered by looking at his body after the completion of his rotation.

Now I’m going to show you a swing where Kelenic doesn’t put the ball in play. You may think I’m crazy, but I’ll remind you we are focused on the process and not just the results. The swing came from the same first inning at-bat against José Ureña on March 11:

After Kelenic fouls the ball back, he sticks his landing with his back leg, an indication that he has control of his rotation. But on top of that, you see him consciously catch his momentum by stepping forward with his front foot. At first glance, you probably wouldn’t think twice about it, but I’m here to tell you that this matters.

Joey Cunha, CEO of The Farm System, a private player development academy, is constantly talking about “The Trout Step.” As you’d expect, Mike Trout has one of the most kinetically efficient swings of all time, and his patented front step after the completion of his swing is a sign that every movement leading up to that point was done correctly. That smooth forward step at the end allows you to stand straight up and admire your work as the ball flies into outfield. The back leg sticks the landing and catches the energy created by your rotation, and the step forward with the front foot is the final piece proving your rotation is completely under control. Kelenic had the mental cue in place that this is where he needs to end up, even on a pitch he doesn’t put in play. He has the right mindset in place about making sure he does everything correctly in each swing regardless of the contact he makes. As he would say, that’s how you win each pitch.

I’m sure folks all around the baseball world are eager to see how Kelenic will perform once the real games start. I am, too. I’ve maintained the hope that he can regain at least some of the lightning we all saw as he tore up the minor leagues in 2019 and ’21. It may only be spring training, but this is a step in the right direction for him to become the hitter he wants to be. I said it back in October of last year, and I’ll say it again: Jarred Kelenic is making progress.





Esteban is a contributing writer at FanGraphs. You can also find his work at Pinstripe Alley if you so dare to read about the Yankees. Find him on Twitter @esteerivera42 for endless talk about swing mechanics.

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downbaddav
11 months ago

really good stuff. hope this allows for some level of sustainable success for him. seems like he’s been endlessly tinkering ever since he was initially called up and could never get comfortable. seems like he’s finally found a foundation he can just stick with regardless of his results