Last year, Cincinnati’s two middle of the order bats both had back leg injuries that robbed them of much of their power. Because of the complicated nature of swing mechanics, maybe it’s not surprising that both sluggers were affected differently by left leg injuries. But they did suffer.
“I saw a lot of ground balls to the right side of the infield results last year and I had a difficult time hitting within my typical profile — power to left field,” said Joey Votto this week in Arizona. “The pain was a limiting factor.”
When pushed to describe exactly how his left quad strain affected his swing, Votto spoke of a lean in his stance. “Being able to lean heavily on my back leg and be able to rotate the knee through and also lean at an angle” was important to the slugger — “I think that I buy myself a little extra space on the back side of the strike zone by being able to lean.”
Last year, the lean went away. “I don’t remember being able to really anchor myself, really rotate, and also lean last year because of the pain.” Below are two swings from Votto, on balls on the inside part of the plate, separated by a year. On the left is a swing from June last year, and on the right is June of 2013.
You may not be able to easily see the lean he’s talking about, but it does look like Votto is quicker to the ball in 2013. And just that little difference changed everything.
“I just couldn’t hit like myself,” Votto said of last season. “The reason I do the things that I can do is because I can spray the ball out and I hit the ball really hard, and I have a discerning eye when I have a good swing going. When all of a sudden the game is sped up and I lose that extra space, I’m rolling over a lot of stuff, means more outs and poor play by me.”
What was also remarkable was how quickly the pitchers noticed. In 2014, Votto saw more fastballs (60.5%) than he’d ever seen before (56.6% average). “It was unbelievable how much of a difference I saw in the way I was pitched,” Votto said. “I think the thing that made me most annoyed that nobody was afraid of me. It was constant attacking.”
I was up at bat yesterday and you know people yell things from the stands, and someone was like ‘just attack him.’ And I thought to myself the reason why they don’t attack me is that I punish people. But I couldn’t do that last year. — Joey Votto
Meniscus surgery may have led to Votto’s quad problems — “It’s hard to imagine it wasn’t,” the first baseman said, “It’s a gradual weakening of the leg” — and it was the source of Jay Bruce’s poor start to the season last year. “It just didn’t allow me to us proper mechanics,” the outfielder said.
For Bruce, the legs impaired his ability to use his hands best. “The legs are really what deliver your hands to the zone in the correct path,” he said. When your legs are no good, your hands find a way to get to the ball, and usually cut corners that shouldn’t be cut.
What happens is that you can’t stay down on your back leg, because it hurts. “You come up out of your legs and create an around-the-ball plane rather than being able to stay connected to your back side and hit through the baseball to the big part of the field,” Bruce explained.
When your legs hurt, your chest does more, and the results aren’t pretty. “You try to create more with your upper body, which is more of a twist, and it’s up and out and around — that’s why I hit a million ground balls last year.” Bruce hit more ground balls last year (45.2%) than he ever had before (38.6% career).
If you look at Bruce healthy and hurt, it might be a little more obvious that he wasn’t right than it was above with Votto. Bruce thought that might be because of the differences in their swings. “He relies much more on rotational back side, staying back behind the ball,” the outfielder said of Votto. “I’m more of an upright, hands to the zone guy, whipping the hands through the zone.”
Watch how his hurt swing (left, from June last year) finishes much higher than his healthy swing (mid 2013). He’s more on top of the ball, and he’s beating the ball into the ground.
Both players talked about the adjustments their body made to compensate for the injured appendage. Votto talked of cheating to get back that lost inch. Bruce talked of trying to “create other ways” — “As hitters, we train ourselves to get the barrel to the ball. As professional athletes, we have the ability to compensate, and we don’t even know it sometimes.”
But now their knees and quads are healthy and feeling good. Votto got more sleep, made some diet changes, and worked out with “more of an emphasis on movement ” this offseason. Bruce is trying to be “cognizant and really deliberate” with his early camp work, including the one-handed drills that will help his “back hand stay connected to his back leg.”
When it comes to your swing, it seems like healthy legs get the best results. Now that the two big bats in the Reds lineup have their back legs in good shape, maybe it is possible for Reds fans to rest their dreams on them.
With a phone full of pictures of pitchers' fingers, strange beers, and his two toddler sons, Eno Sarris can be found at the ballpark or a brewery most days. Read him here, writing about the A's or Giants at The Athletic, or about beer at October. Follow him on Twitter @enosarris if you can handle the sandwiches and inanity.