Hitting and pitching may seem equally complicated, but consider this: when it comes to hitting, you have to use both of your hands in one place. By necessity, that adds a wrinkle, and can make hitting analysis difficult. In order to focus on something we can bite off and digest, let’s just ask Mike Trout, Bryce Harper, and Joc Pederson what they think about the top hand.
They may not have a ton to say, but what they do say contains multitudes. To unwrap those multitudes, I enlisted the help of hitting consultant Dan Farnsworth and hitting instructor Jerry Brewer. In what follows, I’ve presented each respective hitter’s comments in bold, and then Brewer and Farnsworth’s analysis regarding those comments in a standard font weight. The latter two don’t always agree, but that’s the beauty of hitting: there are so many different paths to the ball.
Mike Trout: I don’t think about it too much, I couldn’t tell you what I do. I just try to stay inside the ball. That helps me stay on the offspeed and hit the ball to right center. If you use too much top hand, you start rolling over a little bit. So I try to stay up the middle and use that as guidance through the zone. I do a lot of tee work.
Dan Farnsworth: Trout’s natural hand path is one of the best in the game: his first move with his top hand is down behind his body. The interesting thing with his top hand is how he seems to almost lock his arms out after contact, so his right hand never actually turns over across his body. If it does finish, it comes more back over his body, making his swing path stay in a more vertical plane and his well-hit balls come off the bat mostly in the air.
Jerry Brewer: Trout is trying to stay up the middle and not roll over. So he basically never turns over his top hand in his swing (pronation). To avoid turning over the top hand, he supinates (palm down to palm up) his top forearm like crazy. That is going to take his hand path more up the middle and prevent him from rolling over and yanking pitches. I think he uses more supination than anyone in the game, to the point where he can’t really even get extension with his rear arm on his follow-through.
Trout: I hit one-handed in BP and then go in the game and hit two-handed and I don’t know why. Just happens.
Farnsworth: The one- vs. two-handed follow through switch isn’t too surprising; plenty of hitters show both to varying degrees depending on pitch location, type, or even how hard they’re trying to hit the ball. I would imagine Trout’s swings in BP come through one-handed because everything is low-intensity with ease of motion being the goal, where facing a 95 mph fastball could make him subconsciously try to be short and strong through the ball. That could also explain why it sometimes looks like his shoulders get a bit tense and he never completely gets full extension after contact. He doesn’t get fully extended because his shoulders are usually internally rotated and stiff rather than letting his back arm stay externally rotated as his bat pulls his arm toward the pitcher. Where Edgar Martinez was more fully extended with his back elbow pointed down or even toward the third base dugout at extension, Trout’s is more flared out toward the plate/first base dugout.
Joc Pederson: I don’t think about my hands too much. Just trying to hit the ball in the air. Hit the ball in the air!
Farnsworth: Amen! Pederson’s hand path lends itself well to driving balls in the air. Like Trout, his hands get into plane early, allowing his hips to pull them through on the same path as the ball. However, he has a pull tendency due, in my opinion, to how much he flattens his bat out as his hands start to descend before coming forward. When the barrel flattens out too much, it will tend to come through the zone around the hands, more in a horizontal plane as opposed to somebody like Trout. For a more extreme example, check out Mark Teixeira, especially on his left side. It makes it a little more difficult to elevate the ball, and he definitely hits more than his share of ground balls at the second baseman. Instead of his swing naturally creating a lot of loft, it no doubt helps Joc to have a conscious plan to hit it up in the air. To be clear, you don’t want the bat to be straight up in the air as the hands come down either, but there’s a middle ground that guys like Trout have found to allow them to elevate the ball while still tapping into the rotational power of the body.
Brewer: Makes sense. He wants to hit the ball in the air so the first thing he does is get the barrel going flat to get under the ball. It is hard to tell in the first frame below, but his bat is perfectly vertical. By God he is going to get the barrel under the ball to get it in the air. Very similar to Jose Bautista. Almost dumps the barrel.
Bryce Harper: If my top hand is strong, then I’m doing well. If my bottom hand is the stronger hand, it’s just not going to work for me. Top hand has got to be a like a hammer. If it’s a hammer, and you swing like this, you’re going to get a lot of backspin and the baseball will fly. If the bottom hand is coming through strong — depends on who you are, I guess. Everyone’s plan is similar: to get to that point and make contact. All the stuff before can be different. What you do with your hands, and all that. But everyone’s intent is about the same, even if nobody’s going to be the same. If you look at Cano’s swing, he’s got the best swing in baseball. It’s here, he goes through the baseball as long as he can.
Farnsworth: For Harper and other throw-right, bat-left guys, some form of being more active with the top hand (the weak one in their cases) usually is how they can best tap into their abilities. It is said that George Brett credits his mid-career power spike to learning how to throw with his left arm. Harper just tells himself to act like he’s throwing a hammer with his weak hand to keep everything else working together. The only downfall is if it gets too steep to the ball (which it has the tendency to do for him), then he’s swinging down at a ball that’s falling and trying to hit it up — not a good combination.
Brewer: I like that he likes Cano, because they are both throw-right, swing-left guys. Their swings are very similar. I would say Harper (like Cano) is more bottom-hand dominant. Harper hangs on to his wrist angle forever and comes in pretty steep. That is just so much torso turn for the barrel to still be above horizontal. Where Trout gets the top forearm turning early, Harper just hangs on and pulls with the front side. That said, his comment about the top hand being a hammer makes sense. Because he is so steep, he has to get the barrel under the ball in a pretty short space, and that is done with his top arm (forearm supination).
Brewer: So essentially it comes down to when to use the top forearm supination. Trout, Pederson, Jose Bautista use it early — I call them top-handers. Buster Posey, Bryce Harper, and Robinson Cano use it later — I call them bottom-handers because the first move is more bottom-hand dominant. Both have their advantages and disadvantages.
Harper: I watched Yunel Escobar a lot. He’s so far in the front of the box. I asked him, why do you do that, he said “Catch the ball out front.” The curveball can’t drop, the changeup can’t drop, the heater’s going to be straighter.
Brewer: Harper saying he hits the ball out front makes total sense. He comes in steep, so if he tried to let it travel he would have a really hard time. For example, in the next attachment I have center-field home runs for Trout and Harper (Harper’s is even left-center). Harper makes contact further out front (his rear elbow is further away from his hip). If he tried to hit the ball deeper in the zone the barrel simply wouldn’t be under the ball.
Farnsworth: Because he doesn’t get into plane as early as he could, his contact point naturally has to be further out in front of his body than guys like Trout and Pederson, so his affinity for going out and getting the ball is necessary for him not to get tied up and have to rush. Luckily, he has the bat speed to not have to commit as early as everyone else to hit it out in front, so it doesn’t hurt him like it would most hitters. Still though, I think that’s a big part of why we’ll continue to see crazy streaks from him. Having to hit the ball out in front gives him less room for error, so he’ll have to be locked in mentally and visually to consistently drive the ball like he has lately. Also, not necessarily as downfall but a tendency, guys who swing down more usually have better hits on balls up in the zone, since the hands don’t have to come down as far and the swing gets on plane earlier as a result.
Harper: Keep my front side in. I don’t care about anything else. I’m better after I face some lefties and they’ve made me keep my front side in. Good practice. I don’t really worry about where my hands are.
Brewer: This one is a little strange. He probably has the strongest torso rotation in the game, including his front shoulder. That said, it still may be a good checkpoint for him. Don’t know if when he goes bad he starts pulling too soon and swinging over everything. Could be. I do know that he goes from very closed to very open very fast. See attached. My goodness. You can also see he isn’t working the barrel under like Pederson or Trout.
Farnsworth: As a throw-right, bat-left guy, it makes a lot of sense that he would feel the need to keep his front side quiet. Being the naturally dominant arm for him, the front side of a lot of those guys tends to be too active if they’re not careful, leading to pulling off the ball or rolling over it.
In general, I would say also that the idea of swinging down is something that works for different reasons in different people. Taken too literally is a very bad thing, but it can help with keeping the front shoulder in longer (like Harper). It can also help guys stay taller on their backsides as they step forward; if you’re trying to come down on the ball, you’ll be more likely to let your head and body move forward together. This is usually a better alternative than letting the front foot and hips get out in front, leaving your body uphill and in an off-balanced position (-cough- Chris Davis -cough-). Lastly, it’s important to remember that athletes who naturally perform at an extremely and uniquely high level don’t necessarily need to know exactly how they do things. If a player hits well, he’s not going to need to figure a lot of things out studying hitting mechanics. That would be like expecting everyone to completely understand coronary anatomy simply because they have a heartbeat. Odds are if you haven’t had problems with your heart, you don’t need to know the intricate details.
So we didn’t stick to the top hand; how could we? Hitting is a complicated procedure designed to create bat speed with flexibility and adaptability, and you can’t surgically remove one hand from the discussion and talk about it without bleeding into other parts of the swing.
And though the analysis may seem to contradict at times, that’s also not surprising. After all, Joc Pederson, Mike Trout, and Bryce Harper are some of the best hitters of our time, even if they are doing things very differently.
Thanks to Jerry Brewer and Dan Farnsworth for their images and thoughts.
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.