Round bat, round ball, traveling in different directions: the eight-word story of hitting really captures some of the difficulty of that practice. When you get into the art of choking up — moving the hands up the barrel and shortening the bat — you uncover a whole world of players attempting to address that difficulty. David Kagan examined the physics of choking up today at The Hardball Times. Here, we ask the practitioners what they think. It turns out, the players serve up some conventional wisdom, but also some insight into the reasoning behind the practice.
For Rajai Davis, the story is the one you might have heard before. “It’s just about getting hits and controlling the bat,” the Oakland outfielder said. “It used to be a two-strike thing before. Now I just want to control the bat and hit hard line drives.”
Surprisingly maybe, for a guy who has shown his level of power over his career, Hunter Pence has the same story. “I’ve done it since I was a kid,” said the Giants outfielder. “I was a leadoff hitter and they said choke up on the bat, put the ball in play, get more barrel control. Which is what I feel, that I get more control.” It becomes less surprising when you think of the patron saint of choking up. “I model it after Barry Bonds. The all-time leader in home runs choked up, so…” Pence said before trailing off.
Paul Goldschmidt also referenced Bonds, but told a common story of gradually choking up more often over time. “I did it in college, and then in the minor leagues it wasn’t required, and so I bounced back and forth with it,” the D-backs first baseman said of the practice. “The year before I went to Double-A, Kirk Gibson was our big-league manager, and in spring training he said, ‘Let’s talk about your two-strike approach,’ and he was the guy who got me to do it regularly.”
The idea is that there’s a trade-off between power and contact, though how it actually works is hard to tell. As Kagan notes, it’s possible that choking up increases the speed of the tip of the bat, but not “the average speed of the entire bat.” That might help a player get the bat to the zone quicker, but not have the same oomph behind the contact when contact is made.
Maybe it’s a question of degree. The batter still has good power, but needs to prioritize contact in two-strike situations, so he takes a little step back in bat speed, but not one that ends up mattering as much given his need at that moment. “You only have to go into the first row, you don’t have to go 20 rows deep,” points out Goldschmidt. “I still hit two-strike homers and extra-base hits. If you hit it on the barrel, it’s going to go regardless, and just to have the little bit extra bat control is more beneficial. I think you can be a little shorter and quicker to the ball which allows you to wait a little longer to start your swing with two strikes so that you can recognize the offspeed.”
Goldschmidt has seen some benefit. Once you adjust his two-strike numbers to the league’s numbers, you can see that it looks like he trades some power for contact there. Particularly on fastballs, he goes from excellent exit velocity to league average on two-strike counts, but makes much more contact relative to the league with two strikes.
|Situation||Fastball swSTR%||Fastball EV||Non-Fastball swSTR%||Non-Fastball EV|
|Not Two Strikes||146||105||74||102|
Or maybe it’s that some players have such excellent power that the step back doesn’t matter so much. “If you get it, and it doesn’t go quite as far, but for most guys they have enough power to get it out of there, or at least get it out of the infield,” points out Goldschmidt himself.
“I don’t know. I don’t know if I care,” said Joey Votto carefully. “I don’t think about choking up as a sacrifice of power, I think of it as controlling the bat more, and feeling more comfortable. It’s not about power, I don’t think I’ve thought about power for a while.”
Votto has taken to the practice gradually. “I’d been doing it sporadically for the first few years and it’s become constant the last six or seven years. Since 2011, I’ve done it pretty consistently, and for the last three or four years it’s been constant to the extreme, where I’m moving up the bat, choking up to a real massive level, almost where it’s almost like pepper.”
It certainly looks like you gain contact with the practice. What about the fact that you’re shortening the bat? That inch or two is no longer at the end of your bat, and that must be lost plate coverage, right?
Maybe, maybe not. “I’ve got long arms so it doesn’t really matter to me,” joked Davis. “You kind of want to spit at the outside pitch anyway,” pointed out A’s teammate Stephen Vogt. “But if you actually look at where we stand in the box, even if I just put my bat into my bellybutton, I’m covering the outside corner.” Bonds himself said he choked up to avoid getting jammed, so he wasn’t so concerned with plate coverage either:
Davis’ comment gives us a clue that a lot of things are different with two strikes. Votto was explicit: “I take a step at times towards the outside part of the plate, which gets me closer to the ball, it’s like a crossover move if I’m looking to go the other way or looking to hit the pitch on the outside part of the plate.” There are ways to compensate for less plate coverage, in other words.
If there’s a trade-off between power and contact here — and there’s some evidence of that, though on a case-by-case basis — there’s also the question of the role of aging. “It used to be a two-strike thing before,” said Davis. “Now I just want to control the bat and hit hard line drives.” Goldschmidt is doing it more as he’s gotten older.
Votto, who often thinks about how he will age in the game, was unsurprisingly the most explicit about the role of choking up in the aging process. “As you get older, you don’t feel quite as strong, quite as powerful,” the Reds’ first baseman said. “To use the same bat, I don’t feel like I can grip it on the end and whip it through the zone with the same power.” Hence the more extreme choking up in recent years.
There’s also mindset that comes with choking up. “It maybe gives you more of a defensive mindset,” says Goldschmidt. “To me, it’s a mental reminder to stay short,” says Vogt. “It’s a feel thing, it’s a loose thing, it’s a fast thing, it’s an explosive thing, it’s not a robot thing,” says Pence of choking up, but also about baseball.
Let’s also not forget that “feel” is important to a player. “It’s almost a completely different game if you’re swinging with the end of your bat. Your swing is almost completely different,” says Pence, perhaps explaining some of his style vs the league’s sluggers. “It feels better,” says Votto. “I’ve never liked the knob.” Given the injury rate on knob-grabbers, maybe the decision has kept him healthy.
In the end, there’s a bit of mystery about choking up. Yes, it looks like you gain in contact, and perhaps defensive mindset and feel, and you give something up in power and bat speed. How exactly that happens physically, and why more players don’t make this decision, is where some of the gray lines come in.
But gray lines can be beautiful. “I don’t think you can science baseball, as much as you want to, because that’s what the human brain wants to do, to control and rationalize,” said Pence. “Have fun doing it, of course.”
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.