Have you seen what Yonder Alonso is doing this spring? You might not recognize it. If he qualified, his .421/.560/.789 line would the third-best in baseball. While it’s easy to dismiss a spring fling from an established player, this player spent the offseason thinking differently. Now he’s moving differently at the plate, too.
First, let’s look at a typical swing of Alonso’s from a few years back, when he faced Dillon Gee in 2014. He’s a spray hitter designed to hit line drives with a flatter swing, it looks like.
Now, here’s a video from a batting practice last week in spring training.
He’s maybe not a completely different guy, but the step looks bigger, and the swing finishes higher to my eye. He generally looks like he’s trying to hit a fly ball. Take a look at his steps next to each other (2013 first, 2017 second), and there’s at least something there.
Perhaps we’re extracting too much from some brief video — and perhaps we should be examining more minute details. Absent a breakdown of his swing path using more advanced technology, however, we’re left saying that his swing looks like it has a bit more loft to it.
That might be good enough, though, considering what the player himself has to say about the changes. It wasn’t about minute alterations to his hands, his load, his step, or anything like that. It was a mindset change.
“Did some mechanical things but also intent was important,” Alonso said in camp. “I’m trying to punish it more, get it in the air.” He agreed that aiming to put the ball in play in the air more was the major key for him this offseason as he worked.
We’ve seen before that process cues like “get your hands to the slot” can have an immediate, detectable impact on swing mechanics, but that doesn’t mean that process cues are the best way to effect change in a hitter’s swing. Sometimes it’s better to focus on results. Not results like “home run” or “double play,” but results like “hit hard in the air.”
Jason Ochart, the hitting instructor at Driveline Baseball, wrote about the difference between internal cues (having the athlete think about his body), versus external cues (having the athlete think about the effect of their movement), and found that external cues were more effective. “What the mover is consciously visualizing is the outward-movement pattern and then allowing self-organization in order to achieve this movement optimally,” Ochart wrote.
In Cubs camp, minor-league hitting coordinator Andy Haines talked about the “kinetic chain” that distributes power from the ground, through the big muscles, and outward to the hands and bat. “Sequencing is critical,” Haines said. “People teach these movements, and they’re sometimes not in sequence, so they’re destroying the kinetic chain, and I call them false movements. So it has to happen within the kinetic sequence.”
If Alonso was to think too hard about his hands dropping, or his load, or any one part of the sequence, he could easily break the chain that provides his bat with speed. By focusing on hitting the ball to the outfield, he can allow his body to figure out the chain that best results in that outcome.
Last year, nobody saw more shifts relative to the year before than Alonso did. That didn’t surprise the player — “I was too fast to the ball and pulled too many balls on the ground,” he admitted — but it didn’t mean that he had to focus one one particular mechanical fix.
Instead, Alonso has changed how he thinks at the plate. And that might be enough.
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.