If you have read my posts, then you know that some of the things I talk about in hitting are somewhat against the grain. Meaning, my grading of a hitter may not fall in line with the key hitting checkpoints from say a Tom Enanski hitting video. My intention in becoming a hitting coach was not to go against the grain or invent some new techniques, it was simply to teach how elite hitters swing the bat. In learning how elite hitters actually swing the bat, I found that some of the standby teaching points aren't quite correct. Today we are going to talk about one of these points: front side mechanics. (Note: this article will mainly deal with upper body front side mechanics, I will have to cover lower body mechanics in a Part II.)
When it comes to front side mechanics, current hitting instruction has taken the less is more philosophy. In fact, Google "baseball swing front side" and you will find tons of pages, videos, and drills on how to "keep the front side in" and "keep the front shoulder from flying open" and "swing inside out" and "keep the front side closed." Probably you have heard these phrases from Little League coaches, even high school coaches, and definitely from Tim McCarver (and another former catcher turned broadcaster, whose name slips my memory right now...). However, when we look at how elite hitters actually swing the bat, we see something different.
Below is a video of (whom else?) Josh Donaldson as he finishes his stride. Notice as his front foot is coming down, his front side is opening. Also notice how the front shoulder starts to work and draw the bend out of the front arm pulling the lead elbow up and over. See how the distance from his chin to the front of his shoulder grows as the swing starts. Donaldson's front side isn't "staying closed," it is leading the way!
From the front view, we can see how the "D" on the back of his jersey starts to disappear.
If you think I am just picking a couple videos that Donaldson is adjusting to an inside pitch, take a look at where he hits the pitches. The pitch on the left is on the outer half and Donaldson hits an opposite field home run. The pitch on the right is on the inner half and he pulls it for a home run. The beginning of each swing is identical.
Let's look at some other players with good front side mechanics.
Andrew McCutchen. McCutchen has probably my second favorite swing in MLB right now. At 175 lbs. the NL MVP must be doing something right. And part of that is using the lead half of his body. We see the same front side mechanics in McCutchen as in Donaldson, mainly the lead shoulder working around while the rear arm drops. Notice how the lead arm straightens and rotates as a function of the front side's movement. Where does the "M" go?
Miguel Cabrera. Cabrera hit one out of the Coliseum when he basically couldn't walk. Part of the reason he was able to do that was of his front side mechanics. See how the front shoulder starts working but the lead elbow stays in place. His rotation is not a one-piece movement.
Robinson Cano. Great front side function. The movement allows him to keep his lead arm close to his body to turn on inside pitches (unlike what we saw in Derek Norris). Notice how in the early frames the lead elbow has a lot of flexion, but by the end most of the flexion is gone. The front side is leading the way and taking the slack out of the arm.
Josh Reddick. As I have mentioned before, Reddick's front side mechanics aren't bad. We see the lead elbow stay in place as his front side starts to work. See how the first couple of frames the front arm loses flexion and then how his front shoulder slides around his chin.
Ken Griffey Jr. No talk about front side mechanics is complete without showing Ken Griffey Jr. He definitely isn't "keeping the front shoulder in."
Just to speed this up, allow me to say elite hitters have great front side mechanics. I could show similar clips of Troy Tulowitzki, Adrian Gonzalez, Chase Utley, Bryce Harper, Mike Trout, and many others. I don't have a way of quantifying this, but it seems to me the players with the best front side mechanics have the most aesthetically pleasing swings (i.e. Griffey Jr.).
Now for some players whose front side mechanics are a little different.
Jemile Weeks. I never liked Weeks' left-handed swing. I was hoping his athleticism would help him overcome it, but that hasn't worked out. See how even though his lower body is opening, the front shoulder is locked to his chin while his rear arm works down. In the last frame, we see the lead shoulder and lead elbow move as one piece at a 90 degree angle with his hands, different then the players we saw above.
Addison Russell. Sorry, as I pointed out on my very first AN piece, Russell's front side mechanics leave something to be desired.
Compare the same position to Donaldson, really quite a large difference. Does this mean he won't be an All-Star shortstop? No. But it won't help. Russell has definitely been coached to "keep the front shoulder from flying open." I am hoping his career follows the trajectory of other shortstops with less than stellar swing mechanics like Derek Jeter and Cal Ripken Jr.
Coco Crisp (2012). Just to show that front side mechanics aren't the end-all be-all to hitting, Crisp's function was horrible in 2012. See how the front shoulder does nothing, and when the rear side comes through the lead elbow just juts out. His swing is slightly improved for 2013, but I still wouldn't recommend using Crisp as a teaching point.
Hiroyuki Nakajima. Even after he went back to his leg lift, his front side mechanics are terrible. See how the front elbow works in unison moving forward with the front shoulder. Not good. (He is NOT getting jammed on this pitch. That is his swing.)
B.J. Upton. I am on record that Upton has the ugliest swing ever, before his nose-dive with the Braves. Somehow, somehow he had success with the Rays, but it wasn't due to a great swing. See how the rear elbows beats the turning of the front side. His front arm actually gains flexion. That and a lot of other funky movements. (This is a home run swing!!)
Having questionable front side mechanics doesn't doom a player to AA ceiling. But it is definitely a part of the puzzle that is hitting. And I argue a bigger piece than most people realize. And even if it isn't coached at all, that is better than incorrect coaching.
So they next time you son's Little League coach tells him to "keep his front shoulder in," kindly point the coach to this article (no doubt you will have it bookmarked).
(For more technical info on what's happening under the hood of the elite swings, read this and this.)