Lies our coaches told us: Part 1


Mandatory Credit: Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

My ability to play baseball has never been defined as anything better than acceptable, but it wasn’t for lack of instruction. Baseball camps and pick-up games on makeshift diamonds soaked up the majority of my time spent away from organized games most summers — if there was a baseball, I was there. A couple things that my coaches and instructors told me have been rattling around in my head lately as I watch the Cardinals (and make the mistake of looking for intelligent conversation on twitter), and after watching Albert Pujols hit his 500th career HR, one sticks out in particular.

Before I get started on any of this, please understand that I’m not writing any of this to offend anyone — if one of the lies I break down is one that you’ve long held in your heart, please don’t take it as an attack on you. That said, everything will based on truth rather than personal opinion. If you’re somebody who doesn’t take well to facts that fly in the face of your own personal belief, consider yourself warned.

Lie #1 – Your arms should be extended at the point of contact (and the mechanics involved)

I realize that this statement is one that could cause no small number of people who consider themselves baseball experts to direct a stream of language that would make a sailor blush at their poor, helpless computer screens, so I’ll give it some time to sink in. Seriously, take a minute if you need to, I’ll wait. Are we good now?

Look, it’s not really your fault if you believed this lie, since an unfortunate majority of coaches still teach it from the first time kids pick up a bat, but that doesn’t make the philosophy any more true — it just isn’t true at all. If you don’t have a coach to blame, you may instead direct your anger towards Charley Lau Sr. and his book The art of hitting .300. Those of you who, like me, can’t get enough baseball, may recognize that book as one that Tony LaRussa revised in 1992. I’m a huge fan of TLR, and I think he’s one of the most intelligent men to ever grace baseball with his presence — but that doesn’t mean everything he did was brilliant. The book itself actually does contain a lot of really good advice for hitters, but the part on extension is just plain wrong — and is still repeated by baseball announcers all over the country nearly every night.

To be fair, the version I’ve read is not the revised version, so it’s possible that TLR realized a couple of the problems that Mr. Lau didn’t. Either way, there are some obvious and egregious errors in the basics of the hitting approach espoused by Mr. Lau — namely, that an ideal swing is one in which a hitter’s arms are extended at the point of contact. In fact, there is no position of the arms that provides a hitter with less power and control. What does an ideal swing look like? To answer that question, take a look at this video of the best player in the league, Mike Trout — or this video of Robinson Cano.

You can look up more videos, GIFs or other breakdowns if you want, but the point is this — it is extraordinarily difficult to find an example of a good hitter who has his arms extended at the point of contact. The reason I thought of this point when watching Albert Pujols blast career HR numbers 499 and 500 is that of all the video I’ve watched of his homeruns online, I can’t find even one example of a time when his arms were extended at contact. So what does this mean for the advice that’s nearly as old as baseball itself?

Well, that’s a little harder to answer than you might think. Yes, it’s harder to find an elite hitter who fully extends their arms at contact than it is to find a Cardinals fan who loves Brandon Philips — but there a number of players who fall somewhere between replacement level and league average who like to slap the ball around the field in hopes of finding a hole, and many more of these players (although still not a majority) have their arms extended at the point of contact. So, long answer less long is that you can become a good hitter extending your arms, but it’s very, very rare.

Basically, there are two main schools of thought when it comes hitting, and neither one is strictly adhered to by more than a handful of MLB hitters. The first is called linear hitting, which extended arms at contact usually results in. The idea behind linear hitting is to “throw your hands at the ball” and the majority of time spent in the batting cage for such an approach will focus on generating power from arms and hands, as well as the “snap” of the wrists. The second method is called rotational hitting, and is nearly quite literally the polar opposite of linear hitting. While closer to the ideal swing because of its focus on generating power through the hips and the core of the body, the general lack of focus on loading and weight transfer results in a number of rotational hitters who simply spin in place.

This leads into the idea of hand path, and as you might imagine, the hand paths can also be either curved (rotational) or linear. A linear hand path is usually described as “A to C”, with the idea being that there should only be 2 distinguishable points at which your hands generate power — “point A” when you begin your hand path, and “point C” when you snap your wrists as you bring your hands to the ball. A curved hand path, aside from actually being  curved rather than linear, is also quite different in that in this approach, hitters are generally taught to “let the hips lead the hands”. This is just another way of saying that you should attempt to begin your motion by loading your hips and rotating them to create momentum, with your hands following the motion of your rotating hips — obviously creating a curved hand path.

While rotational hitting is obviously vastly superior to linear hitting, it still isn’t the ideal way to approach hitting. Problems such as wasted momentum due to lack of sufficient weight transfer cancel out the advantage gained from the slightly upward bat path. That isn’t to say that hitters described as rotational hitters aren’t usually  the best hitters — they are — the point is that a textbook definition of rotational hitting (call it fundamental rotational hitting if you will) doesn’t allow for the weight transfer (towards the front foot) that most successful “rotational hitters” actually employ.

So, now that we all know that “getting your arms extended at contact” is a myth, as far as proper hitting is concerned, what should we look for when determining how good or bad a swing is? I’ll break down a few points:

1. Is the hitter “loading” more with his hips, or more with his arms? An ideal swing will see the hips load and the hands and shoulders stay relatively still. This is because the hands and shoulders should already be in position to allow more time to react to unexpected pitches (breaking ball if you’re looking for a fastball, or vice versa) and because in order to generate enough power to drive the ball, the hips need to be in a constant, fluid rotation.

2. Does the hitter keep his weight (and his hands) centered over his back foot before his hips begin to rotate? An ideal swing is one in which no motion is wasted. In order accomplish this, and to use Physics (because science trumps “old school” thought) to a hitter’s advantage, weight transfer and the placement of the hands are vitally important. Until the hips create momentum that carries the weight and hands, both should be centered over the back foot.

3. Does the hitter bend his back elbow and tuck it towards his hip? Again, this is simple physics. Try this at home — go grab a bat or similar object, and hold it out with your arms extended, then have someone attempt to push it backwards while you attempt to hold it directly in front of you. They’ll be able to move the bat without much trouble at all. Now try the same thing with your back elbow bent and tucked towards your hip. They’ll struggle to move it at all, regardless of how strong either one of you may be.

4. Do the hips lead the hands into a circular and slightly upward hand path/swing plane? There is a lot going on in this step, but it’s happening very quickly at this point. The hips should lead the hands (1) creating a circular hand path (2) while also resulting in a slightly (think on the order of between 8 and 10 degrees) upward swing plane (3) which matches the inverse (downward) plane of the ball from the pitcher’s hand on the raised mound.

5. Does the hitter adjust the timing of their contact to coincide with the location of the pitch? This one is pretty simple — a good swing will be one in which the bat meets the ball either earlier or later than average depending on the precise location of the pitch. In order to maximize momentum, an outside pitch should be allowed to get deeper into the plate area before contact, while an inside pitch should be contacted earlier.

This is hardly an exhaustive breakdown of proper hitting mechanics, but it is both much more in-depth and accurate than the common “get extended” mantra that is regurgitated all too often. Hopefully you found at least some of this helpful. In the next edition of Lies our coaches told us we’ll examine what, exactly, constitutes a balk. See you then.