Elite baseball mechanics feel different in the bodies of MLB players than they appear on film. The phrases used to teach hitters and what actually occurs when we perform our swing are not mutually exclusive.
For example, Ryan Parker of Baseball Prospectus recently wrote an insightful, accurate piece on the similarities in the swings of baseball’s best hitters. Essentially, part of what they do mechanically is what makes them top of class.
I agreed with everything about the piece except the implication that the dreaded buzz phrases like "getting your foot down early" and "taking your hands to the ball" aren’t meaningful and particularly useful.
From Parker’s column:
"These are the phrases that get repeated endlessly and threaten to harm players’ swings."
I decided to decode many of these buzz phrases to provide a better understanding of what they actually mean to us as hitters, from a sensation standpoint.
1. “Get the foot down early”
Getting the foot down early, translated to a sensory experience means being on time with our rhythm and beginning it as early as possible. We know that we can’t make contact with the baseball with our front foot not firmly planted in the ground. So, in our cage drills we work on being on time and not rushing this action. When we rush, our heads move and everything feels like it has to speed up to catch up. Rushing produces choppy mechanics. Nomar Garciaparra got to the point at times during his career during which he didn’t even lift his foot off of the ground. I just watched Michael Young put his foot down before the pitcher even released the ball.
So, hitters practice this technique, whether or not we are able to witness it.
Many ballplayers believe in this theory.
"Getting my foot down early is my first cue," new Detroit Tigers second baseman – and former Texas Ranger — Ian Kinsler said.
Frank Catalanotto, a former teammate of mine claimed, "It was important for me to get my foot down early so I could then concentrate on seeing the ball. I felt like if I didn’t get it down early enough, I wound up rushing and my swing mechanics would break down."
From 14-year veteran Michael Young: "Gotta know your strengths. For me, I wanted to put myself in the best position to use my hands and bat speed, my two biggest strengths. If I was down (his front foot) and ready, my hands could be loaded and ready to fire."
Cubs outfielder Ryan Kalish: "With two strikes and behind in the count, I want my front foot down early for sure."
2. “Let the ball travel and hit it deep in the zone”
Letting the ball travel is an important mental cue. It’s simply about making an attempt to see the ball and to slow it down. It’s a relaxation technique used to avoid being jumpy and attempting to hit the ball directly out of the pitchers hands. While we don’t want to actually hit the ball deep in the zone, we sometimes want to feel like we are.
Alan Trammell was the Tigers hitting coach during my rookie season. When traveling to Fenway Park to face knuckle-baller Tim Wakefield, Tram would tell us to think about taking the ball out of the catcher’s glove. Could we actually do this? Of course not. But I had success vs. Wake in my career because this was a solid mental cue for me. My mantra was, “snatch the ball from the catcher.” This allowed me to make a decision as late as possible whether or not to take a pass. This is crucial when identifying off-speed pitches. I likely made contact with the ball several frames out in front of the dish, but it sure didn’t feel that way to me.
While we don’t actually take our hands to the ball, this phrase can provide the mental cue necessary to keep the bat in the zone longer. By creating the sensation of thrusting the hands forward in the zone, we allow the bat head to fall into the hitting zone early and not “come around the baseball,” which means to surround the ball with the wrong parts of the bat, often resulting in weak contact. The literal implication of taking the hands to the ball would mean that we would smash our knuckles against the baseball. Instead, we keep our hands tight to our body and allow the barrel to lag then whip through the zone.
Essentially, a good hitting coach or teammate has the challenge of saying the same thing a myriad of ways. Some of these old catch phrases are not valuable because they are what happens, literally. They are in place because they have landed with hitters over the years. They cue a sensation and what’s said is irrelevant. What happens when we swing is generally baked in from our childhood.
I’d go as far as to say the players featured in Ryan’s piece — Jose Bautista, Buster Posey and Miggy Cabrera — might even think about these buzz phrases, without the full understanding that what actually occurs on film tells an entirely different story.
New Cubs outfielder Justin Ruggiano, who played three seasons with Tampa Bay and two with Miami, believes in all three.
"I use all three cues throughout my daily routine," Ruggiano said.