On Tuesday Fangraphs published an article about how Danny Espinosa is changing his hitting style to try to swing with an upwards curve. This reminded me of something that I had heard last year that the Nats are being coached to swing straight down, like an executioner swinging a sword. So I searched a little further and found not only a series of Fangraphs articles on the subject but a potential conflict of opinions between the old school downward chop proponents like Dusty Baker and the upswing trend setters led by Daniel Murphy.
Here are the Espinosa quotes from the Fangraphs article:
“That’s something I studied this past offseason,” said a suddenly engaged Espinosa. “Looking at film, I realized I was too steep, so my bat was in and out of the zone. I always thought I was too loopy, but in fact it was the other way. Because of the angle I was at, I had to be too perfect to the ball and basically could only hit one pitch. I’m working on staying through the ball longer, and on plane longer, so that I can hit more pitches.”
“I’m cleaning up my swing so that I can make more contact and hit for a better average,” explained Espinosa. “Strikeouts aren’t something I’m OK with. Like I said, being too steep, and having to be too perfect to the ball, has hurt me. I think there is something to the launch-angle stuff people are talking about. The guys who are more level, and in the zone for a long time, can hit a lot of different pitches. Those really good hitters… they’re on plane with the ball forever.”
Here is the quote from the Talk Nats article I wrote last summer following a coaches clinic the Nats held to train the local little league coaches on how to teach the kids how to pitch, catch, and hit.
Jacque Jones highly recommended using a tee to warm up, a great way to work on your mechanics, including if you set the tee further back to force a direct downwards motion with the bat like swinging a sword. He has the players aim for the top half of the ball off the tee.
What I didn’t mention in that article is that Jones had said that it was Dusty Baker’s hitting philosophy that he was teaching. That the goal was to force the ball upwards by creating backspin. So this makes sense that last season Espinosa had been trying to adjust his swing as directed by Dusty.
Enter Daniel Murphy and his sudden uptick in OPS. Fangraphs has another article which describes Murphy and several other hitters as the pied pipers of the upswing, tracing how entire teams are improving based on their influences. So if you are a young player trying to make the team (or even a vet trying to recapture your mojo) who do you listen to? It is very hard to not follow the direction of team management, particularly an accomplished and popular manager like Baker. But on the other hand who doesn’t want to hit like Murph?
Fangraphs has a whole bunch of additional articles on the topic of the upswing: here, here, here and here. They are clearly sold on the idea. But the theme to each of the articles is that there is resistance from the old guard of hitting instructors and it can be nearly impossible for a 19 year old minor league player to go against the wishes of his coach. Probably we’ll know in a year or two if the coaches have been right for the last 100 years or if the upward swing method leads to a great leap in offensive production.
The argument for the upswing is that it is the best way to Barrel the ball. That backspin causes the ball to fly upwards is a myth. The upswing proponents believe that the more time that the bat is on a plane with the ball the higher likelihood of contact, that swinging perpendicular to the path of the ball is more difficult to connect.
The argument for the chop swing is that you get the most power by swinging in a straight line as opposed to looping towards the ball. Also that you are more likely to hit the ball by taking the shortest path from your stance to the point of impact.
An interesting twist is that different approaches might be better based on the pitch type. An uppercut could be better for a sinker ball and a chop could be better for a high fastball. Does a player have to pick a swing approach for the season and perfect that swing or can he adjust his swing based on who is on the mound and the game situation?
One last note, in that article about Espinosa he blames much of his hitting woes on batting in the #8 spot in front of the pitcher for much of his career, but he fails to note that it was probably not great hitting in front of him in the #7 spot either.