As I was watching a Cubs spring training game the other day I was paying close attention to the swing mechanics of the young Cubs prospects. They all have very different looking swings, from the more polished aesthetics of Kris Bryant’s opposite field approach to the quickness of Addison Russell and the wild, flailing untapped potential of Javier Baez. I’ve been meaning to get to this piece for days, but was sidetracked by some Bears free agent signings and a 40th birthday party for my brother which featured a lineup of craft beer’s heavy hitters. Now that those issues are behind us, let’s take a look at some swing mechanics, what is successful and what needs work.
Bryant has been the talk of the Cactus League, and for good reason. The Cubs’ top prospect is killing the ball with six home runs and an OPS nearing 2.000. What makes Bryant so fascinating is more than just his ability to hit the ball out of the park; it’s where he hits the ball out. Bryant has the capability of becoming the league’s best opposite field hitter the second he steps on a big league field. His power alley lies between the gaps and rarely is he seen pulling the ball down the line. Opposite field power is a rare commodity in big league ball, so let’s look at how Bryant’s mechanics allow him to consistently hit the ball with power to right center.
From the start of his swing, Bryant is quiet and relaxed, with little movement as he begins his swing. From there he goes into a very small step. The front toe comes up a slight bit creating more of a tap than a step. This small step allows Bryant to get his front foot down with little movement to his eye level. Notice his head rocking slightly back then forward. That’s a more preferable movement than the up-and-down that we see from Javier Baez (which we will get to in a bit). With a slight back and forth movement the horizontal sight line remains the same, thus allowing the hitter to get a better read from the time the ball leaves the pitchers hands. While his step is a bit more pronounced, it reminds me of another great opposite field hitter but from the other side of the plate in Jim Edmonds. Edmonds did more of a slight ankle roll than a step, but ultimately allowed him the same ability as Bryant, which was to keep a quiet upper body and stay behind the ball even when a little late.
As Bryant’s foot comes down his hands are in a great hitting position; back, calm and ready to follow his hips. Bryant’s hips begin to open slightly before his arms begin to move forward while his head stays behind on the plate. His hips come through the zone first but his fast hands allow the bat to catch up so both his hips and hands are square to the ball when it arrives in the zone. His swing is a long one, but his calm lower body and ability to stay behind the ball even when late is what generate so much power to right center.
Bryant’s slight uppercut swing enables him to put a great deal of backspin on the ball which is why he is able to get so much distance despite his easy looking swing. That backspin is something his father taught him as a coach. His father spent a couple spings in Red Sox camp in the early ‘80’s and was taught the technique by Ted Williams.
My biggest concern with Bryant’s swing is its length and as he ages and his bats slows a bit he may find himself unable to catch-up with those fastballs that he is able to drive the other way. That’s a problem that shouldn’t arise for maybe ten years down the road.
Unlike Bryant, Russell generates all his power on a dead pull. He is smaller and far more compact in his swing and will see most of the balls that leave the yard off his bat go out in dead left field or down the third base line. That said, Russell still possess the ability to hit for average up the middle, though directing the ball to right field will prove to be a challenge for the highly talented 21-year-old.
As you can see, Russell starts with an open stance and his hands held high. He takes a small step toward the plate and nearly comes to a complete stop before beginning his swing. Notice the head is completely still as the ball is delivered allowing him to recognize and identify pitch type and location. His hands start from nearly shoulder height, which is higher than Bryant, allowing for a slight uppercut swing.
Russell’s hands are fast and his swing is incredibly compact. It allows him to do most damage on balls middle-in and his slight uppercut, like Brant, allows him to put a great deal of backspin on the ball. That’s where Russell’s power is generated.
Soler is a great deal more active in the box and his swing is loaded with movement, but unlike Javier Baez, Soler’s lower body and hands are more controlled which cuts down on unnecessary movement. Soler has drastically cut down on his step with the front foot between the time he signed with the Cubs and when he reached the big league level. As you can see in this video, Soler had a huge front step which led to far more movement in his upper half.
Notice the small step and slight ankle turn which allowed his upper half to settle and get a better read on the pitch. The smaller step has a huge impact on head movement. The first video of Soler shows his head moving on both a horizontal and vertical plane. This creates a change in eye level multiple times in the same swing. In the second video you’ll notice far less movement above his shoulders.
While is stance is open and he has to step in toward the place, he keeps his foot down which in turn keeps his head on a horizontal plane. Like Bryant and Russell, Soler has an uppercut swing that allows him to put back spin on the ball.
One area where Soler can improve is his hips. Most of his power is coming to left and center. His hips are slightly in front of his hands causing him to get out in front of the ball. However, his swing is so quick and wristy he is able to get around on the ball incredibly fast. If he is able to slow down his hips to where they can stay behind the ball, he has the potential to develop an opposite field stroke that would allow him to drive the ball to right and right center with consistent power, though developing that opposite field stroke is a lot harder said than done, and the Cubs may be content to let Soler play pepper with the new video board in left.
I went in depth here on the changes Baez needs to make to his swing to become a productive hitter at the MLB level. In that piece I focused on how he faces similar adjustment to his swing that Sosa had to make in the late ‘90’s. I took that approach because they are changes that Cub fans may be familiar with. Now let’s look to it the closest comparison to Baez from a bat speed standpoint and break down the difference between his swing and that of Gary Sheffield.
The first and most glaring difference is the front foot. Both players carry an exaggerated step, but while Sheffield steps directly up and down as a timing mechanism, Baez tends to step up and back. This creates more movement as he has to bring his front foot forward and back down before beginning his swing. As we’ve discussed with the players above, this causes a change in his eye level making it difficult to identify pitch type and location. It also appears the step from Baez is being used to generate more power and torque in his swing, while Sheffield’s seems to be using his step as a way to wait back on the ball before exploding through the zone.
The other big difference between the two is extension. Sheffield is able to keep his hands in allowing him to get the bat around quicker and take a more direct route to the ball. Baez on the other hand, has fully extended arms, straight elbows and has his weight distribution out over the front part of his body. This also creates a longer follow through as the chest of Baez is almost facing the dugout at the conclusion of his swing. By comparison, Sheffield’s torso is squared to the pitcher. It may not seem like a big deal where the body is after contact, but it is. Sheffield’s swing is able to find the ball, square up the ball and use both his weight and bat speed to generate power. Baez is simply using his bat speed and is nearly blindly flailing at the ball. The movement to his head, the over-extended arms, being out over the front of the plate, this is all causing Baez to lose sight of what he is swinging at.
All of these players are extremely young and after a few times through the league they will have to make further adjustments. We’ll go back and analyze those adjustments throughout their careers as needed.