SEE BALL, HIT BALL? MASTERING THE INTRICATE CHOREOGRAPHY IT TAKES TO SQUARE UP A BASEBALL REMAINS ONE OF THE GAME'S ENDURINGLY BEAUTIFUL—AND MADDENING—MYSTERIES. CHRIS DAVIS, FINALLY, HAS THE DANCE DOWN
This is an article from the Aug. 26, 2013 issue
THE BASEBALL SWING is a kinetic chain, which is the metaphoric way of saying that it can be a beautifully efficient piece of simple machinery or an unwieldy instrument of torture. It all depends on whether the hits are falling or not at the moment.
Torture would be a good description of what the baseball swing brought Chris Davis in 2010. Davis, a lefthanded-hitting first baseman, batted .192 with one home run in 45 games for the Rangers, who twice that season demoted him to the minors—the first time after just 15 games—and left him off their postseason roster. He was 24 years old and stuck with one of the most damning labels in baseball: He was a 4A player, consigned to baseball purgatory as too good for Triple A but not good enough for the big leagues. Texas had given him 511 at bats over the 2009 and '10 seasons, and Davis hit .227 while striking out 37% of the time.
Watching Davis hit in those years was like watching somebody play Simon Says with a bat in his hands.
Spread your feet ... bend your knees ... open your stance ... don't move your head ... raise your hands ... lower your hands ... stick out your tongue and touch your nose....
Coaches, instructors, teammates, front-office executives and Davis himself all searched for ways to get his bat to connect with the baseball more often, because on the infrequent occasions when it did, the ball often would fly jaw-droppingly far. Davis is a thoughtful student of the game who tried every bit of advice he received. He would squirrel himself in the Rangers' video room for hours to pore over high-definition, slow-motion clips of his swing, only to be left with a terrible thought after all that study: He had no idea what he was looking for. It was like a man trying to read a newspaper in a foreign language.
Hitting a baseball is hard enough on its most basic level. A 90-mph fastball will get to home plate in 400 milliseconds, but the hitter needs 200 of those to see the ball, send the image to the brain and process its speed, spin and location. The swing itself takes about 150 milliseconds—literally, the blink of an eye. That leaves a scant 50 milliseconds to decide whether to swing and, if so, on what path.
The goal is to connect a 2-inch-diameter bat barrel squarely with a three-inch-diameter baseball—without actually being able to see the ball right before contact. The eye can't follow an object moving that fast that close, so a hitter cannot track the pitch in its last five feet before it reaches the plate. Here's what that means: The batter loses sight of the baseball just when the pitcher wants the pitch to break off its path.
Davis decided all the advice that he was getting complicated the physics of the task. He was proof of the Yogi Berra postulate that you can't think and hit at the same time. Enough, he decided. After his first minor league demotion in 2010 he said to himself, O.K., I'm going to have to figure this out for myself.
The real breakthrough came when the season ended. Davis needed to play baseball without the noise, to play free, without having to answer to coaches or executives. And so he packed up to play winter ball in the Dominican Republic, "to hit," he says, "the way I feel comfortable hitting."
Davis played for Estrellas, a team based in San Pedro de Macoris, the hometown of Yankees second baseman Robinson Cano. Davis and Cano—who has one of the most lovely swings in the game—happened to run into each other there. "For you to handicap your power the way you've done it the past two years, that's just wrong," Cano told Davis. "Here in the Dominican people talk about your power and how they don't see that kind of power very often. You're a power hitter, not a contact hitter."
Cano made Davis realize that he had been throttling his God-given power to satisfy all those people who wanted him to "just make contact" more often. "What he said," Davis says now, "was like a revelation in my life."
Freedom—Davis found it in the Dominican Winter League. He stopped bending his knees the way the Rangers wanted and stood upright in the batter's box, the way he did naturally as a kid. He dropped his hands as he loaded his swing, took a long stride, moved his head—the very movements that drove the Texas brass nuts and wrongly are considered flaws by old-school thinkers—and rediscovered a stress-free, syrupy swing. He smacked six home runs in 86 at bats that winter.
Davis was on his way to being a regular big leaguer, but ... this? No one saw this coming, especially not the Rangers, who shipped him and reliever Tommy Hunter to the Orioles in July 2011 for reliever Koji Uehara. (Hunter and Uehara had similar enough value that Davis essentially had almost none to Texas in the trade.) Three years after bottoming out at .192, Davis is the most devastating power hitter in baseball not named Miguel Cabrera: He led the major leagues with 45 home runs in Baltimore's first 123 games, giving him an outside shot at the most homers since steroid testing began in 2003 (Ryan Howard hit 58 in '06) and the most ever by a player not connected to steroids (61 by Roger Maris in 1961). With 306 total bases, also the most in baseball, Davis also could join Babe Ruth (1921 and '27) and Jimmie Foxx (1932) as the only players in American League history with 50 home runs and 400 total bases. In the calendar year beginning Aug. 15, 2012, covering 158 games, Davis smashed 59 homers and piled up 391 total bases.
One day this month, while preparing to face the Mariners' Joe Saunders, Davis pulled out video from 2008 to see how the lefthander, then with the Angels, pitched him. What he saw of his swing stunned him. "I said, 'Holy crap!' " Davis says. "I didn't recognize myself—even the setup, how much different it is now than it used to be."
Davis sat down with SI last week to analyze his swing on a laptop in the visiting clubhouse in Arizona. He pointed out a trigger mechanism that is similar to how Ruth swung the bat: As Davis's right foot comes off the ground he pumps his hands—from the height of his chin almost to his belt—so that the tip of his bat barrel actually dips over the inside corner of the plate before being pulled upright again. Josh Hamilton and Gary Sheffield also have used this "pump-and-dip" action. It's a mechanism the Rangers told Davis to lose.
"I didn't even know I had it," he says. "Sometimes I get a little more up and down. Sometimes it's a little more circular. That's my load. For the longest time the Rangers' front office and scouting department said, 'You're not going to be able to hit like that.'
"There was an older man there, I can't remember his name, and he said, 'Hey, if you ever want to be successful on the big league level, you have to quit dropping your hands.' "
He smiles. "Well, here we are."
ONE DAY before a recent game in Washington, seven Braves hitters sat in a large, windowless room off the visiting clubhouse at Nationals Park. All were hunched over laptops that sat on a U-shaped counter hugging three walls of the room. Greg Walker, one of Atlanta's two hitting coaches, stood in the middle of the room, like a proctor. You could easily be excused for thinking you had stumbled into a conference room of an Internet startup company. Such video study sessions have become as common in the big leagues as pregame batting practice.
Amazon sells over 100 how-to books on hitting. You can buy The Art of Hitting .300 (Charley Lau, 1992), The Art of Hitting .400 (Charley Lau Jr., 2000) and The Art and Science of Hitting .500 (Bruce Winship Wright, 2007). You can download hitting apps for your phone and sign up for online coaching. You can read dozens of high-tech biomechanical studies. The baseball swing has been studied, sequenced and decoded more than the human genome.
Ruth dragged the game out of the slap-hitter-dominated deadball era and gave rise to the modern swing almost 100 years ago by imparting torque and lift to produce home runs. Ted Williams emerged as the next great influence on the baseball swing: He emphasized the rotational power of the hips and shoulders, an approach popularized with his 1971 book, The Science of Hitting. The book was published 11 years after Williams's last game, which occurred the year before one of the first qualitative analyses of the swing, published by Donald E. Race in Research Quarterly in 1961.
The same year Williams published his book, the Royals hired Lau as their hitting coach. Lau would be the major influence on the swing through the 1970s and '80s, emphasizing the lateral movement of shifting weight from the hitter's back foot to his front foot, a more contact-based approach that played well as baseball opened spacious artificial-turf stadiums that rewarded putting the ball in play more than home runs.
Over the last 25 years, as further biomechanical studies have been done and video technology improved, Williams's emphasis on rotational power and Lau's emphasis on linear power—they were both right—have blended to create the modern swing. To understand the overriding theme of current hitting theory, ask the three hitters today who are best at getting on base what the most important element of the swing is:
Miguel Cabrera (.452 on-base percentage, best in the majors): Stay inside the ball.
Joey Votto (.434, second): I always try to stay inside the ball. I try to make sure when I make contact with the ball it's not topspin or carved—it's coming off true.
Mike Trout (.430, third): The biggest thing is staying inside the ball, using my hands. That's the key for any guy coming up: patience to stay inside the ball and not trying to yank everything down the line.
Keep your hands inside the ball—it drives hitting philosophy today more than anything else. The beginnings of its popularity date to the 1990s, when the lefthanded-hitting Tony Gwynn consistently drilled singles through what he called the 5.5 hole—the space between the third baseman and the shortstop. That was followed by the success of Derek Jeter, who led the Yankees to four titles in five years by whipsawing opposite-field singles and doubles. The inside-the-ball maxim is now a mantra not just for opposite-field hitting. Cabrera, Votto and Trout, for instance, all have hit at least 30 home runs in a season.
What does it mean? Davis explained with a video of his swing shot from an overhead camera behind the plate. You can see that as his hands start forward, they stay close to his chest. Imagine an invisible line from the pitcher's hand to the catcher's mitt, the path of the baseball. Davis's hands always stay inside that line. In fact, if you drew another imaginary line from the first base side of the rubber to the inside corner of the plate, his hands stay inside that line, too. The truth is most all major league hitters keep their hands "inside the ball" and have done so since the game was invented. What has changed is the emphasis on keeping them as far inside as possible, on all pitches.
Davis froze the video at a point where the baseball is five feet in front of him, headed toward the middle of the plate. His hands are over the inside chalk line of the lefthanded batter's box and the bat is parallel with that line—the knob pointed at the pitcher and the end of the barrel pointed at the catcher. This moment is what Davis pictures when reminding himself to stay inside the ball. "It took me a long time to understand it," he says. "It's almost like you're pulling your hands across your chest. And then you release the bat head. Once I learned how to do that, I started hitting pitches inside—even in off the plate—and not hooking them."
The snap-hooked ball—the pitch pulled foul so violently it curves away from the field—elicits oohs and aahs from the crowd but groans from batting coaches. It's the giveaway that a hitter's hands have worked away from his body and "around," outside, the baseball.
"The guys who stay inside the ball and let the pitch travel seem to have the most success," Yankees hitting coach Kevin Long says. "The ones truly committed to it are the best hitters in the game: Derek Jeter, Robinson Cano, Miguel Cabrera, Joey Votto, Adrian Gonzalez. That has nothing to do with mechanics. They are willing themselves to do that. You're not fully committed if the pulled foul is happening."
Votto, for instance, took great pride in having pulled just one ball into the stands in his career—in 2007, his first season. In May, however, he pulled a changeup from Mets pitcher Shaun Marcum foul, leaving him talking to himself in the batter's box, a look of disgust on his face.
Davis remembers the exact swing when he proved to himself that he had mastered the concept. It was this season, May 23 in Toronto. Blue Jays righthander Brandon Morrow had struck him out his first time up with a 90-mph slider up and in. Morrow decided to throw the same pitch when Davis stepped in to start the fourth inning. "If you look at my swing, I went like this," Davis says, pulling his hands up almost against his chest, as if squeezing through a tight crawl space. He crushed a home run to rightfield, off the facade of the second deck at Rogers Centre, a foot or so inside the foul pole.
Could he have done that three years ago?
"No," Davis says, laughing. "I probably would have killed somebody down the first base line."
AFTER THE stance, there are three phases to a swing: the front foot rising off the ground, the front foot hitting the ground, and contact. The stance and first two phases allow a wide range of individual interpretation. But at the contact phase every major league swing is virtually identical. It is analogous to what Charles Coody said about the golf swing: "Through the ball we are all the same. We just have different ways of getting it there."
Davis had to relearn how to get it there after all the tinkering he did in 2009 and '10. "The more I got into my legs [by bending his knees in his stance], the less leverage I had and the less powerful I felt," Davis said, "so I was constantly overswinging, really fighting against my upper body to get to pitches at the belt or above. It took me a while to get back."
The chain begins when the front foot comes off the ground. As the weight shifts to the rear foot, the hips, shoulders and arms rotate slightly back—known as "loading." Because Davis, who is 6'3" and 230 pounds, begins from an upright stance, he has a long stride. And as he strides, his head travels down and as much as a foot-and-a-half forward—something that worried the Rangers.
"They thought that because my head dropped and moved forward, that's why I swung at pitches in front of the plate so often," Davis says. "They thought it looked to me like the pitch was getting closer. But what I found was that the sooner I'm able to make that move, the better [pitch] recognition I have. And that's something I had to figure out for myself."
Davis is part of the last generation of kids who grew up learning how to hit from adults who did not have access to biomechanical studies and super-slow-motion video. Those adults taught hitting by passing down saws from their elders that were based on little more than observational information: Keep your head still, "squish the bug" with your back foot (which promotes leaving your back side behind the baseball rather than transferring your weight through the swing), get your arms extended (in truth, the back elbow is bent at contact). All are either misleading or flat-out wrong.
"Watch this," Davis says.
He points to his head in the video. After his front foot hits the ground, his head stops moving and stays perfectly still through contact. When the foot hits the ground, the linear energy of the batter's stride interacts with the rotational energy of his hips, shoulders and arms—Lau meets Williams. The hips lead the way, with a maximum speed (about 714 degrees per second) right after the foot hits the ground, followed by the shoulders (937 degrees per second) and finally the arms (1,160 degrees per second).
This is the kinetic chain: The timing of these rotations is as essential to great hitting as timing is to a Formula One engine. Proper timing leads to higher rotational velocities; higher rotational velocities generate more bat speed; and more bat speed produces more power. A major league hitter swings the bat between 70 and 80 mph. On a 94-mph fastball, every increase of even 1 mph of bat speed equates to hitting the ball eight feet farther.
Never before have hitters had so much information at their disposal. The job of a hitting coach has become so labor intensive that most teams now employ two hitting coaches. On a typical day Long arrives at the ballpark 7½ hours before a night game. He spends two hours or more doing "homework," including sifting through video and scouting reports of opposing pitchers, and, except for a 15- to 30-minute break after on-field batting practice, another five hours working with his hitters on the field and in the cage.
Despite all the work, tools, facilities and research, it is harder to get a hit in the big leagues today than at any time in the past 40 years. (The overall .254 average is the lowest since 1972, when it was .244.) Batters strike out more often these days than at any time in the history of the game (15.12 times per game in 2012; 15.04 in '13). Runs (8.4 per game) haven't been this hard to come by since 1992.
"The pitching's too good," Long explains. "It's ball movement. Go back 10 years and look at the difference in movement. Felix Hernandez, for instance, throws a 90-mph changeup that is pretty much unhittable."
Pitchers make the ball move late and with velocity more today than ever before. They are exploiting the hitter's "dark zone": those last five feet of the ball's path when it can't be tracked. Long recalls a recent conversation with Jeter about how baseball has changed in the span of his 19-year career. "He said it used to be that when pitchers threw a fastball it was straight," Long says. "And now many pitchers throw off-speed pitches for strikes. It used to be if you saw something spinning, you just took it and waited for a fastball. I believe hitters today are as talented as they ever have been. [But] on the other side of the ball, pitching has changed dramatically."
There has always been a saying in baseball that you can't make a hitter, but I think you can improve a hitter. More than you can improve a fielder. More mistakes are made hitting than in any other part of the game.
WHEN BRANDON BERGER showed up in 2001 for his sixth professional season, none of them above Double A, the Royals wanted to cut him. Berger was a former 14th-round pick, a 5'11" righthanded-hitting outfielder who was 26 and had never hit more than 18 home runs in a season. At the end of spring training, Kansas City decided to give him one last shot. Though he wasn't hurt, they stashed him on the disabled list of the Double A Wichita Wranglers so he could work with Long, then Wichita's hitting coach.
Berger had tremendous bat speed, but his swing was terrible. Coaches had leaned on him so much to hit the ball to the opposite field that as he extended his arms trying to shoot the ball the other way, his hands came around the ball even on inside pitches. Long moved him closer to the plate and stressed keeping his hands inside the ball. They spent three weeks together until Berger was ready to join the Wranglers. He proceeded to hit 40 home runs and slug .648 that year. He finished the season in the majors with the Royals, the start of an 81-game big league career—albeit a modest one—that once looked impossible. "You hear stories about guys changing their swing and having success," says Long. "Other guys try it and don't have success. It takes a special person."
Three years ago, in the middle of the season, the Yankees kept Curtis Granderson out of the lineup for two days to overhaul his swing with Long. The next year Granderson, then 30 years old, hit 40 home runs for the first time. He was one of 11 players in the previous eight years to have their first 40-homer season at age 29 or older. The other late bloomers are Cabrera, Edwin Encarnacion, Jose Bautista, Carlos Pena, Alfonso Soriano, Jermaine Dye, Carlos Beltran, Josh Hamilton, Travis Hafner and Derrek Lee. All of them, like Davis, changed teams to reach new heights.
Davis has figured it out at age 27. He could always hit, going back to his prodigious power at Longview (Texas) High School, Navarro Junior College in his home state and even in the minors, where he hit .318 overall with a .597 slugging percentage. When Texas traded him in 2011, he was destroying Triple A, hitting .368 with 24 home runs in 48 games.
Davis broke out last year with 33 home runs, a threshold he passed this year before the All-Star Game. With the help of Orioles hitting coach Jim Presley, he has become more patient this season: He has walked in 10.2% of his plate appearances, up from 6.6% in 2012. "After last year," Presley says, "we knew that before every series the other team would tell their pitchers, 'Don't let this guy beat you.' "
Davis's sudden success, of course, has brought suspicion. This season he has fended off questions about performance-enhancing drugs, flatly denying that he has ever used them. "Learning my swing last year was a huge foundation," Davis says. "Last year set up this year. I found something that I could repeat on a daily basis and have success and relax and play the game."
Davis stood up from the table in the Orioles clubhouse, ready for his pregame work. He is a mountain of a man, broad-shouldered and square-jawed, and swings a 35-inch, 33-ounce club of a bat befitting his size. When he stands in the batter's box with that upright stance he seems cut from granite. There is, in that moment before the pitcher tries to slip something past him, a peaceful stillness about him. Such calmness was a long time coming, and offers no hint of the forth-coming violence of his swing.
That night, in the fourth inning of a scoreless game, Arizona pitcher Randall Delgado thought a 1-and-0 count might be a good time to throw Davis an inside fastball. Davis pumped his hands to a lower position, rotated his hips, shoulders and arms in perfect sequence while pulling his hands inside the ball and then brought the barrel of his big bat around. There was a tremendous thwack when the bat hit the ball, leaving no doubt that this would be home run number 44. Davis watched the baseball. It did not hook. It climbed upward and in a straight line, as if tracing the ascent of his career.
STAGES OF A REBUILT SWING
As the pitcher nears his release point, Davis lifts his front foot, drops his hands and rotates back his hips, shoulders and hands.
Because he starts with his feet close together, Davis has a long stride; before his front foot lands, his head can travel forward as much as 18 inches.
The hips and shoulders rotate as energy stored in the Load transfers. A sign Davis's hands are inside the ball: His bat is parallel to the plate.
Davis pulls his hands across his chest and whips the bat head around; the typical big leaguer's arms rotate 1,160 degrees per second.
THE FOLLOW THROUGH
Davis finishes with one hand on his large bat (35 inches, 33 ounces), lending an effortless air to a complex act.
There's another trade deadline approaching: who might be on the move, power rankings and the latest in the A-Rod soap opera at SI.com/mlb