MLB Scout's Corner: Five Hitters Who Need Swing Overhauls Next Season
In this brave new world of baseball analysis, numbers seem to be everything sometimes. Indeed, stats are the best way to evaluate a player's performance in a given season, and teams who can best measure up a free agent's skill set through the prism of his statistics will make the best-informed decisions.
Often, however, it takes more than math to tell the whole story of a batter's season. Scouting still has its place in baseball; the area of need has merely shifted. With ample tools available for deciding which players performed best, the pressing question posed to scouts is: What do we do with the other guys?
When baseball players struggle at the plate, it is rarely because their line drive rate has fallen or because they have swung at too many pitches outside the strike zone. Those things tend to be symptoms, not root problems in and of themselves. Usually, the central problem with a struggling hitter is that he has fallen into bad habits at home plate. Some mechanism of timing or motion in the batter's swing has gone awry, and the result is a perceived drop in home run power, or hitting ability altogether.
The good news for those men is that, if the bad or obsolete habits that set them back at the plate can be identified and corrected, the slumping slugger can return rapidly to form. These five hitters had lousy years in 2010, but they could turn things around in a hurry next season by changing their approaches.
1. Derrek Lee
Lee entered 2010 on a high, coming off a resurgent 2009 in which he hit .306/.393/.579 and launched 35 homers for the Chicago Cubs. With free agency looming and the return of his lineup protector third baseman Aramis Ramirez, Lee looked poised for a big season.
Instead, Lee fell off the table, hitting .260/.347/.428 with the Cubs and Atlanta Braves, for whom he continues to toil into October. His power vanished (he hit homers on just 12.1 percent of fly balls, a respectable rate but almost one-third less often than he had in 2009) and he struck out more often than he had since 2002.
The problem for Lee was balance. As this picture illustrates, Lee employs a high leg kick as a timing mechanism in his swing. He moves his lead foot back as he picks it up, then back forward to drive through the ball at the point of contact. In 2010, however, Lee's age (he turned 35 in September) began to show. His foot and front leg slowed down, and the result was frequently a lunging, off-balance swing: The 6'5" Lee found himself tied up because his bat reached the baseball before his foot planted itself firmly on the ground.
At this stage of his career, Lee is probably due for a complete rebuild of his swing. Lingering back issues seem sure to keep him hesitant about planting the front foot the way he must to remain successful, so the best bet for the free agent-to-be is to retool his swing to get to the ball more quickly.
Lee should close his very open stance somewhat, encouraging the shortened stride. He starts his hands very high, but (as the picture also shows) has tended to drop them during the loading phase of his swing this season. To help him get used to picking up the foot less, he should lower his hands to roughly shoulder height before even starting his swing motion.
Lee should plant his foot permanently by the time the pitcher releases the baseball, allowing his hips and arms to drive the ball toward the gaps with top spin instead of aiming for the seats with his leg-drive swing of the past two seasons. If he can do all of those things, he can get to fastballs inside and re-establish himself as a solid, James Loney-type hitter in 2011.
2. Mark Reynolds
If Lee's problem is that he cannot get to the ball as quickly as he used to, Reynolds's is that he tries to get there altogether too quickly.
Blessed with great power built around hip rotation and quick wrists, Reynolds does his best work when he lets the ball get deep into the hitting zone before uncoiling himself on the ball. He is capable of driving balls deeper from gap to gap than virtually any other active big-league hitter.
Few players are able to hit the ball from as deep in the hitting zone as Reynolds, because they cannot contact the ball with such authority without extending their arms far out in front of home plate. The problem for Reynolds is that he does not trust this remarkable gift.
Too often, Reynolds starts his swing with a meandering stride toward first base from the right-handed batter's box. He does this to get his body moving before the pitch leave the pitcher's hand, but the result is often a too-closed stance from which Reynolds cannot release his hips and chest to do the work of turning on the baseball. Those are the times when we see Reynolds lunge through the baseball, going to one knee in a vain last-second effort to generate power on a swing already robbed thereof.
Another problem is that Reynolds too frequently anticipates the fastball. This is the misplaced mistrust of his hands of which I spoke earlier: Reynolds starts his hands before he starts moving the rest of his body, in effect pushing the bat toward the baseball and slowing down what would otherwise be one of the big leagues' fastest bats.
It is this flaw that gives him the appearance of having a long, loopy swing. He must correct it by closing his front shoulder more pre-swing, keeping himself more still in the box and keeping his hands close enough to his body to prevent the swooping effect that slows him down at times.
Reynolds could use these tactics to make more consistent contact (he came up empty on 17.1 percent of his swings last season, by far the worst in baseball), even if it came at the cost of some of his power (he hit home runs on 19.9 percent of his fly balls last year, good for eighth in baseball).
In so doing, he would give himself a chance to hit even more homers anyway: This adjustment would allow Reynolds to put about 20 more balls in play in the air next season, meaning that even a rather substantial reduction of three percent in his home run rate on flies would result in the same 32 dingers.
3. Matt Kemp
Remember all the really basic things your Little League coach used to yell at you about when you stepped into the box?
"Don't step in the bucket," he would yell. "Keep your front shoulder in. You're flying open. Watch the ball onto your bat; don't over-swing."
Okay, if your coach yelled all that at you, you probably didn't have much success at the plate, and this is why, in 2010, Matt Kemp didn't have much either. Kemp is a supremely talented player who can hit the cover off the ball when he gets hot, but for long stretches of 2010, he simply did everything wrong that can be done.
Kemp is at his best when he comes directly to the baseball, his whole body moving in one direction and moving in unison. Unfortunately, Kemp must alter his swing in three key ways in order to do that consistently.
First, he needs to lower his hands at the plate. The first motion of Kemp's swing is almost always a sharp downward and backward movement of the hands. This can be used as a loading mechanism for the swing, but in Kemp's case, it clearly serves no such purpose: The motion is so disjointed from the swing itself that it can only be counter-productive.
Second, he needs to spread out a bit more in the box. Kemp is not a huge man, and has no special strength through his upper body. He relies on his lower half to drive the ball, and must set his feet farther apart in order to achieve that power stroke. During 2010, he was frequently guilty of lunging at the ball when trying to hit for power, knowingly overcompensating for his lack of power preparation within the batter's box.
Finally, Kemp must stay closed. A dead pull hitter, he often moves his entire body toward left field as he swings. The result is that which no elite athlete can afford: wasted motion. While all Kemp's energy is taking him and his bat to the left, the ball is coming in at an entirely different angle, and quite often, it proves to be beyond Kemp's reach.
4. Marlon Byrd
Byrd's is an interesting case, because his greatest flaw in the box seems to be the result not of a bad habit, but of a misguided choice.
At the end of play on June 9, Byrd had nine home runs and 21 doubles in 237 plate appearances with the Cubs. He had walked just seven times, but nonetheless held a very impressive .321/.359/.538 batting line. From there on, he would hit .279/.342/.366 in 389 plate appearances. He had only three more home runs, and just 23 total extra-base hits, after June 9.
Byrd did not suffer his power outage by accident, though: He seemed to radically shift his approach midseason. It may have been mid-June; it may have been before or after that. Whenever the change occurred exactly, Byrd began swinging with virtually no stride (not that he had veer relied on that anyway) and moving his feet so as to get around faster and meet the baseball more flatly. In essence, Byrd began hitting on his toes.
Aside from robbing him of any legitimate power, that swing had Byrd putting the ball on the ground virtually every time he came to bat. By the end of the season, only seven National League hitters hit a higher percentage of their batted balls on the ground than the 6'0", 245 lb. Byrd. He finished just ahead of teammate Starlin Castro, and indeed (were it not for the 75 extra pounds of muscle Byrd has on Castro) the two could have been batting clones by the end of the season.
The fix is easy, then, for the Cubs center fielder. He merely needs to stop walking on air, plant his feet in the batter's box and swing from the heels every now and then, and he should show something more like the 20-home run power that he displayed in 2009 with the Texas Rangers.
5. Carlos Pena
Pena is a natural home-run swinger. He probably would launch mostly fly balls no matter what plate adjustments he made, and that's okay. When he's right, he moves his whole body smoothly, so that every muscle set is free to rotate through the hitting zone and clobber the baseball.
The problem for Pena is his feet. Too often this season (a year in which he hit just .196/.325/.407), Pena moved his back foot forward as he swung, like a slow-pitch softball slugger walking into a swing. The result was what the result of that habit always is: Pena's front shoulder came flying out, he lost all sense of drive, and the motion of his whole body at once caused him to wave feebly at the ball, with his vision of the pitch compromised by the motion of his head.
Pena's line drive rate—he hit just 14.5 percent of his batted balls on the screws in line drive style, seventh-lowest in baseball—suffered from the instability of his lower half.
Pena has much to gain, as a free agent-to-be, by showing scouts in this postseason that he has overcome some of his more troubling tendencies at the plate and is ready to deliver in prime time next season.