Why Swinging down Will Prevent You From Playing Up
“Swinging down on the baseball” is one of the most common phrases that you will hear from hitting coaches - from Little League, all the way up to coaches of the highest levels of baseball. I was even taught to do so myself at one point in my baseball career. But like most everything else in our beloved sport, I have always put it into question. I mean, it sounds like a reasonable directive. The bat begins above a hitter’s head, and the ball (one that we want to swing at anyway) is down, somewhere between our belt and our knees. The bat is high and the ball is below, so swing down. But…. is it that simple? More importantly…is it correct?
Surely there has to be some science behind proper bat path and swing plane, right? One of the most critical components to becoming a successful hitter is the ability to drive baseball with consistency. And the best way to do THAT is to keep your swing shortto the contact area and long through the baseball! So what does that mean? And how do we do it?
Rotating To Contact and Staying "Short"
If you are a “forced rotation” hitter, as Major League hitters are, then the first task (being short to the contact area) is accomplished by internally rotating the back hip towards the baseball. At this early stage of the swing, the hands barely move at all. The most active part of the hitter’s upper body as he rotates toward contact is his TOP hand. I’ll explain…
In “load position” (just after the stride and the front heel is dropped) the palm of the hitter’s top hand will be facing forward, towards the pitcher - thus keeping the bat in a proper, upright position.
As the hitter begins to internally rotate his BACK hip towards the baseball, the palm of his TOP hand will also begin to rotate (supinate, actually), into a “palm up” position. This will lower the bat head into a horizontal “contact position”, almost parallel to the ground, but with the hands slightly higher than the barrel of the bat. At this stage of the swing, the bat head is IN the contact area, and (aside from the top hand) the hitter’s hands will have barely moved.
* So…. without “swinging” his bat with his hands, the hitter has lowered his bat head into the position of contact. Now, it’s time for the hands!
Hand Path - Up & Through the Baseball
With his hips now fully rotated 90 degrees and the bat head inside the hitting area, it is time for the hands to do their job - and that is to swing through the baseball. To maximize contact AND drive the baseball, this means that the hands (and by extension, the barrel of the bat) will continue their path…wait for it…UP and through the ball!
Here’s why: Let’s remember that pitchers are standing on a 10” mound of dirt and that most pitchers’ release point is above their head. We could go even deeper and mention that - at the Big League level - pitchers are 6’3” tall on average (or so), but we needn’t go there. Even a pitcher of average height will pitch down into the strike zone. To both maximize the chances of contact and to put as much force behind the baseball as possible at contact, hitters must match the trajectory and plane of the pitch by swinging up and through the ball.
What are the chances of solid contact or “squaring up” a baseball by taking a downward swing at a downward target? Not good.
I remember hearing old-time baseball guys talk about a “level swing.” And I used to think - ‘it’s impossible to ‘swing level’ on any pitch that isn’t shoulder height.’ I now realize that what they were trying to say is: “to swing level, and on the plane of the pitch!” It makes a lot more sense now. Still yet, though…. what IS the plane of a pitch?
Thanks to modern science and pitch tracking technology like QuesTec, we now know that an average fastball travels on a plane of about -8 to -12 degrees, from the pitcher’s hand to the plate, depending on the level of play and the height of the pitcher’s release point (a younger player with lower velocity will have a greater angle). The location of the pitch will also play a factor (pitches higher up in the zone will have less of a downward angle) and so on.
So, what is the best upward plane when it comes to the hand path? We do not want to condone straight uppercuts in swings. When training our hitter’s hand path at The Farm, we strive for an 8 to 10-degree upward swing through contact.
Of course, the degree of the downward plane of pitches will vary from the different types of pitches in any given pitcher’s repertoire, also. When pitch plane is understood (as well as opposite and equal swing plane), it sheds a whole lot of light on the difficulties of squaring up a nasty “12 to 6” curveball, doesn't it?
The very best of the best can recognize that nasty breaking ball, and adjust their upward swing plane accordingly. And while not everyone can hit like a Major Leaguer, when it comes to hitting (or life, for that matter), the more you work at it, the better you will become! After all, if it were all so easy, it wouldn't be near as fun when we get around to tying into one!
*To test this, put yourself in contact position (what you should look like at contact) - with your hips fully rotated, your backside arm at a 90-degree angle and your front side arm slightly bent. From this position, “unwind” your swing - rotate your hips backward, away from contact, all the way back into the “load position”. When finished, you should be back in the “load position” without having to barely move your arms.
Director, Player Skill Development
The Farm BPI
Originally printed September 16, 2014
Reprinted August 14, 2022