Friday, November 30, 2012

Pitching Mechanics and "The Kinetic Chain"


The first time I saw Tim Lincecum pitch, way back prior to the 2006 MLB draft, I was hooked. That's all it took. Part of it was his electric, Bugs Bunny like stuff, but another part was his pitching mechanics. Lincecum's pitching mechanics embodied much of what I was, on my own, beginning to piece together about pitching. Namely, that the pitching motion involved a specific sequence of movements that, when performed properly, could incrementally build force. That proper pitching was a summation of force. That each properly executed movement stacked velocity on the one that came right before it. That some types of movements were more effective than others. That flaws in any one part of the sequence would create inefficiency and act as a drag on performance. In short, that "throwing with the entire body" was the best way to increase performance and reduce injuries. It was the kinetic chain right before my very eyes. 

Hitting a baseball is one of the most difficult things to do in sports. Pitching a baseball is one of the most unnatural. During a pitch, the shoulder exceeds 7,000 degrees per second of internal rotation for adult pitchers. It is considered the fastest human movement, a movement generated by the windup process. The stress placed on the arm is tremendous and it's only exacerbated by any mechanical flaws in the delivery.

There is a new wave of interest in managing that stress, spurred on by a combination of escalating salaries and the evolution of information technology, which make it more desirable and easier to study and understand pitching mechanics. Many teams, including the Brewers, view player health as a potential market inefficiency to be exploited. If they can keep their pitchers healthier than their opponents, they'll have a competitive advantage on the field and more efficient production per dollar spent off the field.

The kinetic chain involved in pitching encompasses a coordinated human movement in which both energy and momentum are transferred up through body segments to achieve maximum magnitude in the final segment. The concept of a kinetic chain is developed from the idea that the energy expended in the pitching process is created with large muscle segments and is transferred through the legs and trunk, out to the throwing arm, wrist, and ultimately to the ball. For example, the kinetic chain for throwing consists of the legs, hip, trunk, upper arm, forearm, hand, and the baseball. Pitching's kinetic chain includes a sequence of motions: the stride, rotation of the pelvis or trunk, upper torso rotation, elbow extension, internal shoulder rotation, and wrist flexion. The potential velocity at the distal end where the ball is released is greater if the body segments contribute to the total overall force. Less energy is required if the kinetic chain is executed properly; if the pitcher's mechanics are correct. And, the performance of the pitch - whether velocity, movement, or location - will be improved when the chain is unbroken. But if "the gate breaks" (i.e. one part of the body gets ahead of another, goes off center, etc.), then the chain breaks down and the summation of force becomes inefficient, robbing the pitch of (1) velocity, (2) movement, (3) location, or all three.


At the time, people pointed to Lincecum's size and unorthodox mechanics as reasons to drop him down on draft boards, when in actuality the latter was a tremendous positive, to such an extent that it made the former largely irrelevant. Lincecum was the first high-profile kinetic chain pitcher. There may have been others in baseball's long history, but Lincecum brought it to the mainstream, changing minds and entrenched beliefs along the way. One young pitcher who took note of what Lincecum was doing is Diamondback pitcher Trevor Bauer. Bauer, a mechanical engineering student at UCLA, appreciated and embraced Lincecum's torque-driven delivery as a means of reducing injury risk and maximizing performance.

Lincecum was the trailblazer, Bauer is spreading the word. Bauer, who has the analytical type personality commonly found in mechanical engineering, loves to talk pitching and mechanics, which has made information on the kinetic chain easier to find than ever before. Both Lincecum and Bauer have done much to heighten the discussion and debate surrounding proper pitching mechanics. If you look at their pitching mechanics, the similarities are unmistakeable. Both pitchers stand as prime examples of torque-based/kinetic chain pitching mechanics.

Here's a look at a series of photos of both at key stages in the kinetic chain:

LEG KICK


















Here, they both utilize a high leg kick, which is an essential part of the kinetic chain. Both pitchers coil up during the leg kick, which creates tension and torque. The angle on the photo of Bauer provides a better visual example of coiling, as you can see the knee of his left leg breaking the vertical plane of his right leg. This wrapping of the knee in the leg kick creates tension in the spine, which generates energy. The high leg kick is also very necessary to set up the proper stride, as seen in the photos below.

I have come to view the windup as two phases, divided by the apex of the leg kick. The first phase is all about sequencing movements to generate force to impart on the baseball, while the second phase is all about properly imparting that force to the baseball. Until the apex of the leg kick, the delivery is about building up force, after the apex of the leg kick it's all about transferring that force to the baseball. While kinetic chain pitchers would probably reject the premise that there are two distinct phases, choosing instead to see each distinct movement as nothing more than another link in the chain, but the "two phases" view is one that seems to suit my thinking on the subject. And, makes a degree of intuitive sense. So, I have referenced it in my past write-ups and likely will continue to do so going forward.    



APEX AND DRIVE TO THE PLATE

Upon reaching the apex of the leg-kick, it's time to begin the drive to the plate:

















After reaching the apex, the next move is to unleash all the momentum that has been created. Here, they both began their drive to the plate FROM THE APEX of the leg kick. There is a massive difference in the amount of force generated between (1) starting the drive towards the plate from the apex of the leg kick and (2) completely unpacking the leg before beginning the drive to the plate. The force generated by the height of the leg and the body coil are completely wasted if the leg is lowered back down to the ground before driving to the plate. Heading into the 2012 draft, I had concerns about draft prospect Andrew Heaney (my write-up and a video clip of Heaney's pitching mechanics are worth a look if you want to see this leg kick issue for yourself) because he didn't drive towards the plate until after he had already unpacked the leg kick, which is highly inefficient and wastes a tremendous amount of energy generated by the leg kick. In order to pitch at a high level, that lost force must, to some extent, be made up by the arm. Either the lost force will be generated by the arm, causing additional arm stress and likely increasing the risk of injury, or the lost force will be lost forever, reducing the performance level of the pitcher.

Lincecum and Bauer both drive towards the plate from the apex position. You can see that both utilize a lean towards the plate as the leg kick unpacks. This aggressive move is important because it puts them in position to take a long, powerful stride. More and more, it is becoming clear that a long stride is a significant key to the kinetic chain delivery and power pitching in general. (On a related note, ultra-velocity Aroldis Chapman is another pitcher with a very long stride. I've previously posted pictures comparing his stride to that of Lincecum and the similarities are striking.)


STRIDE

Here are photos of Lincecum and Bauer in mid-stride:













As you can see, both pitchers use a very long stride. A stride so long that they almost have to leap off the rubber towards the plate in order to cover that much ground. For kinetic chain pitchers, the long stride is exceptionally important, as it is what permits full, explosive hip rotation. Pitchers who utilize a short stride frequently cut off the rotation of their hips, which limits their ability to transfer the force generated by the body to the baseball. By utilizing a long stride, the pitcher clears the body and allows sufficient time for full and complete rotation of the hips.    

Generally speaking, short stride pitchers are likely to be command and control pitchers (or, power pitchers who generate velocity largely with their arm, which increases the risk of injury), while longer stride pitchers are likely to be power pitchers. But, of course, there are exceptions to every rule, which is what makes baseball, and life, enjoyable. 


PITCHING POSITION

The photos in this section are the two most important in this entire post. These photos are the biggest key to the kinetic-chain/torque based method of pitching:

















As was mentioned previously, a long stride is important for full-and-complete rotation of the hips. If you look at both of these photos, you can see the hips of both Lincecum and Bauer are almost on a line running from first base to third base, while the shoulders are still on a line running from second base to home plate. At this point, the momentum has moved from the legs to the hips. The long stride permits the pitchers to delay rotating the shoulders. This delayed trunk rotation maximizes the torque in the delivery.

An aggressive, long foot plant allows pitchers to maximize hip rotation, while delaying the back shoulder and arm as long as possible. This high-velocity hip rotation, generated by the legs, along with the loose and delayed torso, PULLS the upper body along at high speed, delivering the arm at the same time. Both Lincecum and Bauer have mentioned that they don't have to ice their arms down after pitching. The simple reason is that they throw with their entire body and the arm is merely pulled along by the explosive hip rotation. The body simply pulls the arm along, reducing stress on the arm. The arm is nothing more than the distal end of the chain, like the person at the end of the whip in a game of crack-the-whip, the conduit for all the momentum generated by the chain. The arm doesn't have to generate the force itself, rather it just channels and imparts that force generated by the sequential movements of the delivery to the baseball.

While the kinetic chain reduces the stress on the arm, it also increases the importance of health of the entire body. For example, lingering injuries to the lower body of a kinetic chain pitcher can cause "the gate to break", leading to a decline in performance. This happened to Trevor Bauer in 2012, causing his velocity to drop and his performance to suffer, as he explained:

"It was like the tale of two pitchers or Jekyll and Hyde," Bauer said. "I'm so heavily dependent on my legs to keep myself in line and generate everything, so when something that low in the chain goes, it's hard to accommodate for it."


Ultimately, these types of mechanics may be a key to understanding how to reduce stress on the arm and avoid pitcher injuries. And, increasing pitcher durability is undoubtedly a way to gain a competitive advantage and increase your return on investment. At the very least, discussion of these pitching mechanics advances the conversation regarding what actually are desirable attributes in a pitcher's mechanics. If a team can more accurately evaluate pitching mechanics, then they can more accurately target players in the draft and teach those new mechanics to players already in the system through their player development department. Both Lincecum and Bauer, through words and deeds, are making a strong case for the use of kinetic chain pitching mechanics to maximize both durability and performance.  




Thursday, November 29, 2012

2013 Top Prospect List: #1 Billy Hamilton, cf

Photo courtesy MILB
BILLY HAMILTON
DOB: 9/9/1990
HEIGHT 6-1, WEIGHT 160, B/T: S/R

Can he hit?

That's the only question that matters at this point. We'll take the usual spin through his attributes and circumstances, but it all comes down to those three little words.

Billy Hamilton has development risk centered on his hit tool, but he lands at the top of the list because the only competitors in the system for the slot are pitchers, who carry their own bundle of risks, both development and injury. And, none of the pitchers are as freakish as Hamilton. In the last few years, the Reds have acquired and developed two physical freaks, Aroldis Chapman with his 105 mph fastball and Hamilton with his off-the-charts running speed.

Uniqueness and scarcity drive value. And, there is no prospect more unique than Billy Hamilton, which elevates him to the top slot on this list.  


DRAFT POSITION AND AMATEUR CAREER

The Reds selected Hamilton with the 57th overall pick in the 2nd round of the 2009 draft. It may ultimately prove to be the best value pick of the draft. Hamilton was drafted out of Taylorsville High School in Mississippi, where he was a three sport star, and the Reds managed to sign him away from a football scholarship to Mississippi State.  

His pre-draft reports all rated his athleticism as plus, but his polish as raw. The fact that he split his time between three sports meant less experience on the diamond. That, coupled with the football scholarship, caused him to slide down draft boards, enabling the Reds to land him in the 2nd round.
 

2012 SEASON

Hamilton started off the 2012 season at high-A Bakersfield. During his time with the Blaze, Hamilton established himself as a potential impact player, whereas prior to the season he was more curiosity than top prospect.

In his 82 games for the Blaze, he posted a stellar slash line of .323/.413/.439 in 337 ABs, which came along with a 70/50 K/BB ratio, 18/19/1 in 2b/3b/HR, and 104 stolen bases in 125 attempts.That earned him a promotion to double-A Pensacola Blue Wahoos of the Southern League.

For the Blue Wahoos, Hamilton kept getting on-base, posting a .286/.406/.383 slash line in 175 ABs with a 43/36 K/BB ratio, 4/5/1 in 2b/3b/HR, and 51 steals in 67 attempts.

In light of Hamilton's offensive profile, that of table-setter and speed merchant, the most impressive aspect of Hamilton's 2012 season was his Isolated Discipline (IsoD), as his OBP was 90 points higher than his batting average at Bakersfield and 120 points higher at Pensacola. That is an extraordinary rate for the simple fact that pitchers have all the incentive in the world to keep Billy Hamilton off the bases. Given his limited power and unlimited speed, pitchers should be looking to pound the strike zone all day long. Even if he puts the bat on the ball, it's unlikely to leave the yard, so there is little danger of mistakes being punished. On the other hand, if he gets on base, he'll wreak havoc. So, the fact that he drew walks at such a high clip at two separate levels is impressive.

I have to think a significant portion of it has to do with pitchers being unable to consistently throw strikes, which won't be the case at the higher levels, but Hamilton deserves credit for embracing on-base percentage as a necessary means of utilizing his speed. It's very rare to find a player with elite speed. It's almost inconceivable to find a player with elite speed who reaches base at a good clip. Hamilton obviously qualifies as the former, but it's looking like he has a real chance to be the latter.  


SWING MECHANICS

Hamilton is a natural righthanded hitter. The Reds converted him into a switch-hitting when he joined the professional ranks in order to capitalize on his speed. Oddly enough, I actually slightly prefer his lefthanded swing mechanics.

Here is a great look at Hamilton, courtesy of BullpenBanter on YouTube: 






From the right side, he utilizes a slightly wider than shoulder-width stance and a high back-elbow. In his pre-pitch routine, he uses a small bat waggle and, as befits his high energy, always-on-the-go style, constantly grips and re-grips the bat.

As the pitch is delivered, he flexes his elbows inward, which brings the barrel of the bat into a more vertical position. He then utilizes a two-step stride. The first step is a toe-tap, picking his foot up and placing it back down, which enables him to shift his weight towards his back foot and serves as a trigger for drawing his hands back into hitting position. As he draws his hands back into position, he raises his back elbow up even higher, to the point that it's above shoulder level. That high back elbow could add length to his swing path, making him slower to the pitch. The toe tap also serves to cock his hips. After a slight pause to generate load, he strides forward to meet the pitch. This second step of his stride leaves him in a fairly spread out hitting position. One potential problem with his longer stride is that his head drops significantly, which means that his eye level is not consistent throughout the swing. This lack of a consistent eye level could lead to problems with pitch recognition.    

At this point in the swing, there is inconsistency. Hamilton occasionally restricts his hip-rotation (see video: swing at the 4:24 mark resulting in weak ground out), which generates most of the power in the swing, by not getting up on his back toe. The limited hip-rotation leaves him with more of an upper-body driven swing, which at times appears to give him some push to his swing. While this limits the power in his swing, he still has the ability to drive the ball.

The restricted hip-rotation also restricts his follow-through, as by not coming around on his back foot, his body doesn't release as completely as it otherwise would. So, frequently, his upper-body continues to rotate in his follow-through, while his hips stop prematurely. Again, this limits rotational force to impart on the ball, but it may make him slightly quicker out of the box. I'm not convinced the benefits of the latter outweigh the detriments of the former, but it's worth noting.     

When he doesn't restrict his hip rotation, his ability to drive the ball increases (see video: swing at 5:14 mark resulting in a triple). His hips come around more effectively, he gets up more on his back toe, and his follow-through is less restricted.   

From the left side, his unnatural side, Hamilton actually looks a touch more fluid (see video: swing at 5:44 mark resulting in a triple), though there are a number of similarities. He starts from a similar wider than shoulder-width stance and uses a bat waggle. He uses the same two-step stride, unweighting the front side, transferring the weight to back foot, and drawing his hands back into hitting position. Again, as he draws his hands back into hitting position, he raises the back elbow above shoulder level. However, one of the differences between his right and left handed swings is the location of the hands at hitting position. From the left side, his hand position is lower and farther back, whereas from the right side his hand position is higher up. The left side position is preferable, as the high position from the right side gives his swing, when coupled with his dropping head, a more downward swing plane and could add length to the swing leading to difficulty handling inside pitches.  

His left side swing also occasionally restricts the hip rotation by not getting up on the back foot, which results in a lesser level of force generated. However, he has pop when he does effectively rotate his hips. 

Overall, I think Hamilton has a solid set of hitting mechanics and the athleticism to make them work. There are a few issues of concern, including (1) the higher hand position from the right side and, from both sides, (2) the inconsistent hip rotation and (3) the dropping eye level. Even so, Hamilton's speed makes Ichiro his closest MLB equivalent. Hamilton could be successful using Ichiro's slap-and-dash style, but he also has power projection to his game that could bring him success without having to match Ichiro's ridiculous contact skills.  

Oddly enough, Hamilton's elite speed also helps his power play up to an acceptable level. Hamilton will never have plus power, but his speed requires infielders to play in when he's at the plate. Not just the corner infielders, but also the middle infielders. The second baseman may have to cheat in to handle drag bunt plays, either fielding or getting over to cover first in time. Also, the shortstop may have to cheat in to handle ground balls in the 5.5 hole, as Hamilton will beat out many, many balls hit in that direction. The fact that the entire infield has to play in on Hamilton will enable him to drive the ball through the infield with greater ease. If they lay back, he can beat the play with his speed. If they play in, then he should have enough pop to drive the ball through the infield.   


BUNTING, DEFENSE, AND GAME-CHANGING SPEED 

Another way in which Hamilton mitigates the risk in his hit tool is through effective use of the bunt. For Hamilton, it is a weapon unlike any other and he isn't shy about deploying it. Hamilton understands that his job is to get on base and he has embraced the bunt as way to do just that. Oddly enough, Hamilton seems more comfortable bunting from the leftside than his natural rightside.

When he bunts from the rightside (see video at the 4:43 mark), he jabs at the pitch. When he bunts from the leftside, he almost seems to catch the ball with the bat. The best bunters are very calm and controlled at the plate, Hamilton fits that description.

On defense, Hamilton will likely be just fine in centerfield. As it stands, his reads are average at best, but his speed allows him to outrun any mistakes he may make. More experience will allow him to improve his reads off the bat, making him an above average centerfielder. For now, he's making progress.

As for his speed, it's obviously his calling card. And, frankly, he might be the fastest player in history. If not, he's in the conversation. That's not hyperbole. Not only is Hamilton fast, but he's very quick. So, he's up to full speed after only a step or two. He glides across the turf when he runs. Brian L. Hunter was the same way, but he glided across the turf with long, loping strides that just chewed up ground. Hamilton glides and is very light on his feet, but his strides are shorter and his legs are pumping very quickly. Just watching him move makes you think of fast-twitch muscle, as he's like a coiled rubber-band, always on the verge of exploding into movement.


FINAL THOUGHTS

Billy Hamilton is unique and has the chance to be special. He still needs some development time, probably a full season of triple-A. That would give him more ABs from both sides of the plate and allow him to gain more experience in centerfield. In this instance, I think patience would be a virtue, as rushing a prospect up the ladder can stall his development. Hamilton's relative inexperience and change of defensive position are reasons enough to delay his arrival at the Major League level. In reality, the Reds are in win-now mode with a centerfielder who has simply failed to do the job, which could result in Hamilton arriving sooner rather than later.

Overall, if things break right, Hamilton could be a special talent. He understands and embraces the offensive profile he needs to adopt to utilize his abilities, has the confidence and daring needed to be an impact baserunner, and has the plus athleticism to continue improving. There are a few red flags in his hitting mechanics that could be exploited by advanced pitching, but he has time to refine his mechanics and the athleticism to possibly overcome the flaws if he doesn't. For now, his elite speed gives him a very high ceiling, while his hit tool gives him a fairly low floor. He has a wide disparity in potential career paths, but his ceiling is enough to land him at #1 on the list.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Actual Draft vs. "Shadow Draft": A Retrospective


One of the fun parts of the baseball offseason is that we get a break from the day-to-day grind of the season, which affords us some time to reflect, clean out the closet, and dust off old thoughts for re-examination. So, it's probably a good time to revisit my "shadow draft picks" of the past.

Starting in 2005, when draft time rolled around, I began to analyze the draft eligible prospects and determine which one I would select if I was in charge of the Reds draft. So, in short, these picks are what I would have done at the time of each draft, not what I would have done with the benefit of perfect hindsight. So, not surprisingly, there are both significant hits and misses, but the picks are what they are. No sense trying to sweep the bad ones under the rug, rather I've tried to learn from my missteps and use that experience in the future.

Of course, I didn't start this blog until 2007, so my draft thoughts existed only on message boards until the 2008 draft rolled around, but I'm including those early message board picks anyway for posterity sake. Besides, it makes the post that much more fun. Anyway, the Reds' picks are in red, while my picks are in orange. And, off we go.....


2005: Jay Bruce vs. Ricky Romero

This was the first time I really looked into the draft and picked out the player I wanted the Reds to select. Of course, those with a sharp eye and a keen memory will recall that Ricky Romero was selected 6th by the Blue Jays, while the Reds didn't select Jay Bruce until their 12th overall pick rolled around. So, in my first effort, there were clearly a few kinks to be worked out, as I selected a player the Reds couldn't possibly have drafted. In future go-arounds, I only selected a player that was actually available to the Reds with their first pick, but I'm including this one anyway.

The 2005 draft was an epic one, filled with potential impact talent from the top of the first round all the way down to the bottom. You couldn't swing a dead cat without hitting at least a couple of legitimate first round prospects. But, my pick, until just recently, was one of the few flame-outs in the first round.

I followed Ricky Romero at Cal State Fullerton and loved his bulldog mentality and offspeed offerings. He had a nice curveball and a quality changeup. He also had a good understanding of how to pitch. He was the guy I wanted the perennially pitching-starved Reds to land. Of course, Romero was already off the board by the time the Reds went in another direction. And, that's probably a good thing, as even with Romero's recent breakthrough at the MLB level, I have a hard time arguing with the Reds' choice of Jay Bruce, who seems a quality player on the field and a quality person off of it.

Romero is becoming the pitcher I thought he could be, but Bruce has the potential to be a superstar talent.


2006: Drew Stubbs vs. Tim Lincecum

In the 2006 draft class, there was only one player I wanted the Reds to land and I flooded the ESPN Reds message board saying just that. Unfortunately, the Reds evidently didn't read it, as that was one time where I was actually right.

For me, despite his short stature, Tim Lincecum was head-and-shoulders above the rest. Baseball America rated him as having the best fastball and the best offspeed pitch among all the draft eligible college pitchers. Additionally, he struck out everybody at the University of Washington, posting strike out rates of 12.9, 11.3, and 14.3 respectively in his three years there. He was clearly the most electric pitcher in the draft and had a massive upside.

There were two main knocks against Lincecum heading into that draft: his mechanics and his height. Personally, I've always loved his mechanics. They're complicated, but he throws with his body better than the vast majority of pitchers. And, as for height, I hate the scouting bias against short righthanded pitchers. If you can pitch, then you can pitch, regardless of height. Lincecum is the guy I wanted and he was on the board when the Reds picked. Unfortunately, the Reds went in another direction, reeling in Drew Stubbs.

Stubbs has a lot of tools and could develop into a dual threat, as he has impact ability on both offense and defense. If Stubbs can perform as he did in the final two months of 2010, then he'll begin to reward the Reds for passing on a two-time Cy Young award winner and start making the fan base forget the massive opportunity cost that came along with his selection.


2007: Devin Mesoraco vs. Pete Kozma

Unfortunately, I couldn't carry the success of my 2006 pick into the 2007 draft. Additionally, while Ricky Romero's recent emergence makes my 2005 pick look more defensible, Mesoraco's recent explosion makes this 2007 pick look even worse.

The Reds had the 15th overall pick and went with Devin Mesoraco, while shortstop Pete Kozma went off the board with the Cardinals 18th overall pick.

Heading into the draft, few prospects had as much helium as Devin. Coming from a cold weather school and off a TJ surgery, Mesoraco wasn't projected to be a first rounder, but a strong season propelled him up the ranks.

Kozma was more of a high floor, low ceiling type player. He lacked any real plus tools, but had some nice skills and a feel for the game, which in a somewhat less than inspiring draft class seemed to be a decent option. Unfortunately, as of now, both the Cardinals and I have whiffed on this pick, as his bat hasn't developed and he's a long shot to emerge as a legitimate big league shortstop. So, obviously, his floor no longer seems quite as high as it once did, while his ceiling has remained largely the same.

On the other hand, Mesoraco finally broke out in 2010 and looks ready to emerge as an impact bat at a premier defensive position. Finding a catcher that can actually hit is a tremendous value, so the Reds certainly made the right decision here. In the final analysis, Mesoraco might prove to be the best offensive catcher the Reds have had since Johnny Bench.

Having learned my lesson, Kozma was the last time I went with the safe, high-floor type player in the first round. The first round is where you have the best chance to land the impact talent, so limiting yourself to a lower-ceiling player hardly seems like the right strategy in most draft classes. Lesson learned.


2008: Yonder Alonso vs. Casey Kelly

Well, here's the first pick of the blog era and I went with Casey Kelly here and here. In hindsight the pick looks pretty good, but in the interests of full disclosure I must say that I liked Kelly more as a shortstop and wanted to see what he could do with a couple of years as a full-time position player. He had good baseball bloodlines, very good athleticism, played plus defense at short, and had good pop in his bat. However, there were questions about his bat, so I viewed his pitching ability as a nice way to manage the performance risk that came with his hit tool. There is an old scouting adage that you don't gamble on a questionable "hit tool" in the first round. So, maybe that rang true in this case, but I still would have liked to see what Kelly could do as a shortstop before switching him to pitching full time. It's not easy to find a potentially plus defensive shortstop who can be an impact hitter on offense. He already had solid power, so it doesn't seem out of the realm of possibilities that he could develop into a capable hitter at the professional level.

The BoSox were able to grab Kelly with the 30th overall pick (due in part to signability concerns) and successfully convert him into a full-time pitcher, while the Reds grabbed Yonder Alonso with the 7th overall pick.

The Reds clearly went with the player they deemed to be the best available, which is usually a sound draft philosophy, but in hindsight I wonder if it was the right decision. Obviously, Joey Votto had already emerged as a good, young first baseman with a strong offensive profile. So, it clearly wasn't an area of need and Yonder was never a realistic option to switch defensive positions, which meant he was blocked as soon as he stepped into the organization. And, if the Reds don't do something with Yonder in 2011 to extract some value from the pick (trade or play), then the organization's questionable ability to extract value from a blocked prospect may make this less than the ideal pick.

As it stands, Yonder looks like a nice, well-rounded hitter with good on-base skills and solid power potential. Not a bad pick, but even a couple of years after he was drafted, it remains unclear how exactly he fits into the organizational plans.


2009: Mike Leake vs. Shelby Miller

This pick is one that I have pondered quite a bit since it happened. At the time, I locked in on Shelby Miller as the pitcher with the best combination of stuff and mechanics. I loved the velocity and how cleanly he generated it. There was no doubt that he was the guy I wanted the Reds to take. In fact, I had him pegged as the third best prospect in the draft behind Stephen Strasburg and Dustin Ackley. At draft time, there were other high school pitchers who were rated higher and ultimately were drafted higher, including Zach Wheeler (6th to the Giants) Jacob Turner (9th to the Tigers), Tyler Matzek (11th to the Rockies), and Matt Purke (14th to the Rangers), but I preferred Miller to all of them. His upside was just too massive for me to see anyone else as a legitimate option.

Miller ultimately went off the board with the Cardinals 17th overall pick, which was a while after the Reds selected Mike Leake with the 8th overall pick. Realistically speaking, Miller's first full season couldn't possibly have gone better. The Cards kept him in low-A all season long and he posted a 3.62 ERA, 1.25 WHIP, 2.8 BB/9, and a 12.1 K/9 in 104.1 innings. It was a dominating performance and one that has him on the #1 starter development path.

Obviously, Leake has been a great success story and after the draft the pick started to grow on me. I still would have gone with Miller, but Leake was becoming more intriguing. I never suspected that he'd be able to jump over the minors entirely, but I loved the polish and the understanding of how to pitch.

Of course, the question then was whether Leake's higher floor/lower ceiling were the better pick over Miller's lower floor/higher ceiling. And, that's a question with which I still wrestle.

Just how valuable is a pitcher who can bypass the minors entirely? What exactly are the advantages? Is it worth selecting a #2/3 starter who can jump straight to the majors over a potential #1 starter who will need significant time in the minors?

Well, obviously, there has to be some kind of "time value" of prospects at work. When you are talking about money, a dollar today is worth much more than a dollar a year from now for two reasons. First, the devaluing caused by inflation. Second, you can invest the dollar and earn interest on it. But, what's the advantage in pitching prospects?

Obviously, the value doesn't change at the MLB level, as regardless when each player arrives, you'll control their rights for 6 seasons. However, the value lies in the reduced injury risk and the non-existent performance risk. If a pitcher is good enough to jump right to the majors, then there really is no performance risk to the pick. Additionally, and here is the real difference, if the pitcher can jump right to the majors, then you eliminate a substantial amount of injury risk. A pitcher that has to develop in the minors is still subject to injury risk, but his minor league performance simply doesn't directly benefit the organization. Production at the MLB level is all that really matters, so getting an immediate return on your pick substantially cuts the chances of injury in the minors ruining a draft pick's future MLB production. If the pitcher is going to pitch and be exposed to injury risk, then it's preferable that he do it at the MLB level where the production actually counts.

At this point, I'm still not sure how to properly determine the value of a draft pick who jumps right to the Majors like Mike Leake against a prospect who must spend several years in the minors like Shelby Miller.

I guess, in the end, it still comes down to the likelihood that Miller will reach his ceiling and be significantly better than Mike Leake at the MLB level. If he can, then he is clearly the better pick. And, every year of development that passes with Miller still on track cuts the risk that he'll get injured or fail to develop. As it was at the time of the draft, Miller has more risk and more reward, while Leake is the sure thing. It's still too close to call at this point, but I'm sticking with Miller and his #1 starter upside.


2010: Yasmani Grandal vs. Chris Sale

In the 2010 draft, Chris Sale was actually the first prospect on whom I did in-depth research and a full write-up, and he was ultimately the guy I wanted the Reds to land. His fastball and changeup were both rated among the very best of the draft eligible college pitchers and he had very good polish to go with them. His strikeout and walk rates were among the very best in the country, so you had both upside and polish. There were/are some questions about his arm action, but I never saw anything about which to worry. Some thought there was too much snap in his arm action, but I don't really see it. I would like to see him incorporate more leg drive, but overall I liked his mechanics. After I was done looking into the draft crop, Sale was still sitting atop my list.

In that draft, Sale was selected by the Chicago White Sox with the 13th overall pick. Somewhat surprisingly, the Sox moved Sale all the way up to the majors after only 10.1 minor league innings. The Sox fast-tracked him as a reliever and he performed very well, posting a 32/10 K/BB ratio in his 23.1 Major League innings. Once again, the question emerges about the value of a player skipping the minors almost entirely, though in this case my pick would get whatever boost comes along with it. The Sox used Sale in their push for the playoffs and it's hard not to wonder how much the Reds would have benefited from having two hard throwing southpaws (Aroldis and Sale) in the postseason. Obviously, for a team in the hunt for the playoffs, getting an immediate return on a draft pick is of even greater value.

Regardless, the Reds had the 12th overall pick, which they used to select Yasmani Grandal. Grandal was the second Miami Hurricane that the team had selected with its first pick in the last three drafts. Obviously, they feel they have good scouting coverage down there. Thus far, Grandal has played only in the Arizona rookie league, where he posted a slash line of .286/.394/.321 in 33 plate appearances. Obviously, the on-base skill is impressive, but the sample size is too small to reveal anything of value. The selection of Grandal gives the Reds some of the best catching depth in all of the minor leagues, as he could develop into a solid defensive catcher with an impact bat. It'll be interesting to see how he performs in full season ball and how he'll fit into an organization where Mesoraco is making a big splash much farther up the ladder. Given Grandal's polish, his career is very likely to overlap with Mesoraco's at the Major League Level. So, once again, the Reds could have a blocked Hurricane in the system.

As for Sale, the White Sox are now wrestling with the question of whether to develop him as a starting pitcher or to continue to ride him at the MLB level as a reliever. Obviously, he has more value as a starter, but the Sox may not see it that way. If the Reds had grabbed him, I would have wanted him developed as a starter, as I see nothing that would prevent him from becoming a good one.

As with almost all of the aforementioned players, it's too soon to tell which player will prove to be the more valuable pick, but I still prefer Sale to Grandal. Hopefully, Yasmani proves me wrong.


2011: Robert Stephenson vs. Jason Esposito

Well, for the first time since I've started doing these draft write-ups the Reds had a pick outside the top 15. In fact, they had number 27 overall, which makes it more challenging to find impact talent. However, given the impressive depth of talent in the 2011 draft class, the Reds were able to land a high upside arm that undoubtedly would have gone higher in the typical draft class.

Stephenson stands 6-2 and tips the scale at 190 lbs with a wiry frame and plus makeup/intelligence. He features a big time fastball that tickles 97 mph on the radar gun and a biting, 12-to-6 curveball that is inconsistent. And, like seemingly all power arms coming out of high school, he has a mediocre change-up. Power pitchers in high school typically dominate with the hard stuff and rarely need to develop that third pitch, typically the change-up, because they can simply overpower high school hitters. Additionally, the change-up is materially different from the power stuff, as it requires touch and feel, while power stuff does not. So, the change-up frequently gets neglected.

The only potential red flag on Stephenson is his pitching mechanics, which are somewhat inefficient due to a shorter stride, less than ideal hip rotation, and an occasionally cutting short the deceleration of his pitching arm.

That said, Stephenson has a great deal of positives going for him and the Reds probably did very well, as you don't frequently get this type of upside so late in the draft. The stuff and makeup are there, but he'll need to refine his mechanics and continue to polish his secondary offerings as he climbs the ladder. Still, hard to argue with, or be disappointed by, this pick by the Reds and, frankly, it'll be difficult to top.  


As for my pick, after looking back at my previous selections, this is the first time I haven't gone with a starting pitcher or a shortstop. So, I'm breaking new ground here. Evidently, in the first round I favor high ceiling, impact pitchers and players who handle the premier defensive positions. It wasn't an intentional, but given the value of top flight starting pitching and the scarcity of legitimate hitters at the premier defensive positions it seems a more than defensible strategy. 

Of course, my top choice and the guy I was highest on actually WAS a pitcher, namely RHP Tyler Beede, followed by LHP Chris Reed, and RHP Jose Fernandez. I love Beede's blend of stuff, command, pitching IQ, and clean mechanics. Beede wasn't really projected by anyone to be selected in the first round, much less before the Reds picked, so I was really surprised when the Blue Jays popped him before the Reds even had a shot. That said, my shadow pick of Jason Esposito will be seen as a stretch by many and admittedly it may well be, but with the aforementioned three draftees (surprisingly) off the board I went with my gut. I've always liked what I've seen in Esposito and remain bullish on his future.

I first saw Esposito play as a sophomore and was impressed right from the get go. In fact, I was convinced at the time that he was a lock to a top 15 pick when draft eligible. Unfortunately, his junior season was a bit of a step backward and he slipped down the draft board, which serves as a cautionary tale that you can't expect linear improvement/development from college players. The knocks on Esposito were two fold: (1) his swing was mechanical and (2) he added weight to the lower half. 

Admittedly, I can see the reason for concern on both issues. Esposito has a well balanced, fundamentally sound swing, but it can look mechanical at times. He also did look slightly stockier in his junior season than he did as a sophomore, but the added weight to the lower half doesn't diminish his potential to be a plus defender at third with a very good arm. So, right there, he's somewhat ahead of the game, as his bat won't need to carry his glove like many offensive-first third sackers. For me, the concerns about his swing/offense were somewhat lessened by the fact that his glove is an asset, not a liability.


2012: Nick Travieso vs. Matthew Smoral

Southpaw Matthew Smoral was not only at the top of my wish list for the Reds (which also included shortstop Addison Russell and outfielder David Dahl), but also one of my favorite pitchers in the entire draft class. So, he was my clear choice when the Reds' 14th overall pick rolled around, but the organization ultimately went with a different high school pitcher, righthander Nick Travieso. So, this one boils down to a battle of the high school pitchers, which makes it far too early to call, especially since Smoral didn't throw a pitch in anger in 2012.

I didn't realize just how risky the pick of Smoral was until looking back months after the draft, so I can understand how he slipped out of the first round. He missed his senior season due to a stress fracture of the foot, so there was limited time for organizations to get a feel for him and no current track record on which to evaluate him. Regardless, I was sufficiently impressed by the combination of stuff, clean pitching mechanics, and physical stature. All of those factors struck me as giving him a very high ceiling. Although, it didn't factor into my decision, another thumb on the scale in Smoral's favor is that he was drafted out of an Ohio high school.

As for Nick Travieso, he had quite a bit of helium heading into the draft, largely as a result of a spike in velocity. That spike drove his fastball velocity up into the mid-90s. His secondary offerings are largely unrefined, which, when coupled with the high degree of effort in his delivery, led many to project him as a reliever at the upper levels. Even so, he's an intriguing arm to add to the quality stable of pitching prospects in the system and a bit more development time could bear out the organization's decision to select him with the 14th overall pick.

As high school pitching prospects, Travieso and Smoral both come with significant inherent risk (injury and performance), but both also have significant upside. It's way too soon to make any judgments on the picks, as there aren't really even any early returns. The Jays (wisely) didn't have Smoral throw a pitch in anger in 2012, while Travieso only logged 21.0 innings in the Arizona rookie league.

Now, it's up to the player development departments of the respective organizations to shape their careers and turn them into impact Major Leaguers. Personally, I'd still place all my money on Smoral, but it'll be interesting to see what 2013 reveals. 


Monday, November 19, 2012

AFL Rising Stars Game: A Look at Billy Hamilton

I finally got around to writing up Billy Hamilton's performance in the Rising Star Game. His performance was definitely noteworthy and made him one of the stars of the game. Given the hype surrounding him, it was a tall task for him to live up to the expectations. Yet, he managed to do so. Here's a quick look at what and how he did.


Top of 1st - 0 on, 0 Outs, vs. rhp Jarred Cosart

Pitch 1 - Fastball down, Hamilton shows bunt. Ball 1
Pitch 2 - Fastball down, Hamilton shows bunt. Ball 2
Pitch 3 - Fastball down-and-in. Ball 3
Pitch 4 - Fastball over the heart. Strike 1
Pitch 5 - Fastball over the heart. Strike 2
Pitch 6 - Fastball misses inside. Ball 4

Hamilton never seriously considered swinging and Cosart never forced him to make any difficult swing/no-swing decisions. Cosart's poor control made this an easy AB for Hamilton, putting him in a hitter's count early and letting Hamilton wait him out. 

Hamilton appeared to be taking until he got a strike. He showed bunt on the first two pitches, but it didn't look like he was ever seriously considering bunting. When Hamilton reached 3-0, he took two fastballs over the heart of the plate for called strikes 1 and 2. The only pitch that required Hamilton to make a swing/no-swing decision was the full-count pitch, which missed inside for ball 4.


Photo courtesy of Baseball America.
Steals 2nd vs. c Austin Romine and rhp Jarred Cosart

Hamilton steals second base on second pitch fastball. Good pitch for catcher to throw on, as fastball drifted up-and-away off the plate, resulting in a close play at second. Hamilton slides safely into second feet-first.

Hamilton kept his feet moving on his leadoff from first, rather than getting set, seeming to prefer as close to a walking lead as he can get.

The steal of second was about pure speed. He stole it during a 1-0 count, which is both a hitters' count and a fastball count. But, Hamilton doesn't  need to pick his spots quite as closely as mere mortals and he simply outran the play.


Steals 3rd vs. c Austin Romine and rhp Jarred Cosart

Hamilton steals third on a delayed steal. Hamilton flashes the brashness and aggressiveness that allows him to steal so many bases. It's one thing to be quick/fast, but you need a lot of confidence to steal as often as Hamilton does. Hamilton took his initial lead off of second base as the pitch was being delivered. He then took three more lateral steps towards third base during his secondary lead. From the centerfield camera, you could see that, instead of retreating back to second base when the catcher caught the ball, he was intently watching the catcher receive the ball and begin to throw it back to the pitcher. Once the catcher flipped the ball back to the pitcher, Hamilton broke for third and stole the base without a throw and with a head-first slide.

Hamilton had a great read on the play, recognizing that the catcher wasn't firing the ball back to the pitcher, rather flipping it back. Also, Hamilton likely realized that by the time the pitcher caught the ball, he'd still have to recognize the steal attempt without panicking and then fire the ball to third to get him. I also wonder if Hamilton factored in that Cosart is righthanded and as a result would have to spin his body in order to throw to third, whereas a lefty is already facing thirdbase and might have a better shot to nail him.

The steal of third showed a take-no-prisoners style of baserunning that wouldn't have been out of place during Ty Cobb's era. Put the pressure on the defense, keep them jumpy and on edge, force them to make a perfect play or into making mistakes.

An impressive and smart play by Hamilton. He caught both the defense and announcers off-guard. While he simply outran the defense on the steal of second, he out-thought the defense on the steal of third.   


Hamilton scores from third on a double to the rightfield wall



Bottom of 2nd - Austin Romine double off centerfield wall

Hamilton chases the ball all the way to the warning track, but it hit high off the centerfield wall. It was 2-3 feet from being a homer, instead Romine managed to leg out a triple as the ball bounded back towards the infield. Hamilton, arguably, should have pulled up at, or before, the warning track and played the carom. Even with his great speed he didn't have a realistic chance of running it down and by trying to track it down he let the catcher leg out a triple.

When Hamilton ran the bounding ball down, he threw it back to the cutoff man with the low three-quarter arm-slot that he used as an infielder.

More playing in time in centerfield will improve Hamilton's reads off the bat and allow him to more effectively handle these types of plays. 


Top of the 3rd - 0 on, 1 out, vs. rhp Chase Anderson

Pitch 1 - 91-mph fastball low and on outer half. Strike 1
Pitch 2 - 81-mph changeup belt high and running off outside corner. Hamilton swings and (I thought missed, but) ump signals foul tip caught by catcher. Strike 2
Pitch 3 - 79-mph sinker/changeup borderline at bottom of the zone. Hamilton fouls it off to protect. Strike 2
Pitch 4 - 91-mph fastball running away and off outside corner. Hamilton takes it. Ball 1
Pitch 5 - 80-mph changeup low and on outside corner. Hamilton tries to pull it, fouls it off. Strike 2
Pitch 6 - Fastball up and at the letters, Hamilton chops it foul wide of third. Strike 2
Pitch 7 - 76-mph curveball drops over middle of the plate. Very good pitch. Hamilton frozen. Called Strike 3

This AB was the exact opposite of the first AB, as Anderson immediately gets ahead 0-2, putting Hamilton on the defensive the rest of the AB. Unfortunately, this AB once again precludes any study of Hamilton's swing/no-swing decision making, as he was forced into protect mode immediately. Hamilton does a nice job of fouling off pitches and was punched out on a nasty curveball.  


Bottom of the 4th - Double by Brian Goodwin

Long flyball to center over Hamilton's head. Hamilton turns and tracks it down on the warning track. When he reaches to catch it, his momentum carries him to the ground. It wasn't a pure diving catch, but he ends up almost kissing the wall as his momentum carries him close to face first into the wall.

Hamilton made the play, but he made it more difficult than it needed to be. It's possible that the ball drifted in the Arizona air or the wind carried it farther than it would normally travel, but Hamilton drifted back with the ball rather than running full out. As a result, he ended up barely reeling it in on the warning track. This is another play where more experience will result in better defense. As it stands, his athleticism allows him to outrun most mistakes he makes, including this one. 


Top of the 5th - 1 on, 0 Out, vs. rhp Tony Zych


Pitch 1 - Fastball on outer half at the belt, Hamilton pulls a perfect drag bunt down the first base line. Speed causes first baseman to rush his throw, which sails down the right field line. Hamilton easily advances all the way to third. A single and an E-3.

The bunt was very well executed. The form was good and he looked very comfortable doing it. It's very encouraging to see him combine the secondary skills necessary to utilize his plus-plus speed.   

While on third, Hamilton had a running start towards home and got almost halfway home before causing the pitcher to step off the rubber. Disruptive.

Hamilton scores easily on a single to center.  

The bunt showed a high level of skill and an understanding of the type of player he needs to be. Hamilton has no problem embracing the small ball skills he needs to be an impact player.


Bottom of the 5th - Corey Dickerson single to centerfield with runners on 1st and 2nd

Hamilton charges a ground ball single and fields it cleanly in shallow center. Hamilton comes up throwing to the plate, but the run scores.

Hamilton's throw is a tick late and up the line. The catcher comes off the plate to field it up the third base line. Hamilton used a high three-quarter arm slot, so it's not surprising that his throw had arm-side run and drifted up the third base line.


Bottom of the 5th - David Adams doubles to right-center gap

Hamilton runs to the right center gap to field a double after right fielder Rhymer Liriano took a poor route. Hamilton cuts it off and stops his momentum about 10 feet short of the warning track, spins and makes a solid throw to the cut-off man. Not the strongest throw, but certainly playable. 


Bottom of the 5th - Brian Goodwin doubles with a short hop off the wall in center

Even Hamilton has no shot to run this one down, as its zips over his head. He plays it well off the wall, grabbing the big hop, and throws it towards the second cutoff man. The throw had a little arc to it and it actually came in high, tipping off the glove of the second cutoff man. A solid, but unspectacular throw.


Top of the 7th - Billy Hamilton, 0 on, 0 out, vs. lhp Santos Rodriguez

1st Pitch - Fastball up and away out of the zone. Hamilton tries to drag bunt to third, pops it up and it's caught by the third baseman.
 
The first opportunity Hamilton has to hit from the right-side of the plate ends quickly. This was a failure of judgment, as he shouldn't have attempted to bunt this pitch. It was out of the zone and difficult to handle, so the pop-out wasn't a surprise.
 

Top of the 9th - Billy Hamilton, 1 on, 0 out, vs. rhp Trey Haley (plus velocity)

1st Pitch - 92 mph fastball, way outside. Ball 1
2nd Pitch - Fastball very high. Ball 2
3rd Pitch - Fastball up and in. Ball 3
4th Pitch - 92 mph fastball on the outer half. Called strike 1
5th Pitch - 92 mph fastball. Ball 4

This was an opportunity to see how Hamilton fared against plus velocity. One of the question marks on Hamilton is his strength and whether he has the bat speed to turn around a good fastball. Unfortunately, Haley didn't cooperate, once again throwing Hamilton three straight balls to put him in a massive hitter's count. Haley cedes control of the AB to Hamilton and ultimately walks him without Hamilton ever having to lift the bat off his shoulder.


Hamilton forced out at second on a ground ball, ending his day.


Overall, it was a very good game for Hamilton. He drew two walks and reached on a perfectly executed bunt single. He flashed the elite speed that makes him the most hyped prospect in baseball and held his own in centerfield. It was comforting to see him so fully embrace the small ball approach, dropping down two bunts, drawing two walks, and stealing two bases. Admittedly, I was hoping to see him swing the bat a bit more, but Hamilton seems to understand that you can't steal first base and seems committed to maintaining a high on-base percentage.

I'm still not sure how much of his stellar OBP is the result of a disciplined approach and how much is due to command issues of the pitchers. Given his combination of elite speed and minimal power, pitchers have tremendous incentive to throw strikes and yet...they don't. Hamilton's two walks in this game were more attributable to the pitcher's struggles than a grinding approach by Hamilton. Still, he had the good sense to not help the pitcher out and was rewarded with two free passes. 

Hamilton still has some developing to do, but he's been impressive thus far. A bit more polish and he'll be ready for prime-time.

On "Balancing Forces", Swing Mechanics, and Dustin Ackley

Over the years, I have gained a greater appreciation for motor sports. In the ability of drivers to push their cars to the limit, where peak performance and peak danger coexist. To drive right on, but not tip over, the edge. To maximize speed without the loss of control.

I remember watching a Formula 1 race back in the heyday of Michael Schumacher and team Ferrari. Schumacher was leading the race, but still had to make an additional pit stop that the cars trying to run him down didn't need to make. His team, which knew that the pit stop would take roughly 10 seconds, got on the radio and informed Schumacher that he needed to post a specific lap time over each of the next 20 laps in order to win. In essence, he needed to improve his lap times by roughly half a second over the next 20 laps in order to build up a 10 second buffer to ensure that when he exited his the pits he would still be ahead of the teams behind him. Anything less would see him reenter the race track outside of the lead, looking at tail-lights with little chance of passing to win the race. The team calculated the lap times needed to win and Schumacher delivered those lap times, exiting pit lane just ahead of the cars that were trying to run him down. He needed more speed and knew just how to wring it out of the car. The ability to just "go faster" when needed, to outperform teams who spent hundreds of millions of dollars to best him, was a testament to the car developed by Team Ferrari, but also to the pure skill that enabled Michael Schumacher to drive at the absolute limit of the car's capabilities.
 

One of the main keys to driving a race car at the limit is controlling those forces (resulting from braking, accelerating, and cornering) that act on the car. Basically, controlling the balance of the car. When a car is balanced, you maximize the tires' traction. The more traction the car has, the more control the driver will have and the faster the car will travel around the track. If you don't push hard to the limit, then you'll be slow and noncompetitive. If you push too hard and exceed the limit, then you'll be slow and noncompetitive because the tires will break away, losing grip, and start to slide. You can be uncompetitive by not generating enough power and you can be uncompetitive by generating too much power and exceeding your ability to control the car. In short, you can generate all the power you want from the car, but it will be ineffective in improving racing performance without the ability to balance the car. If you can't balance the forces acting on the car, then you will struggle to maximize performance.

Baseball is no different. Hitting is no different. It's about generating power, but it's also about controlling the forces that create that power. Hitting is balancing forces to maximize performance. 

A hitter can fail to maximize performance by not pushing hard enough, not generating enough power. Perfect balance of minimal power doesn't maximize performance. (An example of this might be David Dahl, who I rated third on my last draft write-up wish list, but one potential red-flag was that he seemed to be largely an upper-body hitter. He had perfect balance, but limited force to his swing). A hitter can also fail to maximize performance by failing to balance the forces generated by the swing, basically exceeding the limit. Too much power, not enough control. (An example would be a hitter who takes a big cut, but is out of balance or, in the extreme, falls down during his swing).

The physical actions required to play baseball at the highest level involve utilizing the entire body. The best pitching mechanics are based on the kinetic chain, reducing stress on the arm by throwing with the entire body. Sequencing the moves in your mechanics to gradually build and stack velocity before imparting it on the baseball. However, if  any link in the chain breaks down, then your delivery becomes inefficient. That inefficiency reduces velocity and the level of performance. Pitching is an act of the entire body. The best hitting mechanics also require use of the entire body.

The power in a hitter's swing is generated substantially from the core, not the hands, wrists, or forearms. More specifically, the rotation of the hips is what powers the swing. Once the plant foot lands, the hips rotate rather than slide forward. The mental image is that a hitter standing in a barrel wouldn't touch the sides of the barrel with his hips during his swing. In order to generate power through hip rotation, the hitter has to effectively cock the hips via the stride. To properly fire the hips, the hitter needs a proper foundation. That foundation requires a firm front leg, which Albert Pujols ably demonstrates here:


















The hitter cocks his hips to build up potential energy, but to properly and efficiently unleash it requires a firm front leg. If the front leg isn't firmly planted, then the swing is inefficient and the power generated bleeds out of the swing instead of being transferred to the baseball. 

All of these thoughts were in my head when I undertook to answer a question that has been bothering me:


Why can't Dustin Ackley hit?

Ackley seemed a pure hitter with very little development risk when he was drafted out of North Carolina. He had bat speed, hand-eye coordination, pitch recognition, the ability to barrel the ball, solid power potential, and a good grasp of the strike zone. It was almost inconceivable that he wouldn't hit. And yet, to date, he really hasn't.

This offseason, I've been reevaluating hitters and hitting mechanics to better understand what makes a good hitter. So, answering the Ackley question was a natural extension of this process. It didn't take long for a possible explanation for Ackley's struggles to emerge.

If you look at the following photos, the aspect of the swing that catches my eye is the front leg.











Unlike Albert Pujols, Ackley does NOT consistently hit against a stiff front leg. The severe flex in his front knee is fairly surprising, as it not only seems wholly unnatural, but it may also be indicative of a number of problems. As was mentioned above, potential power bleeds out of the swing when the hitter does not utilize a firm front leg. Ackley's position in the above photos significantly limits hip rotation and may lead to the hips sliding forward to compensate for the lack of rotation. It's simply not possible to fire the hips from this type of foundation. Further, hitting in this position may lead to the eye-level dropping, creating difficulties in tracking the pitch. Overall, it's simply not a proper foundation for hitting.   

While this flaw jumps off the screen, it's not one from which Ackley suffers all the time. He does show flashes of a stronger, more efficient foundation. Here's a look at Ackley doing it right. If you watch his front leg, it straightens out, rather than his knee getting almost outside his front foot. This allows his hips to rotate properly and efficiently unleash the power he has generated.






To me, the above video reveals a much stronger set of hitting mechanics. At the 00:36 second mark, you can see a stronger foundation, which permits both better generation of force and better balance of those forces. So, he certainly is capable of this type of swing.

However, while Ackley clearly doesn't suffer from the flaw all the time, he does frequently fall into the bad habit of not hitting with a stiff front leg. The following video, despite resulting in a double, is a prime example of this flaw in his swing:




At the 00:29 second mark, there is a great view of Ackley's swing. You can see him hitting against a flexed front knee, though he still manages to drop the head of the bat on the low pitch and muscle it into the right-center gap with his arms and upper body. At the 00:35 second mark, there is a great super slo-mo view of his hip rotation. There is a point where you can see the hips stop rotating and his swing become upper body driven. In fact, at the moment he makes contact, you can actually see his hips actually reverse-rotate back towards home plate. So, as his shoulders continue to rotate clockwise, his hips actually start to rotate counter-clockwise against his shoulder rotation. While, in this instance, the final outcome is good, the process is bad. And, relying on a flawed process to produce good results is a recipe for inconsistency and failure. 

It remains unclear exactly when and why Ackley falls into this habit. At first I thought it was his way of handling low pitches, but if you look at the Ackley photos above, those aren't exactly down in the zone. So, that's not it. Next, I thought it might happen on offspeed pitches where he's fooled and trying to slow down his swing to keep the bat in the zone longer, however the following video reveals that not to be the case:




Facing Franklin Morales, Ackley's swing falters as his front leg badly breaks down, but this happens against a straight 94-mph fastball. So, it's not a swing flaw brought about by being fooled by an offspeed pitch. There's a great view of the swing flaw starting at the 00:25 second mark. You can see how the flaw leaves him with an arm and upper body swing, as the front leg position limits hip rotation, causing instead the hips to slide forward. The flaw saps the swing of substantial power. If I was the hitting coach of the Mariners, then this is the first change I would make to Dustin Ackley. He needs to firm up his front leg and avoid breaking down. The flaw creates massive inefficiency in the swing and saps his ability to drive the ball consistently.

Hitting is both creating power and balancing the forces that generate that power. Dustin Ackley's flexed front knee leaves him unable to properly balance those forces. As a result, his swing is inefficient and bleeds potential power. It's possible that this flaw has already been pointed out to Ackley, as sometimes correcting a flaw is far more difficult than identifying it, but if I was the Mariner hitting coach this is where I would want Ackley to expend his energies. He has far too much natural ability to not be an impact hitter at the MLB level.

In reflecting on hitting, I think it really IS the hardest thing in sports to do well. It's also one of the most difficult to properly evaluate. What makes a good hitter? It's harder to identify than I previously thought. It involves both swing mechanics and reactive abilities. As for the former, it shares similarities with other sports, particularly properly balancing the forces you generate to ensure efficiency and peak performance.