Analyzing Jason Heyward’s Swing
As a hitting instructor, I frequently get asked to comment on the swings of big league hitters.
“Aren’t so-and-so’s hands too low?”
“Is that guy’s leg kick too big?”
“Why can’t that dude hit a slider?”
Generally speaking, it’s a personal policy of mine to not openly critique guys who get paid millions of dollars to exercise a skill that I do not possess. Yet, does this mean that I don’t sit at home, hunched over my bowl of Captain Crunch, and quietly judge each hitter that pops up on my TV? No. It does not.
In fact, there has been one hitter over the last several months that I’ve been paying special attention to – Jason Heyward. As some of you may know (Cubs’ fans certainly), Jason Heyward has been spending the last couple months attempting to retool a swing that produced less-than-stellar numbers in 2016 (particularly in the postseason). Here in central Illinois, there are a lot of Cubs’ fans who really want to know what went wrong in 2016 and what Heyward and his coaches are working on in Arizona that might bring about a revival in 2017 and justification to his 8-year/$184,000,000 deal.
This is my best guess:
First, we all need to understand something: probably THE most fundamental principle behind hitting a ball with a bat is that you must get your hands inside the pitch. This has been understood, if not practiced, since the dawn of time, when cavemen played baseball with balled-up lizards and tree limbs.
Hitting gurus the world around have differing opinions on how this is best done but the bottom line is you need three things:
1. A Strong Front Side
In a good swing, a hitter will leverage their front side (i.e., front foot, hip, shoulder, and head) to channel all of their hip rotation to the middle of the field. Very simply, this means a hitter will rotate INTO their front side rather than OVER or AROUND it. In doing so, the front side prevents forward slide, keeps a hitter behind the ball, speeds up/tightens rotation, and allows for proper extension.
If you’re struggling to imagine this concept, look at the hitter below. The picture of the left is taken at heel strike, which is the instant the front side should become strong. The middle is the very beginning of hip rotation, and the picture on the right is the end of rotation. Throughout the swing, the back hip is travelling forward, but the front hip/leg is remaining strong, like a brace, and focusing all of the rotation to the middle of the field.
If hip rotation were sunlight, front side would be a magnifying glass – collecting and focusing that light into a deadly beam, used to incinerate the ant (i.e., baseball).
2. Good Hip Rotation
“SQUASH THE BUG!!!”…right, you guys? Right? Well, kinda.
“Good” hip rotation stems from a hitter’s BACK hip and is the act of aggressively rotating/driving the back hip forward, into the front side. Solid back hip rotation is absolutely essential to a good swing. We all know this, right? Ask someone why and they will inevitably tell you – “Power! Back hip provides power!” And, this is absolutely true. However, it has an equally important role in the swing that is less talked about and that is to bring the hands inside the ball.
After loading, a hitter should initiate their swing from their back hip. Not front hip. Not hands. Not front shoulder.
By doing this, a hitter provides their hands with a clear, unobstructed path inside the pitch. Imagine the back hip and knob of the bat being connected to each other by a chain. The back hip starts to fire towards the ball and immediately after, the hands follow.
3. Proper Sequencing
It is vital to understand that front side and back hip can only do their jobs if everything is properly sequenced. This means everything must wait for its turn. Yes, the swing is one fluid motion but, ultimately, it’s a series of micro-events.
The back hip must wait for the front foot to get down and strengthen the front side before rotating.
The knob (or, “bottom hand”) must wait for back hip to begin its rotation before getting inside the pitch.
Barrel (or, “top hand”) must wait for knob/bottom hand to get inside the pitch before snapping to the ball.
If anything goes out of turn, the swing is compromised. Back hip rotating before front heel strike will cause a hitter to fly open or slide forward. Bottom hand trying to get inside the ball before back hip starts rotating will cause a hitter to be long and slow via either dropping or casting their hands. Top hand firing barrel before bottom hand gets the knob inside the ball will force both hands and barrel out and around the ball, resulting in poor contact and early hand turnover. Which brings us too…
To illustrate the specific issues with Heyward’s swing, I’ve taken some photos of Heyward’s eighth inning at bat against Cody Allen in Game 5 of the World Series. It was a fascinating at bat. In it, Allen freezes Heyward with an early slider and then proceeds to throw three straight fastballs in the middle of the plate which, as we’ll learn, was essentially the only pitch Heyward could hit at that point. The first fastball Heyward hits about 350 feet foul down the right field line. The next he rolls foul past first base. The third fastball he rolls over again, but sneaks past Jason Kipnis at second base.
But, back to the swing.
Briefly, before I start, let me preface this by saying, yes, I understand that this is ONE swing. The flaws of one swing aren’t necessarily representative of a hitter. That would be like seeing someone stumble on the sidewalk and then determining that they don’t know how to walk.
However, the things I will highlight throughout this analysis were endemic of Heyward’s swing throughout the year.
In the photo below, a couple things should jump out to you. To highlight these things, I’ve put Joe Mauer, a fellow lefty who is generally considered to have an exceptional swing, next to Heyward.
1. Weight Distribution – This is simple. Mauer’s weight is on his back leg, Heyward’s on his front. From this position, Heyward is doomed. Without weight on his back leg, Heyward won’t be able to initiate with strong back hip rotation. And, as we just learned, if you don’t have good hip rotation, you won’t be able to effectively get your hands inside the pitch. By the way, this is especially telling considering that, in this photo, Heyward is hitting a fastball – a pitch hitters generally don’t slide forward on.
2. Hand Position – Mauer’s hands are back, but his front arm is very relaxed. His front shoulder is down and his front elbow is flexed. Heyward, however, is tight throughout his front arm. His front shoulder is up and his front elbow is near full extension.
Combined, these two things are going to prevent Heyward from creating a strong front side, initiating with his back hip, and sequencing correctly – all things we need for a successful swing.
This is where things get ugly. On the far left of each series, you see the hitters at heel strike (i.e., their loaded positions). The next three frames show their first movements to the baseball. Pay special attention to each hitter’s back hip, knob, and barrel.
Mauer’s sequencing is phenomenal and results in a lightning-quick path inside the baseball. He initiates with back hip. His knob follows, travelling forward and directly inside the ball. His front shoulder stays calm. His front elbow maintains some flexion. His barrel/top hand WAIT and stay up before firing to the ball.
Heyward’s first movement is with front shoulder and he’s loooong. His front arm locks out. His hips get stuck. His knob fails to travel forward, inside the ball. His barrel fires too early, drops, and gets well outside the ball.
These are frames at, and directly after, contact. At contact, the hitter should be behind the ball, with 90 degrees of hip rotation, and a little bit of flexion in the back (for these guys, left) elbow. In the frame right after contact (on the right), the hitter should extend that back elbow and drive the barrel through the ball to the part of the field the ball is to be hit (i.e., pitch in = pull side gap, pitch middle = center, pitch away = opposite field gap).
At contact, Mauer is in a great position (despite having caught this pitch a little out in front) and finishes through the ball well (i.e., in the photo on the right, his left-hand palm is still pointed up and his elbow is getting to full extension).
Heyward, at contact, is getting out from behind the baseball (spinning towards the first base dugout) and his back arm is already almost to extension. This forces his hands to turn over early as he finishes (photo on the right), causing him to pull pitches in the middle of the plate foul, reducing his ability to drive balls to the opposite field, and rendering adjustments to off-speed pitches nearly impossible to make.
The good news is that there have been an abundance of reports coming from Arizona indicating that Heyward is making progress. And, from the little bit of footage that has been released, I believe it.
Below is a side-by-side comparison of the swing we looked at above and one of Heyward’s swings this winter, posted to the Instagram account of Cubs’ Mental Skills Coordinator, Darnell McDonald.
You should see a big difference. In the newer swing on the right, Heyward’s back hip is getting through much better, allowing him to drive his hands forward and inside the ball, and resulting in a much better position at contact. His barrel is also doing a much better job of waiting its turn – allowing back hip and knob a chance to get inside the ball before firing.
I’m sure Heyward and his coaches would tell you that there is still a lot of work to be done and anyone who has tried to make a big mechanical change will attest to hitting in the cage and hitting 87mph sliders being two completely different animals. Mechanical changes are hard to keep at game speed, given that you cannot devote any mental bandwidth to them. In a game, they need to stick naturally, without thinking, which means you have to get about a billion repetitions of the fix in the offseason.
Only time will tell if Heyward is able to make that happen.
All of Cubs Nation is certainly hoping he can.
Thanks for reading!