Instruction vs Intent Part 1: Closed or Open Front Side?

A couple of months ago, there was some internet hullabaloo over an MLB Network segment where Josh Donaldson explained his philosophy on hitting and his swing mechanics, touting that he never thinks about his hands when he swings and that the key to his power is his “open” front foot. As a professional hitting instructor, I was intrigued yet, at the same time, I found myself cringing throughout the video. Why? Well, as I watched, a couple things became apparent to me:

 

  1. Josh Donaldson is a very intelligent, gifted hitter who has found a particular swing that works for him.
  2. Josh Donaldson hasn’t given many hitting lessons to non-elite hitters.

 

First, let me be clear on something – I don’t disagree with much of what Donaldson said, conceptually. He has two main points in the video:

 

  1. An “open” front foot is necessary to allow for hip rotation and for separation of the hips from the upper half of the body.
  2. “Downhill” planes, or thinking about staying on top of the ball, are incorrect approaches to hitting a baseball.

 

I’ll address the first point in this article, with Part 2 tackling “downhill” vs “uphill” planes.

 

So, to approach this, we need to first define an “open” front side vs a “closed” front side. For me, a closed front side is one where, at front heel strike, the front and back heel create a line to the pitcher and the front foot lands at an angle no greater than 45 degrees (0 degrees would be toes to the plate, 90 degrees would be toes to the pitcher). Therefore, an “open” front side would be one where the front and back heels make a line to the “pull-side” of the field (i.e., third base for righties, first base for lefties) or the front foot lands at an angle greater than 45 degrees.

 

With that said, I teach all of my hitters to land with a closed (and, at times, exaggeratedly closed) front side. Why? Well, first, let me tell you a dirty little secret about hitting instruction – you don’t always want your hitter to do exactly what you say. This is the idea of instruction vs. intent. If I have a hitter who is exhibiting a bad swing mechanic, I will often instruct an opposite mechanic with the intent of obtaining something somewhere in the middle.

 

Think of this way: if the vending machine isn’t taking your creased dollar bill, you don’t just pull it straight and hope it stays. You bend it back the other way to remove the crease.

 

The reality is, most young hitters fly open way too much and way too early, causing tremendous head pull and the inability to finish through the ball. Why? Well, it’s primarily a strength issue. So, when teaching young hitters, instructors cue a closed front side because it helps hitters stay back. It prevents them from committing their hips and hands too early in the swing.

 

“But, Lucas, you idiot, you’re saying that a closed front side is necessary to keep a hitter back but, look! Josh Donaldson lands with an open front foot and he is in a great position to hit. LOOK!!!”

 

donaldson

 

First, calm down. Secondly, you’re right. He is. His weight is still on his back side and his hands are in an excellent position to attack the ball, yet his front foot is open – *gasp*. But, guess what. Donaldson is a strong dude and a professional hitter. The vast majority of youth hitters (“youth” meaning under 18) do not possess the ability or core strength to generate the separation of their hips and shoulders that Donaldson does. It is something that I work on teaching everyday but if you tell a 12-year-old that they need to open their front side to generate power, you end up getting this:

 

open-c

Or, this:

open-a

Or, this:

open-b

 

In youth hitters, cuing an open front side leads to:

  1. Premature rotation of front hip, shoulder, and head, eliminating the ability to hit anything on the outer half of the plate (or offspeed) and/or extend through the ball to the middle of the field.
  2. Forward translation via a “break” in their front knee. With their front toe open, their front knee can bend (like they’re doing a forward lunge) and allow them to slide forward, causing their head to move (and several other problems).
  3. Hand drop or cast. Commonly referred to as an “arm bar,” this is when the front shoulder bails out and the early extension of front elbow causes exaggerated length to the ball.

 

Ultimately, I don’t care if a hitter lands with their toes to the plate vs. a little open. I DO care about where their weight and hands are at heel strike. So, I (and many other hitting instructors), use “closed front side” cues as a way of keeping hitters’ weight and hands back, keeping their rotation and extension directed to the middle of the field, and keeping them in a position to recognize and hit offspeed pitches and pitches on the outer half of the plate. Only once those things have been established can you start to address hip-shoulder separation (which is an integral part of an advanced, powerful swing).

 

I would also argue that Donaldson is a pretty extreme example. I really only see professional hitters land with my definition of an open front side when they are either ambushing a fastball in the middle or inner-half of the plate or have gotten fooled by something offspeed. Watching the World Series? Fox has been showing a lot of slow motion swings. Start looking at front foot position at heel strike. Did someone hit a opposite field bomb? I bet their front side was closed. Did someone look stupid on a changeup? Chances are you’ll see an open front side or a bent front knee.

 

For you Indian and Cub fans, Kris Bryant, Jason Kipnis, and Carlos Santana are below. I have frozen them at heel strike and at contact with the pitch. At heel strike, none of them have committed their front hip or their hands. Their weight is back, their hands are loaded, and their front sides (i.e., foot, hip, shoulder) are closed. Oh, and all of these swings were bombs.

 

Bryant

bryant

Santana

santana

Kipnis

kipnis

 

So, what are the takeaways?

  1. Does Donaldson land with an open front foot? Yup. But, he is only able to get away with it because he doesn’t commit his weight or his hands. They stay back because he is able to separate his hips front his upper half. He is able to do this because he is an animal.
  2. For most hitters, landing with a closed front foot is essential for:
    • creating a firm front leg that rotation can be leveraged against
    • keeping front hip and shoulder from flying open prematurely
    • maintaining weight and load on the back side
    • keeping hands in a good, loaded position (i.e., not dropping or casting)
    • allowing for proper barrel extension to all parts of the field

 

Thanks for reading! In Part 2, I’ll address Donaldson’s other point – that downhill planes lead to ground balls and shouldn’t be taught to young hitters. Sneak Peak: he’s right…mostly.

Lucas Cook

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