Changes in Buster’s Swing Paying Immediate Dividends

Last Wednesday, I wrote an article about the career trajectory of Giants catcher Buster Posey. Prior to yesterday’s homerun (which we will discuss later), Posey had hit a total of 5 homeruns since the 2016 All-Star break, spanning 335 at-bats. To give you a better idea of how those numbers relate, Padres rookie Hunter Renfroe has hit 9 homeruns since the 2016 All-Star break in 210 less at-bats despite hitting only .202 over that period.

Little did the Giants know heading into 2017 that Posey’s power production would be an essential component to the Giants ability to score runs as Brandon Crawford, Brandon Belt, and Hunter Pence have all been ineffective in a run-producing capacity. Despite hitting .363, good for the 4th best batting average in the National League, Posey entered today with only 6 RBIs – 5 fewer than the 2nd lowest total of all starting catchers in the Major Leagues. With the absence of power lasting 65 games, it’s fair to ask whether or not Buster will ever recapture the 20+ homerun per year power we saw from 2010 – 2015.

Posey’s swing in 2017 has been a work in progress. Prior to yesterday’s game, we had seen him experiment with a full leg-kick, a half leg-kick, a toe-tap, and a basic stride. In his first two at-bats of last night’s game, we saw Posey implement the “foot-down-early” style that hitters like Joe Panik and Marco Scutaro utilize(d). Typically, the foot-down early approach is designed to emphasize better timing and bat control to promote hard contact. The drawback is that it’s a more defensive approach, eliminating any rhythm or momentum that is typically generated in the front-half of the swing. As one would expect, Posey executed the approach to perfection, doubling down the right field line on a well-located 2-seam fastball on the outer half of the plate. In the photo, it becomes evident what a drastic transformation Posey is going through. The photo on the right is from the Buster’s homerun against Canada in the World Baseball Classic, less than 2 months ago, whereas the photo on the left, is from Buster’s 2B to right.

Despite hitting a leadoff double (Giants fans can count on one hand how many of those we’ve seen this season) and getting a runner into scoring position, I wasn’t overly excited with Posey’s new approach. For a guy who’s searching to provide more impact with his bat, I wasn’t convinced that this was the way to do it. In my eyes, this approach provides Posey with more of the same – consistently hard groundball/line-drive contact using the entire field. While this would be sufficient in any other season, the Giants need more. With the exception of Hunter Pence, Buster Posey is the only hitter on the Giants roster who can consistently change the course of a game with a single swing. Brandon Crawford in on the cusp of being that guy, but with only 1 season of 12+ homeruns (Posey has 6, Pence 9) and a slugging percentage over .430 (Posey has 6, Pence has 9) , he’s not quite there yet.

As last night’s game progressed, I was fully prepared for Posey’s at-bats to stay consistent with what we had seen for the first 91 of them. However, at-bat number 92 gave me reason for hope and optimism. For the first time since May of 2016 (where Posey hit 9 doubles, a triple, and 4 homeruns), I saw Buster combine that perfect blend of balance, timing, and graceful violence that Giants fans have been so accustomed to seeing. Obviously, the result was fantastic – a 420 foot homerun into the 2nd deck of Citi Field, but that isn’t what stood out to me. Instead is was how Posey hit the ball with that much force and efficiency.

For those who have not read my tutorial on video analysis, make sure to click here to see precisely what areas we focus on in determining swing flaws and inconsistencies and why it’s such an essential tool for player development.

When I first saw Buster’s homerun against Mets ace Jacob deGrom, I had to re-watch it. Immediately, I noticed a significant difference in swing mechanics, all of which were a ripple effect of two separate movements – his negative movement and stride. Without attempting to accurately describe his negative movement (initial movement back towards to catcher to generate momentum forward and through the ball), look a photo below compared to the at-bat before with his “foot-down-early” approach. While the difference is subtle, what it enabled him to do throughout the process of the swing was anything but.

Instead of the typical vertical leg-kick that we are so familiar with, Buster implemented a slight knee-led kick inward towards towards back-knee, allowing him to properly generate negative movement. With the foot-down-early, you eliminate negative movement entirely, thus supplying the swing with limited momentum through the ball. In establishing a balanced negative movement (also referred to as a load), Buster was able to utilize his front-foot stride to generate more force going in a straight line towards the ball and the pitcher. As you can see in the photo, when Buster’s stride foot lands, his body is perfectly square to the pitcher, suggesting that all of his momentum is working together in line – an optimally efficient approach to generating hard hit balls.

Upon contact with the pitch, you see Buster’s front foot still pointed inward toward the front corner of home plate, suggesting that he successfully blocked off all that momentum he created from the knee-kick to catapult the ball through the hitting zone. In previous swings (as seen in the photo below), Buster has a tendency to release the front foot, suggesting that he’s pulling off the ball and being more inefficient with where his momentum and stride is taking him into the hitting zone.

One might ask what makes this homerun more impressive or telling than Buster’s homerun off Kershaw from a week ago. Rather than telling you, I’ll show you.

In studying the homerun off Kershaw, it’s evident that the result was more indicative of Posey getting a pitch he was cheating on (looking for) than a pure swing. If we go back to the homerun at Dodger Stadium, Posey was working with a toe-tap, which he did a good job of syncing up proper timing to hit the Kershaw inside fastball. But if you look at the photo when the toe of the front foot comes into contact with the ground, you see a clear example of flying open versus staying square. On the left, you see Buster’s stride foot open and in the direction of 3rd base whereas the homerun last night against deGrom shows Buster perfectly square and balanced.

The setup on the left can cover one location – inside, whereas the setup on the right covers the width of the plate. The most telling part of the swing occurs on the follow-thru where you get a good look at Buster pulling off the ball. His front foot has released, his left hip as over rotated, and everything about the swing suggests that his momentum is taking him into the 3rd base dugout (see below). Luckily for Buster, the pitch he was thrown was the only pitch that setup and swing could have handled. Anything off-speed and/or to the outer third of the plate, and Buster would have capped the ball right off the end of the bat. On last night’s swing, you would have thought based on the follow-thru that he had just hit the ball to centerfield – that’s how phenomenal his balance was.

This was an incredibly exciting swing for a fan who studies swings for a living. The more I study it, the more it reminds me or two other elite sluggers, making it all that more exciting if Buster’s able to implement this new knee-kick consistently. Alex Rodriguez and Manny Machado utilize very similar swings as what Buster showed last night. Like him or not, A-Rod possessed about as picture-perfect of a right-handed swing as we’ve seen in a long time. While his kick is a bit higher than Buster’s, his was inward-focused as well, creating a similar balance and thrust to Buster.

With Machado, we see a near duplicate in knee-kick and stride to Posey. The difference between the two is how aggressive Machado attacks the ball with the intent to hit the ball out of the park. At this point in his career, Buster Posey is more of a gap (doubles) hitter whereas Machado (at age 24) looks to drive the ball out of the park with every swing.

Despite my excitement, there are a couple of things to factor here. One, is the comfort level that Posey has with this knee-kick. Despite hitting 2 homeruns this season using a full leg-kick and a toe-tap, Buster has continued to tinker with his mechanics suggesting that he isn’t comfortable with either of them yet. Just because Buster hit a homerun utilizing this knee-kick yesterday, doesn’t mean that he’ll have enough confidence or consistency to implement it into the foundation of his swing.

A second factor is the timing of the knee-kick. I remember as a college player, my head coach telling me that without consistently good timing, you’ll never hit regardless how good the swing is. I’ll never forget him saying “A bad swing with great timing will always outhit a great swing with poor timing.” In this case, for all of the things that this knee-kick accomplishes, it is all for naught if the timing doesn’t work. As best I can tell, Buster begins the knee-kick when the pitchers arm starts to come forward, but being able to sync that up with the varying pitchers motions is extremely difficult. If you think about the difference in arm action between the low ¾ sling of Cory Gearrin versus the looping over-the-top action of Mark Melancon, you could understand why consistently timing different pitchers without having significant reptition would be difficult in the short term.

Nonetheless, Buster Posey has proven that his ability to drive the ball is still there. I could be dead wrong here (as I’ve been at times in the past), but I believe with Buster’s unique skill set and ability, that he could be on the cusp of a big turnaround.

I will stipulate that in the other cases of drastic mid-season swing changes that I can remember (Josh Donaldson and Jose Bautista), it took an entire off-season and spring training of repetition until they were consistent enough to see daily results. This is entirely possible with Buster, but I’ll gamble on his ability and athleticism that he’ll be able to make the transition much sooner.

The question remains, though – with nobody else on the team producing, can the Giants afford for Posey’s short-term results to suffer if he’s new swing isn’t quick to show positive results? Personally, I hope that Buster stays patient and diligent in recapturing his power potential as it’ll be critical that the Giants have someone who can impact the game with one swing, even if it takes some time. Nonetheless, this is a great sign for Giants fans and even if the Giants aren’t able to right the ship in 2017, I would consider it a huge consolation prize if Buster Posey is able to find his power potential heading into 2018.

UPDATE: As I’m writing this analysis and watching the game, wouldn’t you know it, but Buster homered again! And good news Giants fans – not only was this a similar knee-kick to last night’s homerun (slightly less), it was an off-speed pitch. Why is that important? Essentially this is showing that in establishing a strong and balanced foundation to hit from, he can handle multiple speeds in multiple locations with equal aggressiveness. In other words, Buster has now homered on back to back nights on a fastball middle-in and a slider away while utilizing the same timing mechanism for each.

This is a huge step in my mind. And what excites me most as a fan is that we get to witness hitting at it’s best. A catcher hitting .360 and ticketed for the hall of fame right now, not satisfied with his performance because his role demands more. In tinkering with different mechanical tweaks, Posey found one that essentially fixed (for now) a number of other lingering issues, including the tendency to pull off the ball, inconsistent timing, and swing efficiency. If nothing else, Giants fans should enjoy getting to watch the progression of Buster Posey from here on out.

Throughout social media and the Giants pre-game, I’ve heard that Buster’s homerun last night was either a “product of letting the ball get deep” (Shawn Estes) or pitch selection. For those who have followed Straight 108’s ongoing analysis of Buster, you fully understand the development and progress that has gone on since the beginning of the season. This is a microcosm of the hitting landscape – only we are witnessing one of the best in the game develop his craft quicker and more effectively than the norm. Without video analysis, I highly doubt that we’d be provided such an in-depth look at the day-to-day progression of one of the Giants all-time greats!

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