Have We Seen the Last of Baseball’s “Pure Hitter”?

As Giants fans, we are outsiders looking in on a homerun surge that is sweeping through just about every ballpark in America. Not only does AT&T Park rank dead last in homeruns hit per game (.61), the Giants as a team have hit just 129 homeruns through 157 games. To put that into perspective, the Orioles, Yankees, and Rangers have all hit 230+ homeruns in 1 fewer game, whereas the Pittsburgh Pirates, who own the 2nd lowest total in all of baseball, have hit 20 more homeruns than the Giants.

This comes as no surprise to Giants fans as neither AT&T Park nor the Giants roster is conducive to homeruns. But what has been alarming, at least to me, is the fact that the homerun craze is coming from so many different players league-wide. Obviously, the Giancarlo Stanton’s and Aaron Judge’s of the world, reign as the game’s prototypical power hitters. However, a new generation of “slugger” has begun to emerge, one that has brought a new level of excitement to the game.

Looking at today’s MLB homerun leaderboard, the list is scattered with familiar names whose offensive skill set mirrors baseball’s best sluggers throughout history. Stanton, Judge, Moustakas, Gallo, Bruce, and Cruz all find themselves among the top 10 homeruns hitters in baseball, and all fit the profile of a power hitter – incredible strength and physicality combined with athleticism and body control to produce elite bat speed. While these hitters are eating up a significant chunk of baseball’s homerun totals, the likes of Cody Bellinger, Charlie Blackmon, George Springer, Gary Sanchez, Jonathan Schoop, Michael Conforto, and Brian Dozier are just a few of the 25+ homerun club that don’t fit the traditional sluggers profile.

Overall, the homerun spike is pretty remarkable. According to ESPN Senior Writer Peter Keating, “MLB batters this season are hitting a whopping 1.26 long balls per team per game (through Aug. 10), by far the most in history – a higher rate than in the days of Barry Bonds or Babe Ruth or any expansion season. Home runs now account for 14.5 percent of all hits, which is the highest proportion ever and up from 10.1 percent in the previous three years.”

The cause as to the power surge is up for debate. Many still consider steroids and HGH to be a significant factor, suggesting that the performance enhancing substances will always be ahead of the testing system. Another, more recent, school of thought involves the baseball itself. In a research study that was published in June, the Washington State University’s Sports Science Laboratory tested baseballs from the last 3 seasons, and discovered that “the newer balls were bouncier and smaller and had lower seams. The combined effect would have been enough to make baseballs travel an average of 7.1 feet farther.” While 7 feet is a significant amount, I’m not convinced that baseballs in and of itself is responsible for the massive homerun spike.

In my opinion, the biggest factor has to do with the simple fact that organizations have statistical evidence to prove that balls hit in the air contribute more to run scoring than ground balls. In looking at the cumulative offensive statistics from Major League Baseball in 2017, we get a better idea of just how drastic the scoring-differential is between balls hit in the air versus on the ground.

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If this data were available in high school or college baseball, it would look much different as hitters don’t possess near the level of physicality as professional hitters, therefore favoring areas like batting average and on-base percentage over homeruns. However with more and more clubs prioritizing the homerun ball and Statcast highlighting launch angles and exit velocity, figuring out how to hit the ball out of the park, regardless of what used-to-be considered a power-hitters profile, has become a priority.

In a similar way that small ball (manufacturing runs through bunting, stealing bases, and situational hitting) has become a lost art in the game, I can’t help but wonder if the days of the “pure hitter” have already passed us by. 

While so many players come to mind, I can’t help but wonder how a guy like Wade Boggs, who is one of the best pure-hitters in baseball history, would fare in today’s game. Boggs was a career .328 hitter over 18 seasons, but hit more than 11 homeruns once in his career and drove in more than 63 runs 4 times. Boggs’ career 132 wRC+, which aims to qualify a player’s total offensive value measured by runs, would rank him just ahead of Brandon Belt’s career mark of 129.

Don’t get me wrong – Wade Boggs is one of baseball’s all-time greatest pure hitters and a FAR better player than Brandon Belt. My point is that his value then versus his value now based on his areas of success would be entirely different based on how teams view runs should be scored. Even the best “pure-hitters” in baseball now possess bigger numbers than any season Boggs played in as Jose Altuve (.357), Charlie Blackmon (.337), Justin Turner (.331), Bryce Harper (.326), Daniel Murphy (.320), and Eric Hosmer (.319) all currently have at least 17 homeruns.

Given this new league-wide shift in offensive priorities, I began to wonder what mechanical adjustments, if any, have or will be made by young hitters in the future, who don’t possess prototypical, Stanton-type power.

Two of the games youngest sluggers, with the help of perhaps two of my generations most dominant hitters, may provide a sneak peek at baseball’s next mechanical swing fad.

Cody Bellinger and Gary Sanchez have burst onto the Major League scene. Despite missing the 1st two weeks of 2017 and currently experiencing a stint of the Disabled List, Bellinger has blasted 34 homeruns in 2017, making him 3rd in baseball with a homerun every 10.9 at-bats. Gary Sanchez, who has 27 homeruns on the season as a catcher, has hit 47 homeruns over his career in only 140 games – a total surpassed only by Giancarlo Stanton’s 50 since Sanchez got the call to the Big Leagues.

Both Bellinger and Sanchez are well built – Bellinger is a lean 6’4”, 210 while Sanchez fits the profile of a stalky catcher at 6’2”, 230. Neither are uniquely strong and powerful, yet both have power numbers that compare favorably to the most dominant power hitters in baseball history.

So how do they do it?

Obviously, both have extremely efficient swings with unique hand-eye coordination. However, both also have a mechanical characteristic in their swing that instantly reminded me of Barry Bonds and Josh Hamilton. As illustrated below, both Bonds and Hamilton utilized a similar pre-swing barrel hitch to Bellinger and Sanchez.

Essentailly, these 4 hitters are using a combination of 1) momentum that is generated from their stride forward (while the hands circle back around), and 2) centripetal force with their hands (the force that is necessary to keep an object moving in a curved path and that is directed inward toward the center of rotation). This action not only creates early bat speed, it also provides greater in-pitch adjustability. So whereas Giancarlo Stanton and Aaron Judge may be stronger, Sanchez and Bellinger are able to get the bat moving quicker and earlier, allowing them to generate more of their body’s weight and momentum towards their contact position with the ball.

To paint clearer picture, let’s use a hitter whose swing Giants fans know very well – Buster Posey.

One of the reason’s Buster’s swing is so we’ll known is because his setup is nearly identical to that of the MLB Logo.

But aside from that, Buster’s swing is about as good as it gets. So what is it that Bellinger and Sanchez do differently from Buster Posey?

If we look at the front side of Buster along with another great hitter, Manny Machado (left), both are in fairly similar hitting position, with the most drastic difference being the angle of the bat. Machado’s is more upright whereas Buster’s is much more flat.

If we compare those with Bellinger and Sanchez, we see how different the young sluggers’ barrel are at the same phase of the swing due to the use of centripetal force .

Both Bellinger and Sanchez have a significant bat-tilt over home plate. When asked about the tilt or “hitch” specifically, Bellinger said he decided to incorporate it after hitting only 1 homerun his senior year in high-school and a total of 4 in his first two professional seasons. In the 2nd half of 2015 while playing in A-ball, Bellinger exploded and never looked back. He hit 18 2nd half homeruns that season, and then 31 the following year. When asked about the adjustment, Bellinger said “I give credit to a few things: kind of learning my swing a little bit and creating a hitch to where I was comfortable. That one little move to create a consistent plane made me take off.”

Bellinger was asked again about his mechanics in a pre-game segment with ESPN’s Jessica Mendoza, where he elaborated on the “hitch” and how it has made him more consistent in his ability to backspin the ball.

When researching back even further on other hitters who utilized a similar hitch in their swing, Babe Ruth, Ted Williams, Hank Aaron, and Rodgers Hornsby were just a few that I found.

07 Aug 1928, Boston, Massachusetts, USA — Babe Ruth shown swinging as the ball nears the plate. (Note ball under letter “W” on the word “Tydwell”). — Image by © Bettmann/CORBIS

So why, given the success of all the hitters mentioned above, wouldn’t more hitters attempt to incorporate this hitch into their own swing?

In my experience, this is a 2-part answer. 1) Hitters are creatures of habit and don’t like to change things that aren’t necessarily broken. Furthermore, most hitters are so far into their development that instituting something like this in the middle of a season, or career, would be too risky (or difficult). The 2nd part is based on what I had talked about previously – that the extreme emphasis on the homerun is a relatively new philosophy.

Rather than focusing on steroids or doctored balls, I’m interested to see if this style of hitting comes full circle in baseball, and becomes more prevalent amongst players who aren’t as strong and physical as the sluggers we’ve grown accustom to seeing. Given both Bellinger and Sanchez’s success despite their size (and age), I can’t help but wonder if this mechanics (and offensive priorities) will shift in high school and college to match the need in the pros. If that happens to be the case, I think it’s fair to wonder if guys like Wade Boggs and Rod Carew would exist in the same capacity (if at all) as they once did.

 

3 Comments

  1. A.J. on August 26, 2017 at 9:06 AM

    What better way to beat the shift than to keep the ball in the air? Maybe increasing/emphasizing homeruns is a natural response to the more sophisticated defensive strategies we’ve been seeing.



    • Straight108 on August 26, 2017 at 9:12 AM

      Interesting thought, AJ. When I was in the minors, coaches always told us to “just hit through the shift”. Perhaps now it’s to “hit through it in the air”



      • A.J. on September 26, 2017 at 12:28 PM

        I see you bumped up your article from a few weeks ago, I assume because of Aaron Judge breaking Mark McGwire’s rookie homerun record. Because so many homerun records have fallen this year, it’s only logical to include it’s because MLB altered the baseball. After all, this is the first season they have used the new ball and if it were any of the other reasons mentioned in your article, including undetectable PED’s, we would have seen a noticeable increase before the 2017 season. I also heard they did something to the bats, too (corked them maybe? ha-ha) This wouldn’t be the first time MLB has doctored the ball to produce desired results. They did it in the early 30’s when they were trying to increase offense. And they’ve done other things as well, like lower the height of the pitching mound so pitchers wouldn’t be so dominant and there would be more runs scored. While I understand the reasons why they made these changes, I find it difficult to appreciate the new records being set because all things are not equal, and it’s ironic because baseball is such a stat-driven game where records are so hallowed and revered.



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