In a past life I was a full-time golf instructor. This gave me tremendous insight into the mechanics of the human body when performing other physical activities, including swinging a baseball bat. I have also taught many a juniors how to swing a baseball bat during my time as a little league coach. I may not have the credentials of Mark McGwire, but I certainly do know my kinestheology.
Now there are several mechanical differences between a golf swing and a baseball swing, but the majority of those are related to swing path and the imparting of direction based on bat angle over face angle. The path a bat takes is obviously much more horizontal to the ground than in a golf swing, and mostly a baseball player determines the direction the ball goes based on the angle the bat is at during the time the baseball makes impact with the bat. But the motions bear a striking resemblance and is one of the major reasons why baseball players gravitate to golf so easily.
In this series I hope to walk you through some of the mechanical inclinations of a batter and discuss some of the strengths and weaknesses of the players swing from the perspective of a guy who just kinda knows things. I don't proclaim to be the next specialist that the D-Backs need to really hit the ball better, but I know more than the average Joe probably.
We will break down the swing into sections. First, the setup. Next, the initial move. Then the motion toward the ball as it approaches the strike zone. Followed by impact, follow through, and finally the finish. These are the stages which every swing goes through and can be broken down to help identify where a batters strengths and weaknesses come from. We will look for things like balance, hand path, bat barrel path, lower and upper body torque, arm rotation, and the players upper body tilt at the plate.
Today's subject, Chris Owings.
Chris has one of the best contact swings on the team in my opinion. He has the ability to make adjustments no matter where the ball is located but he is especially good at getting to the high inside fastball. This makes him one of the toughest batters to get out. He does have a strikeout rate of 20.5% as of this article, but to put that in perspective Paul Goldschmidt had a 20.4% last year. I'd say Chris is in good company.
Even more impressive is Chris's spray chart. Brooks Baseball
For me, despite a 20% strikeout rate, he would be my #2 hitter every day. Lets look at one of his swings and see what makes him such a good hitter.
Chris has an excellent setup at the plate. His hips are slightly open with his front foot further away from home plate than his back foot, but this is very small. This slightly open setup allows for him to get to inside pitches, but if you pay attention to his front foot in this sequence, he doesn't always use that open setup to his advantage for the inside pitch.
He looks very comfortable in the box and you will notice with almost all good hitters, his back is nearly perfectly straight. There is no shrugging of his shoulders or arching of his back. This straight spine allows for a free shoulder turn. Neither his chin nor hips will get in the way of a good body rotation. A key element for all prospective baseball players.
His bat is in a relaxed position with a typical "elbows spread apart" look. I personally have never been big on the "right elbow up" look as almost inevitably it will drop back down during the players transition onto their back foot. But that particular point is more personal style than of any real substance. Which begs the question, why is it such a common saying? Anyway, lets move on.
I point out in this picture two particular things that I think make CO such a good hitter. First you can see his foot has fully lifted up off of the ground rather than just a little step. For me, I prefer this over the non-step of a Parra or even to some extent Goldschmidt. It could be argued that this foot lift makes the timing take longer, but I would argue it is all about WHEN the foot is lifted and planted. The moment of this particular photo, the ball has just left the pitchers hand hand has traveled only about 1 foot. I would say Chris is timing his foot lift to the motion of the pitchers arm.
The reason I like a little bit of a foot lift is first of all you are ensuring all of the weight has been shifted to the back foot. This ensures more energy will be going forward at the time of contact. Secondly, it can be used as an adjustment to the pitch. If the pitch is inside, the front foot can be placed slightly further away from the plate to help open up the hips a bit earlier. Where as the outside pitch (the hardest pitch for a player to get to), can be reached with a step a little closer to home plate. Manny Ramirez was the king of this and one of the reasons I believe he had one of the greatest swings of all times. Not in terms of beauty, but effectiveness. I may be going off on a bit of a tangent here, but it's very important to understand the roll of the front foot placement. Being able to vary it's placement depending on the pitch, is just another tool for the batter to help adjust to the pitch. I do want to point out that Chris has lifted his foot and it has moved closer to the plate. This is mostly in response to his body turning back slightly in preparation for the swing forward.
The other thing to note in this picture is the level of the bat. Typically a bat will follow along a path known as the swing plane. The swing plane is established in the transition. Having a slightly flatter path will allow for the batter to get to pitches high or outside. Where as a steeper path like that of Aaron Hill, will typically reach the low and inside pitches more effectively. A hitter who can adjust in the transition to either swing paths will be a .300 hitter every year of their career. Here we see Chris's bat in a good middle range. It's not too steep, and it's not too flat. It's right in the middle which allows for some adjustment either way and one reason I think a .300 BA year is certainly possible.
If you are confused at all about the swing path. Just realize that the barrel of the bat is going to try to pivot around his hands as he brings them into impact. So the path he sets up here will most likely be parallel to the plane he will be swinging the bat. There is a little drop of the plane as the body strides and the arms drop, but the horizontal attitude will be similar.
This is where Chris's transition eventually leads him and you can see the bat has gotten steeper as the pitch approaches. Chris has adjusted to the ball since it is a bit lower and inside than what he was initially transitioning for. This will be the path that ultimately the bat will travel on.
Chris made a boo-boo, but then he adjusted. His front foot ended up closer to the plate which left him out over the plate a bit more than he wanted, but he adjusted by opening his body up fast and pulling his hands inside. This move will allow him to get the barrel on the ball but also means he's going to pull it left. Luckily for him, since he was swinging from a closed position, this pulling swing ended up in left center. To me, this epitomizes how good Chris is at adjusting to the pitch. It also is the reason for his aggressiveness. A player who has that kind of ability to adjust, is going to try to put every pitch that is remotely around the strike zone in play. I don't know that you want to take that away from him. Could he be more patient at the plate? Yes. But a guy like CO needs to take his hacks or else his swing will get stale. He's going to strike out, but he's also going to put the ball in play, A LOT. He's the type of guy who would swing at a pitch-out if he thought he could advance the runner.
I overlayed Chris's position just as he was starting his swing forward with where he is at impact so you can see how the path of the bat has stayed on this very specific path from start to impact. Eventually this will go all the way to the finish. If I were to transpose where he was at setup to his transition you would see some movement in the bat angle which is that key adjustment I keep hammering away at. The angle of adjustment that Chris had to take from his setup to transition which led to his impact was very very small relative to most other players.
At impact here Chris is on his heels because of the body rotation he had to make for adjusting to the inside pitch. This will lead to a slightly slower job getting out of the box, but Chris has plenty of speed to leg this one out for a double. If it had been on the ground, Chris would have been thrown out at first easily. Luckily for him the ball was up just enough in the strike zone for him to get it over the short stops head.
Due to my poor photoshopping skills, you can't see Chris's head, but he's looking right down the barrel of the bat which is where you want to see them looking.
Despite having spun open to try and get to the inside pitch, Chris did a good job of letting his arms really let go of the bat head and fully extend. He's also keeping remarkable balance for this move. You can see he has rolled out on his front foot slightly which is a bit costly for his time out of the box. It is to be expected with the adjustments he's made though. His weight is a little bit back on his right foot. In order to open up his body as quickly as he did, he was not able to get as much lean onto his front foot as he could have were he not out of position with his feet. It's the difference between the ball getting to the wall, or getting to the outfielder. Chris was only able to get to 2nd because of his speed, and the placement of the hit. In just about any other part of the outfield this would have only been a single. If he had let his foot come down a bit more away from the plate, this goes for a double off the wall or potentially a home run. Especially when you consider where the pitch ends up. Inner third, belt high.... this was a mistake pitch that players like Goldie hit for home runs.
Just to wrap up the point, you can see Chris's weight is not leaning towards first. For this hit at least, the means a split seconds longer to get his feet under him and start running to first base. In no way am I saying this wasn't a good swing. It was excellent adjustment on Chris's part. I'm merely trying to point out some small details that could make him a better hitter.
You can see how open Chris's shoulders are here on the finish. This is another results of the quick opening up of his body he had to take to get to the ball. You can tell a lot about a swing by how the player finishes. This is the type of finish that if you didn't know Chris had hit the ball, you'd have thought he swung and missed. That's how much extension and effort into his body turn he put into it. Chris engages EVERY power accumulator he has and doesn't leave anything left. Even when he has a hard time getting to the pitch, he's still giving it a full effort. That could hurt him in the long run as it can be the cause of a lot of ground balls. For now, I like to see Chris swing so freely. It looks like effortless power because of the flow and timing he has. He adjusts early enough in his transition that he can let the bat fly.
Chris can get the barrel on just about any pitch. He can also hit the ball anywhere on demand which makes him an ideal 2 hole hitter. He has good power to both sides of the field and is a doubles machine. Chris has a lot of speed which makes him also a good fit for the leadoff or 8th hitter.
Chris's strength is also his main weakness. Because he CAN hit anything, means he's going to try and hit anything. It's good for Chris to take hacks when he feels he can get the barrel on it, but if he could get just a bit more patient he could be an All Star. Chis is also a bit of a sucker for the high fastballs. That's because he feels so confident in his ability to get to them that he isn't afraid to swing at them. Chris's zone profile shows he's colder for anything up high, despite having a swing that is ideally taylored for the high fastball. This could simply be because the level of pitching is better in the big's and he's having a harder time catching up to it.
How To Pitch To Him
Chris's weakness is the high fastball, but you should reserve it for the strikeout pitch. Too many of them in a row and he'll eventually nail you for it. His one and ony home run this season came off of a high fastball after swinging and striking out on the same pitch in the 2 prior at bats. Sliders and Change ups tend to also be problematic for Chris as he's whiffing at 22.64% and 17.02% respectively. If you have a splitter, he'll chase that frequently too. Pretty much anything that dives down is a good chance for a swing and a miss.
To see this swing and a few others, here is a link to the original video.