Into the Swing of Things

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I was watching Mitch Moreland the other night, when he hit that clutch double to drive in Elvis Andrus and win the crucial San Diego series for the Rangers. What struck me is how his swing has changed from 2011 to now. Back then, his hands were away from his body, anywhere from high and level to low and upright. His follow-through was one-handed and driven towards either towering pull shots or opposite field line drives over the shortstop. I have a snapshot of him in spring training, and his weight was all over the front leg, his hands out in front, and the ball was soaring over shortstop. I thought it was the evolution of Mitch. He looked like a more complete hitter, not the power-or-nothing hacker of 2010. I predicted that he’d hit .300 with 30 doubles and still manage 20 homers that season.

I was off by four years and one major swing change. Today’s Mitch is clearly influenced in a very positive way by Dave Magadan, whose approach to hitting is clear. Today’s Mitch has quiet hands, bat resting upright against his shoulder, then sets his hands slightly and moves short and quick through an inside-out hitting approach. His follow-through is usually two-handed, allowing his top hand to provide additional backspin, staying under the ball and adding power with his hips, while keeping him in a backspin-focused plane for longer than his previous approach.

With his short, top-hand-driven approach to the inside part of the plate, he can wait longer to commit, allowing him to stay back and see the breaking ball, but not taking his lead arm out of play for opposite field drive and overall extension. (Great example in his double against Sand Diego, as noted above). Instead, it helps ensure that he more often scorches topspin grounders to right and carrying line drives to all parts of the ballpark. A homer he hit early this year in Toronto would have been a shot just off or over the wall with a knuckling or topspin rotation with his bottom-hand dominant swing of 2011. Instead, it carried over 400 feet deep to right.

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This evolution of Mitch got me into my favorite topic, and even then my favorite subtopic: hitting, and the swings that make it happen. So let’s look at some of our current Rangers, what makes them unique, and somewhat how they compare to Ranger greats.

When I think of Ranger swings, one of the first persons that comes to mind is Prince Fielder. His swing has a built-in uppercut, with devastating whip action driven by both his explosive hip rotation and his extreme hand speed and upper-body strength. His swings are like Mike Tyson in his prime: all power, all explosiveness. Devastating at contact, and tremendously fun to watch even when they miss. They are modern-day tributes to Reggie Jackson, corkscrewing his back leg into the ground and twisting around his massive body.

Yet somehow, with all that violence there is control. There is an ability to hammer high pitches on a line into center field. He does that because his upper body is so strong that that uppercut can be leveled through a massive chest and shoulders that pull the swing level, and hands that hold the barrel back through the zone before slashing it out to rip pitches, even high and intside, into center and left-center. The key to his high average and batting average on balls in play this year is that his neck is good enough for him to pull the ball, but his approach isn’t geared to pull every time. He is still prominently pull, but at his best, he again reminds us of Reggie Jackson. An Orioles pitcher was once quoted as saying how he knew when Reggie was about to get hot: when he started slashing line drives that nearly took the shortstops head off, and had backspin that tried to carry him into short leftfield, he was precise with his timing.

Such it is with Prince (see his homer the other night against San Diego). When he starts driving balls middle and middle-away with backspin to the opposite field, his timing and swing path are right on, and yet he’s still so quick that a low-in pitch is likely to end up deep into the right field upper deck. That swing, with its classic low finish and explosive hip rotation, top hand and head leaning up and following the flight of the ball, is the image of Fielder at his powerful, lift-and-launch best.

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Like Prince, Josh Hamilton has a power hitter’s swing. It has evolved since his time as a blue-chip first rounder, but one thing remains constant: the hitch. It’s not as violent or pronounced as Babe Ruth or Jimmie Foxx, but it does set him to mind with old-time mashers who used the hitch to generate momentum and speed. To do this effectively, one has to have tremendous upper-body strength and wrists, and we all know Josh isn’t lacking in his weight-room time.

Josh’s approach at the plate starts pretty quiet, beginning with a slight back-step and toe-tap. This is a subtle touch, but sets his weight back and, because his foot mostly goes up and down, not forward, his weight stays back and keeps his swing rotational, rather than linear. His hands cock down, with the bat actually reaching past 90 degrees at one point, then back up to the hitting point. It’s then whipped forward with his tremendous hip rotation and a slashing of his arms and wrists. His follow-through finishes the loop, with contact carrying him towards first base and a miss causing him to nearly fall over home plate. He’s so strong that even with a rotational focus, he can throw his weight and balance forward and extend over the plate, meaning that his power shots to the opposite field can look a lot like a front-leg Charley Lau disciple. (Lau is the author of “The Art of Hitting .300” and is the guru of the front-leg, weight-shift-driven linear swing, popularized by George Brett and carried on by the likes of coach Walk Hriniak, whose disciples included a late-career Carlton Fisk, Dwight Evans, and The Big Hurt, Frank Thomas.)

At its best, and to see the ideal example of what the Hamilton swing can produce, see basically any of his 2008-2012 seasons (exemplified by his 4-homer classic vs. Baltimore), but focus on that 2008 Home Run Derby at Yankee Stadium, where balls he pulled seem to carry and carry like golfshots. That is his hitch, massive hand and wrist strength, and ability to keep the bat in the zone (with his top hand underneath throughout the swing path), all of which create our magical backspin and carry, both on pull and opposite field shots.

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The opposite of the Josh Hitch is probably Adrian Beltre and his ability to tomahawk balls out to any part of the park. Again, like Hamilton and Fielder, we see tremendous hand speed and strength as a key. But more than Hamilton or Fielder, even, Beltre uses his lower body as a driving force, letting his upper body guide the bat. That use of his lower body for power, with upper body staying under control and focused on line drives, is the reason he can hit 25-35 homers a year while still putting up a .300-plus average, along with a hefty number of walks. His slight waggle as he starts his stance is to remind him to level off his hands before he starts to swing, keeping his bat on a level path with the pitch for longer than most teammates. This approach allows him to take those high inside and high outside pitches, alike, and tomahawk them for line-drive singles, doubles, and homers without sacrificing an ability to drive low pitches or wait out strikes. His swing has an uppercut without meaning to, one driven by rotation, but controlled by strong hands.

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The classic look for Beltre, of course, is post-swing, as he drops lower and lower, sometimes down to a knee. This is the result of his keeping his weight back, back, back on that right leg, using it always for more and more power. The result is like Nolan Ryan’s leg kick, harnessing all the power of his back leg and propelling him into the ball, braced against and turning vs. a stiff front leg, hands overpowering the bat and hacking the ball to all fields. The back-knee follow-through is an extreme example, but the true Beltre is the line-drive home run into the bullpen on a chest-high pitch, followed by the inevitable crush of teammates and manic protection of his helmeted head. For a great example of a Beltre swing, see this two-run shot to left center on a low-middle pitch.

One of the more fundamentally simple and sound swings still has some classic quirks: Elvis Andrus. His is the quintessential infielder’s approach – limited power, so limited moving parts, focused on a strong top hand keeping him on top of the ball and driving line drives to all fields, no matter how high the pitch. He steps to the plate and takes his half-swings with the short, focused downward stroke of a samurai. Shoulder, short to the ball, back to shoulder, short to the ball, then back up one more time and cocked, ready to hit. He’s added a leg kick that’s a bit more pronounced this year – or has become so as the year progressed – but the basics of his swing are the same: top-hand dominant, short and inside the ball, focused on lining the ball with a vicious topspin, and a follow-through that would make you think he’s 6’3, 220, not 6’, 195.

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The results aren’t always what we’d like, but as we’ve seen lately, the mechanics are sound enough that, when his timing is on and his swing plane right, he can slash balls to all fields and look like the cornerstone of 2010. For example, see his bases loaded single to right as classic Elvis.

No discussion of Ranger swings can be complete without a look back at the classics. This starts and ends with Julio Franco. Few hitters have ever been as evocative at the plate. The man twisted like he was wringing water out of his uniform, cocked his bat barrel high over his head, like the head of a cobra, poised and pointed at the pitcher, daring to strike. Then, he would uncoil and lash out, somehow still with an inside-out swing. More often than not, there would be a line drive over second base. More kids than you can imagine who were, like me, 11 years old in 1990 grew up trying to hit with their front leg piroueted up and the bat barrel seemingly taunting the pitcher. The thing that was classic about Franco was how strong he was for a middle infielder – even at 50, his physique was nothing but sinewy muscle – and how long he hung on. His last major league at bat came in 2007, at age 49, but he is STILL playing for the Ft. Worth Cats, slashing line drives to right at age 58. Here’s Jules going inside-out to become the oldest man ever to hit a grand slam.

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I could write a whole column on Mickey Tettleton – wait, I did. Rather than rehashing my love of Fruit Loops’s swing here, I’ll let the picture do the talking and point you to my previous work. Here’s a classic shot, the first ever onto Baltimore’s Eutaw street with Detroit.

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Of course, I immediately gravitated to my favorite player: Pudge Rodriguez. Beyond the glove, there was that swing born for hard contact, short to the ball. From the beginning, he had this quick, top-hand driven swing that lined balls to all parts of the park. With Rudy Jaramillo’s influence, he added a leg kick and more power as his frame filled out, but always, his swing was a thing of short beauty. His hands stayed inside the ball in a natural inside-out path, and he became a doubles machine. I honestly believe nobody on the Rangers hit the ball harder to all fields than Pudge in his prime. Bat upright and strong to the shoulder, kick, hands down, drive inside out, follow-through with a short throw of the bat, and burst towards first. The magic did show up early: I was there in the 1993 All Star Game, when he lined a ball over a still-skinny left fielder named Barry Bonds, sticking the ball in the wall itself (between the pads) for a double. It was the precursor of many more (572) to come. Here’s Pudge in slow-motion late in his career with Houston, still showing a hint of leg kick and the ever-present inside out swing.

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There are so many others.

Remember all of Mike Hargrove’s human-rain-delay gestation before coming to the plate – trust me, I’ve seen pictures and old clips – he made Nomar Garciaparra look efficient. We see Ruben Sierra kicking like a stallion, from either side of the plate, before launching himself forward into the pitch (such as this shot off future Ranger Tom Henke). There’s Juan Gonzalez, waving the barrel menacingly over the plate then cocking the bat over his head, not-so-secretly fearing the slider away and daring you to try to sneak a fastball by him low (often ending with a miss and a blast like these). And reliable Rusty Greer, (who was money in the clutch, like here with a game winner) … bat parallel to the ground over his shoulder, slightly crouched with weight leaning back, waiting to drive a liner to some part of the park and finish with that short two-handed follow through, then launch himself out of the box for another double. Rafael Palmeiro, short and quiet, lighting quick to the ball, with hand speed that was called “the fastest six inches – from launch to contact – in all of baseball”. Then the follow through dropping down to his back leg, head glancing up to catch the flight of the ball, then dropping down as he began another trot on a  ball just over the wall.

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I could go on like this – really, I could. But trust me, you’d get bored. You may have, already, so let’s flip this back on you, the reader:  Who did I leave out? Whom did you grow up watching, idolizing, imitating at the plate? Who today do you love to watch come to the dish at Globe Life?

These are the things – and swings – on which memories are built. Keep them always in your mind’s eye. They are the reason we are die-hards, the reasons that we come to the ballpark, win or lose: to let the uniqueness of every brilliant movement burn like a bat’s brand into our minds eye. To be kept forever, and replayed whenever we’d like, in – to borrow from Bart Giamatti – the green fields of the mind.

Chris Connor
As a lifelong DFW resident, Chris Connor is a diehard Rangers fan, and worships at the altar of Arlington.
He pitched - typically backing up third after doing so - and eventually settled into catching in leagues throughout Richardson and Plano in his youth, graduating from and lettering in baseball at Richardson Berkner High School in 1998. He holds a Bachelors of Science in Management and an MBA, both from UT-Dallas.
As a writer, he acknowledges that he’s never had a brilliance for brevity, but tries to meander to a meaningful point as he channels Faulkner and buys bits by the megabyte. He believes the only things more beautiful than Ted Williams’ swing are Yosemite Valley at sunrise and his wife.
He lives with the latter, along with their beloved dog and quite tolerable cat, in Allen, Texas.

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