(Editor’s note: this post was submitted prior to the start of the season but it seems rather timely now)
I can’t shake myself from latching onto spring training hype trains. Even after all we’re taught about small sample sizes, I find myself watching games and wondering whether this could be the year for any number of players.
Watching the Braves and the Nationals last weekend, something about Dansby Swanson seemed different. I started digging and emerged on the other end of a rabbit hole that brought me from hitting guru Jason Ochart (@Jason_cOchart) to Coach Bobby Stevens Jr. (@StevieBobbins, BattersBoxChicago.com, GoWindyCityBaseball.com) to gif-ing up everything and more.
I’ll admit, I forgot Dansby Swanson was sent to the minor leagues in late July. The former number one pick relinquished his major league role after mustering only a .287 OBP in just under 400 plate appearances. Two weeks later he was recalled with little more than generalities to sift through in hopes of unearthing what the Braves wanted to change mechanically if anything at all.
After Swanson’s return to the major leagues tinkering began.
It’s a relatively simple adjustment, but the ramifications and reasoning behind the alteration bubbles numerous points to the surface.
“Getting [your front foot] down too early can mess up timing and alter the kinematic sequencing of the swing.” Jason Ochart quickly summed up via Twitter what I speculated might be true.
For almost all of Swanson’s 2017, before his change in late August, his front foot was down earlier than your standard hitter (in the video on the left above).
“For most hitters, the pressure shifting onto the front foot is what initiates their swing. Force plate data shows that the forceful heel drop works as the trigger of the swing and works as a brake to send energy upward through the body… to accelerate the bat late in the swing arc, as all the best hitters do.”
Breaking down Orchart’s points make a complex explanation simple. A hitter’s front foot is used to initiate their swing. When this foot plants, it helps transfer energy from one’s lower body to upper body. Eventually, that energy affects a hitter’s bat.
“Force plate data” sounds complex, but it’s nothing more than a plate on the ground that measures exerted force. In this case, the force from a hitter’s front foot. (YouTube is always here to help as well).
Ochart went on to state research shows that shorter time between the peak of one’s front-foot force and contact with the baseball can lead to greater exit velocity. If your front foot peaks early, as a hitter’s might if they’re planting as early as Swanson was, the effects could be detrimental on the one variable most hitters are focused on.
Stats, however, have a tough time backing up a substantial performance boost solely through the hovering of Swanson’s front foot.
Upon Swanson’s return to the majors in August, there was a strong uptick productivity that lasted until the beginning of September. This correlates nicely with his front-foot alteration but doesn’t sustain through the end of the season, as one would hope a material adjustment would. A variety of other factors could counter the change: production uptick being artificial, fatigue, comfort with the new approach, etc.
But what about other components of Swanson’s swing that might have been affected by this change?
“Hitting is controlled all through the back hip in relation to controlling your weight and ‘staying back’ on pitches. The issue is in the explanation of ‘stay back’. Stay back in what position? With your foot off of the ground? With your front foot on the ground? In your stance? That is where understanding is lost in my opinion.” Stevens took a different route to a similar conclusion that buoys the case Swanson had beneficial intentions, even if stats cloud improvement.
“A hitter must ‘stay back’ in their hip with their foot off the ground or hovering. This does not mean that you lift the front foot off the ground and balance on your back leg, though. It means that we load or coil into our back hip, then as our lead leg begins to stride out towards the pitcher, we want to ‘stretch’, or use our back muscles, to hold our weight back until we decide it is time to launch the swing.”
Stevens’ broadening of terminology related to “staying back” unearths numerous other factors related to what Swanson did. Each of his points made me consider other aspects of Swanson’s kinetic chain, particularly how the most visible change – foot down early to hover – could be covering up other, more important changes to help the former college star, acting as the low-hanging fruit.
So why bring this front-foot change up now, six months late? Because Swanson’s lower body alteration was actually the second thing I noticed, behind another change that caught my eye on his long home run off Max Scherzer in spring’s first weekend of action.
First his lower body, now his upper body. While the above camera perspective when comparing is slightly askew thanks to spring training parks and their uniqueness, Swanson is starting his hands lower and bringing them up into his load. In 2017, he started his hands higher and kept them there for the duration of his pre-swing rhythm. Now, his momentum is built up into the hitting position, yet the path and aesthetic of his swing after his load are nearly identical to the naked eye. This feels like a conscious attempt at relaxation in the box, with the foresight to alter the path to his load as opposed to how exactly he is loading. What could be invisible, however, to my untrained scouting eyes are the concepts Stevens talked about above relating to a hitter’s back hip and launch into his swing.
Swanson’s adjustment is similar in direction to Zack Cozart’s alteration from 2016 to 2017, one that brought Cozart a substantial uptick in power. Some might say Billy Eppler’s new third baseman’s breakout came demonstrably because of health, but Cozart admitted last Spring he wanted to start his bat on his shoulder to relax himself at the plate and come up into the hitting position. What Swanson is doing above mimics that concept – coming up into his load – even if the point at which the process begins is different. Swanson’s relaxation also reminds me of Anthony Rendon’s gradual adjustment, as the All-Star began to push his hands further south when comparing his swing at Rice University to that of later in his career.
Most relevant to my gracious sources, Ochart and Stevens, Swanson retains his front-foot hover from late in 2017 in the gif above.
While the stats seem doubtful a tangible change in the Braves shortstop, numbers can often be blind to progression mechanically that hasn’t manifested on the spectrum of production. My confidence in an improved Swanson is driven by the theory around adjustments he seems to have made, starting with the hover of his front foot to the repositioning of his hands preload. Add him to the list of players I’ll be watching closely in one month’s time.
A version of this column can be found on BigThreeSports.com.
You should do that thing where you follow me on Twitter – @LanceBrozdow.
Graduate of Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism. Stringer for the Associated Press. Feature writer for Baseball Prospectus. Co-founder of Prospects Live. Aspiring baseball scribe.