Hitting 101: Swing Down on the Ball? Nope.

Posted: June 6, 2013 in Baseball, Softball
Tags: , , , , ,

One of the sillier notions regarding the act of hitting a baseball is the idea that batters should “swing down on the ball”. I remember having this cue drilled into my head as a young hitter, and I still hear it from time to time nowadays. The reasoning that coaches give for this is the fact that a downward swing angle will create backspin on the baseball, which will help the ball carry farther, whereas an upward swing path will create topspin, which will result in less distance.

In fact, there’s even a batting tee endorsed by Ken Griffey Jr. called the Instructo Swing, which forces players to hit down on the ball. If you don’t have a downward swing path when using the Instructo Swing, you are rewarded by smashing your barrel into a piece of blue metal.

That's a homerun swing if I ever saw one...

That’s a homerun swing if I ever saw one…

But if we look at Ken Griffey Jr’s real-life swing, do we see that kind of downward swing angle? If you’re good at reading context clues, you already know the answer.

If somebody plopped down an Instructo Swing in front of Griffey as he was taking that swing he would have absolutely annihilated it.

griffey swing 2

griffey swing 1

What you see with Ken Griffey’s swing, and the swing of any other successful hitter, is that he establishes a swing path that is on plane with the pitch, and then swings UPWARDS through the baseball. Watch Albert Pujols. You’ll see the exact same thing. And his swing wouldn’t play on an Instructo Swing, either.

Think about this: what is going to impart more force – a direct blow or a glancing blow? If Mike Tyson was about to try to give you a dead arm, would you rather him punch you squarely in the arm, or have him hit your arm slightly off to the side (known as a glancing blow)? You’d probably rather have him strike a glancing blow, because it would hurt way less. This is because more energy is transferred via a direct blow than a glancing blow. When batting, if you want to hit the ball as hard as possible, you’ll want to strike a direct blow. If you are hitting the ball with a downward swing path, your only options are to A) strike a direct blow and hit the ball REALLY HARD into the ground, or B) strike a glancing blow and hit a fly ball with tons of backspin. But if you’re not hitting the ball squarely, there’s not nearly enough energy being transferred into the ball to put it deep into the outfield, much less over the fence. All the force of the swing gets turned into rotational energy instead of linear energy, so the ball basically just spins and goes nowhere.

So to make sure we’re striking a direct blow with the bat, we should be swinging with a perfectly level swing, right? Wrong again. Little League coaches’ go-to hitting cue is “have a level swing”, but does a truly level swing give us a chance to strike direct blows? Not unless the ball is coming in on a completely straight line, which it literally never does. The fact that pitchers throw off an elevated mound makes it more or less impossible to throw the ball on a straight line to home plate. That, combined with the downward arm angle of most (admittedly, not all) pitchers means that swinging parallel to the ground is also not a viable way of making consistent solid contact.

Due to the overhand pitching motion and gravity’s effect on pitched baseballs, it is necessary to have a slightly upward swing path in order to make solid contact and hit the ball in the air with authority. When hitting a downward-moving ball, having a completely flat swing gives a batter a much lesser chance of making solid contact than if the swing is on the same plane as the pitch. This means that a slight uppercut is actually beneficial to hitting, regardless of what your Little League coach may have told you. With an off-plane swing, you have only a very small window of time in which you can make solid contact. Your timing needs to be absolutely perfect. By having an on-plane swing path that is parallel with the flight of the pitch, you give yourself much more wiggle room when it comes to timing.

Here's a "level swing"

Here’s a “level swing”

contact 2

Here’s a swing that’s on plane

I’m not about to advocate that every young hitter should go out and start taking Mortal Kombat uppercut swings at the ball, but when learning to hit and practicing, try to get the feeling of getting the bat on plane with the flight of the ball early and then swinging through the ball to a high finish. This will allow you to transfer as much force as possible into the baseball, and will allow for more power at the plate. Also, throw your Instructo Swing in the trash if you have one.

  1. Scott says:

    Andrew Sacks as I read this article of your idea of the instructo swing trainer, I can’t help but wonder if you’ve ever played baseball at a level higher than t-ball. The instructo swing trainer has you go on a path straight down to the ball, but yes hitting a ball to be a homerun worthy batted ball your swing path will change and continue upwards, but not by much. I mean it is baseball not softball for god’s sake. Go buy the swing trainer and try it out for yourself you might find that you to can hit a baseball with precision and make that sweet contact we baseball players all look for. Have a great day sir.

    • Andrew Sacks says:

      Scott- the Instucto Swing teaches you to be swinging downwards at the point of contact. Nobody at any level if baseball hits like that, including me when I was playing college baseball. Go watch video of any major leaguer’s swing and you’ll see that the bat path gets on plane with the path of the ball early, then finishes upwards through the baseball. I explained this in the article, but you must have missed that part so I would suggest you read it again.

  2. GERARD ZANOLLI@gmail.com says:

    This is so misleading.
    The horribly drawn batting aid tee is not accurate- look where the tee is.
    The swing is an arc- down, level, then up- do some research.

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