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Bringing the hitting revolution back to Detroit

Eight years after J.D. Martinez made them the epicenter of the hitting revolution, several Tigers are working with the same coaching tree in hitting coach Doug Latta.

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Detroit Tigers v Oakland Athletics

Way back in May of 2014, something magical began to unfold in Detroit. After trading Prince Fielder for Ian Kinsler that offseason, and pausing for an unfortunate detour into a disastrous bullpen makeover, the Tigers picked up a journeyman outfielder named J.D. Martinez in the spring after he was released by the Houston Astros. For two years, Martinez had struggled mightily despite a combination of power and hitting pedigree that promised more. The Astros had prospects like George Springer and Robbie Grossman ready to play. Martinez became expendable. Baseball.

Quite a break for the Tigers, and despite the fact that 2014 was the end of their run as AL Central champions, the thrill of that offense, and Martinez’s breakout, remains a fantastic memory.

Martinez knew something the Astros, and then the Tigers initially, did not. Over the offseason he’d obsessively rebuilt his swing with the help of private hitting instructor Craig Wallenbrock, who had worked with Astros’ catcher Jason Castro the year prior. His offseason work started paying immediate dividends in spring camp, but the Astros weren’t interested anymore. The rest is history. Martinez quickly served notice with a breathtaking display of hard contact and home run power for Triple-A Toledo, and forced his way into the Tigers’ everyday lineup in May. He has yet to stop hitting.

Martinez finished the year with a .315 batting average and 23 home runs in just 123 games. Cleveland fans will remember that season with horror as the legend of J Dingerz began at their expense with a series of late game blasts throughout the summer months. By late summer, no one was wondering if this was a fluke. Instead, people started asking questions about the obvious, major changes to his swing the previous offseason. And so, J.D. Martinez became the herald of a hitting revolution.

Of course, it wasn’t quite that cut and dried. Something had already been brewing for quite some time, appearing in public view in Marlon Byrd’s resurgent 2013 campaign with the New York Mets, for example. Byrd’s brief late career renaissance begat one Justin Turner, a utilityman with good contact skills who didn’t drive the ball much. Turner watched Byrd’s swing changes with bemusement, then interest, then serious curiosity. He too made pilgrimages to a small, bare-bones facility in California called the Ballyard the next offseason. And, like Byrd before him, Turner began making the adjustments that took him from a guy with eight home runs over three seasons, to a perennial All-Star who cracked 112 homers over the next six seasons.

Josh Donaldson, Daniel Murphy, Chris Collabello, Jason Castro...the names of hitters who suddenly broke out after major swing changes with private hitting instructors kept piling up as reporters began to take notice of a developing story. Indeed, when Martinez walked into the Ballyard to start work with Wallenbrock, he found signed pictures of Michael Young and Ryan Braun up on the walls. Clearly something was going on here, and had been for some time already, even if major league teams themselves weren’t big on acknowledging it.

The Ball Yard

The story actually begins way back in the mid-1970’s, when a former junior college player named Craig Wallenbrock decided to take on the task of coaching up his little brother. The first innovation Wallenbrock came up with, simply by necessity as he had no coaching experience, was the idea of recording every swing. Way back in the 1970’s, he was perhaps the first to use focused video analysis to better understand hitting mechanics. Major league teams wouldn’t seriously catch on in that regard for decades.

What Wallenbrock began to learn in his compulsive video analysis of the top hitters in the game, would ultimately ignite a revolution in hitting 40 years later. This is a good time to mention the 2019 book Swing Kings: The Inside Story of Baseball’s Home Run Revolution, by Jared Diamond. While much of the information contained was already made public in piecemeal fashion through articles, interviews, and sites and channels devoted to hitting, Diamond puts together the entire narrative from Wallenbrock to the modern swing revolution in a very compelling read.

What Wallenbrock came to realize, was that much of what was taught in terms of swing mechanics was based on a mistaken assumptions. Part of the insight was the fact that top hitters in describing their swings often didn’t actually know how their swing worked, or what it looked like in slow-motion detail. Instead they were describing what they felt they were doing, a crucial distinction.

By actually breaking down the swings of the best hitters in the game, those who hit for both high average and power numbers, Wallenbrock developed a distinct set of fundamentals to teach based on how the best hitters actually swung the bat. In the process he threw out a ton of old school advice, such as “squashing the bug” with the back foot, letting the hands drift toward the pitcher, throwing the barrel to the ball, chopping from a high load position directly down to meet the ball, and a host of other bits of conventional advice. Few had thought to use video intensively, despite the fact that in a sport like golf, with similarities in mechanics, video analysis was already commonplace by the 1980’s.

Slowly, Wallenbrock became known regionally as a guy who knew the local high school and college talent well. College coaches began using him as a bit of a scout in their hunt for talent. He had some success improving young amateur hitters. Duane Shaffer, an area scout for the Chicago White Sox in the 1980’s, began using Wallenbrock as a bit of a cross-checker. He wasn’t known as a hitting guru yet, but in certain circles, he’d begun to win the respect of baseball people, and Shaffer hired him as an area scout for the White Sox, followed by short stints with the Oakland A’s and Cleveland Indians into the mid-90’s. However, his private focus on breaking down swing mechanics continued unabated, until he finally found the right opportunity to put it all into practice.

Things finally changed when another private instructor, Doug Latta, who had a shorter and similarly obscure background, opened up a small private practice teaching hitting called the Ballyard. He invited Wallenbrock in as a partner, and quickly became a convert to his heavy use of video analysis. Ultimately they pair learned from one another and their charges, with Wallenbrock as the elder guru, and the rest was history.

Key insights

The first key that Wallenbrock became aware of through obsessive film study, was that the best hitters swing up through the ball. Despite protestations from some of the best hitters of the day, Wallenbrock realized that, whatever it felt like they were doing, most of the top hitters for combined average and power got their hands down beneath the pitch as their barrel started to cover the plate, and swung up on a gentle arc throughout the hitting zone.

This idea confounded the vast majority of hitting coaches, who were largely versed in famed hitting instructor of the 60’s and 70’s, Charley Lau’s philosophies on the swing, or variations on those themes. Lau, to put it generally, preached a downward stroke to the point of impact, believing that to be the shortest, most direct path to the ball. Hitters of this ilk, tried to smash ground balls and low line drives with a swing that relied heavily on the arms and hands to generate power and barrel accuracy. Deep fly balls and home runs were accidents except for the big boys in a lineup. Some of this was just the style of game at the time. In fairness to Lau, astro-turfed super stadiums with huge dimensions, and far less high power pitchers probably made this a better approach than it would seem today. Certainly there were plenty of other theorists with varying ideas about the swing, but Lau was probably the most prominent.

However, Lau had a long-time opponent who Wallenbrock and then Latta, among others, took as their touchstone. The mighty Ted Williams, in his classic book The Science of Hitting, methodically describes why swinging up through the ball makes perfect sense. The ball is already falling. Every pitch thrown is dropping into the strikezone. Even the flattest, high spin fourseam fastball, is still descending into the hitting zone. So, if the bat is also traveling in a downward arc, there is only one bat width of potential contact possible as those two arcs intersect.

Whereas, if one gets their hands down earlier, lagging the bat through the hitting zone slightly on an upward arc, a hitter can match the plane of the descending pitch and make contact even if their timing is off a fraction. If a hitter can do that and keep the barrel in the zone with extension as long as possible, the chances of making good contact on the barrel go up significantly.

If they’re late, the barrel has still dropped into the hitting zone early enough that they can hit the ball hard the opposite way on a line. If the timing is perfect, the ball is crushed as a screaming drive to center field. And if they catch it out in front on the barrel, boom, towering home runs to the pull field. Swinging in this way increases potential time of contact with the barrel of the bat. In effect, in a pursuit in which timing is everything, plane-matching the barrel with the pitch gains time in which the barrel is in position to make hard contact. For a hitter with less than elite vision and hands, that difference in his performance could be substantial even if it doesn’t make them into a star.

Perhaps the second major key, is the idea of connecting the body and hands, swinging the bat with the big muscles of the back, core, and thighs, and letting the arms, wrists, and hands unfold naturally with late release and snap. By focusing on the mechanics of the full body motion rather than the hands, wrists, and arms, hitters are generally a lot less handsy today, and don’t throw the barrel at the ball. That much has become commonplace, at least. Still, Wallenbrock and Latta had very particular ideas about how to load the bat efficiently to improve batspeed and get the barrel on plane and keep it there as long as possible.

So let’s look at Miguel Cabrera. Yes, Cabrera has all-time great hand-eye coordination and raw power. His mental hitting computer is elite. Most of that can’t be taught. But just look at his swing mechanics.

Notice how much the hands are just along for the ride, moving only in reaction to his legs, hips, and torso. They don’t move forward until his hip-shoulder separation pulls them down and then forward. The biggest, strongest muscles in the body are not only the most powerful, but they’re the most consistent. His hands, wrists, and bat stay roughly in the same position relative to each other the whole way to the ball. He loads the bat vertically, with what has become a bit of a calling card for modern swing mechanics, the end of the bat tipping toward the pitcher while the handle points almost straight back down to the catcher. His hands are pulled into the hitting zone as he rotates his hips against a strong front side. The hands and ultimately the bat, are loose and along for the ride.

Notice also, how quickly he gets his hands and the barrel down under the pitch before he’s even got the barrel to the airspace above the back of home plate. From there, he’s holding that wrist angle like the late release of any good golfer, but with his right palm facing straight up on a long, shallow upward arc through the hitting zone. That angle stores tons of potential energy. As soon as the bat is “released” with the top hand rolling over, all that energy dissipates quickly. By holding it off until the moment of impact, Cabrera consistently delivers maximum force into the baseball and keeps the bat on a shallow upward arc.

There’s a lot there that fits with what the Ballyard and others learned to teach.

Cabrera doesn’t like to give a whole lot away about his hitting mechanics, preferring to repeat the phrase “palm up hitting all day” and letting observers figure it out from there. He certainly didn’t learn any of this from the modern swing gurus. Yet that top hand facing straight up position through the hitting zone is a far cry from many swings in the game until very recently. However, if you look at Albert Pujols, Ken Griffey Jr., Alex Rodriguez, or Barry Bonds, you’re going to see pretty similar moves. Combined with Miguel gaining ground toward the pitcher while holding that late release position between his wrists and the barrel, he’s able to sweep the barrel through with his body, creating as much as two feet of shallow upward arc where, whether he’s early or late, he’s still able to match the pitch up and barrel the baseball.

Compare that to a downward swing at a dropping pitch, and you’ll realize how much time for barrel contact Cabrera gains over old-fashioned swing methodology that advocated for swinging down in a sharp arc to meet the ball at a single point.

What does any of this have to do with the 2022 Detroit Tigers?

Ok, those are just some basics, and we won’t go much further, although it’s an immensely deep subject full of subtleties. We’re not hitting coaches, and we’re writing about the current Detroit Tigers, after all, so you may be wondering how all this relates if you’ve made it this far, other than once again recognizing that Miguel Cabrera is a hitting genius.

Over the past few years, several Tigers’ hitters have started privately working with Doug Latta. The first two notable cases were outfielder Derek Hill and catcher Jake Rogers, both of whom profitably used their off time in 2020 to begin remaking their swings under Latta’s watchful eye. And while this used to be the kind of thing that made major league coaches and front office decision-makers uneasy—Swing Kings has a common theme built around players successfully changing their swings and then having to walk a tightrope between their hitting coaches disdain and the knowledge that their new mechanics were the right pathtimes have changed.

Take a look at Tigers’ center fielder Derek Hill back in 2019. Then check out his rebuilt setup and swing in BP on Monday. Even compared to the adjustments we saw in 2021, this is a substantially different swing.

Compare that with say, Justin Turner’s positions since re-designing his swing with Latta back in 2014-2015. You’ll certainly see a lot of similarities. Lower hands, closer to the body at set-up to keep the hands and the body connected. The steeply loaded bat with the barrel tipped back toward the pitcher. The hands that drift back a bit—or simply stay where they are as the body moves forward into a strong front side with plenty of hip rotation—instead of starting high and moving toward the pitcher as the swing begins. These are all the more obvious hallmarks of what can be roughly called the Wallenbrock/Latta school of hitting, though many others over the last eight seasons since J.D. Martinez’s breakout have roughly applied these principles, sometimes with their own detailed differences in the mix.

Tigers’ prospect Eric De La Rosa began working with Latta as well recently, and is starting to show signs of finding these positions more consistently this spring. At age 24 now, with a very modest prospect pedigree, De La Rosa may only be able to take it so far. J.D. Martinez’s enormous breakout was a testament to the fact that he already had the raw power, the hand-eye coordination, and experience against major league pitching, but he also worked like an absolute fanatic to get it right in one offseason.

The biggest example of success so far for a Tigers’ hitter who has worked with Latta has to be shortstop prospect Ryan Kreidler. Coming out of college, Kreidler was a soft hitting contact guy whose defensive skills, plate discipline, and good hands gave him a chance to become a major league utilityman if things went perfectly. Kreidler started working with Latta during the 2020 offseason as well, and erupted in 2021 with power and hard contact no one saw coming.

Take a look at Kreidler as a UCLA junior four years ago.

Here are Kreidler’s homers in 2021. Obviously just comparing highlight videos, a player’s best swings, doesn’t tell you anything close to the whole story, but even here, you can see the lower hands, closer to his body as he starts to load the bat, and some adjustments to his lower half. Doesn’t look radically different, as Kreidler was always doing some things right, but his work with Latta really unlocked his batspeed and path, delivering a lot more hard contact, including plenty more home runs. Will this eventually lead to him laying off breaking balls more consistently? Hard to say.

Ultimately, the plane-matching approach and swing fundamentals that are still being integrated into modern hitting theory won’t fix everything or everyone. Improved batspeed gives a hitter more time to see a pitch and decide what it is, and where it’s going to enter the strike zone, or not enter it, but it doesn’t improve vision or hand-eye coordination. Getting the barrel on plane with the pitch as soon as possible, for as long as possible won’t necessarily create big gains in pitch recognition What they can do is gain the hitter barrel time in the zone, making it a bit easier to square up the baseball even without perfect timing.

Putting these principles into practice won’t turn every solid minor league hitter into a good big league hitter. Still, at this point, the logic, and the success of Wallenbrock, Latta—including the success of Wallenbrock protégé Robert Van Scoyoc, who took over working with Martinez and has since gone on to become the Los Angeles Dodgers’ hitting coach—to Driveline Baseball and a whole host of other good private hitting coaches who have emerged, makes it clear how much better some hitters can get with improved swing mechanics and lots of focused offseason work to implement them.

One final point. As emphasized over and over by Wallenbrock, Latta, and many others, these principles are not about hitting towering fly balls and trying to hit every ball out of the park. Hopefully more power is a by-product, but the point of plane-matching is just to make the most consistent hard contact possible. You don’t have to have big time raw power for it to be effective.

When J.D. Martinez was with the Tigers, we read the articles and watched the clips on how he remade his swing. However, it never seemed to lead anywhere organizationally. It was like a one off. Miguel Cabrera and Victor Martinez didn’t need much help and Nick Castellanos didn’t need much work mechanically either. Few others throughout the whole Tigers system got better in the intervening years, and no one seemed eager to make big changes to a hitter’s swing. JaCoby Jones made a pass at some adjustments along these lines, but couldn’t sustain too much improvement.

So seeing more Tigers’ hitters working with Latta is a sight for sore eyes. Don’t expect a J.D. Martinez level miracle, but there’s a pretty strong track record of success behind that coaching lineage. Once upon a time, the Detroit Tigers were the epicenter of a hitting revolution and it was very fun. Let’s hope they’re finally circling back to that coaching tree after years in the wilderness. Obviously J.D. Martinez had enormous underlying talent, but we can hope that the Tigers’ new player development staff, several of whom have Dodgers or Driveline Baseball ties, can do a better job maximizing the talent they have on hand.

Further Reading

Swing Kings: The Inside Story of Baseball’s Home Run Revolution by Jared Diamond

Inside “The Ballyard” with Doug Latta by Sung Min Kim for FanGraphs, 2019.

Doug Latta talks hitting by David Laurila for FanGraphs, 2022.

Robert Van Scoyoc blazes trail to become Dodgers hitting coach by Jorge Castillo for the LA Times, 2019.