Altered Swing Mechanics Key to Jose Bautista's Home Run Binge
But, if you're looking for real answers about where Bautista's home run explosion has come from, look no further than his revamped setup and swing mechanics at the dish. Given those new mechanics, it's probably time to accept that his season may not be a fluke.
The first part of Bautista's new setup is rather simple. Compared to past years, he is slightly closer to the plate with his back foot. He's not a player that uses the whole field exceptionally well, but he also trusts his hands and knows that he can spin on the best inner-half fastball. So, what he appears to have done is edged his way up on the plate and cut off parts of the zone that pitchers once were able to exploit. It's a subtle one- or two-inch difference, but that small movement up on the plate has allowed him to build on a strength.
Then there is the slight change in his lower half. A little more straight up and down in 2009, Bautista is now in a bit more of a crouch and sitting more on his back leg. His bat angle in his setup is worth pointing out as well. At an angle closer to 45 degrees last season, it's close to flattened out now. Overall, it appears he has made an effort to get his top hand more involved and get his hands moving through the zone quicker in general. To do that, he has put his hands in a higher position and is creating much more leverage. Rather than low and close to his body, we now see him with his hands not just higher but also further away from his body. So, before he even begins his swing, he is in a stronger, loaded position with his hands back.
The timing mechanism in Bautista's swing when he is beginning to set his swing in motion is a major part of his newfound success this season. As opposed to last season and previous years, Bautista is starting his leg kick just slightly sooner. Hitters that use any form of exaggerated leg kick typically have issues getting their timing exactly right. However, when it works the results can be outstanding. See Alex Rodriguez's career for proof of that.
Before his kick, Bautista has a small toe tap, where he begins to pinch his front foot and front hip inward. That tap is happening earlier now, and it's allowing for a more aggressive load. The Bautista of old was starting later, leaving more weight on his front side during his load and was essentially closing himself off or tying himself up inside. He is now much more of a back-leg hitter, rather than one with equally distributed weight. Naturally, that back-leg approach lends itself well to hitting for power.
The boiled-down version of Bautista's change in hand position is that they are higher. In his stance and as his swing mechanics unfold, he has his hands just above his helmet with a stronger, more leveraged position with the top hand. As noted above, from this higher position, he is getting his top hand much more involved.
Rather than having his hands lower and closer to his helmet, he's allowing his hands to stay back as his front side coils inward. The result is some explosive torque with his body as his hands remain back and before he releases them toward the baseball. In other words, he's creating far more of a coiled-spring effect here in 2010 than he has in previous seasons.
The leg kick for Bautista is the key to his whole swing. His timing, where his foot lands and how much he turns his front hip during his load are all critical to Bautista being able to hit the ball with authority. And, as odd as it may sound, Bautista somewhat breaking a cardinal rule of hitting may be a major part of his 2010 power surge.
The 2009 version of Bautista came straight down out of his leg kick, and even closed himself off at times. In 2010, we are seeing Bautista recognize pitches inside early and bailing enough with his front side to get to those pitches and drive them. By opening up, he's creating space for himself to extend his arms, and, more significantly, to get his front arm extended and his top hand underneath the bat. That's where we're seeing that tremendous backspin and monstrous power displays stem from.
So, if you are looking for that magic solution that Jose Bautista seems to have found here in 2010, that's your most likely culprit. It may sound simple, but Bautista, until this year, lacked a mechanical identity at the plate. This leg kick that he has used can be difficult to master. Land in the wrong place and you close yourself off. Land too far open and you end up pulling off the ball. If the timing is off at all, it's going to lead to quite a few strikeouts.
But none of that seems to be plaguing him this season. He is timing his leg kick well, getting his foot back down on time and opening just enough to provide space for him to explode at the baseball with his hips and release his newly positioned hands. Take a good look at the way Albert Pujols reads and reacts mechanically to a pitch inside and you'll see some extreme similarities. Pujols does not use a leg kick, but once Bautista's foot is down, the similarities show up in a big way.
To his credit, Bautista has put together his mechanics beautifully this year. While it's nearly impossible to be a consistent hitter for average using this approach, if he can continue to recognize the inside pitch out of the pitcher's hand, the home runs will continue to come, both this season and beyond.
Frankie Piliere spent the last three seasons working as a scout, most recently in the professional scouting department for the Texas Rangers in 2009. He now serves as the National Baseball Analyst here at FanHouse.