The Swing Center

DATA-DRIVEN BASEBALL & SOFTBALL TRAINING.

Swing Speed

FROM THE BLAST MOTION BLOG:

We recently sat down with Blast Baseball Manager Justin Goltz and Blast Motion Lead Biomechanist/Algorithm Developer Patrick Cherveny to take an illuminating and in-depth look at a valuable and often misunderstood metric – softball and baseball bat swing speed.

As softball and baseball organizations of all levels continue to dive deeper into data analysis, swing speed stands out as one that many organizations and clubs have yet to truly tap into and benefit from.

Swing speed also happens to be a metric that Blast Motion is uniquely qualified to analyze. In addition to our standing as the official swing sensor of Major League Baseball, our top-performing technology was recently used to measure and display swing speed of players in the 2016 MLB All-Star Futures Game. During that game, won 11-3 by the World Futures Team, the swing speed of hitters from both teams was continuously displayed on the state-of-the-art video boards at PETCO Park in downtown San Diego.

THE VALUE OF SWING SPEED

Fans of baseball and attendees at MLB games are no doubt quite familiar with the pitch speed metric, which is frequently and prominently displayed both on stadiums’ video boards and during television broadcasts. Exit velocity (also known as batted ball speed) is also becoming a more commonly cited and displayed metric, especially since these speeds at which baseballs leave the hitters’ bats can exceed 100 miles per hour – always a captivating and almost “magic” number for sports fans.

But what about swing speed? Just how much value does it hold – and how does it correlate with more established “speed metrics” in baseball?

“The baseball world has gone to more relevant metrics,” said Cherveny. “It used to simply be batting average, now it’s more about exit velocity, because it takes some of the randomness out of it. If you hit a ball softly and it’s hit away from a player, you may get a hit. In another at bat you may hit it hard but right at a player resulting in an out. The reality is that the more frequently you hit the ball hard, the higher the probability of a successful outcome.”

In a way, it’s really rather simple. The harder you hit the ball, the more likely your chances of getting on base. And the faster you swing the bat, the quicker the ball will leave the bat upon contact.

“Swing speed’s a very important metric, because it ultimately determines how fast the ball’s going to come off the bat,” said Cherveny. “The faster that you swing, the more likely that you will achieve a higher exit velocity, which will more often result in successful outcomes. Major League Baseball has put an increased emphasis on exit velocity and launch angle as two primary metrics for assessing players, and that’s already filtered down to hitting coaches who work with younger players. There’s a big emphasis on trying to maximize exit velocity and launch angle. If you don’t have a high swing speed, you’re going to limit your ability to have a high exit velocity.”

JUST HOW FAST IS FAST?

Unlike exit velocity or pitch speed, swing speeds of elite baseball players don’t approach or exceed triple digits. In fact, truly superior swing speeds don’t even come close to reaching 100 miles per hour – at least not if you’re measuring them the “right” way.

“We can confidently say that in-game swing speeds in the 90s or 100s aren’t really humanly possible,” said Goltz. “With some of the data we collected, we see in-game swing speeds in the 65- to 85-miles-per-hour speeds for some of the top professionals in baseball.”

According to Cherveny, the average swing speed in Major League Baseball games is around 70 miles per hour. That might not sound like a lot, but once you understand more about the dynamics behind the metrics, it starts to become pretty impressive.

“We see some swing speeds where people claim that you get into the 90s,” added Cherveny. “That would make sense if it’s at the end of the bat, but if you hit it at the end of the bat, it’s not going to travel as far because some of the energy is lost in the bat’s vibration. So that kind of a swing speed is essentially ‘false.’ Swing speed it dependent on where you’re measuring on the bat. In order to maximize quality of contact, the best hitters want to hit the ball in the “sweet spot” of the bat.

HITTING THE SWEET SPOT

Just as the casual sports fan may be misled about the nature and rate of swing speed, there is likely a good bit of confusion and illusion when it comes to the exact nature of the infamous “sweet spot” on a softball or baseball bat. Cherveny shared more fascinating and illuminating details regarding this renowned but misunderstood sporting hot spot. You might call it the “sweet science” of the swing.

“As a player swings the bat in a rotational arc, the further that you get down the radial length of the bat, the higher the swing speed,” said Cherveny. “So the speed at the hands will be much slower than the speed at the tip of the bat – and where you’re actually measuring is important in terms of what the measurable swing speed is.

“We measure at what’s called the ‘sweet spot.’ We define this is as a point six inches from the end of the bat. The sweet spot is actually defined as the point where the ball will release with the maximum amount of energy to the ball. Scientifically, this is the region in the bat between the first and second bending modes of vibration, which results in very small vibrational modes on impact in this region.

In truth, said Cherveny, the “sweet spot” on your bat isn’t really a spot at all.

“That’s where the best hitters want to make contact, that “sweet spot,” but in reality, it’s not a spot,” said Cherveny. “It’s actually an area along the bat that’s approximately
two inches in length. You can make contact anywhere along that area, and the ball will rebound and come off as fast as possible.”

Even along that “hit zone,” however, every inch matters. In fact, you might be surprised just how much an inch or two can mean, speed-wise.

“Let’s say that at an average Major League Baseball swing is 70 miles per hour, if you hit an inch further towards the hands from that sweet spot, you could lose 2.5
miles per hour,” explained Cherveny. “If you hit an inch further down the bat, it could be an additional 2.5 miles per hour. So you’re looking at around a 5 mile per hour
difference in the sweet spot or sweet zone of the bat, depending on where you hit it.”

MOVING ON UP…

It’s one thing for a young MLB star like Carlos Correa or Mike Trout to whip his bat through the hitting zone with a 75- or 80-mile-per-hour swing speed. But what about even younger, lower-level players?

“At the Little League level, the average swing speed is around 45 to 55 miles per hour,” said Goltz. “For senior league, we’re talking high 40s to maybe low 60s. High school, mid-50s to mid 70s. College and pro, mid-60s to maybe mid-80s. Those are the ranges and averages, but there are a few factors, including the bat size and age, that would affect swing speed.”

“There’s a lot of variables, but the biggest one is just the strength of the athlete,” added Cherveny. “With a more rotational swing, you could have a younger player that could actually move up into a higher swing speed class, but that gets down to the efficiency of the swing. Somebody who has a very rotationally efficient swing can generally produce higher swing speeds than somebody who doesn’t. So you can easily see kids in travel or high school baseball, 15 to 18 years old, who have swing speeds approaching the 80s. We see it all the time, especially working with trainers in batting cages where kids are developing the intent to hit the ball as hard as possible. This is especially true in use cases of tee and drill work where players don’t have to worry about pitch speed and movement.”

One might wonder if swing speed is a metric that’s really even that important for a college, high school or youth travel baseball player. According to Cherveny, swing speed is a very important metric in today’s baseball world. It’s also one that stands to become even more vital (and valued) as the game continues to advance.

“There’s a big emphasis on exit velocity,” added Cherveny. “And as you move up the baseball ladder, swing speed will always be important – not only from how far you can ultimately hit it, but to get playing time at the high school level, to getting recognized and identified for scholarships, and to move up through the minor league system. It’s always going to be a swing-speed dependent game.

“The intent to be able to swing fast is something that young hitters need to have, so that the motor skills become ingrained and they can do it repeatedly. So that when they get to the game situation, they have the ability to actually produce a high swing speed.”

WHAT BLAST DOES BEST

Baseball and softball are difficult and challenging sports. They are also games where mere inches frequently mean the difference between success and failure; hits and outs; wins and losses. Just as it’s important for a hitter to constantly practice and fine-tune his or her swing, it’s vital for Goltz, Cherveny and the entire Blast Baseball team to continually test, tinker, experiment, evolve and practice.

Practice makes perfect. Or something close to it.

October 17th, 2016

How The Hips Actually Contribute To The Swing

As I browse articles on swing mechanics, I notice a lot of statements made that are only based on observation from video., even slow-motion video. The problem is that without a three-dimensional (3D) motion analysis system, or knowledge about biomechanics, the observer is only guessing. Because of this, there are many misconceptions about efficient swing mechanics. 

The area I want to address with this post is the action of the hips.

The first thing to understand is that the hips are one solid piece. There are no hinges. Neither side (left or right) of the pelvic girdle can move independently from the other. Anything the "rear" hip is doing, the "front" hip is doing equally, just in the opposite direction. Many people refer to the actions of the rear hip vs. the front hip, as if they are moving independently which is impossible. See the illustration below:

Notice the bowl-shaped bones on each side? The whole purpose of shaping bones like that is to be able to attach sheets of muscle to the edges. That's where the abdominal muscles attach. See the next illustration and notice that the obliques (muscles that help cause the torso to twist) attach along the ridge of that part of the pelvis:

In an efficient swing, the hips serve the hitter by externally rotating before the shoulders, causing a stretch across several muscle groups including the obliques (above), the psoas group (below), and others. 

The psoas muscles attach to the base of the spine and the internal ridge of the pelvis, and "anchor" themselves to the back of the femur. You should be able to see how stretching, or pulling, the lower ends of one side of the psoas muscles would cause a "pull" on that side of the spine causing the spine to begin turning.

Now go back to the illustration above that shows the obliques, and where the attach. You can easily imagine when looking at the illustration that when the hips rotate before the shoulders, it causes the obliques to stretch and pull on the rib cage (which, of course, is also attached to the spine). 

The stretching of a muscle is a lot like stretching a rubberband. The more the muscle is stretched the more potential energy ("snap back") it creates. So the goal of a hitter who wants to use hips efficiently is to rotate them before the shoulders in order to create a stretch across the core. This is usually referred to as "hip and shoulder separation" or "torso loading." See the photos below:

Essentially, then, the hips only serve as the base, or anchor, of several muscles groups, that when stretched, cause the spine to turn (torso rotation).

Knowing this allows us to address a couple other common misconceptions about the hips. The first is that the hitter should forcefully "fire the hips" to create more power. In reality, the hips are the slowest rotating part of the body during the swing. Most efficient hitters, from youth players to MLB All Stars, rotate the hips somewhere in the neighborhood of 700 degrees per second. That causes stretching across the muscle groups we discussed above which results in the torso being "pulled" around the spine...like when you release a stretched rubberband. Depending on the quality of the stretch and muscle composition of the hitter, the resulting rotation of the torso is usually at least twice as fast as the hips, somewhere around 1,400 degrees per second or more.

The second misconception is that the hips should not rotate early in the swing for a variety of reasons. Knowing that the hips only serve to provide the base of the core stretch, it should be easier to understand why this is not true. In fact, efficient swings involve hip rotation prior to front foot strike! Examples are provided below:

The final misconception I want to address is that this hip rotation occurs on ALL pitches...not just fastballs and not just pitches on the inner half of the plate. Again, the purpose of the hips is to provide the base of a stretch across the core. That stretch leads to higher-velocity torso rotation. So if a hitter wants to hit ALL pitches hard, regardless of location, then he must create that hip and shoulder separation on every pitch. Below are four Xander Bogaerts swings versus pitches in four different locations. The hips begin rotation prior to front heel plant in all four.

Bogaerts isn't unique either. ALL good hitters do this. Look at more video to see for yourself.

Knowing how the hips actually contribute to an efficient swing should help you coach or train smarter. 

Why Trying To Win Hinders Swing Development

Since we created The Swing Center to spread the truth about hitting we felt like our first blog entry should be about information...specifically the information used by the vast majority of coaches to each hitting mechanics.

From the Major Leagues (believe it or not) down to youth baseball, hitting instruction is full of information that contains very little proof of it's validity. By that I mean most coaches build belief systems about what is "right" or "best" or "preferred" in a swing, and what is not, using information they have not validated with objective measurement.

How do they form these beliefs then? One way is through indoctrination. They were taught their basic beliefs by someone they respected. But as human beings, they still desire validation of the information they were taught. And that comes, in large part, by winning baseball games. They equate their team "success" with doing things "the right way" and they incorrectly assume that winning validates their beliefs. It is intuitive, but being a successful coach, in terms of wins and losses, does not always equate to being good at developing players, especially hitters.

There is so much emphasis placed on "team" that individual development is often sacrificed. Normally we would view that as a positive - giving up personal glory for team success - but we can not view it that way when we want to develop players to the maximum potential.

In his book "The Talent Code", author Daniel Coyle studied numerous international talent hotbeds to determine why they are so proficient at developing world-class talent. One such hotbed, Spartak, a run-down tennis club with one indoor court, located in a freezing climate outside Moscow, Russia, has in recent years produced more top-20 women players than the entire US.  Coyle says, "The rule at Spartak is that players can only compete after three years of practice - a rule that would never fly in the states, but which, if you think of it in terms of skill circuits (development), makes perfect sense. Competition introduces a gigantic new variable, where skill circuits matter less than the score. As a Spartak coach told me, "Technique is everything. If you begin playing without technique, it is big mistake. Big, big mistake!"

In amateur baseball especially, the emphasis is typically placed on TEAM offense versus individual offense. And on doing whatever it takes to help the team win. As such, players are asked to manipulate their swings in ways that create less efficient and forceful swings. The reasons and situations are many. Some include:

  • to "put the ball in play"
  • to "move the runner"
  • to strike out less
  • to "do a job", etc.

But the end result is the same - an inefficient swing. And an inefficient swing is one that does not allow the hitter to impact the baseball with as much force as possible. And why do we care about hitting the ball hard? Because it means hitting success. Check out the chart below:

It's obvious to see that as ball exit speed increases, so do the positive results. And the only way to increase ball exit speed significantly is with efficient mechanics. But here's the catch - developing efficient mechanics requires the player to ignore results, especially as skill circuits (neural pathways in the brain) are being built. And that simply can not happen in the midst of competition when the player is trying to create a desired result instead of a desired movement. 

That's why the Spartak philosophy of developing skill (circuits) before the interference of competition is so much better than the typical American philosophy that includes early competition. The American philosophy also typically emphasizes (incorrectly) that MORE competition is even better! How many times have you heard that the only way to get better at baseball is to play more games?

The truth is - and science has now proven it - that in order to gain skill quickly, there needs to be deliberate practice, not competition. In addition, the neural science community has also demonstrated that TALENT is actually determined far more by the accumulation of deliberate practice than it is by genetics. What that means is that anyone...literally anyone...through the right type and amount of practice can become an expert at anything. 

I highly recommend reading two books for more information about the creation of skill circuits and the extent to which our genes play a role:

"The Sports Gene", David Epstein, author, August, 2013, and

"The Talent Code", Daniel Coyle, author, April 16, 2009.

The Swing Center, Applied 3D Sports Science