Closer Cody Allen slammed the door. He needed to use force due to Eddie Rosario, Max Kepler, and Miguel Sano all pushing upon it from their place on the bases in the bottom of the ninth inning, but he slammed the door all the same when Joe Mauer flied out to center fielder Lonnie Chisenhall.1 The Cleveland Indians (6-7) bullpen once again demonstrated their elite abilities as they pitched three innings to support a strong Danny Salazar start (6 IP, 7 H, 1 R, 2 BB, 7 K, 103 pitches) as they defeated the Minnesota (7-6) Twins, 3-1.
Salazar struggled with pitch placement early in the game as he allowed three base runners in both the first and second innings, but he battled through to limit the damage to one run. By the third inning, he was grazing the edges of the strike zone rather than laying his pitches through the middle, and the Twins offense ceased to be a threat. Salazar also continued to experiment with his pitching arsenal as the fourseamer returned to be his highest usage pitch though the sinker and split-change were still featured prominently. Last week in Arlington, he had barely used the four-seam pitch at all. If Salazar is submitting himself to the scouting reports and developing a pitch plan per opponent, then it will be quite interesting to follow his 2017 journey.
Despite only scoring three runs, the Indians had some success at the plate as well. Every Tribe starter recorded a hit except Abraham Almonte (yes, even Yan Gomes). The issue was that only Jose Ramirez had multiple hits. Twins starter Kyle Gibson also limited the damage by walking just two (Michael Brantley, Carlos Santana) and only allowing two extra base hits (Francisco Lindor- double, Brantley- home run).
Interview with Sean T. Plouffe, professional hitting instructor
WFNY has been detailing many of the different components of a successful hitter in the early portions of the 2017 MLB season. Among them was the focus on exit velocity, launch angle, and the Yandy Diaz hitting profile. As such, there was a desire to reach out to hitting instructor community to obtain a better grasp on the items that matter the most and to deepen our understanding of what we are seeing and what the data is telling us. Professional hitting instructor Sean Plouffe, who has worked with hitters such as Evan Gattis, was kind enough to answer some of our questions.
Plouffe, outside of working with amateur and professional hitters, runs the website Hitterish, which provides a bevy of useful information for anyone interested in learning more about what it takes to be a successful hitter. He also makes for a fantastic follow on Twitter (@airplouffe86), where he provides fantastic information, fun GIFs, and also is quick to give a tip of the cap to others in the industry who are also outputting great data.
Michael Bode: Why did you become a hitting instructor and how did you learn to develop the techniques you use?
Sean Plouffe: The idea of studying the worlds greatest hitters and duplicating their movements has always made sense to me. When I would hear traditional coaching cues like “swing down, squish the bug, level shoulders, push to extension, foot down early,” I would compare them to video of the best hitters and come to the conclusion that NONE of them are doing any of those things. Instead, they match pitch plane, push off the back foot, drop the back shoulder to match the height of the pitch, extend well after contact and get their foot down late. That is the reason I do what I do. I created my website hitterish.com to spread the right information so that players could maximize their capabilities as hitters.
Tim Ferriss is one of my favorite authors. He talks about the 80/20 principle as he studies the world’s greatest performers. The 80/20 principle is the idea that learning the critical 20% of information can yield 80 percent of the results. The concepts that I base my training around are the simplest yet most crucial elements of the swing that I have found.
Bode: There is an increased focus on exit velocity and launch angles (i.e. barrels). But, this focus is on the end result rather than what is needed from the hitter to achieve it. You discuss bat speed in many of your articles. Why is it important?
Plouffe: Sport’s Science does a decent job explaining the relationship between bat speed and the batted ball distance.
Also, 3-D Swing Center has a chart at the bottom showing the relationship between ball exit speed and batting average. As a general rule, the harder the ball is hit, the more good things happen.
Bode: You list five ways to improve bat speed on your site. Can you give a quick explanation of them?
- Tipping the bat gives the barrel a bit more room to get up to speed, this is a mechanic you will see in all of the top home run hitters of all time.
- Keeping the hands at the shoulder is a simplified way for me to emphasize that the hands should stay back and let the body lead, keeping the kinetic chain in tact to product the most amount of force possible.
- I point out the weight shift because so many hitters today are taught the no stride, foot down early approach. If you look at the history of the game, no one did that until recently. I understand that pitching velocity has increased, but taking away any weight shift is also taking away the potential for maximizing bat speed. I use the analogy of throwing a baseball. How far could you throw if you took away your stride? You might be losing 100 ft or more in distance.
- Stretch and fire describes the relationship between the upper and lower body. The cue “pull the elbow back” aids in this process of keeping the upper body back while the lower body is pushing forward. This build up of kinetic energy happens in every high level thrower, hips lead, arm follows. This stretch and fire mechanic is absent in so many hitters in this generation, maybe because the bats are so light?
- Pulling the elbow back is a way to counter bad habits. There are coaches who advocated swinging down and pushing the arms to extension. That is the surest way to ruin a players ability to hit.
Bode: What other factors are you looking to exploit in order to increase bat speed with these methods?
Plouffe: The most important concept that the general public is not aware of is the creation of early bat speed. When you hold the bat in the tipped position, the barrel must first move backwards towards the dugout behind you. This barrel movement creates momentum that continues around and into the baseball. This running start with the barrel speeds up the swing and allows for later swing commitment. By creating barrel speed in this direction, the hands will move inwards towards the body, that means that you have started your swing without full commitment to the swing. This type of bat path allows for more bat speed, later commitment which always allows for adjustability to all pitch types and location. When you think about what made Bonds, Aaron, Williams and Ruth so great, its not that they hit the ball the furthest of anyone else. They did it the most CONSISTENTLY. Their bat path allowed for the most consistent hard hit baseballs.
Bode: Tipping the bat intuitively seems as if it would elongate the swing (longer bat path). Does the increased velocity make up for the path distance? What factors should a hitter be considering who wants to increase decision time on a pitch?
Plouffe: Great question. Yes, I believe the increase in barrel velocity makes up for the longer distance the barrel has to travel. As is pertains to increasing decision time. Think about 2 hitters facing that same 90 mph pitch. Hitter-A holds the barrel at a 45 degree angle, and initiates his swing when the ball is half way to the plate. Hitter-B holds his bat tipped, then pulls the barrel back and gets to the exact same 45 degree angle (at the exact same time) but with momentum.
Hitter-B has created early bat speed, he gets to the 45 degree angle position at the same time as Hitter-A, but now his barrel is already moving 30 mph. It’s fair to assume that Hitter-B’s early momentum will allow him to wait a bit longer than Hitter-A because the increase in bat speed allows for more decision time.
Also, tipping the bat promotes a tight pivot for the barrel to turn around the hands. To have the quickest swing possible, you must create the tightest pivot possible. Many in the community talk about “hand speed.” I want to see the BARREL move fast, not the hands. The hands should act as the axle for the barrel to turn around.
Bode: Are any of these factors “more” important than the others? Why?
Plouffe: I teach three main concepts. Barrel turn, match plane and stretch and fire. From my research, all great hitters have mastered at least two of the concepts while the best of the best mastered all three. All the concepts work together to help create an optimal swing. If I had to choose one concept that can instantly allow anyone to hit, its the concept of matching plane with the pitch. Even if you hold the bat still and push the hands forward, there are thousands of college players all over the country getting away with it because of their ability to match plane. One anomaly I want to point out is that many hitters will demonstrate swinging down in a dry swing, then match plane with a live pitch. Players do not realize that it’s impossible to hit the ball square without matching plane.
Bode: So, fast bat speed matters little if the hitter does not make square contact with the ball (or as close to it as possible). What are some of the things a hitter should look to do in order to help make square contact?
Plouffe: Match your barrel path to the path of the pitch. Be on time and hit the ball where its pitched. Hit inside pitches to the pull side, middle pitches up the middle, and outside pitches to the opposite field.
Bode: Can you describe what is meant by square contact?
Plouffe: Tango Tiger did a study that shows the relationship between offset of bat path related to ball path and the effect that has on ball exit speed. The highest batted ball exit speed is accomplished when there is zero offset in the angle of bat path to ball path. We should aim for this because, as shown earlier, higher ball exit speed leads to higher chances of success.
Ted Williams introduced the concept of swinging at a slight upward angle in his book “The Science of Hitting” published in 1971. A typical fastball enters the hitting area traveling at a 10 degree downward angle. That means, in order to make square contact, the path of the barrel need to be traveling 10 degrees upward.
Bode: How does keeping the hands back during the initial barrel turn help a hitter to be able to square a ball no matter the location of the pitch?
Plouffe: Keeping the hands back allows for the kinetic chain to still be used effectively to produce force. Hitters who push their hands away from their back shoulder will struggle to consistantly hit the ball hard because they lose the kinetic link with the lower body. When the hands push ahead of the lower body, that gives the barrel less time to get on plane and earlier commitment to the pitch.
Bode: Pitching coaches use a variety of techniques to teach pitching mechanics inherently. From weighted balls to J-Bands to long-toss to specific throwing exercises. How do you teach hitters to swing properly?
Plouffe: I find that using a heavy bat can sometimes create the correct movement patterns. If you watch very young players, they usually have an innate ability to link the kinetic chain and create momentum in their swing because they have to. Bad coaching teaches them out of their most efficient movement patterns. I use the heavy bat to facilitate using the kinetic chain, a light bat to allow hitters to demonstrate more precise movements and the regular bat to recreate game situations.
I find that oftentimes, just the cue to “hit the ball as far as you can” will naturally produce a lot of the movements that I want. The tee is very useful for mastering trajectory. You should definitely practice home runs off the tee.
Cal Ripken was the guy I followed growing up, I can remember seeing him practice hitting home runs off the tee. I think that in the United States, many people have these limiting beliefs that home runs aren’t for “you.” In the Domincan Republic, everyone knows that home runs get you paid. I don’t know what other coaches want out of their players, but I want my students earning scholarships and getting drafted.
Bode: Do you “tell” and “show” a hitter what you mean by these steps or are there drills that help them learn how to swing properly without being directly told?
Plouffe: The most effective form of instruction that I have found is to first demonstrate in slow motion, then show video of the movements, then have the player demonstrate in slow motion.
One thing I try to hammer home is the reality that the bat should move independent of the shoulders. We talked about pushing the bat, I also see hitters who swing the bat with the rotation of their shoulders. I can throw players into a drill but I know they will fail because their swing movements don’t allow for success. Once the movements can be demonstrated in slow motion and dry swings, then I will use drills. One drill is just setting up the tee off the back foot and learning how to crush that ball to the opposite field. Next drill is to hit to the pull side off the tee and front toss.
My one focus is the path of the barrel. If the barrel is moving in the right path, that is the best chance for success.
- How long before that designation for Chisenhall doesn’t look weird even though he is the best defensive outfielder on the team? [↩]