Swing in Plane with the Pitch
Baseball and Fastpitch Softball
This article was excerpted from our new book, The Ultimate Hitting Fundamentals, Techniques, and Strategy Guide (click for book details).
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In this inspiring Dome, we discuss techniques to improve ball exit velocity and the frequency of hard-hit balls by increasing two essential elements:
- Margin of error (see Stone XXXIV: Margin of Error).
- Energy transfer from bat to ball.
While swinging in the plane of the pitch increases the percentage of hard-hit balls, it is important to understand that this skill does not necessarily optimize the hitter’s productivity. Click the link for another article, Optimizing Launch Angle, where we broaden the focus – the hitter constructs the ability to maximize productivity by optimizing attack and launch angles to Fit the Player.
Who Should Swing in the Plane of the Pitch?
The attack angle required to swing precisely in the pitch plane produces launch angles with lower trajectories than ideal for many older and stronger hitters; it is not optimized for extra-base hits. Swinging in plane may be a productive strategy for developing hitters who are still building the strength and fundamentals required to hit with high ball exit speeds. Also, contact-type hitters (see Stone XVI: Types of Hitters) should strive to swing in plane.
The History of Swinging Up
The optimum swing plane for hard-hit balls has not been a hidden secret, which we are just now discovering (thanks to the advent of bat sensors and swing analyzers). Ted Williams (the last Major League Baseball player to bat over .400 for a season) in his historical book, “The Science of Hitting,” published in 1970, advocated swinging with a slight uppercut to match the trajectory of the incoming pitch (images above). This idea was in stark contrast to the prevailing wisdom (hands linearly to the ball) of the day.
Swing in Plane with the Pitch Defined
The hitter swings the bat in the same plane as the ball is traveling to maximize the number of hard-hit balls. The barrel moves on a slightly upward angle (baseball 7 to 12 degrees; fastpitch 4 to 7 degrees) exactly coinciding with the fastball’s downward trajectory as it reaches the plate (see Stone XXXIII: Pitch Trajectory). The hitter avoids dipping under the ball or upper-cutting too much.
“Getting on plane with the pitch is not to drop the barrel below hands too much or too early and then follow thru high — it is not that.” (Williams T. , Science of Hitting, 1970)
The hitter begins by accelerating the barrel on a downward path behind the rear shoulder. The direction of the bat then bottoms out and arcs a few degrees upward to contact. The shape of the swing path is in the form of the Nike logo.
“This is one of the many faulty idioms taught by hitting coaches, that you must swing down on the ball either to create backspin and loft, or to hit more groundballs, depending on whom you talk to and what their philosophy is. The hands do in fact come down, but they do more so behind the body, only to come slightly up as they approach contact. This makes sense if you think about it; the ball is coming in at a slight downward angle from the pitcher’s mound. This is partially due to release height, but more importantly because of gravity. Gravity makes everything fall, and baseballs are no exception.” (Farnsworth, Breaking Down the Swing: Best Hitters of 2012, 2013)
Drawbacks of Swing in Plane with the Pitch
Swinging slightly up has one drawback – the barrel travels a longer distance with a longer “loop.” A longer in distance swing isn’t always necessarily bad. The worst case is that the batter simply starts movements a little earlier in the pitcher’s motions or ball travel. But for most hitters, while the swing is longer in distance, the barrel moves faster, earlier, compared to an A to B linear hand path, thus increasing quickness (time to contact).
Benefits of Swing in Plane with the Pitch
Swinging in the plane of the pitch creates two productive outcomes:
- Maximizes margin of error.
Maximizing the size of the hitter’s contact area increases productivity because timing does not have to be perfect.
The expanded contact area serves to improve overall timing. With a larger margin of error, the hitter can be slightly late, making solid contact towards the front knee. Or if the hitter is somewhat early, solid contact occurs out in front of the front foot.
Timing improves even though the upswing may take a little longer than a short to the ball, A to B, linear hand path (see Stone XXVII: Linear Hitting Strategy). When hands move from a higher position directly to a lower position, the barrel also moves downward. When swinging with force, it is impossible to level out the barrel. There is a tiny window for timing errors with a shorter and downward swing path.
- Maximizes power.
Swinging in the plane of the pitch maximizes ball exit speed.
The barrel and the ball must be traveling in precisely the same plane for one hundred percent of the energy generated in the swing to transfer to the ball. If the swing path and ball trajectory are traveling at slightly different angles at contact, the center of masses (of the barrel and the ball) never wholly align.
“Up, up is the way; you hit consistently with authority.” (Williams T. , Science of Hitting, 1970)
The baseball or softball pitch’s downward trajectory is 3 to 12-degrees at higher levels of competition. The hitter utilizes a +3 to +12 (upward) attack angle to maximize ball exit speed, precisely matching the pitch’s downward trajectory.
These attack angles result in launch angles too low for homerun hitters with excellent power to maximize ball travel distance – the average trajectory of solid hits is a low liner or gapper.
Swinging in the plane of the pitch, to increase the margin of error and ball exit speed, is a matter of achieving a slight upward angle of the swing plane (click the link for our free article Measure and Track Attack Angle). The positive attack angle matches the downward slope of the pitched ball as it enters the hitting zone.
- Spine Angle (see Dome X: Spine Angle).
An inward angle of the rotating shoulders, created by a twenty to thirty-degree spine angle as the hitter turns, has the following effects:
- Contributes to raising attack angle by increasing the vertical bat angle.
- Increases margin of error because the swing path is deeper (in the course of the ball longer) than with a more upright hitting position.
- Increases power as the hitter is in a more leveraged (increased torque) athletic position.
- Axis of Rotation (see Pillar IX: Axis of Rotation).
Home Run Hitter (top): Larger rearward tilt (20 degrees); Gap Hitter (bottom): Smaller rearward tilt (10 degrees).
The hitter’s axis of rotation is the primary establisher of the upward gradient of the swing path. The larger the degree of rearward tilt, the higher the average launch angle generated by solid contact.
Many contact hitters adjust rearward tilt for pitch location. Since the pitch up in the zone arrives at the plate with less of a downward angle, the hitter can slightly reduce the degree of rearward tilt to coincide. The hitter can “stay back” (click on our free article Stay Back Drills) a little more to accurately align the swing plane with pitch trajectory on pitches low in the zone, thereby increasing the margin of error.
Home Run Hitter (swing plane does not match the plane of pitch) (Zepp Analyzer).
Home run hitters often use a large rearward tilt to hit higher trajectory line drives (25-35 degrees launch angle). One downside to this strategy is the reduced margin of error, especially for high pitches, due to the overly upward swing path, which no longer matches the pitched ball (image above).
Swing in Plane Specific Mechanics
Here is a more “granular” list of the mechanics for swinging in the plane of the pitch. Observe these finely honed movements in the slow-motion videos of High-Level hitters:
- As the shoulders begin to rotate, the barrel is first turned rearward and downward toward the catcher by:
- The rear shoulder tilting (see Pillar XI: Shoulder Tilt).
- The rear elbow slotting (see Pillar XIX: Rear Elbow Slot).
- The lead arm is working up (see Pillar XXI: Lead Arm).
- A centered head(see Pillar XV: Rotate Around and Steady and Centered Head) helps the hitter establish a rearward leaning axis of rotation.
- Shoulders rotate on an inward tilted plane (not horizontal to the ground!). The extent the rear shoulder drops below the front shoulder depends on the degree of spine angle. The steeper the inward lean, the more the back shoulder drops.
- Maintain the lead arm in line with the bat and the swing plane through full extension. If the lead elbow drops below the barrel before full extension, the wrists roll too soon, and the barrel comes out of the intended plane.
- The bat head is always below the hands at contact.
“Since the barrel of the bat works underneath the hands in every one of these swings, the bat is still going up and out through the ball even when the hands stay level.” (Farnsworth, Breaking Down the Swing: Best Hitters of 2012, 2013)
- The swing path is down then up (in the shape of Nike Swoosh).
“Everything looks like it’s going uphill from Bat Lag through Extension. The hands come down behind the body as they drop in on top of the back elbow, and then proceed through the zone at a slight upswing. The average upward slope of Major League Swings is 8.76-degrees.” (Farnsworth, Breaking Down the Swing: Best Hitters of 2012, 2013)
- Extension of arms and release of the barrel is through the path of the ball.
- Follow-through is to shoulder level (see Pillar XXIX: Follow-Through).
To maximize the rate of hard-hit balls (HHB%), hitters can intentionally match the plane of their swing to the plane of the pitch.
The Ultimate Hitting Training Guide (click to view details of our new drills book containing over 140 functional drills):
- Tool XXVII: Universal Quality At-Bat Drills, Drill VI – Optimize Launch Angle Drill.
Building Rome Series Books: Building the High-Level Swing Series
Click on the link to learn more about our new book series Building the High-Level Swing. This two-book series contains a detailed and comprehensive description of 100 hitting fundamentals and 140 step-by-step drills that efficiently construct the batting swing from the ground up.
In the Building Rome Series of books, the construction of skills are in functional order, providing a “roadmap” to becoming a great hitter.
All baseball and fastpitch softball players can “climb the Roman Coliseum steps” to become a powerful and productive hitter.
Enjoy the quest!