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  • Ed Botti

Sultans of Swing

By Ed Botti

November 27, 2023


Photo AP

Now that Thanksgiving is in the rear view mirror, and the hot stove is officially turned on and warming up, we are all hearing numerous rumors, chitchat and speculation about what the Yankees need to do to fix their offense.

When Spring Training begins in February, the Yankees will be on their third hitting coach in 12 months. Not exactly stability.

That is almost as many offensive coordinators the Giants have had over the same period of time. Only kidding! But pretty close.

If you have been reading my articles over the last five seasons, you might recall that I have been preaching lineup balance over and over, as have many others here at SSTN and in the local and even national media. Finally, it seems that that the GM of the Yankees and his trusty analytics department have had a wakeup call on this matter, and are now addressing the lefty righty balance publicly.

That is great, I am all for it. I only wish it happened a little sooner.

However, it is not exactly what I was trying to convey. Yes, no doubt this team needs more left handed hitters. That is as basic as it can possibly get. You don’t have to be Gene Michael, George Weiss, or Gabe Paul to know that the Yankees have been overloaded with right handed (power) hitters in recent years. But what I have been trying to scream at the top of my lungs is a balance in the lineup of Rotational and Linear hitters.

A topic we don’t seem to hear a heck of a lot about these days, especially since the Bill James Baseball Abstract become the flavor of the month in many MLB circles.

I recently had this discussion with a prominent Brooklyn baseball lifetime player and now a retired MLB coach.

Linear hitting vs rotational hitting? He looked at me with surprise and told me he hasn’t heard that debate in quite a while, but agreed wholeheartedly.

What exactly does this mean? The primary differences between rotational and linear hitting approaches have to do with the action and timing of the arms, hands, wrists, rear elbow and the swing plane that is the product of these body mechanics.

In its basic form there are 3 phases to hitting a baseball.

1) Stance

2) Coil (stride/weight shift/load)

3) Swing trajectory

Linear vs. rotational distinctions are only applicable in the swing trajectory phase.

I have heard some maintain that a linear swing is expressed by the forward movement, or weight shift, and that rotational swings include elements of linear movement.

To be nice (which I try to be) they couldn’t be more misinformed.

The stride vs. no-stride dispute is not linked to the linear vs. rotational hitting debate. Some players and coaches reinforce a no-stride approach in linear hitting and others advocate no-stride in rotational hitting (see Paul Molitor).

Reality is that linear hitters can stride, and so can rotational hitters. Both hitters can lunge. Both hitters can rotate their hips.

Here is a summarized version of the two approaches.

To start with (unless you are playing stickball) both linear and rotational hitters begin their swings with the barrel of the bat higher than the rear shoulder. Given that contact can be made below the belt in the lower half of the strike zone, the bat must be swung on a downward plane before it starts in an upward path.

Rotational hitting advocates instruct batters to keep their hands back and accelerate the barrel of the bat on a downward plane behind the hips, back and shoulders. The path of the bat plane will then bottom out about 15-18 inches from contact and be on a slight upward trajectory in the contact zone.

The operative word here being “slight” trajectory. Not the uncontrolled upper cutting angles we see frequently in the game these days (i.e. Joey Gallo).

The most significant difference between rotational hitting and linear hitting is the hand path.

In a Rotational swing, the hands follow a curved hand path that follows the initial movement and shift of the hips. As in my sport, power starts at the core and hips. In baseball this transfer of weight and energy is known as the “pendulum effect” to produce bat speed. Simply put, the hands are rotated in a circular path by use of a stationary axis.

The body rotates around a stationary axis.

In a linear swing the hands have to take a direct, “linear” path to the ball. I used to hear coaches preach hitters to “throw their hands” at the ball, which was great in certain situations of a game. The barrel must stay above the ball and not loop below it and hit the ball with a slight uppercut.

In other words, the hands extend in a straight path to the ball.

The hitter transfers his weight to a strong front side and “throws” his hands straight. As the linear progress of the hands approach the ball, the energy developed during the forward weight shift is transferred to the bat.

My point was and continues to be that a mix of the two approaches should be utilized in the makeup and batting order.

Linear hitters are more apt to hitting the ball to all fields, which is significant step in moving runners into scoring position and setting up RBI opportunities (i.e. situational hitting).

Photo by Otto Greule Jr

One of the best linear hitters I have seen was Ichiro Suzuki.

One of the best rotational hitters I have seen is Aaron Judge.

Two excellent hitters, with two completely different approaches.

Wade Boggs was also an excellent linear hitter.

Both Suzuki and Boggs were capable of switching styles any time they wanted.

In fact, many around the team in the early to mid-nineties swear that if Boggs wanted to, he could have hit 30 home runs or more a season. I have been told that Boggs would switch in pre-game batting practice and launch bomb after bomb into the right field seats at the old Yankee Stadium, from a rotational approach.

His role was not to be a .250 - .260 power hitter. His job was getting on base and moving runners with his insane ability to square balls off and hit line drives all over the place. That is why after 18 seasons in MLB, Boggs was a .328 hitter.

I found it very interesting watching Anthony Volpe 2023 vs Anthony Volpe 2022. When I went to see Volpe play in Somerset in 2022 he appeared to have a linear approach to hitting.

When I watched him hit at the MLB level in 2023, that seemed to change for some reason. Were they asking for him to hit for more power? Was he influenced by other player’s power success and changed his approach? I don’t know the answer. But I do know he appeared to change his approach.

Another example we all saw firsthand was when the Yankees traded for Didi Gregorius in 2015. In the early part of the season (when he struggled) he was primarily a linear hitter. Someone or something changed that sometime in June of 2015, and he went with his rotational approach, and a light went on for him.

I am a proponent of rotational hitting. My favorite players have mostly been rotational hitters. But you need to have balance. Otherwise you make the pitchers' job that much easier, and your offensive approach that much more transparent.

Many players are capable of switching approaches mid at bat. That is a lost art these days and the “numbers guys” insist on a power swing, regardless of the situation on the field.

One current Yankee who effectively can change approaches during an at bat is Anthony Rizzo. I saw a lot of that when he was a Cub. Same thing with his Partner Kris Bryant.

A very obvious trait to a Joe Maddon managed team. You can say the same thing for Billy Martin, Joe Torre, Terry Francona, Dusty Baker, Jim Leyland, Bruce Bochy, Tommy Lasorda, Tony LaRussa and others.

Not so much with Boone. He seems to have his mind made up at 6:30 PM every night regardless of how the game unfolds.

As currently constructed, the Yankee position starters are primarily a rotational hitting team. I believe a mix of the two approaches is more valuable and productive in a batting order, especially when facing strong pitching rotations (i.e. playoff Baseball).

Take a look at any of the 27 championship teams and you will see a blend of both styles of hitting. They were never heavy on either style, it was always a blend.

Even the ‘27, '61 and ‘98 Yankees had a blend.

As an aside, the 2023 World Series teams featured two teams with a balance (Arizona and Texas).

Is that a coincidence? Or, is there something to be said for a balance of hitting approaches?

Yes, a lefty righty balance is important, and absolutely needs to be addressed. But, there is more to it below the surface.

That is only half the solution, IMO.

So, this offseason, as we hear all the rumors circulating in the hot stove, keep in mind the hitting techniques used by the player(s) and whether or not it actually fits with the makeup of this team and what type of player is actually needed.

RIP Ron Hodges.

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