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Community Post: Mechanics Matter
MattatBatt22 writes a post on hitting mechnaics, why it matters, and comparing James Wood and Brady House
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As any normal person does, I spend hours watching myself on video. Frame by jittery frame, I analyze the slightest variations, searching for glimpses of perfection in the midst of continual mediocrity. No, I’m not some Zoomer influencer producing TikToks for millions of dollars, but rather I’m an aging, semi-obsessive, new tennis player. I grew up playing any sport I could get my hands on, but baseball was my main squeeze, and I practiced hard and got lucky and ended up playing at a pretty high level. Learning how to fail and then get better at something is perhaps the most enduring thing that I took away from all those years playing baseball. I now channel that into tennis.
Tennis is one of those games that seems pretty simple when you watch it on television. Two people tapping a fuzzy ball over a net; how hard could that be? But as David Foster Wallace wrote in his beautiful piece on Roger Federer, tennis on TV loses “the sheer physicality of top tennis, a sense of the speeds at which the ball is moving and the players are reacting.” To be able to hit a ball in excess of 90mph, immediately pivot, and sprint to the opposite corner to defend a crosscourt rocket takes incredible athletic gifts.
The more invested in an activity you get, the more you know – and paradoxically, the more you don’t know. The other side of the Dunning-Kruger effect is that as you study something more, you realize the vast gulf between two things that seem like they should be similar. On the ATP tour, Novak Djokovic is ranked 2nd for the time being, so he must be pretty close in talent to #5 Casper Ruud. Never mind that Djokovic is perhaps the best tennis player of all time, and Casper Ruud hasn’t ever taken a set off him – much less a match – in five meetings. They’re two of the very best tennis players on the planet, and yet one isn’t even in the same stratosphere, comparatively speaking. How on earth could that be?
My favorite tennis writer Hugh Clarke explains these things to us tennis sickos. Microscopic differences in technique, honed over years of experience and practice, show up as huge gaps in performance between two players that a casual observer might both call “exceptionally good.” Hugh, in his excellent piece The Death of a Forehand describes it thusly:
All of this is to say that the ATP’s young stars feature some hungry, athletic, and strong players who play great, but who aren’t great players—at least not yet. Why? Is it simply that Federer, Djokovic, and Nadal are preternaturally gifted beyond teaching? I don’t believe that. The name of this newsletter is inspired by a quote from Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian:
“The man who believes that the secrets of the world are forever hidden lives in mystery and fear. Superstition will drag him down. The rain will erode the deeds of his life. But that man who sets himself the task of singling out the thread of order from the tapestry will by the decision alone have taken charge of the world and it is only by such taking charge that he will effect a way to dictate the terms of his own fate.”
In this manner, A Thread of Order looks for answers. Great performance has a signal.
I’ll spoil Hugh’s article a bit for you (though I encourage you to read it anyway!), but tiny technical differences in the way the Big Three (Djokovic, Nadal, and Federer) hit their shots separate them from their peers and the up-and-comers (though I think the young Spanaird Carlos Alcaraz is coming to dominate by blending the best of all the Big Three).
These same principles can help us analyze prospects in baseball, if you know where to look. One reason I’m so obsessed with filming and watching myself play tennis is that this wasn’t really a viable option when I was an aspiring baseball player. Footage was grainy, slow motion was very limited, and there wasn’t good editing software or swing analysis gurus like there are today. So I learned mostly by feel until my last couple years of college when we got better cameras and actually used it to film swings and ID what we could do better. It’s with not a small amount of regret that I wish we had those Edgertronic cameras to do real video analysis back when I was something of a prospect.
One of my problems as a hitter was that while I could move weight in the weight room and was pretty fast for a tall guy, I couldn’t translate that power at bat unless a ball was right in my sweet spot up and in. If the ball was away, I learned to make contact, but because my technical mechanics were unsound, those balls were mostly singles and doubles that found the RF line. I found some grainy old footage and cringed a little bit at all the things I did wrong, but one of the main errors is that my hand path was usually oblique to the ball. That is to say, my hands cut across the plane of the ball, which in turn meant my bat rarely was going through the zone in the optimal direction. This is a difficult concept to talk about so let’s look at some examples of players that might be of interest to dynasty players who do this well and not so well.
This idea was seeded by a hot take from the incomparable Nate Handy that he thought two Washington Nationals prospects were being misvalued by the dynasty community. He posited that Brady House is the superior prospect to James Wood, based partly on the longer pre-draft track record of the #11 overall pick and partly because he thought House has top-shelf power mechanics and that his downside outcome is still very good. Maybe call that a jalapeño (5,000 Scovilles) on the hot take meter, but I’d watched some videos this offseason of James Wood and was really sold on his power so I had to dive into House to see if I’d missed something there in the midst of his injury-plagued 2022.
First things first, I looked up their numbers. Wood has been better at every stop than House, save for Double-A where House is running a 120 wRC+ as I write this, which barely ekes out Wood’s 118. The difference appears to be because House is running an insane .500 BABIP, whereas Wood’s BABIP is slightly below average at .292. So, House has better overall production but needs 200+ points of BABIP to do so? That doesn’t sound like there’s elite power there. And indeed, House is running an .073 ISO (which would be 3rd lowest in MLB after Tim Anderson and Myles Straw). Wood, on the other hand, continues to mash as he has at every stop with 23 HR and 15 steals across two stops this season. So what gives? Is House just hitting missiles into the ground and a big time power breakout is just over the horizon?
While it does look like he has some fast hands, if he doesn’t fix a particular flaw, I think he’s gonna be a big-time sell and won’t live up to his high draft pick or his dynasty prospect ranking.
Here’s a fun look at some of Brady House’s highlights last year from the Baseball Is Everything YouTube account. Just look at those hands about 29 seconds in as he whips around and pulls a long homer to left. Very exciting! He has another impressive pulled homer at about 1:55 in and some other solid singles sprayed around the field. But I want to talk about the single to right about 47 seconds in. He hits the ball where it’s pitched and shoots a single the other way to plate a run. Little league coaches all over the world would be proud! But this isn’t how a real hitter attacks a pitch on the outer half. That’s how a slap-hitting, poor-technique-having, dumb college outfielder used to hit!
I dug up an old clip of yours truly working on stuff in one of our hitting cages sometime during my senior year. Now remember, I was a mediocre R/R OF at an average program who did a lot wrong. So similarities to my swing are a poor reflection on an aspiring top MILB prospect.
OK, apologies for the grainy, choppy video, but hopefully this gets at what I’m saying. I am a little late on a fastball away, and watch how I cut my hands across my body to get the barrel to the ball, which then sprays the other way. Pay special attention to how my top hand immediately ends up in front of my chest after contact. That means that my barrel is moving slightly obliquely to the direction of the ball’s exit trajectory, which in physics terms is bad. Just trust me. That ball is hit slowly and with side spin and that 22 year old kid is pissed.
Now watch how Brady House hits a ball the other way. Admittedly, this ball is a slider, it’s lower and further outside that the ball I pulled off, but notice how his hands cast away and then across his body. If you watch his right hand closely, you can see how it fires out toward the ump’s right shoulder and then immediately starts coming back across the ump’s body and then begins his finish. That’s not the way to hit a pitch on the outside with any sort of thump.
Now check out James Wood. He gets a fastball that is dotted on the outside corner and extends his arms through the ball to make excellent contact. Watch his left hand closely as his back arm extends through the hitting zone for a couple frames more than House or I do. His ball is crushed off the wall in the left center gap and has excellent backspin because his mechanics are much better on that outside pitch.
Wood’s highlight reel from Baseball Is Everything is rife with balls he crushes. CF homers? Check. Oppo seeds? Check. Pulled mammoth homers? Check, Check, Check. To my semi-trained eye, Wood’s mechanics back up his statistical performance and confirm my excitement for his future. While I remain slightly concerned with his 33% strikeout rate, the power is real, the speed seems legit, and he remains much more exciting than his teammate.
Brady House has a similarly worrying 31.5% strikeout rate, but without the upside of the power or speed. I know these are just GIFs of one swing each, but there’s some signal in this kind of analysis. If I had any shares of Brady, I’d be looking to move them in the offseason while his stock remains high. Or else you can hold on and hope that the Nats player dev folks help him analyze grainy video and fix this flaw before he turns into an old, decrepit ex player who is relegated to analyzing his terrible tennis swing instead.