by Jim Sullivan
(This article appeared in the Fall 1991 issue of HardBall Magazine)
For as long as I've been involved in baseball, I have heard coaches tell players to hit off the back foot. I heard it when I was growing up and I hear it all the time at The Hitting Zone.* There are few statements as misleading as telling a player he should hit from his back leg.
The Back Leg Theory
The fascinating thing about the back leg theory is that it has no basis in fact. Studying slow-motion, stop-action film of any good hitter reveals that he will transfer his entire weight to the front leg at the moment of ball-bat impact. At least half of the best hitters lift their back foot slightly off the ground upon contact with the ball; I mean great hitters, like Ruth, Gehrig, Mantle, Mays, Aaron, Brett, Mattingly, Gwynn, Boggs and Will Clark! Reggie Jackson, Jose Canseco and Ted Williams all hit with a solid front leg as their main support system.
Why then is the back leg myth taught to this day?
Appearances are Deceiving
Before the Luxury of VCRs that allow baseball swings to be minutely analyzed by slowing a clip down frame-for-frame, coaches had to rely on the naked eye to decipher the complexities of the swing. Since a swing takes less than one second to complete, it is impossible for the unaided eye to see what really happens at that speed.
For example, viewed at normal speed, Jose Canseco appears to be hitting from his back foot. This deception is caused by the angle of his body at contact with the ball. Slowed down, it becomes obvious that virtually all his weight has been shifted to the front leg. His back foot is slightly off the ground at contact. All great hitters drive their weight from the back leg to the front.
The Stationary Axis Model
Equally false is the associated concept of the imaginary axis, a stationary line from the ground through the middle of the body and out the top of the head. This model states that as you swing, your body should rotate on this stationary axis, and from the swing's beginning to end, the head should not move forward at all. To perform this feat successfully the hitter must have absolutely no forward weight transfer. Show me a hitter who rotates on a stationary access and I'll show you a weak singles hitter. His swing will be too short because the barrel of the bat will not stay in the impact zone long enough. No power will be generated.
Weight Transfer is Key
Lack of proper weight transfer is perhaps the most critical negative result of hitting off the back foot. All good hitters attack the ball. They drive into the ball and toward the pitcher—driving their weight forward instead of allowing it to spin outward. A back-foot hitter cannot generate power, because he effects no weight transfer.
Anyone carefully viewing a video of Hank Aaron will be amazed at his drive and weight transfer into the ball. I have never seen Aaron hit a ball when he did not have 100 percent of his weight transferred onto a solid front leg with his back foot slightly off the ground at contact. People say Aaron was a "wrist hitter”—another myth for the books. Hank Aaron was probably the most technically correct hitter who ever picked up a bat! He did not have the size of Babe Ruth or Jose Canseco, but at 5 foot, 11 inches and 190 pounds, the efficiency of his weight transfer allowed him to generate enough power to hit 755 home runs with a career batting average above .300.
The Impact Zone
Another negative effect a back-foot hitter suffers is a shortened swing. To understand the detrimental effects of a shortened swing, you must first understand the impact zone concept. The impact zone is the area in which the barrel of the bat is position to make contact with the ball. In an ideal swing, the barrel should follow a path that will be on the same plane as the incoming pitch. Several advantages are gained by keeping the bat in the impact zone for as long as possible. The main one is a greater chance of solid contact.
For example, if you were looking to hit the ball up the middle but swing late, properly utilizing the impact zone will result in a line drive to the opposite field. If you swung early, you would pull a line drive.
Good hitters stay in the impact zone longer than poor hitters. Keeping the barrel of the bat within the impact zone for the longest possible time increases the chance of making contact and lessens the chance of being fooled. If you leave your weight on the back foot, the barrel of the bat flies in and out of the impact zone in an instant—too quickly to adjust when fooled by a pitch.
In contrast, the swing with proper weight shift will result in greater linear extension through the impact zone, giving the hitter more power and consistency. Compared to the short circular back-foot imaginary axis swing, it becomes obvious that a swing with proper weight shift will achieve better results. Both swings are equally quick into the impact zone, but only one remains in the zone as long as possible. Driving through the impact zone with proper weight transfer and extension results in the most accurate and powerful swing.
Another disadvantage of a back-foot swing is lack of power. As noted earlier, leaving your weight on the back foot makes it impossible to have an effective weight transfer. Without good weight transfer, you are essentially robbing yourself of power. A series of studies published in 1989 clearly show that there is virtually no power supplied by the hands and wrists (and and of themselves) at contact with the ball. The hands and wrists serve only as a complex mechanical fulcrum through which the energy and force created by the transverse and rotational movement of the body are applied to the ball.
In simpler terms, the more powerful the weight shift and drive into the ball, the more powerful the swing will be. This is not to say that it is not necessary to have strong wrists and hands. The stronger the wrists and hands are, the more energy they can transfer. But the hands and wrists can only apply to the ball the force the body supplies.
Think how weak a swing would be if a batter's entire body was immobilized so that his only movable parts were the wrists and hands. It is doubtful that even the strongest man would get the ball out of the infield; he would be effectively robbed of all energy normally supplied by the body. In the back foot swing, only rotational energy is supplied as the back foot pivots and the hips open. A correct swing harnesses both rotational energy and the tremendous force of lateral movement (weight shift) toward the ball.
Because the wrists and hands only transfer energy—not create it—the body must supply the power needed to drive the ball. As the weight drives from the back leg to the front, this forward momentum must be captured and used. This is done by blocking or stiffening the front leg at contact with the ball.
All good hitters, at contact, hit with a firm, solid front leg as their main support system.
Think for a moment of the movement of a pole vaulter: he sprints down the pathway, attempting to gain as much speed as possible before planting his pole. As the pole is planted, his forward momentum is effectively blocked and redirected vertically.
Now imagine a hitter as his forward weight drive is suddenly stopped: the power and energy of the forward momentum is redirected through the body. This forward drive results in accelerated bat speed which is transferred by the arms, wrists and hands into the ball at contact. The swing is now reaching its full potential.
By employing a proper weight shift, the hitter creates a huge power increase. The hitter is increasing his ability to deliver a powerful blow to the ball by reaching maximum pat speed while in the impact zone. He is able to achieve greater extension through the zone and increase his chances of solid contact. Properly using forward weight drive and rotational energy through the impact zones creates more power and greater consistency—the qualities of a truly great hitter.
Editor's Note: The Hitting Zone was Jim Sullivan's establishment, an indoor hitting and training facility in Vista, California.