A few days ago, Slyde gave us a link to this article on Bloomberg Sports, detailing the similarities between one of last year's breakout stars, Ben Zobrist, and our very own Drew Sutton. One thing that they have in common is the same independent swing coach who is aptly nicknamed "the swing mechanic". That man is Jaime Cevallos, and I recently had a chance to ask him a few questions about his approach and our super-utility man Drew Sutton, and he was nice enough to respond. Enjoy!
RR: Tell us a little about yourself. How did you get into the business of being a swing coach?
JC: I was always fascinated with athletic movement. From a young age I loved to watch athletes who moved with fluidity and I made the connection that the prettiest movements were also the most effective. By the time I was twelve, I chose baseball as my sport and worked extremely hard at it. No matter how hard I worked at hitting, however, I remained an average to below average hitter throughout high school. I made myself into a defensive specialist by learning to play shortstop with flare and style so that I could continue playing baseball in college. That plan worked and I walked onto the team at Mount Saint Mary’s University and earned the starting shortstop position as a freshman (1996). That year, I finished with a .197 batting average and wanted to quit the game, but at that point, there was no turning back. I was a baseball player and couldn’t think of anything else I would do with my life if I just quit.
More after the jump...
After that year, looked hard at why I was always struggling with hitting. It occurred to me that I always read about other people’s methods on hitting (Charlie Lau, Ted Williams, Walt Hriniak, Mike Epstein) but I never really looked into the swing on my own. I started cutting out pictures of players in mid-swing in sports illustrated and I would pose in the positions of the players in the pictures and compare it to what I felt I was getting into during games. Then I turned those new positions into movements. Within a few weeks, I had a new swing. My sophomore year I batted .364 (fourth in the NEC) and raised my OPS by .501 from the previous season. I had never even come close to hitting like this in my life. Prior to that year, I had never hit a home run in my entire life and I had two in the first two weeks of the season. Instead of setting my sites on the Major Leagues, I went back to my first love – movement. I had stumbled upon something that others didn’t seem to know even existed – that by changing certain positions within a the swing, a hitter can make incredible improvements to his statistics.
I dropped out of college and pursued this new passion with a renewed sense of purpose. I worked in the golf industry to learn about the video equipment and techniques that they used to change swings. I wasn’t impressed with how the teachers teach in golf (I’m currently working on a golf book and my baseball book will be out in May), but I began using the video equipment for my own studying of the baseball swing. If you search my name in youtube, you’ll see a 2002 video of me on the news using my video equipment with the Charleston Riverdogs. As I was learning more about the swing, I was also seeing everywhere I went that coaches and players are still unaware of what positional change can do for a player’s career. (The biggest sign was during this time with the Riverdogs – I had always assumed that teaching would be different at the pro level, but it wasn’t).
In 2007, ten years after my turnaround year in college, I felt I was ready to teach (I stayed away from instructing until I felt I had things figured out enough to make drastic improvements for players). I was living in Nashville, TN and started walking into coaches offices in the area – Middle Tennessee State University coach Steve Peterson gave me a couple of players to work with, Lipscomb University coach Jeff Forehand didn’t have any interest. (One player I worked with at MTSU increased his OPS by more than 700 points from the previous season – still the biggest improvement I’ve seen yet). I also walked into Showtime Sports Academy and asked to talk with the manager. I told him that I have methods of teaching hitting that I believe will change baseball. He brought me into the back of the facility where Ben Zobrist was hitting. We started talking and I asked if I could film his swing and offer my analysis. He agreed and we met a few days later. He brought his friend Drew Sutton along to that first meeting.
At the time, I was working outside service at a golf course making $7 an hour. I couldn’t ever hold down a real job because my mind was always on the swing. I know, sounds silly, but I guess I really felt I had discovered something special during my sophomore year – besides, it was always too late to turn back – I had put all my eggs in one basket. I mentally beat myself up that I wasn’t out looking for a real job and that I was still pursuing this passion at the age of 30. But I was finally testing my methods and if they didn’t pan out, I would know if I was on course with my line of thinking about the swing – to test my work so to speak.
RR: What are some of the principles that you like to teach hitters?
JC: I like to teach them what works and what works is not trying to be a mental coach – if players aren’t motivated to play a game where millions of dollars can be made, then it really isn’t worth the time; what works is not overworking in the gym – of course you need to be fit, but there is a point of diminishing returns; what works is not the vague instruction that players are currently getting from hitting coaches. What works is knowing the key positions of the swing and changing a player’s swing positions to achieve more power and consistency. The greatest opportunity for immediate and drastic improvement lies within the positions of a players swing. I don’t see that changing in my lifetime. I do see the methods of obtaining feedback changing though. I do all of my work using high speed video – in the future I might use something else that gives more accurate account of a player’s positions.
To stay in general terms, I look for two things in a player’s forward swing (I won’t get into the stride portion of the swing, only the forward swing) – Force and AOI. Force, of course is mass x acceleration. Coaches need to stop talking about bat speed. Bat speed is only half of the equation – bat mass is just as important and possibly more important because it is harder to achieve higher levels of bat mass without the proper instruction (like the argument in golf – what’s more important in putting, line or speed – well they are both equally important but because speed is more difficult to master, people say it is more important.) Adding more mass to the bat through the swing is a challenge of technique and a matter of working with and understanding the mechanics of your swing. So I propose that instead of talking about bat speed, that players and coaches talk about Bat Force, which takes both speed and mass into account.
The second thing I analyze when looking at a swing is a players AOI – Area of Impact. This is another term of mine – it is the distance that the bat stays square enough to the line of flight of the baseball to hit a fair ball. Think of a pin ball arm – a regular pin ball arm has a small AOI, if the pivot point or fulcrum of that arm moved up and down as the end moved up and down, the AOI would increase (and you’d also save a lot of quarters by keeping the pin ball in play if you could do this). As with Bat Force, there are positional changes that can be made to a players swing to increase his AOI.
As you probably could have guessed, a players Bat Force gives an indication of his power numbers, like home runs, and his AOI is more indicative of his consistency numbers, like batting average. However, the great news is that these two things go best when WITH each other. To have a high Bat Force, you must have a long AOI and vice versa. It just works out that way mechanically. That explains why the best hitters are able to hit with high levels of power and consistency, year after year, and seem to do so effortlessly. Their swings work with the grain, the law of averages will naturally tilt in their favor (compared to the other hitters) and they can just relax and let the chips fall where they may. The perfect example of this is Babe Ruth – he effortlessly hit with power and consistency – the best forward swing through the ball that I’ve ever seen on video.
AOI and Bat Force are two components of the forward swing only. The entire baseball swing is actually made up of two parts – the STRIDE and then the forward swing. The stride is a whole new animal which I won’t get into right now (unless you ask).
RR: What were some of the problems you saw when Drew's swing when you started working with him?
JC: I looked to lengthen his AOI and increase the force behind the bat. I worked at length with Ben and Drew on the Slot position. The Slot position occurs the moment a player decides to swing at the pitch. Most coaches these days teach the player to come straight down to the ball – I spend most of my first lesson trying to drill this move out of players. It’s a terrible power and consistency leakage. So we worked on getting the bat to flatten out at the start of the swing.
RR: How has his swing improved since then?
JC: In general terms, Drew’s swing is more body controlled and less arm controlled. He achieves an Impact position that transfers more force to the baseball and his AOI is longer.
RR: What kind of major league player do you think Drew Sutton projects to be? Do you think his skill set works more as a bench player, or could he hit in a major league lineup every day?
JC: I think Drew will be as good as he wants to be. He’s got all the skills necessary to be the best player in the league. He’s only going to fill out from here and get stronger and heavier. He’s got a great attitude. And he’s got a great swing coach in his corner.
RR: What kind of role do you see Drew settling into with the Reds? If he's an everyday player, where would he play?
JC: It’s really up to Drew. It’s up to any player at that level what they want to do and how good they want to be. If you continue to improve your swing, the sky is the limit. But if you stop working on it, you’ll likely stay as good as you are. The bottom line is that the only thing that really matters with position players is whether they can hit. If they can hit, or if they start to hit, they’ll find a place for them and rightfully so – hitting is what baseball is all about. The problem is that nobody knows how to MAKE a hitter, so teams draft guys and trade guys and hope for the best. The reporters do the same. The owners and reporters are not aware of the science that can MAKE great hitters. Any MLB player is talented enough and athletic enough to make changes to his swing. It’s just a matter of knowing what changes to make, why they’re making them, and how to make the change fast. That’s the next gold mine for MLB organizations. At the present time, while the value of swing analysis and change is still largely unknown, the right swing analysis and training could make a team of superstars.
They have the science down on how to scout players based on what they did last season, but they still don’t understand the science behind changing what he’ll do next season – and next season is really all that matters now. I’m still, even after I’ve proved it at the college and pro levels, living in a world where people don’t truly understand what is possible through positional analysis and change. I’ve said it before, the numbers of the "video era" which I am tring to lead people to, will exceed even what was seen in the steriod era. If Drew’s swing continues to improve, he will go as far as he wants to go.
Back to your original question, as far as where Drew would play, I am currently only a swing instructor and that would be overstepping my bounds at this point to try to say where he would play in the field. But as I said before, if a player can hit, a team will, and should, always find a place for him.
RR: What kind of numbers do you think Drew Sutton could put up with regular playing time?
JC: I haven’t seen Drew’s swing since last season. This winter I was working on finishing up my book, Positional Hitting, which will be out in May (positionalhitting.com). I have continued to send him video lessons and we’ve talked on the phone but I haven’t seen his swing after his work on it this offseason. Because I trust that Drew is working on the things that we both believe about the swing, I think Drew could put up 20 or so homers at least with regular playing time.
Jaime Cevallos speaking at the 2010 American Baseball Coaches Association (ABCA) convention in Dallas
I just wanted to thank Jaime once again for doing this interview for us, and giving us a great look into the science of swing mechanics, and what we can expect from our little project in Sutton. You can see more about Jaime and his training products at his website, and keep an eye out for his book in May.