Bryce Harper, Cricketer

My good friend Stu over at How Do I Baseball called attention to Bryce Harper’s extreme front-foot batting mechanics in this post today. Go over and read it.

The upshot: “orthodox” baseball batting technique will tell you that Harper, by taking his back foot off the ground, is somehow over-committing and giving up power. As Dave Nichols said:

But, as Stu pointed out, the extreme front-foot batting mechanics aren’t unheard of. Frank Thomas did the same thing from the right handed batter’s box–and nobody ever said The Big Hurt wasn’t a good power hitter.

After comparing Harper to Frank Thomas, Stu went on to wonder:

It will be interesting to see how far Harper can take his unorthodox hitting mechanics, and how much success can be obtained with them. While many would believe that this front foot approach would make a hitter susceptible to offspeed pitches, if Harper’s two HR’s off of Marlins starter Ricky Nolasco are any indication- both were hit off of offspeed offerings – he has made the proper adjustments to make him fall victim to offspeed and breaking pitches less frequently in 2013 than he did in 2012, using these hitting mechanics.

What struck me, when looking at Harper’s home runs on Monday, was how familiar they seemed–not to baseball players and fans, but to devotees of the other great ball-and-bat sport on this planet: Cricket. To answer Stu’s question directly, the body of cricket scholarship suggests that Harper can be very successful indeed with his “unorthodox” mechanics–because, at least as they presented themselves on Monday, they were perfectly orthodox cricket batting mechanics.

Such extreme front-foot batting technique isn’t unusual in cricket–in fact, it’s extremely orthodox. Have a look at the BBC’s cricket skills pages, and you’ll see this batting technique:

The straight drive in cricket, as played by a right-handed batsman. Notice: the right (rear) foot is practically off the ground, just like Harper batting

This shot is the straight drive. Now let’s look at Harper’s home run swing [UPDATE: I erroneously ID’d the following photo as having been from Monday. Analysis still holds, but if anyone has a photo of Harper’s HR swings from Monday, post it in the comments]:

Harper’s home run stroke, shamelessly ganked from Stu’s post at HDIB. Notice the similarity to the cricket shot?

Harper’s head is over the front knee–aided by the extreme unweighting of his back foot. As England Test Captain Michael Vaughn explains here:

The most important thing for me is to get your head over [your] front leg…now if your head stays mid-centre, the ball has to go square of the wicket.

[In baseball terms: if you’re trying to hit off the front foot, but try to keep your head back, the ball will be pulled foul on your pull side]. Vaughn goes on to explain the role of the back foot in maintaining proper head/body alignment: unweighting the back leg forces the head to go forward naturally, putting the head over the front leg and enabling the player to hit, as we would say in baseball, a line drive only moderately to his pull side.

Notice also that Harper’s bat is surprisingly vertical when he makes contact with the ball–which recalls the orthodox cricketing advice to “show the [bat] maker’s name” as one drives through the ball.

Now, not every shot in cricket is played this way. One of the basic skills of a cricket batsman is selecting which shot to play depending on the delivery of the ball. Again, the BBC’s cricket skill pages demonstrate:

How to pick which shot to play in cricket. We are interested in the drive shots: the “off drive,” “straight drive,” and “on drive.” These are played off the front foot.

Now let’s reverse-engineer Harper’s home run swings in a cricket context. Here’s Harper’s Opening Day spray chart, from TexasLeaguers:

Both home runs land in right-center field. In cricketing terms, they would be “on drives”–driven on the batters’ side. Now, orthodox cricket shot selection doctrine says:

If you get a half volley on leg stump, you hit it back towards mid on with the full face of the bat.

Translated to baseball terms: if you get a ball on the inner third of home plate [and low: cricket balls are bouncing up from the ground], drive it to right-center field [if you, like Harper, are left-handed].

So, where were those pitches that Harper hit to right center for home runs?

Here’s the first one, a home run in the first inning: it’s number 2, obviously:

Hey, would you look at that. It’s low and on the inside third of the plate. A cricketer sees a half-volley on leg stump! How about the second one?

It’s the one marked “in play (runs),” obviously. And again, it’s on the inner third, and low. Yup, another half-volley on leg stump.

Bryce Harper’s front foot hitting mechanics may look strange to baseball fans, but he is behaving exactly like a well-taught cricket batsman would behave when confronted with balls located in that location. He judged the position of the delivery of the ball well. He selected the shot he wanted to play (the drive off the front foot). He executed his plan, and did it powerfully, scoring runs for his team in the process.

We have no evidence that Harper ever played any cricket at all. But, at least when confronted with the ball on the inside third of the plate and low, Harper seems to have solved that particular batting problem in exactly the same way that generations of cricket batsmen before him have solved it. How classic is Harper’s approach? Here’s the great Australian cricketer Don Bradman [the Ted Williams of Cricket, who actually met Babe Ruth oncedemonstrating the “orthodox” shots for British newsreels in 1930. Look at how powerfully he is able to drive the ball off his front foot at 2:36 or so. Look again as Bradman demonstrates the drive shots off the front foot, starting at 3:36. See how little weight he puts on his back foot?

And, if you don’t think this shot can be played for any power at all, here’s a supercut of the great West Indian batsman Sir Viv Richards absolutely killing a lot of cricket balls--many of the driven off the front foot in exactly the same way that Harper hits baseballs.

This, to me, is a fascinating case of the convergent evolution of two closely-related bat-and-ball games, baseball and cricket.

This has implications for the way baseball players look at batting mechanics and batting technique. There has been a huge body of scholarship built up around cricket batting over the years, and nobody has yet seen fit to study it and see what insights might be useful to baseball players. Most interestingly, there seems to be at least some movement to use quantitative optimization models to teach batsmen to get the bat to the ball as quickly as possible. I am not aware of any similar work being done in baseball–and it might not be a bad idea for a progressive baseball organization to start investigating this sort of thing.

7 thoughts on “Bryce Harper, Cricketer

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  2. This is interesting but, I think, based on a slightly false premise.

    If you watch Richards closely, at the moment of contact his back foot is rarely in the air.

    Lifting your back foot, or ‘walking into the shot’ is not uncommon but makes it harder to balance and thus get optimal power. I know this because the only cricket coaching I’ve ever had exposed this as a weakness: once I learned to keep my back foot anchored on front foot shots I got a lot more power. When it was airborn my balance was less solid and my shots far less authoritative.

    Richards is the exception to many rules, of course, but again, if you watch carefully he’s not lifting that back foot until after contact. He’s strong enough that he could, and indeed he was famous for walking down the track and smashing the ball through midwicket (about 10 o’clock as he looked, or out to left in baseball terms), but that was because he was a genius, not because it was good cricket technique.

    They also cite Michael Vaughan, who had the most elegant front-foot drive in cricket. And his back foot was planted, too.

    Harper’s leaning on the front foot is interesting but having played both sports (my cricket improved a lot from playing baseball) a lot this doesn’t feel like it’s on the money to me.

    • There is a vast difference to me between having one’s back foot touching the ground and having one’s back foot planted.

      In the former case, the back foot is a non-weight-bearing structure that is only incidentally in contact with the ground. Totally unweighting the back foot so that it loses contact with the ground is not so far from that. Vaughn, Bradman, and Richards unweight their back foot when playing drives off the front foot, such that there really isn’t much contact there at all–they’re just dragging their toes. There’s no load being borne there.

      Planting the back foot, on the other hand, is the opposite: the back foot bears load, sometimes all of it. In the video, you can definitely see Richards planting the back foot in that manner when he plays pull or hook shots–which is what you’d expect, since those are by definition back-foot shots.

      Maybe I wasn’t clear when I wrote the piece originally. The point isn’t so much to show that Bryce Harper is or could be a great Test batsman. I wrote this piece to show that Harper’s “unorthodox” baseball approach can be understood with reference to another body of batting knowledge. If Harper succeeds because he can play balls off his front foot very well, then we baseball fans shouldn’t be all that surprised, because playing the ball off the front foot isn’t uncommon in cricket.

      Maybe I should write a follow-up piece about back-foot hitters in baseball. Ryan Zimmerman, for instance. I wonder if, say, a right handed pull hitter’s swing (and pitch selection) begins to approximate a right-handed cricket batsman playing a pull or a hook shot.

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