The Myth of the Level Swing

You’ve heard it hundreds of times: “Level swing! C’mon Johnny!” Sure, we know that the coaches or parents who yell this cliché mean well and are trying to teach kids not to uppercut like a golfer or chop down like a woodcutter. But what is a level swing?

Let’s look at the word level. It means parallel to the ground. How can you swing the bat parallel to the ground when it starts up around shoulder height, is tipped back, and then follows your hands in a mostly downward path to intersect with the ball’s path? Look at the photo on the next page. A “level” swing looks pretty goofy, doesn’t it?

The truth is, a great swing is not level at all. In fact, it’s not even a circular path. It’s shaped more like a “D”. So how do you perform the proper bat swing? Keep your hands back and your rear elbow either pointed straight back or slightly down (not up!), and the bat head either straight up or tipped back slightly. Now you’re in a relaxed, ready-to-hit position. From this point, you can swing properly and make the necessary adjustments at the last micro-second to make solid contact with the ball wherever it passes through the strike zone. (Important point: The strike zone is pretty big from your perspective. It only seems small if you’re the pitcher. You must be ready to hit a ball that comes in anywhere through the imaginary four-foot-square window.)

As the ball leaves the pitcher’s hand, you “load up.” (This term explains what’s happening as your body begins to move.) Your hands move rearward slightly, the bat head might even tip toward the pitcher a little, and your weight transfers onto your back foot. Then, as you begin to pivot your hips around toward the pitcher, your hands rush toward the point of contact with the ball, almost as if you’re going to hit the ball with the knob of the bat.

This is where most kids make a mistake. They move their hands out and away from their bodies - or worse, they drop them toward their waist - and let the bat head tip back and outwards. Major leaguers call this “casting,” because it looks like you’re casting a fishing rod. This makes the bat head drag through the strike zone, causing the swing to be slower and late. You miss the ball or hit a weak foul.

With the proper swing, your hands drive the knob of the bat toward the ball, and you achieve “extension.” This is when your front arm cannot straighten out any farther. At this point - and this is where you get bat speed and power - the head of the bat will “whip” around your hands, and the other arm will straighten out for “maximum extension.” (Most kids do not get to the proper extension point. Often, this is because the bat is too heavy for proper control. A bat that’s too light is always much better than a bat that’s too heavy!)

During this time, your hands have been moving in pretty much a straight line, not a circle. As the bat begins to whip around, it will be perpendicular (at a 90-degree angle) to the path of the ball, whether it’s inside, outside or down the middle. If you froze in this position, you’d be holding the bat just about straight out from your body, pointing more downward than level. This is the ideal contact point with the ball, and it’s the only part of the swing that could possibly be considered “level” - and that’s only if the pitch was shoulder high, which you wouldn’t want to swing at anyway!

From this point, your hands will follow a more circular path around your body, completing your follow-through. Try these steps in slow motion in front of a mirror. If you use a bat, remember to stand far enough away from the mirror so you don’t hit it!

Next time someone yells “level swing”, think about making that big “D” with your hands: straight at the ball, extension - boom! contact! - then follow on through around the circle. If you practice this and master the technique, you’re guaranteed to become a better hitter.