Arenado thrives with unconventional technique

Uncommon footwork paying off at plate for Rox slugger

July 20th, 2017

NEW YORK -- Give it a few years, some in the Rockies' organization believe, and the Major Leagues could be a league littered with players like . Not in terms of production -- not everyone woke up Thursday fresh off a three-homer game and eyeing a third straight RBI title -- but in hitting approach and style.

Baseball is a copycat game. Do something at the plate a little differently and very well, and soon someone is bound to mirror it. Baseball people don't think it a coincidence Giants prospect resembles in stance and swing, or how 's leg kick led to Josh Donaldson's and , and on and on. The next trend may come from a mechanical tweak in Arenado's load some are calling the driving force behind not just the third baseman's homers, but also his future standing as a pioneer.

"It's now three straight years, and he comes in at the break and he's leading baseball in RBI," Rockies broadcaster and former outfielder Ryan Spilborghs said. "You start paying attention to him. Mechanically, what does he do?"

It's what Arenado does with his back (right) foot, specifically, during his swing that is turning heads. Slow down the video of his three-homer game Wednesday. Before each one, Arenado actually lifts his back foot off the ground prior to stepping with the front foot, a momentum-creating motion that essentially gives him a running start into the pitch. Though hitters have been experimenting with back-foot movement for years, none as radical as Arenado's exists anywhere else in baseball.

Which is why Arenado's back foot became a hot topic around the National League All-Star batting cage last week in Miami. Joey Votto, and all inquired after getting an up-close look at a swing that they -- though they're some of the most meticulous hitters in the game -- had never considered trying.

"It's cool that people ask. I feel like those guys are so good and I'm not at that level yet," Arenado said. "That's my way. Everybody has their specific way. I guess that's just mine."

Arenado calls his "step back," a way to "get in my legs" and create power. Since implementing the foot shuffle into his swing in 2015, Arenado has hit more home runs than any player in the National League. Nearly half have come away from Coors Field this season. More than half did in 2015.

"It changed who I am as a hitter. Now I'm back-legging the ball, I'm backspinning homers, and I never used to be that guy," Arenado said. "It's a rhythm thing. I feel powerful with it."

In some ways, what Arenado does is an extension of what all players are trying to do: create a kinetic mix of balance and tension that transfers as much of their weight to the baseball as possible. But how he does it is more a modern remix to an antiquated style, predicated on "diving" into the ball, more commonly seen in black-and-white highlights.

"Back in the day, hitters would take a walking load," Spilborghs said. "Watch Willie Mays. Watch some of the '69 Mets. Their feet are active."

But over much of the past 40 years, when players have tried to create power, they've done so mostly with front leg kicks. Their back foot remained rooted in the ground, even as they shifted energy to and from it, a base for their weight and head.

Arenado doesn't have a leg kick, but when he's going right, his foot shuffle creates enough lower-half tension for him to dive into the ball and still drive it. His feet move more than any other hitter, but they end up in nearly the exact place they start, which allows his head to stay relatively still and his body balanced. Where most hitters want to create enough momentum for their back foot to come off the ground naturally by the end of a swing, Arenado's does so twice: before and after.

"Like a kickstart on a motorcycle," Rockies assistant hitting coach Jeff Salazar said.

Arenado first began lifting his back foot at the advice of , a mentor with whom he shared an infield from 2012-14. Tulowitzki lifts his back foot very slightly now, but back then he lifted just the heel as a way to rock his body into rhythm.

More players are subtly beginning to do the same, lifting the back heel, not the whole foot. The thinking behind the trend comes rooted in a common batting cage drill, where hitters take an exaggerated step backward before crow-hopping a swing into a ball off a tee.

"Nolan moves his feet more than most, but he really understands how his body moves and what he has to do to be successful," said Salazar, who tried the heel lift during his four-year MLB career. Salazar said DJ LeMahieu and also use it to create momentum.

Whether players mimic Arenado fully will likely depend on whether they are strong and athletic enough to do so. All the movement gives Arenado's mechanics a relatively small margin for error, and that margin keeps shrinking for everybody with pitcher velocities going up and up.

"There is a whole domino effect if his base isn't in the position he wants it to be in," Salazar said. "His swing starts from the floor up."

"Nolan is an active person, he's a high-energy guy," Spilborghs said. "Some guys like to be calm at the plate. You wouldn't teach this, or . Swings kind of take your personality. Swings are snowflakes. Even though you get to the same point in all these swings, how they get there is different."