Swing Kings: The Inside Story of Baseball’s Home Run Revolution
By Jared Diamond
HarperCollins. 242 pages.
Swing Kings: The Inside Story of Baseball’s Home Run Revolution is a genealogy of hitting, the story of revolutionary baseball fathers and their proselytizing sons. It explores how the cultural inertia that had long surrounded hitting was obliterated by younger players who could not find what they needed in traditional hitting instruction and instead went in search of new ways, leading to our current golden age of home runs. In Swing Kings, Jared Diamond tells the story of a few independent hitting coaches, mostly little-known former players who couldn’t stop thinking about how to change baseball. Their invasion of MLB was circuitous and subversive, involving more than a little luck.
Leading the movement was Craig Wallenbrock, the Oracle of Santa Clarita, a surfer, student of Eastern philosophy, and former college baseball player. In the early 1970s, he bought a video camera (at the time, a radical move) and began reviewing video to see what he could learn to improve his younger brother’s game. Among other insights, he discovered that the great hitters use what he calls “the lag position” to keep the barrel behind the ball for as long as possible. (Actually, watch this 11-minute video where Wallenbrock explains it.)
Wallenbrock went on to teach players like Paul Konerko, Ryan Braun, Jason Castro and JD Martinez as well as Doug Latta, who would himself become a hitting teacher for Marlon Byrd and Justin Turner. There’s also Bobby Tewksbary, teacher of Chris Colabello and Josh Donaldson, as well as Richard Schenck, who worked with, most notably, Aaron Judge. Like any genealogy, however, the story is not linear. (There’s also a brief discussion of Driveline, but Diamond’s focus is on a few independent coaches who found success.)
To provide some context, Diamond includes historian John Thorn; Babe Ruth, the father of the modern swing, who “revolutionized baseball in ways that are almost inconceivable”; Ted Williams, who dissected the swing before publishing The Science of Hitting in 1970; Mike Epstein who used video to refine and translate Williams’ ideas; and Mike Bryant who began hitting with Williams in 1981. While Bryant wasn’t successful at baseball, he taught the Williams method to his son Kris Bryant. The revolution Williams began was delayed by 50 years because of Charlie Lau (1956-67), the “first celebrity hitting coach” and father of squish-the-bug “linear hitting.”
Eventually, though, the revolution happened:
In the winter following the 2018 season, a dam burst. By the end of April in 2019, 17 teams—more than half of Major League Baseball—had a different hitting coach than the one they’d employed the season before. The reason was simple: organizations realized they hadn’t been tapping the most qualified people for the job. The rise of technology, the use of data, and improved knowledge of the swing had changed the role, forcing traditional coaches to adapt or die. Seemingly all at once, hitting coaches became younger and more tech-savvy. The idea that the swing should be tailored to drive the ball in the air wasn’t a foreign concept to this new batch of hitting coaches—it was simply the truth.
Interspersed in Swing Kings are Diamond’s own attempts to improve his swing in preparation for the annual New York-Boston media baseball game. (Diamond covers baseball for the Wall Street Journal.) In the end, Swing Kings chronicles how hitting has changed and why we are living in a revolutionary time.
When it comes to narrative, Swing Kings is still perfecting its technique
You can skip this section if literary criticism isn’t your thing, but when a lit major is writing a review, she’s going to explore issues with storytelling. Swing Kings has two.
First, at times, it’s confusing—and I say this as someone who’s comfortable with nonlinear texts. I grew frustrated moving back and forth between the hitting consultants and their clients. Perhaps it stemmed from the advanced copy I was given, which lacked a family tree and some basic formatting. (Also, when can we revolutionize eBooks to include video?)
Second, Swing Kings has a genre problem. Other reviewers will probably comment on the charm of Diamond conferring with various teachers as he tries to improve his own swing for a yearly media game. For me, the shift in perspective from critic to participant undercut the author because the critic and the memoirist have very different responsibilities to the narrative and the reader. Both forms lead to compelling stories, but each is distinct. Diamond can either write the story of the swing kings or write a memoir about his attempts to improve his swing, but it’s difficult to do both without compromising the integrity of the story.
That’s not to say I didn’t like Swing Kings—I did, and I learned a lot—but those problems were always in the back of my mind.
Daniel Murphy: Swing king student
While the Dodgers appear throughout Swing Kings, with Wallenbrock student Doug Van Scoyoc currently serving as their hitting coach, the Colorado Rockies are mostly absent. (Larry Walker gets a mention.) But there is one notable exception: Daniel Murphy, who was with the New York Mets in 2013 when teammate Marlon Byrd was changing his game by implementing Doug Latta’s training. Byrd was, according to Diamond, “one of the first players to bring these ideas into the mainstream. In many ways, the modern-day fly-ball revaluation started because Byrd willed it into existence.” Murphy was watching.
Diamond describes Murphy’s first meeting with Latta: “‘Oh, you’re Marlon’s guy!’ Murphy said, mimicking a swing with a slight uppercut. ‘Well, I’m this guy.’” He then showed off his swing, a classic, short bat path straight out of a hitting textbook.” Latta predicted that Murphy would change his swing—and he did, with the help of Mets hitting coach Kevin Long:
Daniel Murphy was never a coveted prospect. By professional baseball standards, he isn’t fast or strong. For years, he struggled to find a defensive position where he wasn’t a liability. Murphy is, however, a notorious cage rat, the ultimate student of hitting. . . .
That obsession with his craft made Murphy a far better hitter than anybody would have ever expected looking at him. From 2008 through the end of the regular season in 2015 with the Mets, he hit .288 with an OPS of .755, about 10 percent better than league average. He consistently made contact, mostly grounders and low line drives. He didn’t hit for much power. By that point, the kind of player he was seemed clear. He was good, but he’d never be a star.
But in the 2015 postseason, something miraculous happened: Daniel Murphy learned how to hit the ball in the air. He delivered a performance forever etched into Mets lore, slamming seven home runs in his first nine playoff games, setting a major league postseason record by homering in six straight contests. Murphy earned NLCS MVP honors and led the Mets to the World Series, the franchise’s first pennant since 2000. It was nothing short of amazing.
“I wish I could explain it,” Murphy said then. “I would have done it like six years ago.”
It’s worth noting that Diamond stops the story there, leaving out Murphy’s disappointing 2019 (.279/.328.452) with the Rockies.
With this in mind, Jeff Bridich’s decision to sign Murphy and release DJ LeMahieu begins to make more sense. In addition to Murphy’s offensive skills, the Rockies wanted his obsession with using data to improve his swing, probably hoping he would influence other players, just as Byrd had influenced him.
At spring training, Purple Row asked Murphy about the evolution of his approach to hitting. Murphy remains a student: ”I like to use video personally to try to paint a picture of where I want the ball to start—where I want the ball to start, where I want it to finish to get in the area of the hitting zone where I think I’ll have the most success.”
But Murphy knows from personal experience that there’s no point in sharing information with teammates who aren’t yet ready for it:
”It’s more of like a reserved role. If someone doesn’t want to hear the information that you’re trying to give them, then you’re not really sincerely trying to help them I don’t think, because they’re not ready to hear it. So I’m always willing and excited to have conversations, especially offensive conversations, but I’m more or less kind of ‘wait for an opportunity I see’ or for someone to approach me as opposed to trying to impose my will on someone else.”
That said, Nick Groke reports on an exchange between Murphy and Ian Desmond that may suggest he’s having an effect, despite the Rockies’ (and Murphy’s) disappointing 2019.
It’s worth noting that in 2018 when when 17 teams made hitting coach changes, so did the Rockies in bringing on Dave Magadan, who worked with Van Scoyoc while with the Arizona Diamondbacks. While Magadan doesn’t fit the mold of the other independent coaches, he certainly brought a different approach to data. (He’s quoted in this Sports Illustrated article focused on Wallenbrock.) In addition, the Rockies’ promotion of Steve Merriman and creation of a position for Doug Bernier suggests more changes are coming. That the Rockies are not mentioned in Swing Kings may be an indicator of how behind the revolution they are.