Hip/shoulder separation, or the distance between the hips and shoulders at foot strike, is a key component of both high level hitting and pitching mechanics. As my primary interest is hitting, I'm going to discuss the role of scapular loading and how it it relates to separation and effective turning of the barrel.
For starters, it is worth noting that the term "hip/shoulder separation" is somewhat misleading. It is a symptom, not a cause. It is not the separation of the front hip and shoulder - this way of thinking causes some players to merely turn the front shoulder inwards which is ineffectual and can cause a breakdown in other areas of the swing. Rather, it is the action of the loading of the scapular muscles that separates the dominant back hip from the back shoulder and elbow. This creates a “stretch” in the core muscles, such as the lattisimus dorsi and teres major, as the front hip opens during the stride phase of the swing.
The scapular muscle group is located in the area around the shoulder blades.
Therefore, in order to load this muscle group, specifically the upper and middle trapezius, our top hand performs a motion similar to a backwards row. Think of it like opening a fridge door or pull-starting a lawnmower. This movement takes place as the hitter begins his forward move towards the pitcher.
Below are several clips of Adrian Gonzalez demonstrating this move. Not only does he have a very effective scap load but he also has one of the most aesthetically pleasing swings in the game.
Because Gonzalez does use an inward turn of the shoulders prior to his back shoulder row, I want you to pay particular attention to frame 10 onward (indicated in yellow in the bottom right hand corner). It's here that you can see his top hand begin to pull back in the rowing motion and bring the scap muscles toward his spine, pinning them in place as he begins his forward move.
It's important to note that while the scap is being held or "pinned", the front hip is simultaneously opening with the stride as the rear leg begins to push the back hip through the zone. This is where we create this separation between hip and shoulder, which in turn creates “torque” in our core. This torque, when released in time with the beginning of the upper body's rotation at front foot strike, causes an effect similar to an elastic band being released at full tension. This causes the shoulders to rotate much faster than they would otherwise.
In the clips below, notice the jersey twisting as the stride lengthens and the front foot gets down as the shoulders get ready to rotate - this is a good indicator of the stretch being created in the core muscles.
Another excellent indicator of quality separation and scap pinning is demonstrated here by Rafael Devers. Notice how long you can read the name on the back of his jersey while he continues his forward move with the lower half.
However, this is not the only benefit scap loading creates. In addition to the creation of elastic energy is the fact that the pinning of the scap helps to keep the front shoulder from flying open and pulling off the ball too early on outside pitches, while also helping the hitter maintain good posture and plate coverage. This allows a hitter to keep an aggressive approach due to the increased adaptability he's created for himself.
Here is Josh Donaldson staying on a pitch running low and away because he has kept a closed shoulder and solid posture over the plate.
Loading of the scap also plays a large part in the proper delivery of the barrel behind the ball. Due to the fact that the back shoulder row causes the hands to essentially become blocked by the lats and oblique muscles, it becomes impossible to use the pushing, "knob to the ball" approach that is incorrectly taught to so many young (and old) hitters. Instead, you now have to use your hands to pivot the barrel by turning your top hand palm up. When you do this, the barrel will move down and backwards towards the catcher as your back elbow slots into the back hip. This is what we call barrel turn.
Here's our old friend A-Gon with another demonstration:
Notice especially how the back elbow and back hip begin moving forward at the same time. This is what many refer to as "connection" as the two are moving simultaneously.
As our back elbow works down, the barrel continues to move with it until the end of the bat is pointing at the catcher with the bat parallel to the plate (otherwise known as "bat lag"). Not only does this give us a deeper barrel and therefore greater acceleration of the bat, but it also allows us to get on plane with the pitch. Getting on plane behind the ball gives us a greater window for squaring up the the pitch, even if we're fooled and are early or late with our timing.
In this clip of Conforto, he's late but is still able to barrel up the ball nicely because of an efficient barrel turn caused by the loading and stabilization of the scap muscles.
In closing, I need to stress the fact that this is indeed a high level move that, like so many others, will vary among each individual athlete. This is particularly true for younger ballplayers who may lack the muscularity in the scapular area to utilize this technique effectively.
If you're a player trying to incorporate this movement in your swing, remember to be patient and to keep your body relaxed - stiff movements will kill a swing. Each athlete needs to find their own rhythm and decide when and how much of the move to add to their movement pattern. Stay loose and try not to think too much about internal cues like the rowing movement discussed, although these things can be helpful to know. Focus on using your lower half and creating a tight, quick turn with the intent of hitting line drives over the infield from gap-to-gap. The dingers will come!
Even in professional players, the timing and degree of the back shoulder row will change from player-to-player. Some use a shorter, less obvious row while others are more noticeable. Some, like Adrian Gonzalez, turn their shoulders prior to the move while others don't. Some pull the elbow straight back, while others have more height.
I've included several other hitters and their scap load below so you can see some of the differences for yourself. If you have any questions, comments or suggestions for future posts, feel free to fire me off an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Thanks for reading and best of luck in the box.
About The Author
Tim Kendall is a Major League Baseball Scouting Bureau certified scout and professional/semi-professional coach/player. He has played and/or coached in Canada, the Caribbean, Europe and Latin America. As a scout, he has covered games in the Northeast region in addition to helping run showcase events. In 2016, he assisted the Pittsburgh Pirates in preparation for the June amateur draft.
As an instructor, he has worked with several rep and travel teams and shared his knowledge with players of all ages as well as fellow coaches and instructors. While proficient in all areas of the game, he takes special interest in hitting, specifically from a biomechanical perspective.
In addition, Tim is a retired professional wrestler and has used his experience in this field to bring an emphasis on strength and conditioning to players he works with.
Tim hopes to serve as an ambassador for the game of baseball and to share his passion, expertise and love of the sport on an international level while developing elite athletes and creating professional and educational opportunities for players.