DUNEDIN, Fla. – At the ballpark working late one recent afternoon, John Gibbons walked past the batting cage at Florida Auto Exchange Stadium, heard a racket, peaked in and saw a group of perhaps 10 players taking some rips.
"(Josh) Donaldson had (Domonic) Brown over in the cage working," the Toronto Blue Jays manager recalled Sunday. "It was pretty impressive, I hadn’t seen (so many clubhouse conversations about hitting) anywhere before. One thing they do is they really help coach each other, and that’s the ideal situation. You don’t get that too often."
During last season, a hitters’ club of sorts developed in the Blue Jays clubhouse, with many of the bashers in baseball’s best offence sitting around and talking about everything from what a given pitcher may be doing, to the finer points of hand positioning to create ideal swing paths.
One product of those conversations this spring is that Troy Tulowitzki, Kevin Pillar and Ryan Goins have added some degree of leg kick to their swings, having watched Donaldson ride one to great success during an MVP season in 2015.
Years ago a struggling Donaldson decided to use a leg kick after studying Jose Bautista’s swing, a process helped along by private hitting instructor Bobby Tewksbary, the former Can-Am league teammate of Chris Colabello, who is among the ringleaders of the hitters’ club.
Donaldson described the regular exchanges of expertise and ideas as "huge," and when it comes to the leg kick, he says that, "I’ve had a lot of conversations with guys on the team and I know it works, you know what I’m saying? The whole fact of the matter, if you’re able to gain the concept of it and the understanding of it, it’s going to be better for you."
Tulowitzki, Pillar and Goins can really start testing their adjustments once Grapefruit League play begins Tuesday.
"For me, I’m not scared of change, it’s something I did when I was a kid for a long time, so it’s not like it’s this new thing, I just hadn’t done it for a while," said Tulowitzki. "I definitely think there are some benefits to it, but at the same time if you know about hitting and toe-tapping, the leg kick is really similar. It’s putting yourself in the same position."
The toe-tap mechanism is something Tulowitzki says the Colorado Rockies staff "taught that as a way to hit," but he’s been influenced by what he’s seen and heard since joining the Blue Jays.
"If you look around the room, what do people do? A lot of them leg kick," he explained. "So you’re getting knowledge from some of the best players in the game about what they do. It would be the same thing if you went to a team that knows stride, they’re professionals that know striding. Over here, there a lot of guys I can talk to about leg kicking, which makes it more beneficial for me. That’s more the reason behind it."
Pillar has used different variations of a leg kick, working at times last season to cut it down. The difference now, he believes, is that he has "a better understanding of what I’m doing."
"At the end of the day a leg kick is just an athletic move and I consider myself to be a good athlete, I’m just trying to be athletic in the box and understand why I’m doing what I’m doing, as opposed to just going in there and trying to hit," he said. "My leg kick allows me to make better moves with my upper body, allows me to be in better positions to be successful."
While some hitting coaches discourage leg kicks, Blue Jays hitting coach Brook Jacoby believes everyday players can have success with it provided that they can be consistent with their motion and ideally have it "at its highest point at the pitcher’s release."
If a hitter can master that, he says, he can draw lots of benefits.
"It will hold them back in a better position because it’s a gathering device to get them ready to hit," explained Jacoby. "A lot of the power guys use a leg kick, some guys will pick it up small, it’s minimized, other guys are big with it. Everybody is different in how they do it and use it. It’s almost like they kick their hands back, so it keeps them in a good position to hit from.
"Some guys can get out of control and overdo it, like more is better, so it’s got to be something that’s very similar every time, a repeatable move."
Early returns from batting practice show promise, but the more significant indicators will come in the weeks ahead. After all, being able to maintain rhythm and timing against pitchers looking to disrupt both is the real challenge.
As the at-bats build up, the Blue Jays hitters know they’ll have their teammates to lean on if needed.
"Those guys are always talking hitting, something that’s been rare around here," said Gibbons. "They bounce things off each other, they’re experimenting with it, it’s kind of neat to see."