Jerry Sands entered 2011 as a top Dodgers prospect and made his major league debut on April 18th to chants of “Jerry! Jerry!”, but on June 7th, 144 plate appearances later, he played his last game in a Dodgers uniform until he was recalled as part of the expanded rosters in September. Over those 144 plate appearances that spanned from April to June, Sands was underwhelming to say the least, as he put up a .200/.294/.328/.622 line while playing primarily in left and right field.
His dismal start dulled fan expectations a bit for his September recall, but when he did return on September 8th, Sands was a different player, or at least he performed like it. In 83 plate appearances, he put up a huge line of .342/.415/.493/.908, giving Dodgers fans an immense amount of hope for his 2012 season.
But what was the cause for the sudden change in performance?
The most popular explanation among both fans and the media revolves around Sands making adjustments to his swing, and Sands even said as much himself while talking to Jim Peltz of the Los Angeles Times:
“I changed some big things in my swing,” Sands said without disclosing specifics. Now, he said, “it’s just a mental thing, just settling down, relaxing.”
Changes without disclosing specifics, huh? Well that’s rather frustrating for fans to read, don’t you think?
I did, so I thought maybe a comparison of his swing from April and then September would help diagnose the specifics he left out.
The changes that Jerry Sands made between April and September were both smart and significant.
1) Hands held significantly lower.
Watching Sands in the minor leagues, it was clear to me that the holes in his swing were fastballs of any velocity up in the zone and fastballs thrown hard in on his hands. By dropping his hands, it compounds a weakness (up), but provides dual benefits (in, down).
Since Sands has always had trouble with pitches up anyway, I don’t think exposing that further is a huge deal, as the solution to that problem is for him to stop swinging at balls up and out of the zone to begin with.
Now what the change in setup does do is allow for less moving parts and allow for his hands to start in the hitting position, thus making him quicker to balls thrown in on his hands and down in the zone (where his strength lies, IMO).
2) Opened up his stance.
Early in the year, Sands setup closed and then closed off further through his timing mechanism. When he was recalled though, Sands sets up open and then closes off back to a neutral setting through his timing mechanism.
This part of his swing adjustment allows for easier hip clearance so that he can pull the ball with greater frequency (notice that he went the other way almost exclusively in April). Additionally, it allows him to keep his left shoulder on the ball longer instead of having to bail with his front side in an attempt to get the bat head around in time.
3) Weight distribution balanced.
In April, you can see how unbalanced he is at footstrike, which was a common theme during his first stint by my observation. His closed setup was part of the issue, but it was more about how he would load his weight heavily on his back leg. Thus, as he shifted his weight forward, he would commonly get too wide and spread out, allowing him to basically get destroyed by breaking balls he wasn’t looking for.
By contrast, in September, you can see he’s in a neutral position at footstrike and ready to attack the ball aggressively. Sands stopped loading so heavily on his back leg and instead kept a generally even weight distribution throughout his approach, allowing him to keep his hands and hips back with greater consistency.
I’m not at all familiar with whoever reconstructed the swing of Jerry Sands, but in my opinion, whoever did it knew exactly what they were doing and should take credit for it.
While I listed the advantages of the adjustments above, the changes themselves are not what impressed me, but rather it was what they fixed that was important.
I think what’s most important when making adjustments to the swing of a professional player is not trying to fit everybody’s swing into an ideal, but rather sculpting what they already have and making it efficient.
From what I’ve seen, that’s exactly what these changes do, as they ask Sands to learn to layoff fastballs up and then both allow him to expand on a strength (down) and create a solution for weaknesses (in, breaking balls).
To say I’m impressed by the changes that have taken place is an understatement.
All that said, and I know this disclaimer gets annoying, but despite my admitted optimism, these are all short term results and small sample size conclusions. While they can absolutely lead to long term success, it’s certainly not in the bag by any means.
Still though, when asking whether or not Sands actually made adjustments and whether those adjustments made him better, the answer to both is a resounding yes.