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Richard Sherman Celebrity Softball Game: Scouting the Swings

Today I have a legitimate reason to talk about the Seahawks on this blog. Make no mistake, I am a Mariners fan first and foremost, but the Seahawks are very exciting team these days. They have talent and personalities. None are arguably bigger (by either of the previous measures) than Richard Sherman, who this afternoon at Cheney Stadium hosted what he is calling his annual celebrity softball game. Being a Tacoma resident, I couldn't pass up the opportunity to watch local celebrities try their hand at whacking dingers in a slow-pitch game.

The game did not disappoint. It was tied at 20 a side (after 7 innings), and decided by an impromptu home run derby. Seahawks cornerback Walter Thurmond hit the deciding blast. He, along with several other local sports stars of now and yesteryears competed in a home run derby prior to the game. I used my camera phone to take snapshots of as many of the stars as I could to evaluate their swings. What I offer below are my scouting reports on celebrity swings, based on what I saw (with pictures included). I have listed in them in reverse order from worst to best stroke:

9. Kam Chancellor

Chancellor is known for punishing receivers, and he tried to punish softballs with similar fervor.  It didn't work out though. His two main mechanical flaws can be seen here. First, Chancellor steps in the bucket to a degree that's hard to fathom. He started with a pretty straightaway stance, but look at where his front foot is as he begins to swing - it's nearly out of the batter's box to the third base side! This cuts off the entire outer half of the plate and sets him up to be a dead-pull hitter. The second big flaw is in Chancellor's hands. We can see that they are nearly belt level as he sets to swing, meaning anything in the upper half of the strike zone is impossible for him to get to. That leaves Chancellor with a small zone down and in where he can hit the ball. Predictably, he struggled to square up the pitches, despite his obvious strength and intent to hulk smash anything that crossed the plate.

8. Shawn Kemp

Listen up, kiddos, and listen real good: if you think Blake Griffin and his lob city buddies are amazing, then you've never seen The Reign Man send home a tomahawk jam. Kemp has aged noticeably, but his exuberant spirit for power and majesty are alive and well. The execution just wasn't there on the diamond today.

In fairness to Kemp, hitting isn't for 6'10" guys like him. Tall guys have bigger strike zones and longer limbs. Everything takes longer to move and there is more space to cover. Hence, ironically, the key for big guys to succeed is with very short, compact strokes. Kemp was the antithesis of short and compact. As you can see, he spread his legs across the entire span of the batter's box. It was darn impressive to see in person, but bad for hitting. It made his swing path to his hitting zone massive, creating a very long, slow, looping swing. He also set his hands quite low, much like Chancellor, cutting off the upper two feet or so of his strike zone. Kemp's strategy was obvious: wield the bat not unlike a meat cleaver and golf at the softball. It was pure power, just like his most savage dunks. He could annihilate a ball with his approach, but squaring the ball up would prove very difficult for anyone with this swing. Kemp connected once though, producing a majestic tater to center field to the delight of an adoring crowd. Kemp's stroke beats out Chancellor's only because he kept his legs much more square than Chancellor did, allowing him to cover the entire plate.

7. Terrell Owens

T.O. had similar mechanical flaws to Chancellor and Kemp, though he showed better during the game than he did in the home run derby. Perhaps he was pressing. Owens is about as tall as a hitter can be before they face major issues making contact. His initial set-up was a mess though, as can be seen in the picture above. Owens is crouched with both knees bent and his hands rather lower, limiting his strike zone coverage and some of his power potential. Additionally, his shoulders seem to be pointing towards first base, despite having legs set up for his shoulders to point towards the pitcher. The amount of time it takes him to unwind his body cuts him off from the inside half of the plate, and makes it hard for him to pull the ball - both factors that limit his power. With all that said, check out T.O.'s follow through:

There are things to like. Owens is standing tall, and has stiffened up his front side. He opened up his front foot, allowing his torso to swing through, and a straight line can be drawn from the top of his head to his front foot. His swing is quite level, as evidenced by how little his hand height changed from the beginning to the end of the swing, and loft is created by keeping his swing perpendicular to the line of balance he creates in his angled front side. Owens would struggle to hit pitches on the outer half of the plate with how much he opened up, but his swing is dangerous on pitches middle and middle-in. T.O.'s power didn't show in the home run derby, but did during the game with a couple impressive blasts.

6. Richard Sherman

Richard Sherman knows how to strike a pose, doesn't he? He is a dead pull hitter, if you couldn't tell from his feet which ended up in a straight line pointed towards third base, or his shoulders that have also flown open so that his whole body points towards third. What this picture doesn't capture is that Sherman set his hands a bit higher than previous players on the list. The one-handed finish is new too, in part because Sherman was the first player who swung his hips around hard enough to generate the bat speed to warrant it (though Owens showed some good bat speed in the game). In all honesty, there's a good argument that Owens should go above Sherman, but it was Sherman that put on the event. Any tie-breaker was going to go to him. I also like the way Sherman's upper body pivoted on top of his legs, which stayed pretty quiet throughout his swing.

5. Lawyer Milloy

Milloy, it turns out, switch hits! He busted out a decent left-handed stroke on a few occasions during the derby and the game. The fact that he switch hits moved him up my rankings. Here we see Milloy batting right-handed, and looking a whole bunch like Endy Chavez with his high leg kick and low hand set-up. The leg kick was definitely a timing device for Milloy, which I wouldn't like much in fastpitch, but in slowpitch it has a purpose. Once Milloy planted he did a nice job bringing his whole body through the zone with a compact, level stroke. It didn't produce dingers, but it was solid. My biggest knock is the hand height. In general, anything hard and high will tie Milloy up, but he's got a fighting chance on just about anything else. He is the first hitter on this list I could envision hitting the ball the other way with any authority.

4. Walter Thurmond

Thurmond's pitch selection should be seriously questioned based on this picture, but the stroke is largely a thing of beauty. He is listed at 5'11" and 190 pounds, which looked small among a bunch of football players, but is a good size for hitting. However, Thurmond hit for more power than many of his bigger peers, which was a bit surprising until looking at his hitting mechanics. He knew how to use his body well and his many strengths can be seen in this picture. I lucked out and caught Thurmond in the midst of his weight shifting from his back to front foot, which is the most crucial part of any hitter's swing. We can see that his front side has firmed up at a good angle to generate an uppercut stroke. We also see that Thurmond has opened up his hips, but his hands are tucked close to his chest, meaning his hands are inside the ball and he can get the barrel of the bat through the hitting zone quicker. Also, look at how much higher his hands are than the previous swings we've seen so far! Thurmond made himself a pull hitter with where he set his front foot, and probably too much of one to hit for a good average, but he had a good idea how to swing a bat.

3. Golden Tate

"Showtime" Tate, despite his slight build, knew how to maximize his body for power. He starts from a wide base, which I like here because of his height (Tate is 5'10", a foot shorter than Shawn Kemp). We can also see Tate starting to firm up his front side with his front leg anchored at an angle that lets him generate an uppercut stroke. More importantly, Tate's swing is still very much backloaded, even with the ball about 10-15 away, as evidenced by his closed hips, shoulders, and hand position. Also, his hands are right at the top of the strike zone, an ideal place for them to be at the start of the swing. Tate knew how to explode on the baseball with authority, and below is the resulting follow through:

Here we see that Tate's front side has fully firmed up, his shoulders have pivoted fully around, and his hands have completely followed through. Additionally, Tate's back foot is still in the same position it was after the weight transfer (a sign of good balance), and his front foot is pointed straight forward. Tate did not step in the bucket like everyone before him, giving him good plate coverage to go with a nice power stroke. He's not quite Ken Griffey Jr. but he's alot closer than farther away. Tate launched a few balls past the green fence (not just the orange cones you can see in the picture), which is less surprising after breaking down his stroke.

2. Russell Wilson

I fully expected Wilson to top this list, so be excited for who landed on the top! Wilson did not disappoint. The former fourth round draft pick by the Colorado Rockies, before he was a third round pick by the Seahawks, flashed some of the tools that the Rockies must have seen. It took a few swings for him though. The picture above is one of Wilson's earlier swings in the home run derby where we can see everything looks really good except for a bent front leg. The bend keeps from a maximum power transfer, even though the rest of his body indicates good balance and strong transfer of power through a smooth follow-through. Wilson had this mechanical issue fixed within a few pitches:

Notice how Wilson's front leg is straight on this swing, and his back leg is driving his whole body into the ball. Also notice how deep Russell has let the ball travel - he still hasn't fully rotated his body and the ball is only a few feet away. He trusted his hands and bat speed, as well he should have. Wilson pulled every one of his hits, and crushed one ball onto the roof of a building beyond the bullpens. Wilson only hit .229 in his couple season of low-level pro ball with a slugging percentage well south of .400, but you have to wonder a bit what he could have done if he hadn't also been developing into an NFL starting quarterback at the same time.

1. Earl Thomas

Holy crap Earl Thomas is an insane athlete. I knew he was fast, but he flashed some stunning hitting ability. Thomas had an unassuming enough demeanor at the plate, as you can see from the picture above. I'm not sure how much baseball he has played in the past, but his hand position on most swings was near the top of the strike zone, and in general he looked comfortable at the plate. Then came his swing:

Look at that stroke! Thomas has a stiff front side, his back leg has thrust all his power to the aforementioned stiff front side, and he has generated so much bat speed that his shoulders have rotated well past his hips, which in turn rotated well past his feet. Thomas's hair and shirt give a bit of a feel for how fast his core twisted around. Like I said, the man is an insane athlete.

Thomas had lightning-quick hands and let the ball travel very deep in the zone before swinging. That's a recipe for power with average, especially given that Thomas kept his head quiet at the plate, and his feet pretty straightaway so that he could cover the whole plate. It's too bad that Earl Thomas is one of the best safeties in the NFL. I'd love to see him try his hand at playing centerfield. He'd likely be a great defender with his speed, and could at least be a slap hitter. However, I think he would hit for some power. Kenny Lofton and Andrew McCutchen come to mind, depending on the power in Thomas's bat. Tate was named MVP of the game, and he was a fine choice (particularly with a catch behind the back he made at shortstop), but Thomas looked a bit like a man among boys at times.

Richard Sherman's celebrity softball game was all sorts of fun. There were runs, for one thing, which was a breath of fresh air as a Mariners fan. There is also something fun and illuminating about watching athletes play sports that aren't their own. In some ways their natural talent can seem more obvious (as I experienced with Earl Thomas) and throughout the day I was reminded just how hard it is to hit a ball with a bat. There were some world class athletes with funky swings on the diamond today. Thanks to modern technology, and my quest to totally geek out today, you are also aware of the variety of swings sported this afternoon at Cheney Stadium.