“” St. Louis Cardinals: How Lars Nootbaar added 8 mph of bat speed

St. Louis Cardinals: How Lars Nootbaar added 8 mph of bat speed

| Blog Article, Hitting
Reading Time: 15 minutes
Lars Short Bat

Written by John Soteropulos – Hitting Trainer

Take a deep breath and let’s hit the rewind button all the way back to March of 2020. If you were a minor league baseball player like Lars Nootbaar was, things weren’t looking good:

  • Minor league spring training has just been canceled, and players had been sent home due to Covid
  • There was a serious chance that the entire 2020 MiLB season was going to get canceled

With so much uncertainty looming, Lars and I decided there was only one way to deal with the situation—we got to work. 

This blog takes an inside look at the two years of Lars training from March 2020 up until March of 2022. We go in depth on his biomechanics, learn about how he’s gained 8 miles per hour of bat speed, and share some fun stories along the way. Onward!

Lars Nootbaar hitting mechanics

Hitting Assessment and Initial Training

First Day of Training
3.20.2020 – First Day of Training

In the minor leagues, Lars had shown great plate discipline, above average bat-to-ball skills, and the consistent ability to run a very low K%. All great attributes! With a solid foundation to build on, the next step was to unlock his power, which he’d shown flashes of, but hadn’t showcased consistently—yet.

With such a fascinating profile, I was interested to see what his assessment data would look like. After our first week of hitting, three main areas stood out to me:

  1. 66 to 69mph average bat speed (too slow) 
  2. He was over coiling his pelvis during his load, making it difficult to consistently create power via hip-to-shoulder separation during the stride phase
  3. His load and lack of hip-to-shoulder separation created mechanics that made it difficult for him to “clear space” by rotating his hips and pull the ball in the air consistently. 
Day 1 -  Load at Heel Strike (shown as a RHH)
Day 1 –  Load at Heel Strike (shown as a RHH)
Day 1 - Hip-to-Shoulder Separation Graph
Day 1 – Hip-to-Shoulder Separation Graph

Pelvis and Hip-to-Shoulder Separation

What we saw with Lars’ load was that his pelvis was coiling a lot more than his torso. During his assessment, he averaged ≈8° of hip-to-shoulder separation (pro average ≈18°). Because his pelvis over-coiled, it was rotating from a very closed off position. So while his pelvis rotational velocities were good, the pelvis hardly rotated in front of his torso, which led to minimal hip-to-shoulder separation.

Think of the core muscles as a rubber band. When the pelvis rotates in front of the torso, hip-to-shoulder separation is created and stretches the rubber band (internal and external obliques stretch). Next, as the pelvis decelerates, the torso accelerates, which would be the rubber band “snapping” into contact (internal and external obliques contract). With 8° of HSS, Lars was barely stretching his rubber band, and losing out on potential elastic energy.

After his assessment, we sat down with all of this information and created a training plan geared towards accomplishing the following:

  • Get his pelvis and torso to coil closer to even during his load. This will put him in a position to rotate with more hip-to-shoulder separation. 
  • Increase his bat speed with concentrated weighted bat training
  • Improve his ability to hit the ball hard, in the air, and to the pull-side of the field

With this training plan in hand, we got to work. Every day, after Lars finished his day job at Boeing, we would meet in the cages and execute that night’s program. The foundation of our training was built on utilizing technology and objective feedback: Blast, K-Vest, Rapsodo, and video. On top of this, we implemented constraint drills and weighted bats.

The final piece of the puzzle was figuring out which cues worked best for Lars when he was in the box. And we tried a lot of them. After a month of training, a lot of late nights, and some LONG batting practice rounds, we had made significant progress. 

4/24/2020 – After a Month of Training
Before vs. After

Can you spot the changes? Take another look—what differences stand out? Mechanically, the biggest change was cleaning up his load. His pelvis and torso were now coiling much closer to even. 

Before (top) vs. After (bottom) at Heel Strike - Shown as a RHH
Before (top) vs. After (bottom) at Heel Strike – Shown as a RHH
Before - Pelvis over-coiling, leading to minimal HSS
Before – Pelvis over-coiling, leading to minimal HSS
After - Pelvis and torso coiled closer to even (1:1), leading to more HSS
After – Pelvis and torso coiled closer to even (1:1), leading to more HSS

Check out deltas on his average positions at heel strike (0° is parallel to home plate): 

  • Pelvis: 46°→ 23°
  • Torso: 11° → 12° 
  • Hip-to-shoulder separation (X-Factor) at heel strike: 35° →  11°

His pelvis is coiling much less, while his torso is coiling around the same amount. This sets up his pelvis and torso to be coiled closer to even at heel strike, exactly what we were aiming for. With his new and improved load, Lars’ pelvis was rotating in front of his torso, allowing him to get more hip-to-shoulder separation and utilize elastic energy by stretching his core muscles. As opposed to before, he was now stretching and snapping the rubber band much more efficiently. This improved load, combined with a steady diet of bat speed training, increased his average bat speed by +5mph. 

  • 66-69mph —> 71-74mph = +5mph 

To be clear, more hip-to-shoulder separation was not the only reason he added +5mph of bat speed. Instead, the +5mph increase can be attributed to a combination of: 

  1. More efficient mechanics (improved hip-to-shoulder separation)
  2. Dedicated bat speed training days with weighted bats 
  3. Using a Blast motion sensor, interpreting the feedback after each swing, and optimizing his training environments for swinging the bat fast 

Hitting Mechanics are Complicated

Mechanics are complicated, and saying “Lars added +5mph of bat speed because he gained 10° hip-to-shoulder separation” wouldn’t be completely accurate. While more hip-to-shoulder separation was definitely a contributing factor, encouraging him to swing fast during training and monitoring his bat speed with a Blast sensor played a huge role in boosting his intent.

Simply put, trying to swing faster, definitely helped Lars swing faster. With more bat speed and a new swing, we wanted to stress test everything with on-field reps. Why? Because ball flight can be a valuable form of feedback, when interpreted correctly

Hook 'em Long Bat
Hook ‘Em with the Long Bat

Hook ‘Em Long Bat was a staple of Lars’ training. The Hook ‘Em drill cleans up his load/stride, putting him in a position where his pelvis and torso are coiled evenly. The long bat forces him to rotate efficiently and hit the ball flush at a contact point farther in front of home plate. Both of which were essential adaptations we were chasing in his training program. With mechanics, when you’ve changed the way a hitter swings the bat, it’s always useful to see how these new movement patterns hold up in a mixed pitch setting. Mixed pitch helps us answer the questions: “How sticky are your new mechanics?” and “Will these adaptations hold up in a more difficult environment?” Enter the short box, where I throw mixed pitch at-bats from 40ft…

Bottom of the 9th walk-off to beat the +/- 4.5 run line – I had to buy breakfast after this 

He passed the test 😔. Notice the Blast sensor on his bat knob; we always make sure to track bat speed while hitting, even when we’re on the field. With +5mph of bat speed and the ability to pull the ball in the air, everything Lars hit now went a lot farther. Here’s some eye-opening math for balls hit in air:

  • 1mph of bat speed = 1.2mph of exit velocity ≈ 7 feet of distance 
  • 5mph of bat speed = 6mph of exit velocity ≈ 35 feet of distance

Think about that for a second. Every fly ball he hits now is going 35ft farther…35 FEET. Talk about serious xwOBAcon gains. 35ft in batted ball distance is an absurd difference, and it’s all because he’s swinging the bat faster. Armed with a new swing, +5mph of bat speed, and an improved approach, we were excited to see Lars take the field for the 2020 MiLB season…we thought.   

2020: Canceled MiLB Season

“Sometimes in life, things don’t work out the way you planned.”

-Harvey Bushkin, Heavyweights

Boom, just like that in May of 2020, COVID cancels the MiLB season.  But Lars saw the canceled 2020 season as an opportunity to keep building on the foundation we’d laid down. He continued working at Boeing during the day and training at night. Armed with a Blast sensor, weighted bats, and a new understanding of how to train with tech, he continued to increase his bat speed, drill in his new mechanics, and train until his new swing became “second nature”. He’d rinse and repeat this process all the way up until the 2021 season. 

2021: Starting the Season in AAA

Fast forward to Opening Day of the 2021 season, and Lars starts the year in AAA Memphis. For the first few weeks of the season, he settled into a 4th outfielder role, with the occasional spot start or pinch hit appearance. Always making the most of his opportunities, he eventually hit his way into more at-bats. More at-bats was then solidified as a spot in the starting lineup after a 3-5, 5 RBI night against the Nashville Sounds.

From that point on, it was off to the races. With consistent ABs and the intent to hit the ball hard, he was putting up the best numbers of his career—by far. When the Louisville Bats came to town in June, they arrived just in time for the barrel party.

In 6 games Lars went 6 for 21 with 4 HRs, slashed .286/.423/.857, and took some of his best swings yet, including this home run at 109.9mph @ 20°. 

At the time of his big league call-up on 6/21, Lars was batting:

  • .329/.430/.557
  • .987 OPS
  • .228 ISO
  • .422 wOBA
  • 160 wRC+
  • 14% BB%
  • 18.3% K%

Lars’ MLB Debut

Seeing Lars’ hard work culminate in a big league call up was exciting for everyone. He had spent a year and half rebuilding his swing and honing his approach. After putting up career best numbers in AAA, it was time to take his swing into the trenches…in The Show.  

All-Star Break Assessment at Driveline

Seeking to improve his game even further during the All-Star break, Lars flew to Driveline in Seattle for a swing assessment and training.

Seattle, WAHitting in the Motion Capture Lab

During his time in the MLB, we noticed he’d been whiffing fastballs more than his career norms. Against the fastball, his SwStr% and IzMiss% both took a substantial jump. From his game videos, it looked like he was getting excessive torso forward bend at heel strike. Taking a look at his motion capture biomechanics report, we were able to confirm this observation.

Excessive Torso Forward Bend at Heel Strike
Excessive Torso Forward Bend at Heel Strike
Motion Capture Report  - 38.9° of Torso Forward Bend at Heel Strike
Motion Capture Report  – 38.9° of Torso Forward Bend at Heel Strike

During his All-Star break assessment, Lars was consistently landing with ≈38° of torso forward bend at heel strike. From his previous biomechanics data, we knew that his swing works best when he’s landing closer to the 30° range.

Landing taller allows his bat path to work flatter, which helps him be more effective against fastballs, especially those thrown up in the zone with above average vertical break. We identified the problem—now we had to fix it. So we started with the High Tee:

Hook ‘Em High Tee 
Hook ‘Em High Tee 

The Hook ‘Em High Tee drill is great for landing at high pitch posture and training a flatter bat path. Both of which help Lars do damage against the fastball.

Additionally, during the first half of the season, we noticed he wasn’t elevating the ball to the pull-side of the field as well as he could. In order to train this, we set-up the machine on the inner part of the plate, and we told Lars to swing with a very specific ball flight goal. During the machine reps, we coached him to hit the ball:

  • Harder than +100mph
  • Above 10°
  • To right field (HLA > 25°)
Training in Seattle
104.5mph @15°

Hitting against the machine creates a great training environment because it increases the level of difficulty, and we get to see if the adjustments we’ve been working on are “sticky.” The machine helps us answer the question:

 “Do your mechanical changes show up when the ball is moving faster?”  

With any swing change, this is an important question to answer because our goal is to have these new mechanics show up in the game…when the ball is moving fast. After three days of work, Lars and I were happy with what we accomplished, and we both were excited for his second half!

2021: Positive Second Half 

In the second half of the season, Lars was a productive contributor to the team, seeing most of his action in pinch hit appearances and the occasional spot start, always making the most of his opportunities when they came about! A couple of my personal favorites were his home run robbery at Citi Field and a two home run game versus the Chicago Cubs—both during the Cardinals’ historic 17-game winning streak.

He finished the 2021 season with a 101 wRC+ (100 is league average), which is a respectable line when you consider most of his at-bats were pinch-hit appearances. Nevertheless, both of us knew he still had A LOT more in the tank. 

Arizona Fall League Selection

After the season ended, Lars was selected to play in the Arizona Fall League. We saw this as a great opportunity to continue stress testing his new swing/approach with consistent game at-bats, all while getting more training time in at Driveline’s Phoenix, AZ location.

The unique schedule allowed Lars to train and play games at the same time, so we jumped on it. The AFL schedule did make for some longer days consisting of hitting sessions in the morning with games at night. But if you want the work, you’ll get the work!

Morning - Underload Batting Practice
Morning – Underload Batting Practice at Driveline in Phoenix
AFL Homer
Night – AFL home run

The combination of training and games was very effective. During his time in the AFL, Lars put together a great season, and hit some of his highest exit velocities to date, including a 113.8mph lifetime exit velocity PR!

  • .314/.437/.643
  • 1.080 OPS
  • .329 ISO
  • 16.1% BB%
  • 17.2% K%
110.1mph HR
110.1mph home run

Remote Training During the 2021 Winter

November 2021 – SoCal Reps

Just a couple of weeks after the AFL season ended, we linked up again in Southern California for a couple of training sessions. The goal for these was to give Lars the foundation for two months of remote training before he would come up to Seattle in February 2022. 

February 2022: Driveline Assessment & Training

Motion Capture Assessment 

When he showed up at Driveline in the beginning of February 2020, most of the training centered on getting him ready for Spring Training, cleaning up any mechanical inefficiencies we saw, and continuing to increase his bat speed. This meant a training plan mostly consisting of:

56ft LH 4-Seam – 95mph , 11:30 spin-axis, 2300rpm
Hitting Smash Balls with a Fungo
Mixed Pitch ABs (don’t leave fastballs over the plate…)

In a month of training, Lars made significant strides in all of those areas, as well as increase his bat speed by another +3mph. We even had some friendly competition when teammate Nolan Arenado stopped by. We’re excited to see what 2022 has in store for both of them!  

Be sure to check out what a training session with Lars looks like!

Closing Thoughts

Lars’ story is unique, inspiring, and very insightful. This is a guy who used a canceled 2020 MiLB season to change the trajectory of his career. For some closing thoughts, I wanted to recap his bat speed gains from March 2020 to February 2022.

  • 66-69mph → 74-77mph = +8mph

In just under two years, Lars increased his average bat speed by 8 mph. He prioritizes his training and finds a way to get his work in, regardless of circumstances. As we continue to learn, improve, and educate ourselves on the process, the best part of Lars’ journey is that:

WE’RE JUST GETTING STARTED

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