How Austin Hendrick Re-tooled His Swing Around 'Utterly Elite' Bat Speed
As one of the most talented lefthanded-hitting amateurs in the country, Austin Hendrick’s favorite player is no real surprise.
Easy. It’s Ken Griffey Jr.
Hendrick loves Griffey’s swing, the pure, smooth stroke that so many kids grow up trying—and failing—to replicate. But what stands out to Hendrick about The Kid’s game isn’t anything physical.
“I love Griffey’s mindset,” said Hendrick, a 6-foot-1, 192-pound muscle-strapped outfielder. “He’s always positive, always happy. You couldn’t tell if he was struggling or hitting three bombs a game.”
As for his favorite active player? That’s also easy.
“I like Bryce Harper’s game,” Hendrick said. “He plays the game hard. I like Harper’s swing because it’s explosive. I love his torque, his bat speed, strength—it’s crazy.”
While it’s difficult to compare a high school senior to a Hall of Famer and a generational talent, Hendrick does possess some of the elements he admires about Griffey and Harper.
A Mississippi State commit who became famous as an underclassman thanks to the power in his bat, Hendrick has some of the best pure bat speed in the 2020 draft class.
If you ask him about it, he’ll play it down.
“My hands are—I like to say—quick, but just let them play,” he said.
Ask anyone who has watched Hendrick play and you’ll get a more clear understanding of exactly how rapidly his hands flash through the zone when he decides he wants to take a hack.
“His bat speed is so elite. It is utterly elite,” said Gregg Ritchie, Hendrick’s hitting coach with USA Baseball’s 18U National Team.
Hendrick has spent two summers with Team USA. He spends his springs playing for West Allegheny High in Imperial, Pa., a 45-minute drive west of Pittsburgh.
While having elite bat speed is certainly a blessing, it can also be a curse. When Hendrick was growing up, when he was 7 or 8, he played against older kids—11- and 12-year-olds who were further along in their physical development.
“I was always a smaller guy, didn’t have the strength like they did,” Hendrick said. “So I would try to get everything out of my body.”
To do that, Hendrick implemented a unique toe tap in his load that allowed him to gear up and drive through the ball with as much power as he could. As he got older, his strength started to develop and the toe tap became more of a timing mechanism than a mechanical hack for more impact.
He used the toe tap to keep his lightning-quick hands back as long as possible as he waited on slow Pennsylvania fastballs.
“It’s actually harder in high school in Pennsylvania because you don’t see a lot of dudes who throw hard,” Hendrick said, comparing his experience with the high-octane velocity he saw last summer on the showcase circuit. “In my opinion, this is easier to hit than back home.
“You just really have to stay loyal to your opposite-field approach, your two-strike approach. Because you really don’t get pitched to either way. It’s offspeed stuff constantly—and their fastballs are slow enough. Like, their fastballs back home are these (summer pitchers’) offspeed. In high school, I didn’t see a guy throwing 82 (mph). I was seeing low 70s and even 60s—and that’s not an exaggeration.”
So the toe tap worked to prevent Hendrick from swinging three times before a pitch crossed the plate. It kept him back long enough so that on the rare occasions when a pitcher would give him something over the plate, he would be able to punish them for doing so. He also had plenty of bat waggle in his hand setup—almost like Gary Sheffield—that also helped keep his barrel from darting forward too soon.
But what works against lower-quality competition wasn’t going to cut it when Hendrick started routinely facing pitchers who can throw breaking balls harder than 82 mph—to say nothing of the mid- and upper-90s fastballs.
“He is a special talent and he has a quirky thing going on there,” Ritchie said. “It’s athletic—it’s honestly different—but anyone realizes that you are going to have to slow that down to make it usable, to make it efficient, to make it go to another level. And with a kid like him, we are talking about being a real accomplished pro, and trying to get to the big leagues. That’s the talent that I think he is.”
With the milliseconds between a pitcher releasing the ball and deciding to swing compressing, Hendrick needed to simplify his process. The toe tap was too funky. Too inconsistent.
“He would get in the box and he would have an initial set of a high toe position that was maybe—I think I measured it one time—14 to 16 inches apart with his feet,” Ritchie said. “And then he’d move his feet closer together, when it looked like the pitcher was ready to go, and twist himself.
“So his front heel would be facing the pitcher. I have pictures of him where his right shoulder was facing the left-field bullpen. That’s how far it was in. And then from there he would have all the bat waggle going on and it would move in many different directions: behind his head, laying down on his back, then behind his head, then up forward toward the catcher, and then tilt toward the pitcher and then back over—it was a lot of stuff going on.
“And then when the pitcher would take off and come to him he would then toe tap. I can’t even count how many toe taps it was, but I kind of described it as catching a fish and then dropping the fish off the hook and on the dock. Watching what the fish would do. It would just flop around. And you can imagine the inconsistency that would promote.”
Depending on the speed or the movement of the pitch, or even the timing of a pitcher’s delivery, Hendrick’s front foot would be in different positions at his launch point. That led to different barrel positions at the point of contact. Attempting to coordinate all of those moving parts while also reacting to the best pure stuff he had faced led to more swings and misses and decreased use of the opposite field.
“I wanted to be even more consistent finding the barrel,” Hendrick said. “I wanted to help myself find the opposite field a little bit better, just easier—make it simpler and let my hands really do the work. Make it easier for timing.”
Hendrick and Ritche had what the latter described as a “meeting of the minds.”
“He was willing (to take instruction),” Ritchie said. “He’s always been a willing guy. It’s just the amount of time.”
2020 MLB Draft Stock Watch: To-Do Lists For 30 Potential First Round Picks
Here's what each of the 30 prospects in the 2020 MLB Draft class must do to improve their draft stock this spring.
Without having as much familiarity with Hendrick, Ritchie wouldn’t have tried such a large mechanical overhaul with a player. And he expected that it would take weeks for the adjustment to become natural and comfortable.
Ritchie decided that Hendrick could keep his bat waggle—since his hand-eye coordination and barrel control were so advanced—but simplifying his lower half was going to be a necessity. They spread out Hendrick’s feet, about shoulder width or slightly wider, to stabilize his lower half and did a few drills to show how much force could still be generated with his feet grounded.
“The consistency of his barrel even when I short tossed or threw to him, he never missed,” Ritchie said. “He said, ‘What do I do with the foot?’ And I said, ‘Do what feels natural from this spot.’ And what he did naturally, without me even telling him, was just a tiny little leg tuck.
“He just lifted it, tucked the knee a little bit, which is what you see in a lot of tremendous hitters. And if anyone noticed, (when that happened) the movement of his barrel was kind of cut in half . . .
“Everyone recognized it. I heard the next day, scouts were like, ‘Uh oh, what happened?’ ”
Almost immediately, Hendrick began seeing the ball better. His contact improved and it didn’t come with a loss of any of his prodigious raw power—which is among the best in the 2020 prep class.
Shortly thereafter, Hendrick homered against lefthander Timmy Manning (the No. 20 prospect in the high school class) at the Prospect Development Pipeline event hosted by Major League Baseball.
He was then was one of the most impressive hitters at the East Coast Pro showcase, where he hit .385/.579/.615 with a double, a triple and three times as many walks (six) as strikeouts (two).
“It took one round of BP,” Hendrick said. “It was really simple. It was kind of crazy.”
Now the top-ranked hitter in the high school class thanks to his adjustments and the performance that followed, Hendrick has shown he has both the physical and mental tools necessary for a future big league career.
“With any person who wants to be great at what they do—or elite, or reach their potential—change is required.” Ritchie said.
“. . . It’s only going to get better from here. He has more things to do and he knows it, but he has a working foundation and he himself can be his own teacher now.
“What a special young man and what a special talent—he’s like a Harper in waiting, huh?”