baseball history, footwork in the box, hand use in hitting, hitter reaction time, mental approach, Uncategorized, weight transfer

Hitting in a Pinch: Think Outside the Box When in the Box

Here’s a bit more from my forthcoming book, Metal Ropes (which is consuming most of my time these days).  Hope you enjoy.  These are NOT comments that I’ve seen echoed anywhere else–and maybe for good reason.  But I don’t write just to repeat what’s already been said.

two-strike hitting

This subject has already been covered by implication in previous comments… but let’s put all the implied directives together and assemble the puzzle. A contact hitter puts the ball in play: he doesn’t strike out. We want to promote contact hitting. Is there more to achieving our goal than simply choosing a style that’s short to the ball, as are all strong forward-shift swings when you don’t load the hands too far back?

Maybe not a whole lot more—yet you could still do a couple of things to maximize your chances. I would suggest standing off the plate a little if you have begun the at-bat close to the black, and I would also endorse closing up the stance if it began squared away (and certainly if it began open). The effect of both adjustments is to allow you to contact the pitch later—to let it get deeper. If you’re close to the plate, you force yourself to reach the ball early so that it doesn’t slip under your hands; and if you’re squared to the plate, you also have to be a little quicker to get the barrel down into the zone. As the point of possible contact slides farther outside and farther back toward the catcher, the barrel has the luxury of arriving later. Stepping back and closing up makes every pitch tend to behave more like a low/away pitch.  (Of course, think “opposite field” or you’ll ruin everything!)

To such a degree is this true that you might even consider sneaking a few inches closer to the mound, as well, if you don’t find the pitcher’s hard one already overpowering you. This will diminish the break of his breaking ball, which he may be very tempted to throw once he gets you in a hole. You may feel that you’re now excessively exposed to what was a manageable fastball before—but you’re still in a good position to foul Number One off. I should say that it’s a more high-percentage strategy to spoil the fastball and cheat on the breaking ball than to look fastball and hope to goodness that you don’t get a breaking ball. What do you think?

I’m going to add this, though it has nothing to do with hitting style: please don’t take close pitches with two strikes when you’ve observed the umpire consistently giving the pitcher four inches off the plate. Foul those nuisances off. Nick them one-handed if you have to. After a couple of innings, you should know if your ump likes his “Hee-rike Hreee!” routine so much that he probably practices it every night before the mirror. I hate seeing players—especially contact-hitters—get caught in this trap. Be preemptive. Fight to get on first.

using different styles in different counts

It was said of Ty Cobb that he assumed various stances during a single at-bat, and I’ve heard the same claim made of Rod Carew. Honestly, I had never given much thought to the matter until the final weeks of preparing this book—and I don’t know why it popped into my head at that time. Perhaps my comments about the dynamism of the Fall Step made me reflect, “You know… you could take that kind of lunging, all-or-nothing cut early in the count and perhaps early in the game. If you came up empty, you could revert to something a little more under control and high-percentage.” Imagine Carl Yastrzemski airing it out on the first good fastball he sees. Then, after fouling the pitch straight back, the hitter morphs into Bill Madlock.

The subject is worth further consideration, and serious consideration. One hears some of the more experienced TV commentators complain occasionally about batsmen who do nothing to adjust to the count after they collect two strikes. Usually the phrase “choke up” is dropped in somewhere if such comments are elaborated. What I’m suggesting here could go well beyond choking up, however. What if I were to set up on top of the plate in leading off one of the early innings of a scoreless game, intending to stride away vigorously in that big “swoosh” of a Fall Step stroke which could either rake an inside pitch or chase an outside one up the off-field power alley? And what if, upon the failure of my plan to land a hit in fair territory, I decided to back well off the plate and execute a similar swing, but aimed the other way from the start? Maybe the count goes full as the battle continues; and maybe I then decide to slip far back in the box and do a shuffle into the pitch, allowing me to reach the breaking ball before it breaks but also, hopefully, to fight off any fastball with quick hands?

Would this be too much for a single at-bat? Perhaps. Would such diversity of approach be more permissible over the course of several at-bats in one game? Why not? Would the objection be that the hitter will mess himself up by straying from the single swing that he’s practiced over and over, even hundreds of times, in the cage between games? But is it really so very hard to bend a swing in various directions? Why should it be hard? If the hitter needs his hundreds of reps just to avoid jumping the one narrow track where his stroke seems to run on time, then how good a stroke can it be, to begin with? And if opposing pitchers and catchers perceive (as they surely will) how dependent he is on rigidly preserved mechanics for success, will they not devise a way to exploit his holes in full confidence that he cannot adjust?

There are many things I don’t understand about the game as it’s played today, and maybe some of these things are products of my not having ever faced anything like a Pedro Martinez or a Justin Verlander with a bat in my hands. Yet it’s precisely the thought of such formidable adversaries that convinces me of the diverse, resourceful, multi-pronged attack’s necessity. No, I simply don’t understand the determination with which hitters rehearse themselves into rigidly defined parameters. What I do know well—better than most professionals today, few of whom have explored the game’s history—is that the greatest players of yesteryear didn’t share their obsession with invariable form.

Doesn’t this subject deserve further thought? If you try to put various styles into practice during a single at-bat and you get fouled up, then don’t try it again. But what if it works?

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