As the summer—a long, hot summer—finally settles into fall, I look back with considerable satisfaction on Metal Ropes, the book I’ve just published through Amazon that imports Deadball Era lessons to our age of alloy bats. Writing the book (like writing anything on any subject) was itself educational: I mean, I learned a lot just by setting down what I had learned. One of my most painful lessons was realizing that the first thing I had my son do in a batter’s box when he was a little tyke was wrong. I had him spread his feet wide. I reasoned… well, I’m no longer sure just what I reasoned. The tactic was vintage Charley Lau, so I could blame it on my great mentor, author of The Art or Hitting .300. The widespread stance must have seemed sensible for a short kid, at any rate, because it emphasized a firm base that would allow the hands to go straight at the ball. A contact hitter: that’s what we wanted.
But there are two erroneous assumptions in this theory. One is that minimizing lower-body movement and focusing on the hands will make the attack quicker. It won’t. It actually slows the attack down. The hands are quickest to the ball when they tap into energy that has already been generated in the lower body. Reduce or remove that energy… and you have nothing but hands, all on their own: that translates into a slow swing.
The second error is that widespread feet create a level stroke that keeps the barrel in the hitting zone for a long time. Intuitively, you would want to approve this connection. If someone asked you to take a yardstick and describe as flat and broad a plane as you could in thin air, you’d spread your legs to stabilize and then rake the stick from side to side. But no one is asking you to accelerate the stick at this moment; and once you try to add speed to the equation, the feet (as noted in the previous paragraph) have to get involved. The most obvious and, I suppose, natural way for them to do so is for the front knee to coil in the load and the front hip to flip back open as the attack begins. Now, however, your beautiful plane has scattered to the winds. As the knee coils, the hands load up and back… and as the hip opens, the shoulders rotate out and up. In other words, you’re leading the bat into a pronounced dip. You’re likely to cut under the bull’s eye and pop the pitch up if the dip is still descending; or, if you catch the ball as the barrel begins to rise, you’ll topspin or “roll over” the pitch.
Of course, starting with the feet close together can create an even more extreme—much more extreme—undercut/uppercut dynamic. (Look at Cody Bellinger: he may well be this year’s MVP, but he has cooled off, and he’s not 5”7’ tall. His pop-ups and roll-overs assume his own epic proportions.) A relatively long, easy stride into the pitch can also produce the most level of swings, though. Yesteryear’s great stickers knew this. They knew, to be precise, that if they 1) didn’t load their hands far up and back, and 2) followed the striding foot very closely with those hands down into the pitch, the barrel would hold a straight, slightly descending line into the ball’s center all the way to the front of the batter’s box. Then the bat would come up over the forward shoulder in a tight parabola with the head still pointing directly at the mound. You can find that very finish in thousands of photos from before the Fifties (though in very few after then, thanks to the Age of the Uppercut).
A full forward weight shift, in short (also known as front-foot hitting), is the key to keeping a quick, linear stroke on target into the pitch and producing a line drive. Aaron did it. Clemente did it. A lot of the players who entered the MLB through the Negro Leagues brought the Old School technique right along with them, though many were subsequently destroyed as hitters when “instructors” insisted that they lean back and hack.
I don’t want to rewrite Metal Ropes in this spot. Just beware of what you’re telling your child—understand that the thigh bone’s connected to the hip bone. When you have a boy assume a certain position in the box, that is to say, you’re already confining him to a narrow sequence of moves that can work fluidly with that position. Think it all through. Don’t start at a point that just happens to be what everyone else is doing… and therefore must be right. Make every element of the swing contribute to the effect you want.
In my case, I wanted my son to hit low line drives—and I sabotaged my endeavor right out of the gate. I wish I could take back those initial mistakes, but instead, I’ll have to live with them. One way I’ve made my peace is to create SmallBallSuccess.com.