I was both delighted and dismayed to hear Jessica Mendoza remark on Sunday Night Baseball that pitching up in the strike zone—even with a mediocre fastball—has suddenly become the go-to strategy in the game’s upper echelons. I was delighted because we’ve essentially been preaching this gospel from the reverse angle on SmallBallSuccess.com for years. In fact, I personally was preaching it long before I had any idea of founding the site. The metal bat, with its massive barrel and skinny handle, invites the hitter to hurl down on the ball, cocking the rear elbow and then unloading so steeply that the top hand slips off immediately upon contact. The hefty leg kick and the “foot down early” imperatives (how often I’ve heard Jessica praise that dogma!) are part of the same stroke.
But none of it belongs to yesteryear’s game—and the reason is pretty obvious. The bat path is too “dippy”. If a tall guy collides with the pitch just as it passes over the plate (i.e., as his divebombing barrel is beginning to pull back on the joystick), then he may well impart so much backspin in the process that the resultant buzzard-beater carries over a fence. Yet not only do smaller body types not have the equipment needed to accelerate the barrel sufficiently for this result: they, along with the big guys, risk a complete miss or a pitiful roll-over. The barrel, that is, spends too much time on its long transit being nowhere near the plane of the ball’s flight. It’s likely to descend too late or come up too early. For big fellows, the frequent K’s and ground-outs are considered an acceptable trade-off for a homer every third game. For smaller guys, useless pop-ups and dribblers are terminal.
And the high strike, of course, is the pitcher’s best option for exploiting this stroke’s big holes. A barrel starting from well above the shoulder simply cannot come at a letter-high fastball productively. (It does stand a good chance of clobbering a lazy hanger as it sweeps back upward: then the only question is… will the drive stay fair?) Since the strike zone was particularly high in the Deadball Era and even well after World War II, hitters knew better than to take that steep hack and then, immediately, roll back with lifting, opening shoulders. They kept their cut straight through the ball for as long as they could, usually finishing with their weight mostly or completely on the front foot. I have a feeling that the Fifties were the pivotal period of change, as the home run once again captivated the public and the uppercut swing (your grandad’s version of Launch Angle) was all that hitting instructors talked about.
I tried to get my son, who was a dandy little submarine pitcher, to shoot some of his 0-2 and 1-2 pitches way up in the zone. Even with his very modest velocity, I don’t think the chesty boppers that squared off against him in high school could have done him much harm there, especially since the pitch would literally be gaining altitude (the only pitch that truly does so). No, they would have chased it all the way to the roots of their hair! But his coach absolutely nixed the idea. Stay low, always low. Never change the incoming vertical angle. And today Ms. Mendoza is crowing, “Wow! We hadn’t thought that this could work! Now it’s the very latest thing.”
“Late” is right. Too late to help my son or to hit Coach Donkey between the ears. And that, naturally, is the source of my dismay. It’s flattering to be voted right, for a change, by the professional establishment… but it came too late to help my son—and, of course, none of the establishment is remotely aware of having given this independently publishing dad a thumbs-up. The game will move right along at its standard glacial pace, its elite patting themselves on the back every time they figure out something that others of us knew a decade or two earlier. (The uppercut swing, by the way, would eventually lead to the Year of the Pitcher and the lowering of the mound after the coaching brain trust had thoroughly ruined a generation of hitters with it.) Well, you know… so it is in all human affairs. There’s nothing new under the sun.
But the good news, if you have a teachable youngster, is that you don’t have to wait for baseball’s magnetosphere to reverse its polarities. Get your boy (or girl) swinging like Cobb and Speaker—and Oscar Charleston, and Martin Dihigo—right now! The coaches may want to jump right out of their cleats and shout, “What in… blazes are you doing?” But when they see one line drive after another after another rolling to the fence, that shout is likely to catch in their throat.