baseball history, bat acceleration, Deadball Era, footwork in the box, hand use in hitting, low line drives, opposite-field hitting, strike zone, Uncategorized

A Comparison of Barrel Paths: Vague Results, But One Strong Conclusion

Below is an excerpt from the utterly new Chapter Fifteen of Landing Safeties, Second Edition, which I hope to have available on Amazon before the end of May.  Please do not mistake the copy of the book currently advertised at the right of this page for that update: it will clearly read “Second Edition” on the cover.  Yet if you’ve bought the first edition in the past, I believe you’re eligible to receive a free Kindle update when the next edition appears.  (It will be in both Kindle format and hard copy.).

The first edition of Landing Safeties contained nothing whatever that would correspond to this chapter.  In fact, I’d thought that I was done with the second edition when the idea struck me for including a graphic breakdown of various swings.  I had made claims at two or three points earlier in the book about how the forward weight shift reaches places in the zone that more “approved” swings today can’t touch—and reaches them from a productive, line-drive angle.  But could I show that visually to be true?  And how should I show it?  Should I sketch the outlines of hitters swinging their sticks from various angles?  Would that be convincing?  After all, a sketch can be squeezed or stretched to illustrate “facts” that aren’t valid in the real world.

But if I shot live footage of actual swings and then froze certain critical frames, would the features I wanted to emphasize come clear?  I don’t have the resources to film myself in a dark studio with a luminescent bat (the like of which Walt Hriniak did for his classic manual).  Could I make the barrel stand out sufficiently in black and white to sell my propositions?

Well, in my own low-tech manner, I fashioned a couple of pretty good demonstrations.  A white sock was duck-taped to the end of each of three bats.  That sock stands out well enough to emphasize the bat path in the isolated frames.  One sequence of swings, furthermore, was shot from directly overhead (itself no mean technical feat: but my trusty duck tape permitted me to extend the camera’s mounting several feet from an upstairs balcony).  The horizontal view was relatively easy, and was captured against an L-screen draped in a dark tarp.  I wish I hadn’t chosen to wear a white-topped cap throughout the filming… but I never said I was Steven Spielberg.

Frankly, the overhead view was disappointing, to the extent that I thought it would be very revealing.  It licenses several insights, but not as clearly as I’d hoped.  The details must be analyzed very finely.  To complicate matters, my three bats were of different sizes.  I suppose I should have used a single bat throughout: that way I would not have had to qualify my conclusions about how much of the zone was being covered by allowing for different lengths of stick.  Yet I was between a rock and a hard place on that one.  You really can’t use a single bat for all three strokes—not if you want to reproduce them with their peculiar effects highlighted.  Variation in bat is indeed part of the reason why swings have changed so much over the past century.  A Deadball swing doesn’t mix well with a short, top-heavy club; a Juan Gonzalez/Alex Rodriguez type of swing isn’t something you’d want to try with a yard of timber (not if you value your spine).

So, with those caveats acknowledged, let me proceed to describe how the demo’s below are organized.  The three swings I have chosen to model are the following.  First I start in the present.  I call this paradigm the Twenty-First Century Swing (or TFCS).  I noticed it becoming all the rage back in the Nineties of the previous century.  We’ve discussed it lengthily before, and I’m sure you know it by heart: bat cocked high to the rear, back elbow pointed up restlessly, big leg kick, foot down early, lower the boom into the zone, early release of top hand, high finish with bottom hand.  It’s an ideal stroke for the metal bat, though more risky with wood.  Even the shortest wooden bats carry enough weight to place a lot of strain on the back when put through such gyrations.  The two home-run superstars I mentioned in the previous paragraph both suffered from chronic back pain.  I myself thought I was having kidney failure as I tried to crawl out of bed the morning after I took these videos!

I used a 33” Tony Gwynn model in executing the TFCS.  I believe Tony himself actually employed a shorter stick.  The barrel is quite broad compared to the handle.  Obviously, a lot of flare brings the two ends together.  Gwynn was one of the first big-league hitters to insist that his wooden tools be engineered as closely as possible to resemble the metal ones he had know in high school and college.

Moving back in time (though, of course, the boundaries aren’t rigid), I replicate what I call the Golden Age Swing (GAS). Williams—both Ted and Billy, in fact—Mize, Mantle, Musial, Mathews, Snider, Kaline, Killebrew, McCovey… all of them operated within these parameters, some more narrowly than others.  The Fifties have been dubbed baseball’s “golden age” because they produced this new generation of uppercutting power-hitters who, it is said, made the game more exciting than it has ever been.  The GAS begins in a backward glide rather than a leg kick, with hands gathered in at the rear armpit.  The backward coil of the loading knee is often synchronized with a slight dip or roll of the hands (some call it a hitch; I don’t think it’s pronounced enough to justify that label).  Then the front foot strides out as about half the weight spills immediately back onto the rear leg.  The barrel rushes off the shoulder into its descent in no time and continues to trace most of its path through a faint but steady rise—a long, sweeping rise that typically ends with the bat wrapped around beside (not above) the front shoulder.  It is indeed a powerful swing.  Most of its practitioners were dead-pull hitters.  With so much emphasis on staying back (what I sometimes call “lean back and hack”), their only possible adjustment to an outside pitch was to undercut it severely and hope that the opposite-field defender was caught off guard by the bloop.

My lumber for this round was a 34” Fred Lynn model that fits my hands very well for the kind of load required.  The bat’s flare isn’t as abrupt as the Gwynn model’s, but the stick remains formidably massive.

And this brings us to our Deadball Swing (DS).  I essentially took the approach outlined at the end of Chapter 12: load the barrel almost straight up and not far back, use that load to catalyze a stiff lift of the forward leg, drop down on the leg heavily in a movement that draws the barrel directly after it, carry the cut down and through the pitch as far as possible, and finally follow through with a parabolic sweep that sends the barrel far over the front shoulder.  The weight shift, as we have stressed, should be as complete as reaction time will allow. Since I wasn’t swinging at an actual pitch during any of these exercises, my shift showed no evidence of being interrupted.

I used a 35” Robin Ventura model in this third round of demonstrations.  Robin wasn’t even born when Ty Cobb died; but the slim, moderate design of this sweet bat is remarkably similar to what I can make out of Cobb’s weapon.

Since I devoted Chapter 13 exclusively to the shuffling load, and since I’m so delighted with that forgotten tactic, I tossed in a few additional photos in my DS discussions that underscore how shuffling enhances the best elements of yesteryear’s stroke.

I was pleasantly surprised by how much I learned from isolating particular instants of each swing and then comparing them, even though (as I’ve confessed) the overhead sequences needed a lot more analyzing than I would have supposed necessary.  All of us have become accustomed to viewing video in the twenty-first century—perhaps too much so.  Stopping and freezing on certain moments that rush past too quickly in live time can unveil a hidden world to the careful observer.

The Overhead View

I begin with the overhead view because it turns out to be a little less revealing—and I prefer to finish with the angle that drives home the important lessons better.  I have to believe now that so much significant up-and-down motion (visible only from a lateral angle) is going on in any swing as to make the overhead angle almost uninteresting.

Nevertheless, we can obtain some useful insights if we break up the swing into three parts and then look at Part One in all of our strokes, followed by Part Two and then Part Three.  That’s exactly what I have done.

The first part consists of three frames. These bring the barrel from its fully loaded position (I saw no reason to represent anything previous to the full-cock moment) forward to the instant when it’s about to enter the hitting zone. The TFCS and the GAS are so similar as to be indistinguishable: you could almost suppose yourself to be looking at the same three shots. The only real contrast we have going here, then, is between the two more contemporary paradigms and the Deadball Swing—and there’s little enough difference, even between the upper pair of sequences and the bottom one.

Screen Shot 2020-04-27 at 9.49.35 AM

Now, let’s acknowledge a couple of compromising deficiencies right off the bat (so to speak).  I’ve already noted that the length of my sticks varied, from 33” to 35”.  A close look at the frames will also reveal that the shots are not reduced to the same exact scale.  (In some positions, my bat trailed so far to one side or another that matching three perfectly scaled frames would never have fit a page—or else would have required too much shrinking for details to be visible.)  That said, I nevertheless think we see plain evidence of the barrel’s trailing farther to the rear in TFCS and GAS than in DS.  Instead of trying to measure how much bat extends rearward in the bottom photos versus how much does so in the two upper tiers, pay attention to the barrel’s distance from my cap or my rear shoulder in individual frames.  That is, orient yourself to points within the frame in order to arrive at an accurate sense of how much the bat is circling the zone.  The newer swings appear to be more hyperbolic: there’s a generous curve in how they wheel away from the back shoulder.  The Deadball cut travels more directly into the zone.

If this is hard to make out (and I know it is), the reason is mostly because the 35” bat I use in the bottom sequence appears to claim a much longer slice of the photo.  In fact, its being an inch or two longer than the bats above it can’t account for how far its thin, pale line extends.  Two things here: again, notice that the bat head doesn’t trail my rear shoulder in the DS by more than (or I would say as much as) it does in the other two swings. Secondly—and very importantly—understand that the bat creates such a long line in these overhead shots because it has already come relatively flat in its straight, linear passage through the zone.  Even during the full load (the first frame of each sequence), DS shows the barrel more inclined toward the rear.  TFCS has the bat’s head veering forward, coiled like a spring to sweep in a swooshing dive at the ball.  GAS dips the barrel more toward the plate (in the fashion so reminiscent of Ted Williams), because—as we shall see later from the lateral angle—it plummets down into the trough of its dip with a single-minded quickness.

The Deadball Swing, however, puts the barrel in the plane of productive, backspinning contact almost at once.  That, and not the extra inch or two, is why the bat looks so very long in these initial instants.  Were a high-inside fastball to surprise a hitter using one of the other two strokes, it would likely slip right over that steeply circling barrel.  The DS would stand the best chance of fouling off such a pitch, and maybe even of pushing it the other way over the infielders’ gloves.

I’ll be posting two videos of these experiments (from which I drew my still photos) on YouTube later today.  I’ll nip back in tomorrow and add links for the Overhead Angle and the Lateral Angle, if all goes well.

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