baseball history, Deadball Era, footwork in the box, hand use in hitting, hitter reaction time, Uncategorized

How to Bat .400: Keep an Open Mind!

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Ty Cobb vs. an inside pitch

Since I got a new lease on life thanks to the Immunity Therapy Center in Tijuana, I’ve had no more pleasurable moments during the course of a week than those when I plug in my Personal Pitcher and try to make contact with some golf-sized Wiffle Balls. I’ve explained before why this amusement can also be educational, but maybe it’s about time to do so again. For one thing, no matter how slow your machine fires, by setting up very close to it you can reduce your reaction time to approximate that of very competitive pitching. For another, Wiffle Balls, as we know, don’t always travel very straight. Since I tend to keep mine in use even after they’ve become cracked, I can thereby add to the challenge of slender reaction time a variety of crazy wobbles and drops in the deliveries. For a third thing, measuring about half the diameter of a baseball, my plastic golf balls give better feedback on how well I’m contacting each pitch. If I were just a little bit on top of a baseball, I’d be badly topspinning a Wiffle Ball.

It’s quite annoying that my machine gives me no warning prior to releasing a ball other than a green light that’s supposed to flash one second in advance. In my mind, I have to graft the flash onto an image of a pitcher breaking his hands and starting toward the plate. I’d rather be able to see a real body’s progress: the light often tempts me into “selling out”, and I transfer my weight too early. But at least no one can credibly accuse me of arranging a practice where I have an unrealistically leisurely period to get loaded up. On the contrary, because the flash can be almost a distraction, the time I have to get from a relaxed pose into “attack mode” is truly about as brief as a top-tier professional pitcher would give to his opponents.

I’ve also found that I have to shift my eyes slightly from the green light to the hole through which the ball will exit as soon as I can. Though the hole sits just beneath the light, failing to pick it up and rivet upon it definitely produces poorer contact. The application to real-life pitching is clear: you have to stop fixating on the pitcher’s hands as soon as they spring into motion and, instead, start hunting traces of that white orb half-hidden in one of them.

Add certain practical considerations, such as that I simply can’t find a kid who throws reasonably hard and true to pitch to me in a cage. Furthermore, even if I were to have such a helper, he’d be giving me more reaction time than does my machine–or else I wouldn’t step in against him! I’m too old to risk life and limb by standing in against someone who’s trying to rocket balls over the plate from about thirty feet.

Put it all together, I repeat, and you have an hour not only filled with fun but also bristling with potential lessons. I’m sure that the practice I mined from my hundreds of hours in front of Personal Pitcher which readers view with the most suspicion has to be my shuffle-step as I load up.

I know it’s hard to accept this mobile load as feasible, let alone desirable, at first glance.  Just remember that Tris Speaker employed some version of it routinely—and that batsmen like Edd Roush used it just as routinely, by some accounts.  That’s 5,890 hits, between these two.  Is it so unreasonable to suppose that the skip-step was actually helping rather than hurting their offensive game somehow?

I had actually seen Roush shuffle into the pitch in a rare video.  Just the other day, I read this confirmation in a book originally published shortly after World War II.  The author volunteered it in the midst of a list of unorthodox things done by Edd:

Students of the game will tell you that although a batter can assume a stance in any given place in the batter’s box, a firm stand in one place is absolutely imperative.  Roush always shifted about in the box, moving both feet, and often changed his stance after the pitcher delivered the ball.  He led the league in hitting three times.

Lee Allen, The Cincinnati Reds, p. 194 (Kent State UP: 2006–first published in 1948)

I made a video a couple of weeks ago (“Bottom-Hand IQ”) illustrating the importance of leading the swing with the hands: a.k.a. staying inside the ball.  (I mentioned online coach Joe Brockoff’s happy metaphor of shining the knob’s flashlight on the pitch.)  I demonstrated the technique in three types of swing, two of them using a stationary rear foot.  The one that left me feeling the most flexibility in my drive through the pitch was my third example, with the mobile rear foot shuffling into a load.  I also achieved the best results that way.  My sometimes unpredictable Personal Pitcher (which has been known to chew on balls a bit even after the green light’s second of warning has elapsed) and its arsenal of variously cracked projectiles couldn’t get a lot past me, once my lower body had already channeled energy up toward the hands.  I’m not making this up.  The shuffle-step works.

More lately, just this past week, I edited and posted a video (“Pull-Hitting the Deadball Way”) about how I think yesteryear’s stickers may have been able to step where they saw the pitch coming—a seemingly outrageous claim made not just by Ty Cobb, but by Honus Wagner, Fred Clarke, and several others.  Were they all lying… or was pitching of the day just that slow?  Neither, I think.  My current theory is the following, as I demonstrate in the video.  I believe the batsman would plan to take the same step in the same direction on pretty much every pitch: for instance, toward the plate from deep in the box, and angled at least 45 degrees toward the mound, as well.  If he saw the pitch coming sharply in on him, the master-hitter would simply cut his stride short.  He’d plant his front foot as quickly as ever he could, immediately following it down with his hands.  This might create an image of a hitter leaning back as he makes contact, despite having shifted his weight fully forward (for all of these chaps were front-foot hitters).  The torso would be falling backward over the rear leg even though that leg might be airborne! You see one of those images at the top of this page. You can find a great many others featuring Cobb’s contemporaries.

The interrupted stride can actually be executed against rapid pitching.  No, you’re not exactly stepping to where you observe the ball coming, in the sense that you step toward third base on this pitch and toward first on the next.  But you are indeed adjusting your stride in response to the ball’s flight path.  Cut the stride short, draw in the hands… and voilà!  You find yourself pulling inside pitches hard, or at least shooting them up the middle.

So… is this research done with the help of my Personal Pitcher (I’ll call him Satchel, on account of his devastating hesitations) valid at any level?  All I can say is that I don’t see anyone else trying anything better.  Far from it: when I read a Gen X commentator who puzzles over how the oldtimers did so-and-so a century ago and then builds a theory out of present-day practices, without even getting up from behind his laptop, I’m not very impressed.  You have to get your hands dirty… yes, literally.  Ditch the batting gloves!

I love life in “the lab”.  Maybe I’m wrong, but at least I’m experimenting rather than speculating.  Where else have you read about either the shuffle-load or the adjustable stride?  Who else is saying anything more than, “Nah!  They couldn’t really have been doing that!” Oh yes, they could have.  And they did.

3 thoughts on “How to Bat .400: Keep an Open Mind!”

  1. You’d have to think pitchers of that day topped out in the high 80’s. (and that’s being generous) I constantly hear pitchers from the 70’s/80’s talk about how they didn’t throw as hard as modern-day players and that was only 40 some-odd years ago. There were also less breaking pitches. (sliders etc.) It was just simply easier to hit in the late 19th/early 20th century.

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    1. I’ve thought about this one for years. On the surface, your claim seems unassailable–and I think it is, objectively. Guys threw harder in 1910 than in 1890, in 1950 than in 1910… and they’re throwing harder than ever today. But “perceived velocity” was faster a while back. Hitting backgrounds were often terrible, trick pitches like shine balls and emory balls made variation in velocity greater, and jerseys were typically baggier. Then you had the higher mound–and, in spite of that, batters almost never set up far back toward the catcher. So I don’t think the oldtimers had as much more time as first appears. They also didn’t step in determined to be early on everything and pull it! Message to contemporary players: please stop trying to pull low-outside fastballs!

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      1. Also, balls were much dirtier and harder to see (R.I.P. Ray Chapman). Also, games sometimes continued well into dusk hours. Also, nobody wore a helmet and pitchers didn’t hesitate to dust off a hitter. Also, guys who really could have profited from specs wouldn’t wear them for some insane reason. These are all factors that would reduce reaction time and–as a practical challenge–accelerate an 85-mph fastball much closer to the contemporary heater. That’s my belief, anyway.

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