baseball history, bat acceleration, bat design, Deadball Era, footwork in the box, hand use in hitting, low line drives, mental approach, opposite-field hitting, weight transfer

Excavating Treasures From Forgotten Techniques: Hitting

Billy Herman

As I noted in my opening words last time, hitting is both the preferred subject of the casual fan and the specific subject that drew me into examining disused baseball practices all the way back to the Deadball Era.  I think I’ve made genuine progress.  Lately I have had occasion every afternoon to review black-and-white footage on DVD’s chronicling yesteryear’s game. I crank up the show before going to languish for twenty minutes in a far-infrared sauna. (It’s called “hyperthermic therapy”: cancer cells loathe heat!)  Discoveries which I had already added to my treasure box are constantly being confirmed.  Take the controversial matter of what I call the “shuffle step” (controversial only because nobody today has the guts to break the mold and judge by actual results).  I had read years ago that Tris Speaker somewhat “ran” himself into the pitch—or, more accurately (in my conjecture), we may say that Spoke took a forward step with his back foot before the front foot strode.  I subsequently observed Edd Roush doing something of the sort in batting practice before the 1919 World Series… as well as Babe Ruth, of all people, cheating forward with such a shuffle to anticipate Wee Willy Sherdel’s curveball in the 1928 Series.

To that distinguished list, thanks to my sessions in the sauna, I can now add Hall-of-Famer Billy Herman for certain.  Billy’s shuffling was probably intended to orient him better for taking an oppo shot to right field.  Less obvious was Joe Cronin’s slight resettling of the rear foot in conjunction with his raise of the barrel.  I was irresistibly reminded of Nolan Arenado.

Now, my faithful readers (also known as “gluttons for punishment”) know how much I love hitting to the opposite field… but the advantages of the shuffle step extend far beyond turning the cannon aft, and indeed may be observed in dead-pull hitting, as well.  The shuffle fights against rotation in the swing.  If you keep your weight back upon a dug-in foot, or if you shift it emphatically rearward again after a stride forward, you force your barrel to circle a stable axis that descends more or less precisely down the middle of your body.  Color commentators on TV love to use their telestrators in showing the inherent beauty of such a swing—and, yes, it can be as graceful as a Kristi Yamaguchi pirouette.

But in our sport, you don’t get points for grace.  What the shuffle does is mobilize this stable axis so that it slides forward into the pitch.  The barrel is allowed to descend straight into the ball over a much longer span.  The term “front-foot hitting” has been flung about over the years to designate the movement (though, as my examination of old photos and videos and my own experiments repeatedly demonstrate, a full forward weight shift doesn’t necessarily send you straight up-and-down over the front foot: indeed, it rarely does, as illustrated in the photo of Billy Herman above).  A line bisecting the ball’s heart is a more dynamic kind of baseball engineering than a curve that tops the ball, and the forward weight shift assists enormously in constructing that line; because when the barrel cuts through the ball in a slightly descending line, the result is a hard line drive—a shot that travels a long way in a short time.  That’s Old School hitting, à la Joe Cronin.

Meanwhile, the beautifully pirouetting “lean back and hack” hitter (my personal term) is forced by his stable axis to lift his barrel immediately after plunging it down into the pitch.  This swing (usually associated with its glorious advocate, Ted Williams—though Teddy actually leaked forward a lot more than he realized) has virtually no chance of cutting a straight line into the ball’s center.  Positive outcomes are few: 1) the barrel may well miss the ball entirely as it swoops into and out of the pitch’s plane; 2) it may backspin the ball during the descent to produce a harmless pop-up; 3) it may top the ball as it pulls out of its nosedive to generate a “rollover” grounder; or 4) it may happen to smack the ball’s center if the swing-hyperbola intersects the pitch-plane at just the right point.  Of course, #4 is what our contemporary sluggers are betting on, with all their chips.  Sometimes, in certain small ballparks, they get #2 to carry over a fence in fair territory; and #3 can produce true line drives… but these are usually neutralized by the radical shift, since today’s defenders have learned inductively that the stable hitting axis makes pull-hitting inevitable (of course, neither they nor their coaches would put the formula in those words).

With a longer, heavier bat, by the way, a Fifties pull-hitter like Eddie Mathews or Duke Snider might have kept the barrel on its descending line in spite of the uncooperative axis—for a barrel extending three or four inches farther from the hands wouldn’t yield to a quick rise after a steep descent.  This is why you see finishes from sixty years ago featuring a low wrap around the front shoulder (classic Ted Williams) rather than today’s typical high, one-handed flourish.  During my afternoon DVD tutorials, I heard no less an immortal than Jimmie Foxx explain on a newsreel that the power hitter’s objective was to throw the barrel’s weight into the pitch, not to swish the bat through the zone with maximum effort from start to finish.  The longer bat rewarded such thinking: nowadays those dynamics don’t work so well.

It should also be noted that sluggers got higher pitches in 1960.  That meant that the ascending barrel might just backspin a fastball even though the swing-hyperbola had already bottomed out.  Today’s boppers, in contrast, are constantly fed low pitches (since umpires don’t call anything at the letters).  As a result, their barrel is descending very steeply and pulling back up almost as steeply: a happy split-second rendezvous with the pitch has become more improbable than ever.

Back to the shuffle (and I’m going to write a book if I don’t get back there immediately): it greatly assists in delivering the barrel straight into the pitch, though Foxx himself didn’t employ it.  It throws the weight directly forward rather than channeling weight into a circle.  Okay… basta: I’ve said all that before.  Now here’s something new.  I’m currently working on the theory that the action of the hands during this shuffle can determine whether the line-drive is pulled or “pushed”.  In other words, if my theory is correct, it may be possible for the hitter to step into the box with the intent of stroking a liner to left or to right and then executing that intent with a high degree of success.  In an age of radical shifts, harmless pop-ups, and anemic rollovers, wouldn’t that be something?

If the hands rise close to the body and the forward leg doesn’t cock or coil, the barrel can fall straight into the pitch in what feels almost like the swing of an axe.  We particularly want the bottom hand to take an extra “micro-load” just before the attack, pushing the handle so far up that the barrel droops slightly toward the ground.  (I shared this discovery in a somewhat off-the-cuff video a few weeks ago: “Tweaking Yesteryear’s Line-Drive Swing”.)   The barrel’s line into the ball becomes so straight with this technique that weak pop-ups and rollovers are highly unlikely; and because the front leg is doing little more than lifting and then descending, with minimal rotation of any kind, contact will be rushed into the pitch and the hit will streak up the middle or to the pull side.  Everything in this technique aims to meet the ball in front of the plate.  The hands, rather than loading far back, stay forward.  They hurl down into the pitch: they do not whirl toward it in a tornadic motion that may or may not enter the pitch-plane at just the right instant.

And oppo hitting?  Simple: just change two of the parameters above.  Give the forward knee a cock as you load: the slight coil will close the front shoulder and prepare you to enter the pitch late and from the side.  With the same objective in mind, thrust the bottom hand out from the body, keep it lower than if you were pulling, and allow it to stray just a bit farther to the rear.  (The leg’s coil almost requires this complementary motion: the two movements are joined at the hip, we might say.)  By contacting the pitch more laterally, just before it pops the catcher’s mitt, you’re guaranteed a hit that isn’t pulled if it lands fair.  Even the inside pitch has a chance of being “pushed” over the opposite-side infield in a bloop safety as long as your bat has a little meat above the trademark.

These days. of course, few bats do.  Oh, those bats!

I don’t know why somebody wouldn’t want to have the talents of the legendary place-hitter on tap in our day’s game, when radical shifts are deflating averages by fifty points.  The table-setting guys in the line-up, at least, should want to be able to spread out the defenders and multiply chances of getting a hit through the net.  So why isn’t anyone doing what’s suggested here?  Why isn’t anyone even trying it?

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