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baseball history, bat acceleration, coaches and trust, Deadball Era, footwork in the box, hand use in hitting, hitter reaction time, Uncategorized, weight transfer

Charley Lau vs. Ted Williams: The Art and Science of Coaching

lau

As the end of the year closes in, many of us find ourselves pressed for time.  I have a little more today than I’d expected because I managed to stump my toe severely while jogging up and down my half-mile rural driveway.  (The autumn leaves do a great job of concealing stones embedded in this hard red Georgia clay.)  No more exercise of that kind for me.  I can work back and forth in the back yard while shadow-boxing: my lower body will be shuffling and weaving, and my upper body (whose activity is where real cardio-vascular benefit occurs) will be much more involved than in an ordinary run.  Sayonara, jogging!

If I’d been able to put weight on my right foot, I would have made the second half of “The Lau/Hriniak Hitting System” yesterday.  (See Part One here. ) I’m feeling much better as the week wears on… but the weather today isn’t going to cooperate with videoing any demonstration.  Charley Lau, I should say, is one of my baseball heroes.  He managed to hang around the Big Leagues for parts of several seasons as a back-up catcher, but he never put together as much as a single full season of plate appearances in all that time.  As a hitter, he was… okay.  Sort of.  And therein lies his great virtue: thanks to having no purely natural gift for batsmanship, he had to grind everything out and piece one lesson laboriously onto another.  In the process of struggling to hit passably well, he was preparing himself to become one of the game’s greatest hitting instructors.

In more ways than the obvious ones, Charley was the antithesis of Ted Williams.  It’s not just a superstar-vs.-benchwarmer contrast: Charley’s whole system differed starkly from the Splendid Splinter’s.  Ted’s manual was titled The Science of Hitting, Charley’s The Art of Hitting .300.  (Therein lies an irony, by the way; for Charley’s “absolutes” are fully, comprehensibly explained, whereas Ted’s pronouncements are predicated largely on the art of being Ted Williams.) Ted wasn’t really adding anything much to the techniques that had dominated post-World War II ball, with his emphasis on throwing the front hip open and pulling the pitch.  Charley was all about fluidity and contact, with a tolerance of forward weight shift that echoed (unconsciously, I’m sure) the wisdom of the Deadball Era and the Negro Leagues.  Where Ted’s teaching seems to be full of tight circles, Charley’s has curves that tend toward the linear.

And speaking of teaching, while Ted was pretty much of a “do it my way” guy who never really imparted anything to his protégés except patience in waiting for a good pitch, Charley was a beloved instructor who helped his students refine whatever they brought to the table.  If that contrast seems unfair, read John Roseboro’s account of how Manager Williams (of the Washington Senators) once ordered him to keep signaling for curveballs even when a rookie pitcher was hanging every one of them and getting hammered.  Williams thought that the rookie would learn something if placed under this kind of pressure; Roseboro thought that he would lose whatever little bit of confidence he had brought to the mound.  Finally Johnny called for a fastball and got the kid out of trouble.  Furious, Ted benched his veteran catcher permanently: Roseboro never caught another Major League pitch.

And Charley?  Well, his tutelage helped along a fellow by the name of George Brett, along with several other Kansas City Royals of the championship Seventies teams.  Charley’s most famous coaching disciple, Walt Hriniak, went on to assist Wade Boggs, Dwight Evans, Bill Buckner, Carlton Fisk, and a big kid named Frank Thomas.  Of course, as the premier Red Sox alumnus, Williams was quite vocal in his criticism of Hriniak’s power-sapping, namby-pamby strategies.  Gee… you have to wonder how many homers the Big Hurt would have clubbed for Chicago if Walt hadn’t messed him up!

Now, as I explain in Part One of the video, I suppose that spreading the feet far apart probably does reduce power.  I had my young son spread out, as per the Lau/Hriniak method, when he was first learning to hit, for I knew he would never be the biggest kid on any team.  (He was often the smallest.)  After all the research I’ve done into Deadball hitters, I now wish that I could take that instruction back—not because a more active lower body can generate more raw power, but because it can increase bat speed if properly tapped.  Of course, more bat speed means more power; but it also, and primarily as far as I’m concerned, means better ability to wait on pitches and handle good fastballs.

In other words, I’m no longer as sold on Charley’s system as I was twenty years ago.  Much as I like to see hands emphasized in the swing, a cleverly operated lower body gives the hands more energy to tap.  (Frank Thomas, by the way, did not spread out in the box like Tim Raines, Wade Boggs, and other players whom I loved to follow but whose many extra-base hits were a product of foot speed, in one case, and the Green Monster, in the other.)

Am I taking Ted Williams’ side in this debate?  Maybe I am, just a bit.  But I prefer to think that I’m upholding the Cobb/Speaker position.  After all, nobody would ever have gotten away with putting a shift on those guys!

baseball ethics, coaches and trust, fathers and sons, mental approach, off-season preparation, Performance-Enhancing Drugs, Uncategorized

Off-Season Preparation: It’s Not All Physical

The off-season is the time to try experimenting with a new hitting style or pitching motion.  You don’t want to get under the hood and start switching out plugs and wires right before the home-opener; and even spring training is better used for refining new approaches than discovering them.  So… hope you had a rewarding Thanksgiving, as we did, and that a merry and meaningful Christmas will follow… but you should be doing something for your baseball preparation right now besides hitting the weight room.

What I really wish to discuss in this short space, however, goes even beyond rethinking your batting stroke.  If you’re a high-school senior, the Christmas before your final semester can be a time of tension.  In a very few months, you’ll decide whether or not to attend college and—if the answer is “yes”—exactly where to attend.  That calculation, for a ballplayer, can of course involve factors like how big a scholarship you’re being offered, whether the coaching staff seems genuinely interested in your talents, and how close to home the school is.  Be warned, by the way, that certain NAIA schools toss around scholarship money very freely.  The directive handed down to the athletic department is apparently to fatten enrollment and not to worry about whether every “scholar-athlete” can actually swing or throw.  You don’t want to find yourself riding the bench in March after the Assistant Coach sweet-talked you with extra sugar and honey back in the previous June.

Those grants are terrific: don’t get me wrong.  By all means, avoid taking any loan if you can.  Especially avoid the FAFSA loans that our government suckers millions of young people and their families into accepting every year.  They’re toxic.  No other kind of debt is unaffected by personal bankruptcy: you’ll have to pay that money back with interest, though you write the last check on your deathbed (unless, that is, you get conned into taking one of the “cancellation” deals that the Feds sometimes offer if you go to work in the public sector).  My son paid for a good portion of his college by being a ballplayer and achieved his B.A. without incurring a dime of debt.  We’re very proud of that.

The one factor in this equation that’s never mentioned, however, seems to be the student’s choice of major.  Give that some serious thought: in other words, ponder your preferred course of study as well as what you hope to do on the diamond, and select a school that’s strong in your prospective field.  Why go to college at all if the only thing you propose to do for the next ten years is play ball?  Why not play in an Independent League if you can’t walk on and win a spot on some organization’s low-A team?  You can always go to a local college in the off-season and/or take online courses.  Save your money if you think the degree worth having but don’t feel drawn to any heavy-duty area of specialization.

Most of you have to know, after all, that you won’t ever play big-league ball.  By all means, if you think you have a crack at it and are willing to put in the work, chase that dream and see if you can close ground on it.  Please don’t dress up the dream too prettily, though: don’t allow a complete fantasy to destroy your chance at being a really good architect or webmaster.  Most Major Leaguers don’t enjoy ten-year careers, or even five-year careers.  A “cup of coffee” is the typical serving-size.  Even those who stick have to contend with changing time zones every other week, which cruelly disrupts eating habits and circadian rhythms.  You may laugh at all that when you’re twenty-two—but, trust me, you won’t be laughing when you’re thirty-two.  If you happen to acquire a family along the way, you’ll be separated from your wife and kids for several months a year, all totaled; and you may find yourself legally separated if you succumb to the numerous distractions that surround you on the road.  Other ways of fighting the pressure, the psychic disruption, and the loneliness include “recreational” drugs and alcohol.  Nobody has ever accused those substances of being performance-enhancing (unless, perhaps, in the case of Babe Ruth).  Tyler Skaggs was not quite twenty-eight years old when his time on this earth was cut short by an effort, apparently, to level out his mood by artificial means.

I’ve painted an overly grim picture, no doubt.  I just don’t want your image of “life after baseball” to be overly grim, as well.  It’s better to let the game teach you what it can about life rather than become your whole life.  My son’s final game was played in a titularly “Christian” tournament against a team whose players were so heavily caffeinated that they could hardly be kept in the dugout, whose coach ordered his pitcher to throw at our best hitter, and whose assistant coach muttered right in front of me as we all filed out to the parking lot, “Well, we won—that’s all that matters.”  Tell it to Jesus when you stand before him, Coach: see what kind of response you get.  You not only failed to learn the game’s proper lessons—you muddled the issues for the young people in your charge, and you lost the only game that counts.

Avoid that kind of program, if you spot warning signs. We obtained invaluable help from the National Collegiate Scouting Association (NCSA) at www.ncsasports.org. You can share all of your concerns with the staff and rest assured that you won’t be brushed aside or fed a bunch of canned responses. I would strongly recommend that you give these professionals a try.

baseball history, bunting, Deadball Era, hand use in hitting, Uncategorized

Butcher Boys, Bunts, and Bingles: Sorting Through Antiques in the Attic

I’ve almost completed a lightning-quick video series on bunting.  (The one subject I have yet to cover is drag- and push-bunting, which may be two subjects and two videos: not sure yet.)  Perhaps I feel a bit guilty about rushing through the project so quickly.  I certainly didn’t mean to imply any contempt for it.  I think the bunting game can become a very real and effective dimension of play, I think it’s exciting when executed well, and I think current play at all levels miserably neglects it.

But since I have nothing more than a Personal Pitcher that spits out golf-sized Wiffle balls to assist me in my experiments, I feel that there’s only so much I can learn and pass along.  Unlike routine hitting, which can be adequately simulated whenever you have an object in lateral motion to swing at, the bunt can be refined into so many distinct kinds of non- or semi-swing that a real pitcher throwing real baseballs on a regulation-sized field would be required to reach confident conclusions.  My series, then, is just intended to draw attention to this important subject and to offer aspiring “stick artists” a few ideas.  I believe the videos work if viewed in that context.

The one I completed yesterday and posted just today—“The Baltimore Chop, a.k.a. “Butcher Boy”—put me into such uncomfortable contortions that I actually ended up on camera advising against its use.  We know that Deadball hitters did precisely this sort of thing, beating the pitch so directly into the dirt around home plate that it leapt high in the air and allowed the crafty batsman time to leg out a bingle.  (I don’t know why they called them “bingles”… but that’s not a typo.)  It’s well worth retrieving some of the history of our game, but perhaps not all of what we dig up is still usable.

One question that took me by surprise in filming the series was this: what exactly is a bunt?  The official rule book offers the following terse definition:

Rule 2.00
A BUNT is a batted ball not swung at, but intentionally met with the bat and tapped slowly within the infield.

Okay.  Well, it’s obvious that if you attempt to drag or push a bunt with two strikes and it rolls foul, you’re out on strike three.  The ball was “not swung at”.  But what about what I called in my third video the Fake-and-Throw-Down?  This is something very like a slap bunt (I suppose you could say it’s a species of slap bunt)—and the slap is a swing; so if that one goes foul, you’re still alive.  But what, then, about the maneuver which I gave no name in the fourth video, but which might be called a Trail-the-Barrel?  This differs from a push bunt in that both hands slide to the extreme end of the bat, with the bottom one indeed clutching the knob… yet a very weak swing is also going on.  You’re not so much pushing the pitch toward third (from a lefty’s perspective) as you are raking it anemically toward short.  As long as you get the ball past pitcher and third baseman, you’re likely to reach first safely.  Ty Cobb did this sort of thing a lot.  So did Ichiro.

That’s not a bunt, is it?  The swing is faint… but the barrel does cross the plate and move toward the pitcher, even though you want your body to be exiting the box before it finishes its sweep.  So a foul ball with two strikes would be… just a foul ball.

As far as I can tell, yesteryear’s hitters had so many tricks like these in their bag that they probably strained the boundaries of many official definitions.  More than anything about them, I admire that willingness to experiment with new approaches—to take the defense wholly by surprise.  In an era when computer printouts are telling defenders exactly where to stand and where one hard-hit ball after another goes right to a glove, you’d think that our cleverest performers might be willing to recover some of these neglected tactics.

bunting, coaches and trust, Deadball Era, footwork in the box, hand use in hitting, umpires, Uncategorized

More on the Bunt: Practice Can Be Painful!

Thanks to a pair of sore heels that Father Time keeps stepping on, I find that I can’t rehearse certain experimental procedures as much as I would like before cutting a video.  A measure of proficiency is always desirable… but I reach the point of diminishing returns when my rising skill and my stiffening feet pass each other going in opposite directions.

This proved especially true over the weekend as I tried to master a very difficult type of bunt—a fake bunt, really, that involves dropping down as if to sacrifice and then launching toward first base while lowering the barrel into the pitch so as to loop it (hopefully) over a charging third baseman.  When I finally produced a demonstration video that I thought satisfactory, I had already worked through seven or eight takes.  In the process, I discovered that I was forcing the barrel into the pitch too hard—that I really shouldn’t be trying to drive a three-quarters swing through it, as with the conventional slap-bunt.  (Not that slap-bunts are part of any team’s conventions any longer.)  Somewhere in all these do-overs, I also realized that the beginning of a break toward first base would help me trail the barrel and hence direct the pitch more toward third.  Practice makes perfect… but perfection was in no danger of being captured by my practices over the past few days.

As I say in the video that I finally allowed to pass muster, I’m not trying to impress anyone with my skill: I’m only trying to give you things to think about.  I’ve already reached the conclusion that really proficient bunting (including bunt-fakes) would require far more rehearsal than standard swing-away hitting.  I guess it’s no wonder, then, that professionals have grown so very weak in bunting skills.  So much of the contemporary game depends upon power, and so much of the “small” game would demand hundreds and hundreds of reps, that the numbers just don’t balance out.  Honestly, I get it.  I still believe that small ball wins close games, and I know as a fan that games played with such a high degree of skill in the fine arts are the most exciting to watch… but today, with such narrow windows of time and such whopping dollar amounts involved, the Big Club wants its products to come out of the package already nine-tenths assembled.

That’s all the more reason, though, why you need to assemble yourself if you’re not built like a superhuman machine.  Your coaches probably aren’t going to teach you many of those “fine arts”, even in high school—and you certainly won’t learn them during the few practices that your travel or summer-ball team schedules.  Take some of the ideas that you can find on this and other sites, and get to work on your own.

To wrap up this brief update: one of the things that disturbs me about the Fake-and-Throw-Down (as I call it) is that, even though it’s a bid for a hit built upon a bluffed sacrifice, the ump will probably consider a fouled attempt Strike Three.  You can argue till you’re blue in the face with Blue: he’s most likely to notice that you didn’t take a full swing, and to base his decision on that observation.

The next type of bunt I plan to explore has the same liability: the attempt to ground the pitch weakly toward shortstop so that the pitcher can’t reach it and 6 arrives too late to make a play.  I suspect Cobb and Collins did this sort of thing all the time, and did it to almost to perfection.  Their strikeouts were minimal, and the fouled bunt with two strikes was already being logged as a K in 1909.  If the top hand doesn’t slide up the handle on this one (as I suspect it doesn’t—that’s going to be my initial assumption), will the Supreme Arbiter still think that it looks like a bunt attempt when he sees a stationary barrel run up on the ball rather than a swing?

That’s a consideration worth bearing in mind.  Maybe most of these techniques should be tried early in the count unless you’re really confident in your ability.

baseball history, bunting, Deadball Era, hand use in hitting, mental approach, Uncategorized

The Fine (and Lost?) Art of Bunting

As I was browsing through the pages of our latest book publication, Metal Ropes, I happened upon the very brief section about bunting.  And then it struck me: why has SmallBallSuccess never made a bunting video?  Anybody would naturally suppose that the “stickers” of yesteryear would be masters of putting that “dead ball” down.  They were considered the ultimate “place hitters” (i.e., artists capable of placing the ball in whatever part of the field they desired).  I should really look into this….

Yet when you pause to weigh the issue, Deadball bunting isn’t really very easy to research.  Besides the usual problems of having virtually no video and no live shots taken at lightning shutter-speed (which didn’t exist), we have to confront the fact that yesteryear’s batsmen didn’t really use the sacrifice as we do.  There wasn’t even a category for “sac bunt” or “sac fly”.  The assumption in both of those cases was always that the batter was attempting to reach base and “productively failed”, creating an out that happily managed to move the runner up.  It’s hardly a twisted way of thinking: ours today may well be more so.  We don’t have a “sacrifice grounder”, do we?  Yet Roger Maris once told Mike Shannon that he could collect fifteen or twenty RBI’s a season by deliberately rolling over on a pitch and grounding to the right side with a runner on third.  A lot of sabermetricians among us don’t even consider the RBI a legitimate achievement—pretty much the same guys who consider all of Roger’s RBI’s to have been accidents and the man himself to have represented mediocrity that caught fire for one season.  (We’ll never know what Maris could have done if the Yankee front office hadn’t suckered him into playing with a broken hamate bone in 1966 that never healed properly thereafter.)

Anyway, my original point (I can never resist defending Roger Maris) was that there’s no clear reason why you should ever give yourself up completely in dropping a bunt: I feel that the oldtimers had that right.  Even in Major League games, I see guys square up literally five seconds—or more—before the pitch is ever delivered, and nobody in the stadium has any illusions about their drawing the bat back at the last instant.  Then, if they somehow manage to dribble an effective sacrifice, they lope down the line, veering already toward the dugout: never a thought in their satisfied head about putting additional pressure on the defense.  No, I don’t know exactly how Willie Keeler, Eddie Collins, or Elmer Flick would have done it… but I know they wouldn’t have done it that way!

I’m actually going to have to devote quite a bit of experimentation to some of the subject’s subtler aspects.  I have a few ideas, based upon what I’ve read: that Ty Cobb, for instance, was not averse to faking a bunt and then slapping the ball rather more vigorously—but still not full force—through some vacated quadrant of the infield.  This is very fertile territory for a new video series, and I think many older baseball enthusiasts would like to see a return to such play at all levels.  It’s no secret that scrappy players who make contact and bat .343 at Double A are less interesting to the Bigs than lumbering Goliaths who get a jack every third game and bat .241… but that may be changing, even among Major League brain trusts.  Just look at the success of the Tampa Bay Rays this year!

I’ve already posted (rushed? I hope not) two introductory videos to YouTube.  The first is a mere review of the issues, and particularly a contrast of the way bunting is practiced today versus a more Old School approach.  The second is my best stab at instruction in sacrifice bunting (yes, the kind that Deadball hitters didn’t admit existed).  I have no particular historical record to draw upon, as I’ve said—and I certainly have no personal résumé of achievement on the diamond to establish my authority.  The most interesting and promising suggestion I float, I would say, is that players who are struggling at the plate and ready to try anything should consider batting left-handed.  At the very least, if you’re equally bad mechanically from the left and right sides, you’ll be closer to first base from the former and thus bound to beat out a few more scratch hits.  Maury Wills was going nowhere in the Minors before he tried switch-hitting: a few years later, he broke Ty Cobb’s stolen base record.  I’m not even recommending a switcher approach.  If you’re fast, just bat left exclusively.  Learn to put the ball in play on the left side, where throws to first are longer, and exploit that good break out of the box.  This was essentially Ichiro’s game in his best years.

We’ll try to promote various ways of getting the pitch into play on that side in forthcoming videos: the straight bunt isn’t the only tactic, by any means.  Some alternatives range between a bunt and a full swing—and these were precisely what Collins, Cobb, et al. had honed to perfection, in my opinion.  At any rate, I’m pretty sure that you’ll break into any line-up hitting .400, even if 90 percent of your safeties are singles—and even if 50 percent of those are infield hits!