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baseball history, Deadball Era, fathers and sons, footwork in the box, Hall of Fame, hand use in hitting, opposite-field hitting, Uncategorized, weight transfer

Yogi Berra, Throwback Hitter

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The photo above was taken for Yogi Berra’s 1962 Topps Baseball Card.  (The stats on the flip side actually belong to the ‘61 season, but the card was of course published the following year: the dates can be kind of confusing at first.)  At this historical point, cameras were not yet accurately freezing players’ swings or throws in mid-flight.  You’d therefore see a fellow posing with bat or glove in some relatively neutral, waiting position, or at most crouching as if about to field a ground ball.

So I mustn’t make too much of Yogi’s position on this card.  Nevertheless, it’s suggestive.  Notice that his top hand is secured somewhat more firmly on the handle, while his bottom one shows rather loose middle and index fingers.  Yog was a natural right-hander; it couldn’t have been that he just didn’t want to use that bottom hand as much in the swing.  Indeed, I think we may infer that he intended to use it more smartly, if not more explosively.  The fingers are loose because he needs his wrist flexible in order to pull the knob in and down, tight to the body.  The top hand has the “dumber” job of simply punching straight down into the pitch (and Yogi, by the way, was a pretty good amateur boxer as a kid.)  Both hands are somewhat projected from the torso, which frees them to deliver this collaborative “pull-push” attack on the ball.

If all of this sounds like a page from one of my books about Deadball hitters… well, that association of ideas struck me squarely between the eyes as I was reading Allen Barra’s (no relation) excellent biography, Yogi Berra: The Eternal Yankee.  I’d always heard that Yogi was a notorious bad-ball hitter, but Barra offered details that made me sit up: how Yog could drive the ball to all fields, how he could pull outside pitches, how he could tomahawk balls coming in at head-level.  How does one do such things with a bat?  Joe DiMaggio didn’t know.  Ted Williams didn’t know.  All the uppercutting power-hitters of the Fifties were mystified.  It seemed to me, however—based upon all the research that I’d done into the Deadball Era—that I was reading about a Joe Jackson or a Sam Crawford: someone who walked seldom and struck out yet more seldom, who aggressively attacked pitches that his barrel could reach rather than pinning himself within the legal strike zone… who really loved to swing the bat.

Okay… so what evidence could I find that Berra was a throwback hitter whose “swing down on the ball” style had begun looking alien after World War II?  Online footage wasn’t helpful in reconstructing where Yogi’s hands rested before the load, or even where they went during the load.  I’ve seen extensive outtakes of the televised 1952 World Series (Game 6), however, that establish that Berra definitely didn’t rock back in a far-rear load, hugging his hands into the armpit as his teammates Mickey Mantle and Johnny Mize (and his frequent October adversary Duke Snider) did, and then spin his hips open and roll his shoulders back to generate that Fifties uppercut.  The camera was very far away from the action, and I wasn’t quite sure exactly what Yog was doing… but I knew it wasn’t this.

Unfortunately, the convention in editing highlight reels was to focus on the pitcher’s delivery until the ball was released, then switch to the hitter’s swing; and at that point, naturally, you’ve already cut out a lot of preparatory activity in the batter’s box.  As weak and tendentious a prop as it is, I again recur to the 1961 baseball card.  As I’ve just stressed, the hands are held somewhat away from the torso, not tucked in tight in the Mantle/Mize fashion characteristic of the times; nor are they far aloft, like Roger Maris’s high cock that almost anticipated our boppers of the Nineties.  In my experience of trying to squeeze every clue from dubious hints, it’s rare for a guy to strike a position like Yogi’s in the card just to freeze for the camera—rare, unless it approximates what he truly does in action.  If the hitter is just offering the photographer his mug, he’ll simply rest the bat on his shoulder in a patient kind of “on deck” mode.

I’m inclined to conclude that Yogi never actually drew his hands very far above or back from his rear armpit.  That would imply that the hands followed the front foot’s touchdown closely into the pitch… which would further imply, all but irresistibly, that this was a front-foot hitter—a guy who didn’t stay back after his stride to elevate, but rather shifted his weight forward virtually 100 percent.  Again, that’s what I’ve been seeing for years as I researched hitters before the wars.  There would have been many an exemplar, either on the Cardinals or the Browns, that Larry Berra could have seen practicing the Old School stroke when he was growing up in St. Louis.

Could I confirm some of these further assumptions, at least, from the video record available to me?  See for yourself.  These shots are frozen from a home-run stroke that Yogi uncorked in the 1956 World Series (the second of two homers, in fact, that he clubbed in the same game).  You can find the short video from which I culled them on YouTube here.   They’re grainy and blurry, as I warned you to expect of the time’s technology; but I still think we see a lot of confirmatory evidence.

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I’ve made a video recently about the error of expecting a front-foot hitter to shoot erectly up on his forward leg.  This might happen if the batsman arrived a little early: I’ve seen shots of a tall, lean Stan Musial finishing very erectly.  But Stan (a possible model for the young Berra) would more often catapult himself onto a bent forward knee—as would Tris Speaker, to name only one great Deadballer.  I’d say that Yogi is in the process of doing that in these two frames as he launches into the pitch.  Notice that his hands are not particularly trailing in the stride: they’re already following the weight transfer forward.  The bent back leg isn’t bearing any weight: it’s dragging as the front knee catches all of the rear-to-fore thrust.

Contact is about to be made/has just been made in the next two blurry shots.  I can only keep stressing the same points.  The front knee isn’t locked as the opened hip cycles weight up and back in an uppercut: it’s bending more than ever.  Some observers would call the attack a “lunge”.  (Comments from coaches of the day about how Yogi “did everything wrong” to get the right results are too numerous to count.)  The barrel, never carried very far back, appears now to descend straight into the pitch like a club on a hunter’s quarry.  I have discussed dozens of times in videos and publications how the “parallel-reverse” motion of the hands—bottom one levering the handle down and in, top one punching the barrel down and out—can drive through the heart of the ball with just the right touch of backspin.  The forward weight shift allows that driving plane to be very straight and long.  My theory is that this accounts for how Yogi could smack so many pitches so hard in such diverse locations around the zone—and, specifically, how he might have pulled an outside pitch if he arrived early, just by staying on it.  That appears to be what has happened here.

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The high finish tight over the front shoulder—not high as in the whirlybirding one-handed finish so common today, but two-handed and tight—seals the deal for me.  You can find the same profile in photos of hitters pretty much until the eve of World War II.  The weight has carried far forward instead of rocking back, so the torso scoots under the barrel’s abrupt, parabolic about-face rather than drawing it into the huge backward wrap that we see in classic shots of Mantle and Ted Williams. There’s more than a bit of Babe Ruth in this follow-through.

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I’d like to study Yogi Berra further, though I don’t have the resources to do much beyond what is offered here.  My considered opinion is that, when Berra stepped to the plate, fans of the Fifties were peering through a window in time and seeing what a Rogers Hornsby or a Chuck Klein might have been doing before the war… but most wouldn’t have known what they were seeing.  The war had snapped a lot of threads.  Few men who were in their prime in 1941 returned to the game in 1945 with much gas in the tank; and, perhaps even more importantly, few boys who grew up in the Forties had any word-of-mouth or “heritage of wisdom” contact with the game of the Thirties.  I was a kid in the Fifties and Sixties: I know I never suspected that there was any other way to swing a bat than the way Mickey did (and Ted: but I was too young to have seen Ted).

I’m glad that I appear to have unearthed in Yogi an ambassador for many of our SmallBallSuccess lessons.  He’s always been one of my favorite players, because he’s always been one of my favorite human beings.  Faithful to his wife and family, meeting constant derision with good humor, accepting caricature with the philosophical shrug of a man who knows that true adversity goes far beyond bad jokes and caustic comments, Yogi Berra was a Hall of Fame person.  Whether or not he is a surprise model for front-foot hitting, I am grateful for his example in other things.  May he rest in eternal peace and glory.

baseball ethics, baseball history, coaches and trust, general health, mental approach, opposite-field hitting, Uncategorized

How to Ruin an All-Star Hitter

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It’s been a rough week.  Among other things, I’ve spent altogether too much time trying to upload to Amazon the paperback version of Landing Safeties, Second Edition.  After a long series of tests, I figured out that my local Internet connection couldn’t handle the job and managed to send the PDF to another terminal for transfer.  This edition has a great many new photos, even though I haven’t raised its price a penny over Edition One.

The present occasion, at any rate, seems like the perfect time to deliver on my promise about giving out some details on George Altman.  This standout performer of the early Sixties seemed destined for greatness–a five-tool player who could and should have taken his place among the game’s new stars of African descent.  Instead, he disappeared into a galaxy of competing talents.  He became one of my most intriguing cases when I wrote Key to a Cold City.  I have decided simply to paste in below the section of that book where I offered my discoveries about George’s all-too-common (as it turned out) case.  Incredibly, he vanished into the night because front-office fools had urged him to change his swing!

The mystery of George Altman became less opaque to me (though it did not disappear) after a discovery. First the mystery, then the discovery. George spent his first four Major League seasons with the Cubs, and his batting average improved with each year, climaxing in a sixth-place finish for the batting crown after the 1962 campaign at .318. His power numbers observed almost the same glorious ascent, peaking a year earlier with 27 home runs and 96 RBIs—and, by the way, a league-leading 12 triples. Not that ’62 witnessed a sudden power-outage: Altman’s 22 home runs and 74 RBIs were easily the second-best marks of his career, and his 27 doubles fell just one shy of the previous year’s mark.

Nevertheless, the Cubs decided to unload their All-Star outfielder to the Cardinals after the 1962 season. In return, they essentially received pitchers Larry Jackson and Lindy McDaniel. These two starters were a fine acquisition for a team perennially troubled by weak pitching—and, of course, the starting-rotation omelet could only be fried up by breaking a fat egg, such as a potential batting champ. That’s how trades work: teams cripple one aspect of their game to fortify another (often, alas, with a zero-sum result). In retrospect, this particular trade was about as fruitless as most—but it was more defensible than a great many.

Too bad for George Altman that he got packed off to a pitcher’s paradise (which had probably made Jackson and McDaniel look a little better than they were). His average and power figures both took a beating in 1963 (though .274 is not to be scoffed at in any ballpark). The Cardinals had apparently expected Wrigley Field numbers out of their new star, so George was again shipped out in the winter of ’63—this time in a two-for-one deal to the New York Mets, with Roger Craig being the one worth two. Craig had posted 15 wins and 46 losses during his two previous seasons with the Mets: August Busch must have taken George’s 9 homers pretty hard. It probably hadn’t helped Altman’s concentration, either, that he had been trying to fill Stan Musial’s shoes, or that Stan had announced his impending retirement in plenty of time for fans to ride George.

In any case, the bad luck didn’t wear off in New York. Though Altman saw over 400 at-bats in 1964, he batted an anemic .230, and his home runs and RBIs were ironically identical to the previous year’s tallies—which, of course, was a slight upswing if pegged to the reduced at-bats. Yet the statistics show that Altman was pressing by this point. He had always managed to draw about half as many walks as he logged strike-outs: in ’64, the ratio plummeted to 18/70. The Cubs, surely remembering his glory days with them, re-acquired him in a trade after the ’64 season, and for three miserable years George struggled to catch fire again (now, however, spending well over half his time on the bench). There was no combustion left. In 1967 he was released after appearing in only fifteen games.

In the light of my research, the mystery is not why the Cubs traded Altman, to begin with, but why some players rebound so much better than others to having the rug pulled out from under them. On paper, George’s case anticipates that of Leon Durham, another black slugger from the left side whom the Cubs rendered thunderstruck when they traded him to Cincinnati for reliever Pat Perry. Durham—would you believe it?—shortly ended up in St. Louis, where his hot bat turned to ice. He, too, never recovered from the gaping wound of being unloaded after a six year stint over which he hit 20 or more home runs five times. There was nothing ostensibly race-indexed about either of these deals, to be sure (though one may observe that neither Ron Santo nor, in 1988, Ryne Sandberg was made the sacrificial lamb to the Cubs’ ever-deficient pitching staff). Once the Cubs had recovered Altman at a discount, however, why didn’t they at least give him something like a full season to locate his missing confidence? Why obtain the former All-Star a mere two years later just to put him out to pasture?

I could muse, once again, upon the many sub-.250 seasons that Detroit tolerated from Norm Cash and Dick McAuliffe en route to letting them fulfill splendid careers. On the other hand, I could meditate a little further on the resilience that allowed a Frank Robinson or a Tommy Davis to keep floating to the top after every trade. Race was not unconnected to the enormous pressures placed upon young athletes at this time, but neither, I think, was it the primary source of pressure. The mystery of what George Altman might have been had Chicago not disrupted his productive rhythm in his prime, like all mysteries of squandered potential, is at last insoluble.

In Altman’s case, though, a surprising epilogue seems to reinforce the notion that the Cubs wasted a rare opportunity. I recently discovered that George went on to have a very fine career playing ball in Japan. From 1969-1975, he hit 205 home runs for his new employers and batted a combined .309. Though insider’s wisdom has it that Japanese baseball presented less of a challenge to American-bred hitters than what they encountered in the States, one might adjust for inflation and still suppose that Altman could have posted 20 annual homers and an average around .280 in the friendly confines of Wrigley Field for quite some time if he had been handled with greater care. The Cub’s loss was Japan’s gain and, for once, a happy ending in those chronicles of neglect where the careers of so many black ballplayers may be found.

***

Postscript: Mr. Altman very kindly responded after I had sent him a copy of my remarks above. Below I reproduce this response in its entirety:

Your pressure theory concerning power was partly right in my St. Louis experience. I was batting over .350 three weeks into the 1963 season. Busch Stadium in St. Louis had a short porch [in right field]. Someone from the front office came to me saying Mr. Rickey, the GM or VP, wanted me (a straight-away hitter) to pull the ball to take advantage of the short porch. I mistakenly tried to heed this advice and started “stepping in the bucket” and pulling off the ball. I was pulling the ball a lot but wasn’t getting the loft needed to clear the high stands in right. I started to drop my hands and upper-cut. I also was fouling a lot of balls off my right foot. This caused me to have to wear a shin guard. This led to groin problems in trying to beat out grounders. As my average declined I developed pressure in the back of my eyes causing blurred vision. I tried glasses for a while. Finally, after my average dropped to .230, I abandoned the pull-hitter experiment and got back into the line-up on a regular basis. I was a part of the team surge in late August when we won 18 out of 19 games. I played against left-handers and righties. I had a 19-game hitting streak going when the Dodgers came to St. Louis and pitched four left-handers in the series to beat us four straight. I was benched for that series and used only sparingly as a pinch-hitter.

In 1964 I was traded to the New York Mets. I dove for a ball on the last day of spring training and dislocated my shoulder. I should have been out a month or more. Casey Stengel came to me a week later on opening day and asked me to play. It was too early and the shoulder bothered me all year.

In 1965 I returned to Chicago. I started well, batting .300. Then my groin muscle separated from the bone while I was beating out a bunt. Again I was pressured to return to the line-up too soon and had groin trouble all year.

In 1966 Leo Durocher signed to manage the Cubs. We opened in San Francisco. I hit well in that series, including a home run. I was benched for the next series in Los Angeles. Leo was officially on a youth movement. Regardless of how well I played, I was relegated to part-time duty.

In 1967, I went to the Pacific Coast League and did very well there, playing full time. When I was recalled to the Cubs, I sat for two weeks before getting a chance to play. After one or two games, back on the bench. I knew I could still play, so when the Japan offer came I took it.

I found out in Japan that I wasn’t ever in tip-top shape while playing in the Major Leagues. Even though I worked harder than most players, it wasn’t enough for me. 1961 was probably the only year that I was injury-free in the Major Leagues. I was able to play virtually injury-free in Japan due to their hard training methods.

Obviously, there must be many such cases as George’s in this section’s following thumb-nail sketches where a player’s somewhat irregular career was impacted by injuries far more than I could ever know. Ballplayers would not have thought it wise in this era to complain about an injury or to refuse the manager’s request that they start. [Stengel, by the way, was notorious for badgering injured players to get back on the field.]   In the case of black players, especially, who were routinely cut during a “youth movement” or were instantly assumed to have their best years behind them as soon as they hit a slump, the pressure to play in mangled condition must have been considerable.

I continue to believe that the identification of home runs with job security altered a great many swings besides George’s in 1963, and that theme shall recur throughout this and subsequent chapters. Branch Rickey was actually employed by the Cardinals as a senior advisor at this time (he would be carried away by a stroke within a couple of years). Rickey had always liked the pulling, slightly upper-cutting swing, and he had directed his scouts to look for it in previous years. Anyone can understand why the young George, trying hard to please his new bosses and slipped a word of advice from a living legend, would want to oblige… but the DiMaggio/Williams swing was not his style, and it certainly contributed to short-circuiting his Major League career.

An even broader theme, however, is simply that lurking sense of not being likely to receive the benefit of any doubt—a sense which might, for instance, have made George dive for a ball in a spring-training game. The hunger to silence one’s critics utterly can be almost suicidal when those critics are not susceptible to reasonable proof. Is there another case in baseball history, I wonder, of a player’s being benched after a 19-game hitting streak? I, at least, have never heard of such a thing. Any remotely thoughtful person would be bound to grow a little paranoid in such circumstances.

baseball ethics, coaches and trust, fathers and sons, hand use in hitting, metal bat use, Uncategorized

Kids and Hitting Coaches: Baseball’s Russian Roulette

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George Altman’s name came up in something I wrote recently, and maybe next week I’ll have more to say about him.  There’s much I’d like to say.  Bill James has labeled George a better human being than ballplayer… which at least places the emphasis on the more important factor.  But make no mistake; Altman was a darn good ballplayer, too—or was before the MLB establishment fouled him up.

That’s really where I thought I’d go with this today: through the overgrown wood, that is, of missed chances and bad advice.  A reader of my Hitting Secrets From Baseball’s Graveyard once posted a review on Amazon to the effect that the book’s author was indulging himself in the illusion that he could have been a great ballplayer.  Inasmuch as I scarcely mention myself after the second chapter, I suppose my authorial failures have to take the blame for this casual browser’s not making it past the first few pages.  But something in me wants to call him on that rebuke, faintly motivated though it was.  Maybe I could have been a good ballplayer, or at least a good hitter.  I know this: a helluva lot of guys (like George) could have ended up in Cooperstown who hardly got a cup of coffee, and a lot of other guys could have held their own in the Big Leagues who never earned a dime playing ball at any level.

How can I say that?  Because the wonderful world of baseball just isn’t as much of a meritocracy as we’d like to imagine it.  Raw talent is immensely important, yes—and hard, well-directed practice is even more so.  The role of mere good or bad luck isn’t negligible at any stage, though.  What could Herb Score have done if Gil McDougald’s line drive hadn’t struck him in the eye?  What would McDougald have done if the Score incident hadn’t soured him on baseball?  What would Roger Maris have done if the Yankee front office hadn’t instructed the medical staff to let him play through a broken hamate bone that, after 1965, would never heal properly?  And those are only a few of the cases involving guys who had made it to the top.

Personally, I never made it off the bottom.  Even so, those playgrounds in fifth and sixth grade, when my classmates would pack right field as far back as they could get and I’d still crank one over their heads, were certainly the gilding on my young existence.  (Forgive me for including the faded testimony of Mr. Bronston, my sixth-grade teacher, at the top of this page; he was an amazing man, and I’m glad he saw me in one of my few moments of joyful play.) At ten or eleven, I’m sure I rode a few pitches more than three hundred feet.  And then… I don’t know.  I took a deep dive into my academic studies because sports provided insufficient cover for the social harassment I was submitted to.  My mother hated all games of any sort, besides: they weren’t “intellectual” enough for her.  There were strains in that household, I can tell you.  Our family didn’t disintegrate, as so many were doing at a steep rate of acceleration… but it wasn’t a happy place to be.  My school, furthermore, being in North Texas, had chosen to throw all its emphasis (i.e., the athletic department’s money) into football—a game I still loathe, mostly because it stole baseball from me.  And then we adolescents had Vietnam staring us in the face every time we turned on the TV.  We were pretty sure we weren’t going to live to see our mid-twenties, anyway… so why bother preparing for the future?  What future?

That’s what I mean.  A million and one things can intervene to keep a kid from developing a talent—a “passion”, as it’s loosely known these days.  You might have been a great guitarist.  He might have been a brilliant architect.  She might have been a world-class swimmer.  Anything from an ill-timed divorce to a sudden move from Nashville to Nome to a sibling with special needs… the factors that can pull our lives off the “best possible course” (and do we ever know what that is?) are innumerable.

There’s one factor, however, that really shouldn’t obtain at all—and I’m afraid it’s the most common influence in destroying baseball dreams.  It destroyed George Altman to the extent that it brought him down from an All Star in 1961 and 1962 to a platoon player by 1965.  That factor is bad coaching.

In my one microscopically brief stint in the hardball game, I tasted the extremes of “professional advice”.  Since the game we’d played as fifth-graders was what is now called sandlot ball, I hadn’t actually seen much overhand pitching, and I had developed a deep hitch.  Naturally, as soon as I stepped in the box against an over-the-top hurler, the ball was popping the mitt by the time my barrel reached the zone.  I’ll never forget our “coach”—a middle-school football coach dragooned into captaining the remains of a baseball team—pacing the dugout and growling, “The Harrises can’t do anything but strike out.”  Another kid named Harris had the misfortune of sitting beside me; neither one of us got the nod to pinch-hit.  Not only had Captain Bligh never given us the least little tip about how to improve; he had now vocally told us we were losers in front of the rest of the team.  Good job, Coach.

The next year—my final shot at playing the real game—another coach (another football coach, but a good man at heart) merely remarked in batting practice that I had a hitch.  This was all the instruction I ever received… but I made enough of it to get into a few pitches pretty good before the season ended, including the hardest ball I ever hit (to dead center).  The shame was that I really didn’t need to throw away the hitch—that I would have hit much better by preserving it and simply adjusting the timing of my load.  Greenberg had a hitch, and Frank Howard (still playing in my adolescence) had one.  Nobody ever clued me in about the timing thing.  Just one little bit of helpful direction… but it never came.

I saw a version of the same cycle replayed, like a recurrent nightmare, during my son’s transit through high-school baseball.  I’m probably too hard on his coach, in retrospect.  The man was only teaching the wisdom du jour: lift the rear elbow aloft, pump the forward leg steeply, get front foot down early, squish the bug with rear foot, unload on the pitch as it passes over the plate… I was modeling that swing the other day for a video, and I ended up with a back ache that still hasn’t quite left me!  But, as I say, it was all the rage under the influence of the featherweight metal bat.

In any case, my own tutelage didn’t fare much better.  I had tried to rear my boy as a Charley Lau hitter, because… well, who was more sensible and stay-within-yourself than Charley?  Tim Raines, in my opinion, was the quintessence of everything good about this stroke.  In my mind’s eye, I could see Tim as I tried to advise my son.  With one hand, bat point bat at pitcher; then guide it slowly to the rear until it perches in the back hand; use the strong rear leg of a widespread stance to dip into a crouch; let the hands trail that dip, so that they’re descending even as the back knee begins to thrust up and forward into the pitch; tap the “wave effect” of this fluid load to slice straight through the ball, taking it smoothly up the middle or the other way.  Beautiful.  As I describe this linear, slightly descending contact, I now recognize a lot of the phrases that I use in praise of the old Deadball swing.

So… was my confidence in the Lau method misplaced?  Or was I simply too ignorant at the time to convey its fine points to a young pupil?  The metal bat that had pulled other peripheries of Charley’s stroke so out of proportion probably also messed with my son’s hands: he probably locked his thumbs around the handle rather than keeping his wrists in a Rod Carew kind of “v”.  In Metal Ropes, I advise young hitters forced to use alloy bats to wrap that handle in at least two layers of tape.  You need something more than a string to grasp if you’re going to keep the stick in your knuckles and out of your palms.

But… I didn’t know that at the time.  I just didn’t know.  It was my frustration with my own child and other boys on his team—my frustration over not being able to give them transformative advice—that plunged me into hitting research, though I had never lost my casual interest in hitting and, indeed, always used a bat in my daily workout.  I’d developed a certain amount of “feel” for bats and grips over all those years when I never saw anything like active play; active players, in contrast, sometimes have no leisure to experiment and speculate.  Yet explaining a “feel” is no mean feat.  I couldn’t do it, obviously, in my first attempts.

Maybe I’m changing my tune as I wind up this discussion.  Just a bit.  Coaching is hard.  Like Hippocrates, you want to do no harm, even if you can do no good… but when a terminal patient comes to you begging for a controversial drug, he doesn’t really care if it kills him.  He’s going to die, anyway.  So for a kid who’s clearly not going to make the team if he doesn’t magically catch fire.  He doesn’t want you to play it safe with him.

So what do you say to him?  We all hate the “my way or the highway” attitude—but if your pupil is just looking for any way, then he’ll have to observe certain stop signs and take certain turns if he goes your way.  You’ll have to correct him.  You’ll have to say sometimes, “No, that’s not it.  Let’s try again.”

George Altman didn’t need redirection.  He was already an All Star ballplayer when he cracked the big team’s line-up… and then was told that the front office wanted him to pull for power.  That was downright stupid.  Younger players may need a nudge, however.  As a kid, I could have done with a clue here and there about how to handle timing.  My son’s generation was ambushed by “experts” who knew “the latest” in hitting and held everything else in open contempt.

I think that’s the lesson for today: back off the contempt.  If you’re a hitting instructor, learn at least two ways of hitting.  Two isn’t twice as good as one: it’s ten times better.  Give your understudies at least one option.  Don’t just leave them free to swing any-which-way that Mother Nature inclines them… but try to see where nature is taking them, and then help them get farther.  I don’t object to Ted Williams’ teaching one bit.  (A commentator on one of my videos insisted that Ted had a hitch.  I think the dip in his load was too modest for that appellation—but, yes, that’s the sort of thing I was doing as a boy.)  Charley Lau would be preferable for someone who can manage a Raines-like crouch… and, of course, I love the front-foot emphasis that I’ve discovered in Old School hitting.  I’d never tell a kid to stay back if he wanted to shift strongly into the pitch.

But then, I wouldn’t tell him to shift forward, either, if he didn’t want to.

My friends, if you can corral Mother Nature, over-coaching, under-coaching, and funky trends in bats so that your horses are all running in the same direction, then you’ve done a masterful job.  But you’ve also been very lucky.  And luck is probably the dominant element here.

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.

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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.

baseball history, Deadball Era, mental approach, productive outs, Uncategorized

Baserunners Advanced: The True Key to a Successful At-Bat

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Last week I found myself comparing the career stats of 1961 rookie standout Jake Wood with those of the second baseman who immediately replaced him in Detroit, Dick McAuliffe.  Afterward, I was started down a chain of thoughts that I knew well—leading to a kind of statistic that doesn’t currently exist in baseball, as far as I’m aware.  During this protracted and enforced lull in our lives, I might as well share those thoughts with you and see what you think.

Let’s take as our point of departure my observation that Jake and Dick both advanced about one base around the diamond per every three plate appearances throughout their career.  That sounds a lot like an on-base percentage of .333… but I was going for something deeper.  Why?  Because not all “bases made” are equal.  Say that two top-of-the-order guys have six plate appearances on a long afternoon.  Say, further, that they advance two bases in that span.  One of them might have walked twice and gone 0 for 4 officially; the other might have gone 1 for 6 with a double.  Who made the higher contribution?  Player A was eligible to score twice thanks to his two walks—but he couldn’t have driven anyone home unless the bases were loaded.  Player B, on the other hand, might have connected for his one hit when the sacks were full and driven home three runs.  Wouldn’t you rather have had B’s afternoon than A’s?

By the same token, a 2-for-6 with a pair of singles is better than an 0-for-4 with two walks: a walk is not as good as a hit.  Why not?  Obviously, because a single drives home a run from third, and usually from second—or it advances a runner from first to third, quite possibly.  So the ideal metric wouldn’t be one that simply notes how many bases the hitter typically advances per PA (plate appearance); it would be one that also acknowledges how much advance he makes possible for other runners on base.

And to that end… shouldn’t our 0-for-4 guy, if he placed three ground balls that moved a runner up from second to third with fewer than two outs, be credited with something productive?  I’m not a big fan of penalizing hitters for grounding into double plays, as the sabermetric designers of WAR like to do; but to the extent that we can fault a hitter for stroking a hard grounder right to a waiting shortstop with a runner on first, I suppose we should also be applauding a hitter for smacking a dribbler to the right side which advances runners while producing only an out at first.  I’m not sure how much intent is involved in either case, especially as today’s game is played.  But let’s try to be consistent in our logic.

One of my pet gripes is also addressed by these considerations.  It’s commonly said nowadays that a home-run king who bats .250 is more valuable to his club than a .358 marvel who logs six homers all season.  Is this necessarily true?  Doesn’t it depend heavily on when Big Bruno clubs his steaks?  Good pitchers will often serve up gopher balls in the late innings with a comfortable lead if Sasquatch steps to the plate surrounded by empty sacks.  For my money, a guy who can double with the bases loaded is worth a lot more than a guy who homers routinely for just one tally.

Again, the sabermetricians like to treat the number of men on base when a home run is struck as a matter of arbitrary circumstance—no more under the hitter’s control than whether or not the sun dipped behind a cloud just before he made contact.  Runners just happen to be on base sometimes, the way a cloud just happens to look like a camel. And yet, the same analysts want us to believe that batters deserve blame for hitting into double plays!

What I’m edging toward is a statistic that would reward the hitter for advancing runners besides himself, however his plate appearance is scored in the books.  On the flip side, the hitter should also stand liable for runners removed from base, whether or not he reaches safely: this would be my concession to the “double play” police, and also a reasonable admission that grounding into a fielder’s choice isn’t really a neutral outcome, since it costs the offense an out.  In fact, I’d go even farther along this line.  I would lobby for the hitter’s having something subtracted from his metric when he strikes out or pops up with runners on first and second.  I think he should take two deductions for that.  Two runners were not advanced: that’s not the result of a successful plate appearance.

If you see how this is tending, then the following scenario will make sense.  Runners on first and second, batter hits weak grounder, one runner reaches third but the other is forced at second, batter safe on fielder’s choice.  The award of points for this effort is one.  The forced runner is a subtraction, but the batter was able to beat the relay to first—restoring the subtraction and setting his total to zero.  The runner who moved to third shifts him one point into the “credit” column: not a great AB, but not a total wipe-out.

I’d really like to see how a metric of this kind would work over an entire season.  I wish I’d thought it up during my coaching days.  It not only would have given me a much more objective picture of my players’ offensive productivity than I could create from hunches; it would also have handed me a number I could use to perk a kid up who kept grounding out but didn’t whiff and reliably moved runners along.  Did you go 0-for-5 but moved six runners up a total of six bases without producing any outs except your own at first base?  Then you’re six up on our Baserunners Advanced Index.  You had a good day!

N.B.: We’re not going to deduct anything for your failure to advance yourself.  You get a point if you each first safely but don’t lose one if you fail. You weren’t actually on base to start with, so the value added for the groundout, in and of itself, is a mere 0.

Note, too, that the hapless hitter who comes to the plate with nobody on base, over and over, isn’t penalized for having unsupportive teammates.  Sabermetricians rightly bring RBI totals into question for this reason.  My metric would make the “lucky” guys who keep striding into the box with ducks on the pond responsible for whether the duckies swim farther.  Suddenly your heralded RBI leaders aren’t necessarily so lucky any more.  If they do their job, they get a boost in the stats; if they don’t, they take a hit.  A strikeout with the bases loaded is a Minus Three.

I’d love to see how a professional hitter like Nick Markakis would fare in such a measurement against, say, the lovable but often struggling giant, Aaron Judge (or anyone else who better resembles the late great Adam Dunn).  Those of you who are fans of the movie Moneyball and of the idea behind it would share my enthusiasm, I’m sure.