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baseball history, bat acceleration, footwork in the box, hand use in hitting, mental approach, metal bat use, Uncategorized, weight transfer

The Hitch: Something Great Hitters Never Do (Except for the Really Great Ones)

The following paragraphs are excerpting from my forthcoming book, Metal Ropes, which is still very much a work in progress.

I’ll admit that my affection for the shuffle step wavers whenever I try to hit right-handed. With my stronger hand on top, I appear much more inclined to drive from the back side than to throw down (with uncoiling leg and levering hand) from the front side—and this, after all, makes perfect sense. It’s surely part of the reason why classic “stickers” who shifted around more in the box and sprayed pitches to all fields were often natural righties batting left. Such a profile fits Tris Speaker as well as Ty Cobb, in a strict sense; for Speaker threw left only because his right arm was badly broken during his boyhood years of learning the game. Fred Clarke belongs to the same fraternity: so do Eddie Collins, Jake Daubert, Elmer Flick, and Joe Sewell. Except perhaps for Daubert, everyone on that list may be identified in photos, furthermore, with hands spread—and Jake choked up rather fiercely. A lot of batting titles found a home among the era’s left-hitting righties.

With the stronger hand on top, the “levering” action essential to hand spreading presents more of a challenge. The bottom hand may not be “smart” enough to do its job well. At least in my own experience, the top hand becomes something of a tyrant, and the bottom hand just tries to stay out of the way. Certainly Honus Wagner spread his hands on occasion—but less often than the left-hitting righties and with less of a gap. Napoleon Lajoie was more typical of top-hand-dominant hitters in that, while he indeed choked up, his hands remained together. (The “Emperor” briefly tried to market a bat that possessed two knobs: an ordinary one and a higher one for choking!) To be sure, Lajoie and Wagner won a truckload of batting titles in their own right. In them, however, we see the rare phenomenon of the power-hitter who likes to drive the ball the opposite way: someone who has to be played deep and who crosses up defenders. Add Rogers Hornsby to this pair, a man who hit .400 for three out of four years in a decade when fairy-tale averages had started to pass out of style.

So why am I pursuing this discussion of top-hand versus bottom-hand dominance in a section dedicated to hitching? For a couple of reasons. The more obvious is that batsmen generally hitch when their stronger hand is on top. This was true of all the worthies named previously: Ruth, Gibson, Foxx, Greenberg, and Mel Ott. (If the right-throwing Joe Jackson were the hitcher that Ruth implied him to be, then he breaks the mold… but Shoeless Joe never learned to write, so right-dominance quite possibly never developed in him as it would have in others.) The top hand is the “punch” hand, and we know that you load for a powerful move by relaxing your limb (hand or foot) in the reverse direction; so if the top hand wants to drive hard from above into the pitch, it’s tempted to prepare for that drive by pumping downward. The rear leg also has to balance the hitter’s weight for a rather long time in a hitch—and most of us balance better on our strong-side leg. (I don’t… but my scrambled brain has some very peculiar left/right preferences.)

Did those right/right immortals, Lajoie and Wagner and Hornsby, exhibit a hitch? I can’t see much evidence that the first of them did; but I believe Hans and the Rajah may very well have pumped their hands deeply. Let’s get the set-up in the box out of the way by citing these two as an example. When I wrote earlier of how the nineteenth-century stickers might have pumped as their front foot pointed toward the pitcher, I was guessing. By the time we get to Wagner and, still later, Hornsby, we’re looking at two hitters whose initial position is much more familiar to us. Their feet were much more squared to the plate, and their hands were basically resting on the rear shoulder. The emphasis, in other words, has shifted to the rear. That’s where we would expect it to be in a hitch—because, again, a hitch is very popular with hitters whose stronger side is the back one.

Now, here’s a second point that makes me suspect Wagner and Hornsby of hitching—and it’s also a quality of their stroke that we want to emulate. Both set up well off the plate. They could hit even the inside pitch to right field, apparently, because they stood so far back. Yet they could also cover the outside corner, and even go a bit beyond that corner. How did they do that? They must certainly have possessed the ability to surge outside after the pitch if they needed to; and I don’t see how they could have created the energy necessary to produce such a surge (since they didn’t shuffle-step) unless they fired out of a hand-pump and a crouch. Ted Williams’ swiveling hips won’t get you there: Ted usually wouldn’t even offer at outside pitches. The Dutchman and the Texan cleaned up on them.

That’s the kind of hitch I would like to replicate: the kind that can either drive us powerfully forward or carry us all the way to the outside corner, in a pinch. If Wagner and Hornsby had the kind of load that I believe they did, this opposite-field capacity would have distinguished them from Ruth, Gibson, Foxx, et al., who were ferocious pull-hitters. They were also big, strong men for their day, these later sluggers—taller than average, to be sure, but also incredibly muscled-up. This book is dedicated to the player of smaller body type, and such a body type usually doesn’t lend itself to the dead-pull power-hitter mold.

baseball ethics, baseball history, Uncategorized

Bill Buckner, R.I.P.

Bill Buckner was a borderline Hall of Famer.  He collected over 2,700 hits in his career, which spanned a period of light hitting and low averages (if we factor out a few guys with names like Brett, Gwynn, and Madlock).  Thanks to knee problems, his chances of reaching the magical 3,000-hit mark, otherwise very good, were neutralized.  A batting champ in 1980 and twice a league-leader in doubles, he endured the somewhat seesaw vagaries in his stats that are typical of a man who perhaps presses too hard in an effort to carry a mediocre team on his shoulders.  Bill sometimes tried too hard.

As in the 1986 World Series.  His manager, John McNamara, ought to have removed him and opted for a first-baseman with two good knees (or even one) when the game went into extra innings.  Buckner insisted on staying in—and he was, after all, the Sox’ best hitter in most regards.  The drive he struck in his first at-bat that evening very nearly carried out of Shea.  Had it done so, everything about the game would have changed.

But the only game we can analyze is the one that took place… so let’s look at that one.  The Red Sox carried a 5-2 lead into the tenth.  Buckner’s error allowed the winning run to score.  Hmm.  So how did those other three get on the board?  I haven’t watched the tape for a few years, but I distinctly remember that several errors were made by people not named Bill Buckner.  Reliever Calvin Schiaraldi had a couple in there somewhere.  Other plays were less than inspiring.  I wondered that Jim Rice didn’t lay out for a foul ball that would have recorded a precious out in the tenth—the final out, as I recall.  I may be “Bucknering” Rice now; he couldn’t help it that he wasn’t Ken Griffey, Jr., or even Sandy Amoros.  But… if you’re not going to belly-flop into the stands making the last out out of the World Series, when are you ever going to do it?

Buckner would have done it, if he could.  For that matter, I don’t know that anyone—that Keith Hernandez—could have handled the wicked topspin hopper off the bat of Mookie Wilson.  After boring into the dirt around home plate, it blooped toward first… and then bolted away on impact like a squirrel who has decided to juke one way and take off another under your tires.  If Buckner had taken this steroidal screwball off his chest instead of letting it get past cleanly, the net result would have been no different.

And what was the result?  The home team won Game Six and evened the series.  If the play had been made somehow, then Boston bats in the top of the eleventh—with the winds of momentum sucked from its sails, no effective reliever left in the pen, and the home team awaiting another crack at the piñata.  Younger fans may think that the Series ended with the Bill Buckner miscue.  It didn’t.

In fact, Boston took a 3-0 lead in Game Seven before frittering that one away, too.  Why not portion out some blame to an exhausted and anemic relief corps?  Nope, that’s not the way baseball fandom writes its myths.  We need heroes and goats.  Bill Buckner has become Billy Goat for all baseball eternity.

I’m glad, in a way, that Buckner didn’t draw closer to 3,000 hits.  I’d hate to have seen him denied entry into the Hall for a small gaffe that occurred at the worst possible moment (or at what “fake history” has made the worst possible moment).  He was a damn good ballplayer… and a fine human being.  If we get to play ball in heaven, I hope he’s my first-baseman.

 

coaches and trust, low arm angle, pitchers of short stature, pitching, pitching velocity, submarine pitching, Uncategorized

Multiple Arm Angles: Another Secret Weapon in a Dusty Closet

If my arthritic right heel lightens up, I may attempt a video today where I demonstrate the advantages of using different arm angles—or the possibility thereof, anyway.  (I can’t show the advantages unless I can put you in the batter’s box; and at my age, my best pitch is unlikely to intimidate or bumfuzzle a good teenaged hitter.)  Do you know that successful pitchers of yesteryear once did this routinely?  Why wouldn’t they?  Throwing the same pitch from a different angle is equivalent to throwing a different pitch, as far as confusing the hitter goes; and the change of angle is likely to ensure that, in fact, the pitch will move differently, as well.

In an era when hurlers like Johnny Cueto and Pedro Strop are slipping in an extra kink in their wind-up or not always coming set with no runners on base (Satchel Paige must be smiling up there), a pitching tip that doesn’t involve turning on the after-burners may be ripe for reconsideration.

Now, when this strategy popped into my head the other day, I recollected that I had volunteered it to my son’s coach back in his high school days.  I probably packed it away in memory’s attic because the coach immediately rejected it.  (No surprise there: he would always reject any suggestion from any dad.)  Even at the time, however, I remember being struck by the lameness of his curt answer.  He said that a change of motion would signal the hitter what pitch was coming.  Drop down to submarine level, and he thinks, “Oh, one of those: the low one that corkscrews in.”  Throw from just above sidearm, and he thinks, “Uh-huh: here comes the slider.”

In the first place, I really doubt that most hitters at any level could process that the arm slot was changing as the routine wind-up shifted an instant before the ball’s release, then further match the surprise angle with a particular kind of recollected pitch.  Especially in the case of guys with limber arms that can go to odd places, the batsman will not have seen this pitcher two or three times in the game already—for we’re describing a reliever.  In the second place, even if the hitter’s calculations could occur so quickly, how would he know that the submarine angle means a fastball or change-up rather than a slider?  Are we talking about a pitcher who has only one item on the menu from all of his angles?  Why would we assume that… other than to stop pesky dads in their intrusive tracks?

To be sure, altering the arm angle within a sequence of pitches to a given hitter requires great skill.  You run the risk not only of missing your target badly on the first attempt at surprise, but also of messing up your mechanics when you try to recover your more routine motion.  I have no doubt that this is precisely why contemporary pitchers don’t plunder history for the technique: it’s just too hard to master.  Their coaches are badgering them, instead, to keep repeating exactly the same motion.  Every time.

But here’s my answer to that: if it weren’t hard, everyone would be doing it.  As a pitcher of unusually short stature, I would want my secret weapons to be really tough to perfect.  Mother Nature has already given my competition several advantages.  If I can claim an advantage or two of my own, therefore, simply by working extra-hard, then I’m happy.  I’ve found a way to level the playing field—and all I have to do is practice more and better than my rivals!

Always remember to “practice smart”.  Hard work without a clear objective may well be wasted effort.  Practice hitting your spots from different release points.  Ignore velocity, at least until you nail down accuracy.  Perry Husbands wrote a book called Downright Filthy Pitching a few years ago wherein he explains, with the aid of many charts, how the same pitch thrown at the same speed becomes different pitches at different points.  A low-away fastball is as good as a change-up, since the bat’s barrel leaves the zone of possible contact very quickly.  A high-in fastball at the same speed becomes a rocket, because the barrel has to get out in front of the plate super-early to make contact.

In other words, Coach I-Don’t-Talk-to-Dads, even if a pitcher has nothing but a fastball from either of two arm angles, he will have at least four pitches with an accompanying mastery of location.  You should know that, Coach, if you’re really the genius you pretend to be.

(N.B.: The video proposed above was later produced and uploaded.  See it here.)

bat acceleration, hitter reaction time, mental approach, pitching velocity, Uncategorized

Why Pitching Machines Can Help

My trusty old Personal Pitcher finally died the other day.  We had been through a lot together.  This handy, highly portable machine (if you’re unfamiliar with the model) fires out golf-sized Wiffleballs from atop a tripod.  Naturally, it doesn’t fire them very fast; but in hitting–and pitching–the relevant datum is reaction time or, as some call it, perceived velocity.  In other words, you can position yourself so closely to a little coffee grinder incapable of shooting out anything faster than 40 mph that you have just a split second to react; and you can whittle that split second down until it’s equal to the few dozen milliseconds that an Aroldis Chapman fastball gives you.

That’s how I used my Personal Pitcher.  To make matters even more challenging for me, it had decided in its waning years to vary the times between giving me the green alert-flashes that signal imminent firings; and then, going a step farther, it would tend to abbreviate the amount of time that flashes actually flashed, especially once it had been pumping a while.  I got to where I would listen for the rattle of a ball dropping into the firing chute rather than key on the treacherous light.  If a plane, a loud vehicle, or a lawnmower passed at the wrong moment, I was helpless.

A love/hate relationship developed between us–but, honestly, I did not intend to strike PP with my bat on one occasion, though I had pondered doing so on many occasions.  It was the crafty midget’s own fault: I got so far out in front of a change-up that the handle slipped away from me.  Then again, maybe that was my fault.  I should have rotated the used, cracked balls out for new ones more often… but I wanted the additional challenge of having pitches approach me at varying speeds and traveling different paths.

Well, R.I.P., old enemy, old friend.  Fortunately, I have a replacement all warmed up and ready to take the mound (for the signs of wear and tear in PP Senior had become all too apparent after the “flying bat” incident).

What I really wish to accomplish here is not the eulogizing of an old piece of equipment, but the emphasizing that my experimental methods have some validity.  No, I haven’t been testing myself against live pitching.  I don’t have the resources for that.  On the other hand, I am able to position myself so near to my pitching machine that I can simulate reaction times less generous than any I would have if a healthy youngster were trying to bore one in (and I don’t have to worry about getting concussed by a regulation hardball).  A critic might respond, “That’s exactly the problem.  Your reaction time is too brief.  You’re not simulating a game situation where the hitter has to key his load on the motions of a moving human body–you’re just coiling up and then springing at the first white you see in the air.”

Here’s my answer to that–and I will wrap up this short commentary after I make the point.  Hitting is all about giving yourself time.  If you can create a method that reliably produces low line drives off a reaction time simulating 90+ mph, then you can always scale that method down to circumstances that are more “real life”.  Said another way, if you develop a hitting method that allows you to be very quick, then you can wait for a very long time.  You can watch the pitch almost into the catcher’s mitt.

That’s what I seek to offer with the Deadball Era methods advanced on this site.  I want to go up the middle or even a little oppo, and I want to strike the ball’s heart with the barrel modestly descending rather than have to carry my bat head out well in front of the plate to achieve “launch angle”.  I can test whether I’m achieving my ends quite effectively by hacking away at the old Personal Pitcher… or, now, my new Personal Pitcher.  If I recruit human arms and legs at some point to give me more cues in my load–why, so much the better!

coaches and trust, low arm angle, pitchers of short stature, pitching, pitching velocity, submarine pitching, Uncategorized

East/West vs. North/South on the Mound

I hope to make a video later this morning (the third of Spring 2019) dedicated to pitching.  I’m always a little insecure when I speak on this subject; I actually did a “discussion” video yesterday in preparation for today’s, which is intended to be more of a demonstration—and I found myself wandering off topic more than once in defense of my method.  Me, a pitcher?  What a joke!  I have no credentials whatever as a mound artist!  But I have the relatively short, broad-framed body type for which this site is designed: how many professional pitchers have that?  How many professional pitching coaches have enough imagination to counsel someone with such a build… unless their counsel is, “Find another sport”?

So I muddle on, hopefully forward… and I think I am indeed making progress.  The matter that’s especially holding my interest right now is the forward leg lift.  Every pitcher is told, and has probably always been told, to close the front hip and then open it.  A lot of power is supposed to come from that motion.  It’s a perfect analogue to Ted Williams’s gospel of cocking the front hip and then throwing it open to catalyze the swing.  The liability of such emphatic hip action, in a hitter’s case, is that the swing becomes very rotational.  That’s not necessarily bad if you have the tall, lanky build of the Splendid Splinter, however.  The acceleration latent in so many long appendages is worth tapping even at a cost of extra time and increased inaccuracy.

So for a lanky pitcher.  He’s easy to steal on as he cartwheels toward home plate—but the payoff is worth the risk, since his long stride and long fall into the catapulting of a long arm puts a lot of juice into the pitch.  What if God didn’t give you that kind of body, though?  Why are you tumbling down when you don’t have very many steps on the staircase to tumble down from?

My theory is this.  From the sidearm angle, you draw more acceleration from lateral movements than from vertical ones.  You should be emphasizing side-to-side activity for acceleration rather than up-and-down activity.  That means that the forward leg should be driving open as it drives down—and hauling it back over the rubber actually impedes it from opening up, since it will have to clear the back leg before it can move more laterally.  Why not just start with that front leg somewhat open as you get your sign, then pump it almost straight up, then give a little hop on the rubber and drive hard open-and-down?  From the 9:30 (i.e., slightly above sidearm) angle that we’ve been exploring, this creates a very natural path for the arm.  It minimizes risk of injury as well as maximizes velocity… but you do have to drive off the mound hard and low, keeping your head well down like a submariner.

Speaking of submariners… we began our site’s discussion of pitching by recommending that technique.  My son, who pitched “down under” throughout college very effectively, impressed upon me that he was a fluke—that the tall, lanky kid is again the one who’s really best suited for submarining.  And drawing the front leg back over the rubber is as important in that technique as in the classic overhand style.  You have to bend your torso over as much as possible before you launch forward, so opening up and using your lateral muscles becomes a matter of secondary importance.  In fact, I’ve never seen a submariner who didn’t throw at least a little “over the body” (meaning that his path to home plate never fully opens up—in a righty, the front foot plants slightly toward third base).

What I’m exploring now, therefore, is unique in my experience—but I don’t notice anyone else nosing his way down this trail, so I’ll just keep blazing it in my blindfold.  No coach, that is, seems to teach a very low overhand angle, and boys who throw that way naturally are not advised that they might do well to emphasize the side-to-side more and the fore-and-aft less.  Okay, fine.  That’s more cake for those few of us who decide to come to the feast.

P.S. View these videos now: Shorter Pitchers: Find Good Velocity Throwing Sidearm (Part I) and a live demo in Shorter Pitchers: Find Good Velocity Throwing Sidearm (Part II).