bat acceleration, hand-spreading, hitter reaction time

Hand-Spreading: The Bat May Be Wrong, But the Technique Is Right

I absorb a certain amount of contempt and derision for meddling in the “science” of baseball.  What are my credentials?  Where is my bubblegum card?  (As Lucy tells Linus–in reference to Beethoven–nobody deserves much respect who doesn’t appear on a bubblegum card!)  I understand.  Sometimes, frankly, I even ask myself, “Can I really have anything helpful to say about hitting?  Wouldn’t the guys who have coached in the field for thirty years already know this stuff if it were valid?”

Apparently not.  Sometimes we respect authority too little… and sometimes too much.  When I was an adolescent, I was troubled that the brilliant John Maynard Keynes’s theory about spending money even when you’re in debt made no sense to me.  Turned out that the stupid teenager was right and the brilliant scholar was living in Cloudcuckooland.

Now, most baseball coaches don’t have the cerebral equipment of John Maynard Keynes… so should we be surprised that they mock any suggestion concerning the hitter’s spreading his hands on the handle?

Now that I’ve lived for two months of retirement on a farm in North Georgia that needs daily “rugged loving care”, I’ve found that hand-spreading on the haft of implements like picks and swing-blades is unquestionably, indisputably advantageous.  You get instant acceleration out of your tool in tight places, especially if you use the “parallel-reverse” technique that I describe in my books about Deadball Era hitting.  (That is, the top hand drives forward and down as the bottom hand pulls back and in.)  We know that a great many of those legendary strikers, from Wahoo Sam Crawford to the Waner brothers, were farm boys.  They grew up with such thick, sturdy handles in their grip.  I hope to make a video shortly that will illustrate how many of yesteryear’s techniques flow naturally from doing hard labor around the barn and in the field.

How would a player, or even most coaches, in twenty-first century America know anything about these techniques?  They can find their way around a gym, all right–but show me the workout in the gym that builds up hand strength and hand-eye coordination by having you swing a weight quickly in a narrow space at a small target!

To top it all off, yesterday I just happened to be watching video highlights of the 1968 World Series (dominated by the pitching of Gibson and Lolich).  In just these few fragmentary shots that seldom featured close-ups, I caught both Al Kaline and Dick McAuliffe spreading their hands modestly.  This wasn’t the age of cardboard collars and penknives to cut the pages of magazines, brothers and sisters: it was the time of Vietnam and the Hippies.  Those who played the game best at its highest level still knew about hand-spreading.   Why are today’s “experts” in the dark?  That’s not for me to say.  Why do you think?

I just know this: if I had to pick out one technique from Landing Safeties (just out this week) to pass along to a struggling youngster, I’d choose hand-spreading.  It works, if you know what you’re doing (and read the book if you don’t, please; I’ll send you a copy free if you can’t afford it).  The single great obstacle to the technique’s success might be the proportions of our New Age bats, with their toothpick handles and their frustratingly cramped length.  But there are possible ways around that roadblock.  Just don’t allow the ultimate wall across your path to success to be a know-it-all coach who condemns and sneers at methods he hasn’t ever so much as tried.

(Photo at top shows Tim Jordan, c. 1905: courtesy of Wikipedia.)

hitter reaction time, low arm angle, pitchers of short stature, pitching

Socrates to the Pitching Oracle: “At least I know that I know nothing!”

I found myself shifting to defense at several moments as I filmed my first videos for the page on pitching.  It had been explained to me just hours earlier that my hitting videos were pretty low-tech and soft-sell, without a hint of Billy Mays (or even Billy Graham).  As the immortal Dr. House might say, “Well, duh!”  Yes, we’re low-budget around here; and as far as designing sophisticated “quickies” for a generation of iPhone addicts whose thumbs can’t stay still, we’re also pretty low-skilled.  Guilty as charged.

Everything on this site is intended for thoughtful students of the game in search of real solutions.  I know our hitting advice can lead to good results.  I’ve tested it myself.  At 64 years old and with a touch of arthritis in one foot (not to mention a slow-healing sprain in the opposing knee), I’m not exactly the athletic equivalent of Deion Sanders; yet I can hit low liners pretty consistently off a machine that’s giving me about the same reaction time as if I were facing 90+ mph fastballs.  (See the two hitting videos marked “demonstration”.)  A young person who doesn’t have the physique to jack pitches over the fence could nevertheless be getting himself on base very reliably in front of those guys if he would take my advice.  Games are won by runners crossing the plate: you get no extra points for batting yourself in.

Now, pitching is another kettle of fish.  I don’t claim to know much of anything about pitching, and I say so in my first video on the subject.  I tried to unpack that remark somewhat in the second video, and I’ll try again here.  Pitching coaches can teach you the inside move and the slide step.  They can (let us hope) teach you the change-up grip.  They can advise you about how to pace yourself, and maybe about how not to get rattled when your fielders let you down.  All good stuff.  Some of them—the best—also know really helpful tips about how any pitcher may be effective while staying healthy.  Paul Reddick’s simple “wall drill” works for everyone.  When Jimmy Vilade used to coach at my university, he offered summer clinics that my son often attended—and I’ll always remember Jim’s urging his young understudies to “show the ball to the center fielder” as their front foot came forward in the delivery.  I diagnosed a little problem in my own experiments the other day by recalling this tip.

Nevertheless, not even Paul Reddick or Jim Vilade knows what it’s like to be “serving a life sentence” in a short, broad body type.  Pitching coaches (though not these two, as far as I know) will typically not even let a short guy on the mound, starting in lowest Little League.  They have no advice for us; or, rather, their advice is to go somewhere else.  I recollect a response that Paul wrote publicly to a father who inquired about his son’s maybe seeking more lethality from a lower arm angle: “That’s just a gimmick,” he said unencouragingly.  Now, I do not recall if Reddick was specifically targeting the submarine pitch with this comment or all sidearming below the nine o’clock angle; but gimmicks, you know, can get people out, especially in a short reliever.  My old pitching machine makes me swear like a sailor when it decides to chew on the ball a while after giving the green light for imminent release.  This is none other than the “Cueto technique” of varying release time.  Don Larsen was using it when he pitched his World Series perfect game entirely without a wind-up.  For crying out loud… all of this is “gimmickry”!

My son set a season record for appearances at his competitive D2 institution by throwing somewhere between sidearm and submarine.  Granted, he got great movement on the ball—but the odd release angle itself must have diminished the hitter’s reaction time.  Through my own trial-and-error methods, I have found that the “8:30” slot actually permits my ancient body to throw with maximal speed and accuracy; and if my increase in velocity only nudges me up from 52 to 60 mph, the same proportion would bring your 70 close to 80.

Can I guarantee that?  Of course not!  Furthermore, “I know nothing about pitching”—meaning that I really don’t want you to hurt yourself trying to do things that might strain tendons and ligaments in ways of which I’m unaware.  I can only tell you that a) I have a low-stature body type, b) I can throw most effectively at 8:30, and c) I haven’t yet run into any nagging arm or back pain at all because of this delivery.  Could my “nothing” be more than some professional pitching coaches know?  Well, if they’re telling you just to give it up… aren’t they really telling you, in “always preserve the illusion of omniscience” coach-speak, that they don’t know how to work with someone like you? ~ JRH


The Ideal Lead-Off Man… “But He’s Too Short!”

Everybody has now heard about the minuscule miracle which is Jose Altuve–the Flying Munchkin!  Dedicated baseball fans also recognize the name of .Marcus Stroman  But it takes an oldtimer to remember the remarkable Albie Pearson, who was well under the stature of either of these All Stars.  At 5’5″ and 140 lbs., Albie was one of the smallest men ever to play in the modern game.  And play he did!  In the three season spanning 1961 to 1963, he scored well over 300 runs, leading the AL in ’62 with 115.  That season also saw his lowest BA of the three, at .261 (sandwiched between .288 and .304).  In each of these yearly campaigns, Pearson’s walk totals tallied into the mid-90’s, as one would expect of so small a strike zone.

Yet Albie’s career was essentially over after 1963.  He continued to produce runs in greatly reduced plate appearances, so one has to doubt that injury had damaged his wheels.  I have tried to contact him for a fuller explanation, but without result.  In my experience, a ballplayer who refuses to talk about his career usually doesn’t have pleasant memories of how it ended.  My bet is that Pearson’s diminutive height haunted him even during his glory years.  He was an acceptable lead-off man for the expansion LA Angels until they got things going… but afterward, some genius in the front office must have decided to “get serious”.

Scouts, coaches, and general managers have harbored a blind, reflexive prejudice against short players for most of the game’s history; and, Altuve notwithstanding, that prejudice has probably never been more rigid than it is now.  With so many young adolescents topping six feet (thanks to hormones in our food, perhaps?), coaches even at the Little League level don’t feel the need to take a chance on a smaller build when filling out the line-up card.  Tall boys with lousy technique still tend to get fair results, after all, whereas smaller boys have to execute perfectly–and then the suspicion that they “got lucky” clings to them like pine tar.  No wonder so many of this latter body type simply give up baseball before they ever reach high-school age!  Why put up with that kind of treatment when you could play soccer or tennis?

I’m afraid I’ve seen some pretty stupid coaching in my time, and in no regard stupider than in the mis-estimate of talent based on height.  Shorter kids often have better balance, better coordination, quicker hands and feet, more explosiveness, and even a more competitive attitude.  I want to see them get a fair shake and do well.  I believe this site can help.   ~  JRH