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 history, bat acceleration, coaches and trust, hand use in hitting, low arm angle, low line drives, metal bat use, pitching, submarine pitching, Uncategorized, weight transfer

High Strikes: Nothing New Under the Sun

I was both delighted and dismayed to hear Jessica Mendoza remark on Sunday Night Baseball that pitching up in the strike zone—even with a mediocre fastball—has suddenly become the go-to strategy in the game’s upper echelons.  I was delighted because we’ve essentially been preaching this gospel from the reverse angle on SmallBallSuccess.com for years.  In fact, I personally was preaching it long before I had any idea of founding the site.  The metal bat, with its massive barrel and skinny handle, invites the hitter to hurl down on the ball, cocking the rear elbow and then unloading so steeply that the top hand slips off immediately upon contact.  The hefty leg kick and the “foot down early” imperatives (how often I’ve heard Jessica praise that dogma!) are part of the same stroke.

But none of it belongs to yesteryear’s game—and the reason is pretty obvious.  The bat path is too “dippy”.  If a tall guy collides with the pitch just as it passes over the plate (i.e., as his divebombing barrel is beginning to pull back on the joystick), then he may well impart so much backspin in the process that the resultant buzzard-beater carries over a fence.  Yet not only do smaller body types not have the equipment needed to accelerate the barrel sufficiently for this result: they, along with the big guys, risk a complete miss or a pitiful roll-over.  The barrel, that is, spends too much time on its long transit being nowhere near the plane of the ball’s flight.  It’s likely to descend too late or come up too early.  For big fellows, the frequent K’s and ground-outs are considered an acceptable trade-off for a homer every third game.  For smaller guys, useless pop-ups and dribblers are terminal.

And the high strike, of course, is the pitcher’s best option for exploiting this stroke’s big holes.  A barrel starting from well above the shoulder simply cannot come at a letter-high fastball productively.  (It does stand a good chance of clobbering a lazy hanger as it sweeps back upward: then the only question is… will the drive stay fair?)  Since the strike zone was particularly high in the Deadball Era and even well after World War II, hitters knew better than to take that steep hack and then, immediately, roll back with lifting, opening shoulders.  They kept their cut straight through the ball for as long as they could, usually finishing with their weight mostly or completely on the front foot.  I have a feeling that the Fifties were the pivotal period of change, as the home run once again captivated the public and the uppercut swing (your grandad’s version of Launch Angle) was all that hitting instructors talked about.

I tried to get my son, who was a dandy little submarine pitcher, to shoot some of his 0-2 and 1-2 pitches way up in the zone.  Even with his very modest velocity, I don’t think the chesty boppers that squared off against him in high school could have done him much harm there, especially since the pitch would literally be gaining altitude (the only pitch that truly does so).  No, they would have chased it all the way to the roots of their hair! But his coach absolutely nixed the idea.  Stay low, always low.  Never change the incoming vertical angle.  And today Ms. Mendoza is crowing, “Wow!  We hadn’t thought that this could work! Now it’s the very latest thing.”

“Late” is right.  Too late to help my son or to hit Coach Donkey between the ears.  And that, naturally, is the source of my dismay.  It’s flattering to be voted right, for a change, by the professional establishment… but it came too late to help my son—and, of course, none of the establishment is remotely aware of having given this independently publishing dad a thumbs-up.  The game will move right along at its standard glacial pace, its elite patting themselves on the back every time they figure out something that others of us knew a decade or two earlier.  (The uppercut swing, by the way, would eventually lead to the Year of the Pitcher and the lowering of the mound after the coaching brain trust had thoroughly ruined a generation of hitters with it.)  Well, you know… so it is in all human affairs.  There’s nothing new under the sun.

But the good news, if you have a teachable youngster, is that you don’t have to wait for baseball’s magnetosphere to reverse its polarities.  Get your boy (or girl) swinging like Cobb and Speaker—and Oscar Charleston, and Martin Dihigo—right now!  The coaches may want to jump right out of their cleats and shout, “What in… blazes are you doing?”  But when they see one line drive after another after another rolling to the fence, that shout is likely to catch in their throat.

baseball history, bat acceleration, coaches and trust, footwork in the box, hand use in hitting, low line drives, Uncategorized, weight transfer

Beware of Where You Begin: It Determines All That Follows

swing1

As the summer—a long, hot summer—finally settles into fall, I look back with considerable satisfaction on Metal Ropes, the book I’ve just published through Amazon that imports Deadball Era lessons to our age of alloy bats.  Writing the book (like writing anything on any subject) was itself educational: I mean, I learned a lot just by setting down what I had learned.  One of my most painful lessons was realizing that the first thing I had my son do in a batter’s box when he was a little tyke was wrong.  I had him spread his feet wide.  I reasoned… well, I’m no longer sure just what I reasoned.  The tactic was vintage Charley Lau, so I could blame it on my great mentor, author of The Art or Hitting .300.  The widespread stance must have seemed sensible for a short kid, at any rate, because it emphasized a firm base that would allow the hands to go straight at the ball.  A contact hitter: that’s what we wanted.

But there are two erroneous assumptions in this theory.  One is that minimizing lower-body movement and focusing on the hands will make the attack quicker.  It won’t.  It actually slows the attack down.  The hands are quickest to the ball when they tap into energy that has already been generated in the lower body.  Reduce or remove that energy… and you have nothing but hands, all on their own: that translates into a slow swing.

The second error is that widespread feet create a level stroke that keeps the barrel in the hitting zone for a long time.  Intuitively, you would want to approve this connection.  If someone asked you to take a yardstick and describe as flat and broad a plane as you could in thin air, you’d spread your legs to stabilize and then rake the stick from side to side.  But no one is asking you to accelerate the stick at this moment; and once you try to add speed to the equation, the feet (as noted in the previous paragraph) have to get involved.  The most obvious and, I suppose, natural way for them to do so is for the front knee to coil in the load and the front hip to flip back open as the attack begins.  Now, however, your beautiful plane has scattered to the winds.  As the knee coils, the hands load up and back… and as the hip opens, the shoulders rotate out and up.  In other words, you’re leading the bat into a pronounced dip.  You’re likely to cut under the bull’s eye and pop the pitch up if the dip is still descending; or, if you catch the ball as the barrel begins to rise, you’ll topspin or “roll over” the pitch.

Of course, starting with the feet close together can create an even more extreme—much more extreme—undercut/uppercut dynamic.  (Look at Cody Bellinger: he may well be this year’s MVP, but he has cooled off, and he’s not 5”7’ tall. His pop-ups and roll-overs assume his own epic proportions.)  A relatively long, easy stride into the pitch can also produce the most level of swings, though.  Yesteryear’s great stickers knew this.  They knew, to be precise, that if they 1) didn’t load their hands far up and back, and 2) followed the striding foot very closely with those hands down into the pitch, the barrel would hold a straight, slightly descending line into the ball’s center all the way to the front of the batter’s box.  Then the bat would come up over the forward shoulder in a tight parabola with the head still pointing directly at the mound.  You can find that very finish in thousands of photos from before the Fifties (though in very few after then, thanks to the Age of the Uppercut).

A full forward weight shift, in short (also known as front-foot hitting), is the key to keeping a quick, linear stroke on target into the pitch and producing a line drive.  Aaron did it.  Clemente did it.  A lot of the players who entered the MLB through the Negro Leagues brought the Old School technique right along with them, though many were subsequently destroyed as hitters when “instructors” insisted that they lean back and hack.

I don’t want to rewrite Metal Ropes in this spot.  Just beware of what you’re telling your child—understand that the thigh bone’s connected to the hip bone.  When you have a boy assume a certain position in the box, that is to say, you’re already confining him to a narrow sequence of moves that can work fluidly with that position.  Think it all through.  Don’t start at a point that just happens to be what everyone else is doing… and therefore must be right.  Make every element of the swing contribute to the effect you want.

In my case, I wanted my son to hit low line drives—and I sabotaged my endeavor right out of the gate.  I wish I could take back those initial mistakes, but instead, I’ll have to live with them.  One way I’ve made my peace is to create SmallBallSuccess.com.

bat acceleration, footwork in the box, hand use in hitting, Uncategorized

Apologies for a Long Time-Out

I should open with a couple of apologies.  First, I’ve neglected this site unforgivably… but the summer has brought us one hurdle after another to be cleared.  I hope to do much better in the future (though, of course, life may have much to say about that).  Our instructional pages on this site, for one thing, sorely need updated: the latest videos we feature go far beyond what’s currently posted under “hitting”.

I also encountered a very particular frustration yesterday when I wanted to post YouTube videos on a topic utterly unrelated to baseball.  I’m afraid that announcements of talks on this topic may continue to show up in the box of SmallBallSuccess.com subscribers.  I tried to create a new account.  But on every attempt, I got snagged in a closed circle wherein Google seemed to be trawling for more and more and more personal information without ever delivering me to YouTube.  That didn’t do much for my mood!

Anyway, the rest of this space should be devoted to announcing the appearance of Metal Ropes.  The book’s evolution consumed years of thought, research, and experimentation… but I’ve finally come up with some useful proposals for kids who want to try Old School hitting with the contemporary bat.  My 135 photo illustrations are not always as clear as I would have liked, because most attempt to capture real-time swings.  I also connect everything to some sort of Deadball Era pedigree, which some readers may feel leads to a longer discussion than necessary.  Yet I think it’s important to remember at all times that these tactics have been tested in the past with wooden sticks and that they did work spectacularly well for some who employed them.

Not only that… but, on rare occasions when we can watch the MLB on my property (a weak Internet connection has ruled out the live-streaming MLB.tv option), I hear color commentators dropping stray remarks all the time that point back to the validity of my work.  Only the other night, David Ross was remarking on how Ronald Acuna, Jr., loads his hands so far forward that they can go straight to the ball as he enlists his lower body to generate power.  Metal Ropes discusses the rudiments of this approach from end to end!  It’s no accident, by the way, that ballplayers who grew up in the Dominican Republic or Venezuela or somewhere else far beyond the reach of our coaching orthodoxy most often feature certain key elements of Deadball style.  I’m convinced that when kids were largely self-taught as a result of playing on “sandlots” for hours, Mother Nature showed them the best way to drive a pitch.  Of course, they probably would require adjustment later on, especially if they ascended to a level where pitching was very fast; but the correction needed was most often a simple matter of timing, whereas our coaching elite seems to want to break everything down and start from scratch.  Not good.

Finally (for now), I’ll note that my wife and I caught some of the Little League World Series on ESPN… and I was shocked speechless by the enormous degree of flare that’s now going into producing paddle-like barrels!  I hadn’t realized that metal bats had morphed into such disproportion over so short a time.  A bat with less taper will probably be cheaper (since it’s less “state of the art”), and it will certainly be more effective for practicing the Old School style.  I only hope that such bats are still “legal” and on the market.  I hear rumbles from the professional game indicating to me that elite instructors are finally seeking a way back to the low line drive.  Unfortunately, it looks as though the big names in bat manufacture for Little Leaguers continue to lag well behind the learning curve.  The worship of the Bomb continues.

Be well, enjoy the game… and always be vigilant for other ways in if the main entry is backed up!

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.