baseball history, coaches and trust, Deadball Era, footwork in the box, hand use in hitting, low line drives, mental approach, opposite-field hitting, Uncategorized, weight transfer

Three Examples of the Old Hitting Paradigm’s Collapse

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There are a lot of good reasons why you shouldn’t lose your mind, but—alas—far fewer ways to keep it from actually happening in the young year of 2020.  They’ve even taken baseball from us!  Well… yes and no.  We can always dig into the video library, and serious players-in-becoming should certainly use these days of lull to refine their game.  As the old Stoic teacher Epictetus said, “No one is free who who cannot rule himself.”  Forget about circumstances: take control of your own life.

My personal library of ancient baseball videos is pretty substantial.  The trouble is that many are altogether too ancient: they feature a single camera sitting in one spot among the fans along the right-field line, and the “sound technicians” crack a wooden ball-on-a-string with a stick to simulate explosive contact.  Can’t tell a whole lot from that!

Worst of all, in those seventy-year-old edits, the creators of newsreels apparently judged that the hitter’s load as the pitcher started pumping would be a matter of utter uninterest… and so the cut was almost always made as the swing started forward, leaving students of the swing like me to make blind guesses about what went before.  Annoying.

Last week, I lurched in the opposite temporal direction.  I decided to view some of the games I didn’t have time to catch during Fall 2019.  The American League Wild Card Game, featuring Tampa Bay at Oakland, was a gem.  I’ll lay all of my cards on the table right now.  I intend to argue in this brief space, on the basis of what I saw in one playoff game, that the rather rigid coaching doctrine of the past three decades is loosening up.  Younger guys who are still very active in baseball have suggested as much to me lately.  Paul Reddick has also been busily peddling Mike Ryan’s revolutionary hitting videos online over the past month; and Coach Ryan appears to endorse such drills as the Dominican practice of hacking away at pitches that are bounced a couple of times up to the plate.  I suppose it’s all about tracking the ball while being aggressive.

(A sidebar here: may I point out that hitting a ball on a hop is routine in cricket, and that many Caribbean products like Josh Bell actually took their first cuts in that game rather than in baseball?  This already forges a link, not just to the Deadball Era, but all the way back to nineteenth-century baseball, when awareness of cricket in New England was fairly strong.  One of the Rays hitters I’m going to mention below reminds me more than a little of something from the panel of an 1880’s tobacco card when he sets up in the box.  The shuffle-step load that we like so much at SmallBallSuccess.com also has analogues in the history of cricket.  Charley Lau found the subtle skip being used very effectively when he visited Australian little leagues—a location where, of course, cricket is again the acknowledged older brother of baseball.)

Anyway… back to the playoff game.  The first hitter I’ll highlight was the first hitter of the contest: Yandy Diaz, who led off with an opposite-field, line-drive homer on an outside pitch delivered by lefty Sean Manaea.  This is right in our wheelhouse.  In fact, my previous post on this site was dedicated to right-handers who take pitches the other way.  Commentator Jessica Mendoza observed that the Rays had invested in Diaz because they believed they could teach him to elevate the ball… and this may be true.  It sounds, indeed, like that thirty-year-old hitting pedagogy that won’t relinquish its hold.  I thought Jessica was more on the mark earlier, however, when she voiced her personal opinion that Yandy had approached the at-bat intent upon driving the ball the other way.  She noted that he set up far away from the plate (in the fashion that we identified last week as belonging to Lajoie, Wagner, and Hornsby) and then hunted something outside.  His “circuit clout” actually didn’t get very elevated: it barely cleared the barrier.  It was a low liner that he struck by driving late into a high/outside pitch from a fairly level, slightly downward plane… and he did this by letting his weight shift decisively forward.

Now, I don’t know that anyone was teaching Diaz to do this.  Most hitters with a strong forward transfer do it naturally and in spite of what their coaches tell them.  Look at the photo opening this post.  Diaz is hitting off the stiff front leg that makes coaches swoon.  Beautiful, isn’t it?  But that stiff, rearward-inclined leg also induces shifting weight to channel up and back, so that the barrel sweeps under the pitch’s center rather than cutting straight through its heart.  That slight dip produces elevating backspin, all right—too much backspin, unless you’re a lot taller than Yandy and can expect your big flies to carry.  So how did Diaz stay on the outside pitch so well (and he hit the same pitch to the same destination his second time up) without bending his forward knee?

Two things.  It’s possible to shift fully onto the front leg and, paradoxically, be leaning back on it as you make contact.  That calls for pretty violent activity around the hips, and I would worry about how well the hitter could maintain a steady view of the ball… but some guys manage it. I first noticed a full forward transfer onto a severely backward-inclined leg in Lou Gehrig’s swing, and I have noticed it since in Bryce Harper’s.  Those are two really big, muscular guys!  I have to wonder if Yandy really wants to join the club… or if, instead, his natural shift is competing with the “stay back” dictum that coaches tried to pound into their young Negro League stars who had graduated to the Bigs back in the Fifties.  Budding superstars like George Altman were ruined by the “uppercut gospel”.

Perhaps Diaz (and this is my second point) has struck a truce with the contradiction by releasing the handle early with his top hand.  Lajoie always did this, by the way, as he chased pitches.  Honus Wagner appears to have done it on outside offerings while preserving a two-handed follow-through on inside pitches—and that’s the Diaz strategy, I believe, based upon the dozens of images I’ve studied on Google.  (The photo above has to be displaying his cut at an inner-half pitch.) The straight front leg forces the top hand to pull up short and start its backward transit… but the top hand can beat the rap and keep the barrel headed straight into the ball if it simply relinquishes its hold.

Yandy was able to muster enough backspin on a Jesus Luzardo slider during his final AB to drop an offering into center field that had mystified previous Rays hitters.  Contact was off the end of the bat, which was likely cracked—but the stick died a good death.  Heading down into the pitch rather than pulling out of its dive early, the heroic barrel produced our lead-off man’s third hit of the night.

Mike Brosseau is a second Rays batsman who intrigues me.  He’s the one I find vaguely reminiscent of an 1888 tobacco card, with his low hands in waiting that then follow the forward leg’s pump immediately into the pitch.  Hitting coaches will probably tell Mike to “get that foot down early”… and then we’ll hear no more of him, because he’ll be rocking back instead of staying down through the pitch, and everything will be ineffectually topped.  He’s extremely quick with his coordinated foot-and-hands descent into the ball—quite quick enough to stand back from the plate more than he does now, use another inch or two of wood in his stick, and take an up-the-middle approach.  I recall seeing him crack one offering very soundly… and I think it rocketed right into the glove of the left fielder.  A guy who pulls that naturally doesn’t need to have pulling on his mind.  He’s not going to get beat very often by anyone’s fastball.

Finally, a brief shout-out to Matt Olson, who is no longer a secret in the game.  I love his hand position.  Of course, he loads up and to the rear from a Carew-like starting point—but the top hand preserves the curl in its wrist, and this allows him a very level and protracted descent into the pitch as that hand straightens out its punch.  Locking thumbs tightly around the handle, as most contemporary hitters do, removes such flexibility from the wrists.  It forces that excessively steep descent into the pitch that sweeps under it and produces clean misses, pop-ups, roll-overs (if the swing is early), and—oh, yes—soaring home runs.  But seldom enough of the last to compensate for an abundance of the other three.

Aren’t we being sent a message by the number of rising stars who don’t follow rigid hitting orthodoxy?  Shouldn’t it be telling us something that kids who grow up in the Dominican or Curaçao playing the game with a broom handle are today’s most dynamic offensive performers?

baseball history, Deadball Era, footwork in the box, hand use in hitting, hitter reaction time, mental approach, opposite-field hitting, Uncategorized, weight transfer

Opposite-Field Doubles: The Reliable Generator of Offense

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Between constant sloppy weather and a nagging health problem, I haven’t had the leisure to create videos at last fall’s pace.  I greedily seized upon an occasion early last week, then, to make a record of the surprising success I was having right-handed with the rather complicated load I had mastered from the left side.  Though I’m a righty by nature (I throw and scribble manu dextra), I’ve been a much better hitter from the left box since early childhood.  When I call my Old School load “complicated”, therefore, I think it’s mostly so because, from the right box, I can’t readily get my feet and hands in sync.  My forward leg has to be very smooth in taking a little shuffle into the pitch (and, in fact, that forward leg is the right one from my smoother side).

Maybe I can make an indoor video (with the promise of another rainy week ahead) about the vital importance of coordinated foot and hand movement.  I don’t notice much discussion of that critical link.  The shuffling load, by the way, is a motion that we know to have been routine in Tris Speaker’s stroke—and I have seen filmed proof that it was used sometimes by Hall of Famers as diverse as Edd Roush and Babe Ruth.  It creates and channels momentum in a way that’s ideal for leading the hands on the straight, slightly downward attack into the ball that we promote everywhere on SmallBallSuccess.com as the essence of the line-drive swing.  To this day, it’s also not uncommon in cricket, a sport with which a nineteenth-century striker would have been far more familiar than are current sluggers.

Anyway… in smoothing out my right-side stroke more than I would have thought possible, I was obtaining so many sharp liners to the opposite field that I decided to start the camera rolling.  I captured a pretty good sequence.  The trouble was that I hadn’t quite thought out the theme of the video.  Me hitting right-handed?  Gee, what a thrill!  In my narration, I ended up stressing the importance of sticking with your repetitions in seeking to refine your game… and then, toward the end, I happened to babble for some reason that Napoleon Lajoie, Honus Wagner, and (a half-generation later) Rogers Hornsby all piled up huge tallies of doubles by doing what I’d just done.  (The first two immortals are #8 and #10 on the all-time list.)  That is, if you stand far from the plate as a righty and then shift emphatically forward into the pitch, so that you typically drive it on a low line up the middle or to the opposite field, you stand a good chance of placing a hit where the buffalo roam; not only that, but since your footwork sets you moving immediately toward first base, you get a headstart on rounding the bags and possibly going for third.  Wagner was also a triples machine, ranking Number Three all-time.  Even the not-so-speedy Hornsby and Lumbering Larry come in at #25 and #33 on the triples list.

I had stumbled upon a significant insight: righties who hit “oppo” tend to rack up lots of extra-base hits, though not necessarily home runs.  In fact, home-run hitters of the post-Deadball period typically do not add mountains of doubles and triples to their resume.  Mickey Mantle’s highest single-season total in doubles was an impressive 37, during his sophomore season; but his second-highest was 28—and this from a fellow who was among the game’s fleetest players in his early years.  Even Willie Mays, who admittedly sits among high royalty in career total bases, had one banner doubles year when he cracked the 40-ceiling (with 43, to be exact); otherwise, he reached 36 once and had four more tallies in the low thirties.  No, not bad… yet less than I’d expected.  Far less than the two-bagging success of Musial and Aaron, who weren’t as fast as Willie but perhaps used the whole park a little better.  (Musial logged nine seasons of over forty doubles; Henry’s career achievement in this regard owed something to his extreme longevity in the game.)

Ernie Banks topped thirty twice (34 and 32).  Home-run dynamo Rocky Colavito logged two seasons of 30 doubles and one of 31.  Roger Maris followed up his “61 in ’61” season with a career-high 34 two-baggers in 1962; except for that outing, he never surpassed 21.

What this says to me is that long-ball hitters, with their propensity to pull, are waving aside other extra-base hits to some extent and putting all their chips on Number Four.  Historically, the men who lead their league in doubles seldom have whopping totals in four-baggers; and indeed (to return to my main point), they tend to go with the pitch rather than pull it.  Wade Boggs and Tony Gwynn leap to mind from fairly recent campaigns.  Back in Deadball days, diminutive Sam Rice had ten straight seasons of more than thirty doubles—and I certainly can’t swear that he hit to the opposite field, but he was no powerhouse.

Speaking of “wallbangers”, Harvey Kuenn brings us back to the right side, and I do happen to know that he was considered a front-foot hitter who took pitches to all fields.  Harvey tallied over thirty doubles in six of his first seven full seasons, leading his league three of those times.  (It remains a mystery to me why such a stellar career suddenly went into such a steep plunge; anyone would have tagged Kuenn for Cooperstown after his first six or seven campaigns.)

On a whim, I looked up Julio Franco’s totals in this department.  At 407, he ties Ernie Banks—a surprising result, in that Ernie’s power was so superior to Franco’s.  And yet, I’m not surprised at all in the light of the foregoing discussion.  Banks was schooled in pull-hitting (by Ralph Kiner, among others) as soon as he arrived at Wrigley Field.  Julio was inevitably an oppo-hitter, with the bat cranked up far over his head like a scorpion’s tail (not the style, let me note, that we recommend at SmallBallSuccess).  I’ll always remember an All Star game when Tim McCarver, reacting in horror to Franco’s posture, remarked disparagingly that nobody could possibly get around on a fastball from such a starting line—and within seconds, as if on cue, Julio bounces a double off the right-field wall!  It never occurred to Tim that some hitters might want to be late.

Doubles win games.  They often clear bases, at least if the runner on first gets a good read and the hit is a genuine liner rather than a dying quail that leaves three fielders staring at each other.  Of course, they also put an additional runner in scoring position.  Superior to home runs?  Well, obviously not, from a purely arithmetic point of view.  But homers are generally pulled, good pitchers generally get the better of pull-hitters, and smaller players generally begin at a disadvantage in the long-ball game of hard pulling.  The oppo-hitter can wait on the ball, thus acquiring a better chance of putting good wood on it, and can also steer it deep into an alley where two fielders have to sort out handling it.  In contrast, the hard-pulled shot is likely to career off a near wall and straight to an eager throwing arm.  How many Mighty Caseys have we lately seen hanging out at first after their rocket careens straight to a corner outfielder off the 315” mark?

And don’t forget: the good oppo-hitter also has a headstart out of the box.  A lefty like Boggs (or our shuffling friend Speaker, the all-time doubles leader and also sixth in triples) plainly gets that jump-start; but it’s a rare thing from the right-side box, and those few who learned how to do it elevated their percentages quite a bit for making second… or third.

My video is posted here: Oppo-Hitting From the Right Side.  I listed it under “approach” in the video archive because, ultimately, that seems to me to be the most important lesson of the exercise: i.e., step into the box thinking “other way”.  I wish my thoughts before the camera had been just a little more orderly; but as the classic old baseball movie It Happens Every Spring conveys, you can make terrific discoveries from a messy soup in the laboratory.

baseball history, coaches and trust, Deadball Era, footwork in the box, hand use in hitting, hand-spreading, low line drives, Uncategorized, weight transfer

My Favorite Deadball Swing

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At the bottom right of every page on SmallBallSuccess.com now sits a link to My Favorite Deadball Swing.  I put this discussion’s elements together while being physically incapacitated by a problem that may need a simple surgery (if surgery is ever simple).  The greatest distress I’ve had since emerging from the ER has been thanks to the medication I was prescribed.  The complaint is very manageable, if only I survive the cure!

Anyway, being sidelined is a good thing when it forces you to complete several neglected tasks.  Now that the site is drawing quite a bit of attention, I really do need to spruce it up… and this page condensing my decade of research into a very usable stroke was the obvious place to begin.  I don’t mind admitting that I’m quite proud of the composite picture I’ve put together.

Yet I should issue a warning that I didn’t squeeze into the page’s discussion.  I’m not sure that such a small warning label fully “on topic”, or that my readers will even need it: what follows is more of a comment about human nature than about the mechanics of the swing.

Whatever they say politically, most people are very conservative when it comes to their foundational notions about life, or about their special corner of life.  In that regard, Marxist revolutionaries are conservative.  They don’t like to talk things over: their way is the right way—admit it or hit the road!  Any ballplayer will recognize the attitude at work here.  In fact, when I began collecting material about twenty years ago for a book titled Key to a Cold City, I noticed early and often that young black players breaking into the big leagues soon after Jackie Robinson encountered an almost belligerent degree of “correctional coaching”.  Were the Establishment’s white coaches trying to set up their young pupils for failure—was it all a covert racist plot?  But, you know, that made no sense, for at least a couple of reasons.  One was that no-name, dimly promising Caucasian recruits were being forced into the same cookie-cutter.  The other was that coaches don’t keep their jobs by producing disciples who fail.  You’d have to be one heck-of-a rabid racist to sacrifice a big-league gig just for the satisfaction of fouling up a few dark-skinned kids!

I’m not just rambling here from the hallucinatory effects of Flavoxate.  It so happens that the style of hitting commonly practiced in the Negro Leagues after World War II was as close as you could come to time-machine transport back to the Deadball Era.  (No surprise there: strapped for cash, the Negro Leagues would use baseballs until the seams split open, just as was done in the MLB half a century earlier.)  This put young black players on a collision course with the new orthodoxy; for if Fifties hitting instruction was about anything, it was about jacking long balls out of the park.  An analogy with our present “launch angle” romance would be very apt.  I call the standard technique of that decade “lean back and hack”.  Hitters were to stay back on a bent thigh, swivel their forward hip, and send the barrel immediately through an upward loop.  Ted Williams writes as though he invented the system in The Science of Hitting, but… no, he was just preaching to the choir by that point.  If anything, ironically, the Splendid Splinter’s stroke was far more level and forward-shifting than Duke Snider’s or Eddie Mathews’.

Young black players who ascended through the Giants organization seemed to get a heavy dose of this pedagogy.  Monte Irvin and Hank Thompson show its more positive results.  A kid named Willie Kirkland didn’t pan out so well; his impressive home run totals didn’t compensate for his dismal batting averages (or not until he was able to straighten himself out in Japan).  Other Negro League graduates like Bob Boyd and Sam Jethroe, who could have contended for big-league batting titles, were never really given much of an audition.  They refused to pull and elevate, logging mere singles at a .300+ clip.  And if there were real bigotry in Major League front offices, it was here: a black kid had better club homers like Mays and Banks if he wanted to stick around—any puny white kid could be turned into a hunt-and-peck hitter.

Well, I’m afraid that the kid who walks on to a try-out field and unveils my recommended techniques will get a similar reception today.  At least one of these techniques has been explicitly derided by the coaching brain trust for generations: hand-spreading.  At least one other—the shuffle step in the load—will be something that none of the batting-cage Merlins has ever seen before, and that most will say they never want to see again.  The only way to combat such derision and contempt is through instant success.  The wizened veteran of many a Little League or high school campaign will keep that cry of indignation in his throat if your shuffle into the pitch and heavy forward weight-transfer are followed by a cracking line drive into the power alley.  And then you send another up the middle, and another.  By the end of your session, he’ll be muttering to his confederates, “I don’t know how the hell he hits that way… but it seems to work for him.”  He’ll keep his hands off of you, because coaches love—above all else—success.  Wins.  V’s.

They left Stan Musial alone, too, although radio and TV announcers hatched many a jibe at his expense.  Wes Covington, who was the Negro League version of the Musial contortion, might have become a household name if his knees hadn’t given out.  They left Wes’s teammate Henry Aaron alone for the most part, after convincing him to uncross his wrists in semi-professional ball.  The Hammer remained a front-foot hitter until relatively late in his career, when he decided to go all out for the Ruth record rather than for 4,000 hits.

The photo of Cool Papa Bell at the top of this post doesn’t show anything radically different from what I recommend in my composite of Deadball techniques.  I might almost have called the whole bundle “Negro League secrets”… but it’s too easy to step on a PC land mine when you venture into such territory these days.  Just remember that, if you dare to use these methods because the big-boy, Home Run Derby style isn’t working for you, you’re actually honoring some of the game’s most reverend traditions—forgotten traditions, true, but traditions that produced unforgettable players.

And remember, too, that you’ll need to get really good at this style before you put it on public display.  You need to prepare a nice, fat cork that will keep the coach’s contempt bottled up in his throat.

baseball history, coaches and trust, Deadball Era, fathers and sons, footwork in the box, hand use in hitting, hitter reaction time, mental approach, Uncategorized, weight transfer

Tame Fear at the Plate by Taking Hints From It

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Something took me by surprise last Thursday that probably would have left me dead by Friday if I had lived a century ago.  Without going into gruesome detail, poisonous fluids would have backed up into my kidneys within hours—and I imagine that I would have flipped off my own switch soon thereafter, for the exit route provided by a purely biological meltdown would have been incredibly unpleasant.

At any rate, I won’t be doing any more baseball videos in the immediate future.  I’ll need a couple of weeks, anyway… and then I’ll see what amplitude God has given me to play about with bat and ball.  When I began writing these words, Their Lordships of the medical establishment were still consulting their busy schedules to decide whether I might be granted an appointment within the next month to supply a permanent fix for the Emergency Room’s temporary rigging.  (The latest flash is that I’ve been penciled in for next week… hallelujah!) Those of you who long for socialized medicine had better hope that your prayers aren’t heard.  Believe me, the waiting and waiting in our present system is already almost beyond endurance.

Ironically, I’ve just begun reading David King’s book about Ross Youngs, the Hall of Fame right fielder who died of Bright’s Disease (a rare and mysterious kidney ailment).  I may have more to say about Ross later.  Turns out that he stood a mere five-foot-six, so he’s a natural for us to study at SmallBallSuccess.com.

In the meantime, inactivity has placed me in a perfect position (though it’s hard to think of anything about this position as perfect) to upgrade our humble website.  I’m working on a new page that will break down what is currently my favorite version of the Deadball swing.  I’m convinced that small players (and big players) everywhere could use it with devastating effectiveness.  They probably wouldn’t drive many pitches over the fence—but they’d likely be driving more than their fair share to the fence.  It’s a line-drive stroke, of course, with a high probability of contact.  It also has several features that would allow the hitter to be physically more protected from wild pitches and provide more time for appropriate reaction to any pitch.

Now, I know we aren’t supposed to let fear of the ball enter our psyche.  Even though it’s surely there somewhere (unless you’re as revved up on adrenaline and drugs as Lenny Dykstra), you mustn’t admit its presence to yourself.  That’s the old “be a man” school of coaching.  My son had one of those blowhards during a particularly forgettable Little League season.  The boy very nearly quit baseball at the age of nine, because the pompous ass to whose genius I’d surrendered him had all the kids who weren’t already explosive hitters (i.e., all who weren’t big for their age) stand on top of the plate in a bid to get a hit-by-pitch free pass.  Be a man… according to an idiot’s definition of manhood.

I’ve had many occasions to think about “mindset” at the plate (Coach Blowhard being only the most obvious).  Obviously, you want to carry a certain aggression into the box.  That doesn’t necessarily mean, however, that you’re seeking to attack the ball in a fearless, spherocidal rage.  A dead-pull hitter, granted, might inch up to the black and then prepare to wallop anything that moves.  I should think a clever pitcher would be very happy to see a guy like that step in.  If I didn’t have confidence in my breaking ball that day, I’d feed him some slow stuff that he could majestically pull foul, then chance some of my mediocre but collar-high fastballs.  I could readily devise a promising plan for Bruno.

Now let’s picture a smaller lad who has been taught nothing by his coaches except to keep the stick on his shoulder until he has two strikes… or maybe he can crowd the plate like Big Bruno and get himself hit.  Speaking of confidence, this boy has not a shred, does he?  He’s been given no useful map to success, no tools for making good contact.  Instead, his batsmanship has been denigrated to the point that he believes an HBP—or a four-pitch walk, if the pitcher’s radar is crossed up by plate-crowding—should be the objective of every trip to the dish; and in pursuit of that objective, he needs to silence any “unmanly” peep of apprehension about thrusting knee and elbow into the strike zone.  In a nutshell, his only chance of escaping “automatic out” futility is to fight down the vile inward surge of cowardice.

Gee… why wouldn’t that kid want to sign up for baseball every time a new season rolls around?

Let us now redirect this self-sabotaging mindset so that it becomes an offensive weapon.  I’m going to step into the box, not imagining that the baseball killed my parents and burned our house down, but that it’s a determined little rider galloping from A to B through Home Plate Pass.  And me?  I’m a highwayman, a stick-up artist just waiting to swoop down on the arrogant traveler—you know, the way Robin Hood would swing out of Sherwood Forest on a festoon and unseat the coach driver.  (Okay, my pop-cultural references are really dating me… I’d better stop right there.)  In other words, my design is not to meet blunt, rude force with blunter, ruder force: it’s to snipe at the unsuspecting mark and pick him off.  I’m no longer trying to deny to myself that he carries serious firepower.  I’m just denying him the opportunity to deploy it against me.

How can I do that?  By standing well back from the plate—not on top of it, for the love of Pete, but so far off that the pitcher will suppose that I’m scared of his fastball and will quickly decide to hum some hard ones over the vacated outside corner.  He’ll rush right into my ambush.  I actually want to swing at pitches far away from me, for three reasons: 1) I have more time to react when deliberately “swinging late”, 2) I can get my arms extended into an outside pitch (though the desired point of contact is really just before the back elbow locks—certainly before the wrists begin to roll over), and 3) I can drive an outside pitch hard to the opposite field.

And how, you ask, am I going to make said contact from so deep in the box?  For the answer, you’ll have to wait until I finish and post the page, “My Favorite Deadball Swing”.  Or you can go to YouTube right now and watch a video titled, Why (and How) Deadball Batsmen Swung Down on the Pitch.  That title, of course, transmits a clue.  I’ll just stress for now the importance of following the forward foot’s stride very closely with the hands.  You do not “get the foot down early” with this stroke, contrary to the refrain of countless well-paid batting instructors and TV color commentators.  You get it down very late—you shift your weight onto it as fully as you can, with your hands pursuing it straight (and slightly downward) into the pitch.  That’s how they did it over a century ago, and pretty much until World War Two.  That’s how Ross Youngs did it, for sure.  I can tell by photos of his tight-over-the-front-shoulder finish, with rear leg dragging.

Let the big guys lean back and hack.  You little dynamos, stand back from the plate and shoot the pitch the other way.  Don’t try to bully it, and don’t make a ball magnet of your forward shoulder.  Pick it off just as it’s about to nestle in the catcher’s mitt.  Play your own special game: don’t listen to Coach Blowhard, who doesn’t really even want you in the line-up or on the team. In fact, if you’re on his team… find another team.

When I pass through the Big Door, I hope I’ll get to shake Ross Youngs’ hand.  He’s from my grandfather’s stomping grounds—they may have played against each other in central Texas.  In the meantime, and for whatever time I have left on this earth, I’ll always devote a few minutes a day to baseball.  It makes heaven seem a little more familiar.

baseball ethics, baseball history, coaches and trust, Deadball Era, footwork in the box, hand use in hitting, mental approach, Performance-Enhancing Drugs, Uncategorized

Cheating: Always Wrong… and Always With Us

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First of all, cheating is wrong.  It was really wrong as the Minnesota Twins practiced it in the 1991 World Series: turning on the blowers when their guys were at bat to assist outward-bound fly balls.  (Recall that Kirby Puckett’s critical homer off of Charlie Leibrandt barely cleared the screen.)  It was wrong in 1954, when the New York Giants won most of their final forty games after positioning a spy with binoculars in the Polo Grounds clubhouse beyond the center field fence and running a telegraph wire to the third-base coach’s box.  (Bobby “The Giants win the pennant!” Thompson always swore that he wasn’t tipped to Ralph Branca’s pitch… but we’ll never know for sure.)  Yet the verdict of neither of those series was overturned.  So I’d like all the people who want the Astros and the Red Sox stripped of their titles to pipe down.  Should we dethrone the ’89 Athletics because a bulked-up Canseco and his new disciple, Mark McGwire, anchored their line-up?  How about retroactively awarding all trophies in the Nineties to last-place teams, on the assumption that their players were shooting up the least?

No, I’m not in any way condoning foul play.  On the contrary, I’m encouraging those who are most enraged at the current sign-stealing scandal to grow up a little and recognize that we who play fair have always contended with such issues—and have usually done so with little support from governing bodies.  The last formal ball game my son ever played was in a “Christian” college tournament whose participants, for the most part, had discovered a lost Beatitude: “Blessed are they who win at any cost, for nice guys finish last.”  I watched the whole team in the opposing dugout hang on the chain-link fence and howl like apes at the zoo with all the Red Bull running in their veins; I watched their pitcher drill our best hitter twice in an obvious attempt to knock him out of the game (and just as obviously on orders); then I heard one of their coaches tell a player, “We won—that’s all that matters,” as we exited the park. Did I give up on the game after that night? No more than I gave up on my religious faith.

Cheating… yeah, it stinks.  My first experience of coaching was when I was told that my seven-year-old wouldn’t have a team if I didn’t consent to manage it, because more kids were signing up than the league could handle.  A much-recycled line, that, as I would learn later.  Every season needed a couple of “punching bag” teams to provide easy W’s.  My fellow punching-bag nominee that spring told me later that he skipped draft night, assuming that the vultures would leave him better scraps just to cover up their scheme than if he showed up and tried to pick from a list of two or three hundred unknown names.  He at least knew what he was getting into.

I could go on and on about how imbalanced the MLB pay scale is… but I’ve never believed the premise of that particular gripe.  The Washington Nationals finally unload their superstar, Bryce Harper, who goes to a Phillies club with a “win or die” approach to check-writing… and the Nats win the Series, while the Phils stumble across the finish line just ahead of the Marlins.  Coaching, chemistry, luck—a lot of variables besides salary must be factored into the equation.

And, in any case… yes, I’ll say it: how do we know that the Nats weren’t stealing signs, as well?  And the Dodgers?  And the Yankees?  If two or three teams are doing it, why would we suppose that every squad in both leagues isn’t doing it?  Maybe the teams that get caught are the ones that are really bad—really clumsy, stupid—cheaters.  Come on, now!  If I’m a struggling 23-year-old, why wouldn’t I buy my girlfriend an iPhone and season tickets behind the plate?  She watches the broadcast, sees the signs from the center-field camera, and gives me a, “Let’s go, Rusty!” every time a fastball is coming… a, “Let’s go, Sixteen!” for the slider… a, “You can do it, Rusty!” for the change.  Do you really think ballplayers, individually and collectively, didn’t figure out a long time ago what electronics can do for them in this area?  Remember the Polo Grounds?

Some players don’t even want to know what’s coming.  I think it was John Roseboro who wrote that he used to drive Orlando Cepeda crazy by tipping him to the pitches.  Baby Bull would turn around and whine, “Stop that!”—but Rosie would keep it up, because it worked.  For that matter, I find it hard to believe that Jose Altuve gives a tinker’s damn (as they used to say in Ireland) about knowing the pitch in advance.  The man who has been baseball’s premier hitter in many categories over the past five years swings at pretty much everything, just like most of the .400 hitters of the Deadball Era.  How on earth did those oldtimers get away with that?  Because, like Cepeda, they were front-foot hitters.  Their default approach was to inside-out everything served up to them, dragging the barrel well behind the hands—which gave them more time to track the ball; and, if the pitch happened to break in on them, causing them to get out in front… well, they were “fooled” into pulling the ball, and the result was often a fouled-up defense and extra bases.

This is how guys used to approach at-bats, I’m convinced: get the barrel on the ball.  Wherever it’s pitched, get the barrel to it, even if you end up on your face or your back.  Some ugly, awkward swings… and some very confused defenses and very high averages.  Of course, those stickers and strikers of a century ago weren’t carrying 31-inch Little League shillelaghs to the plate.  The typical bat of our era almost requires that you single out a certain pitch in a certain spot while taking everything else.  Since all of our hitters today are guess-hitters, anyway… well, why not look for a little confirmation of your best guess?

How many pitchers, even at the Big League level, can consistently get three pitches over on any given outing?  Most of them are throwing two pitches 75 percent of the time.  And how many, besides, dare cross up the hitter’s expectations and throw a 3/2 breaking ball or an 0/2 fastball over the plate?  Realistically, pitch-stealing would provide one of today’s professional hitters little more information than he’s already figured out on his own (with the massive aid of far better scouting reports and video than you could get from Homeland Security).  The Astros, so the stats suggest, have become very good two-strike hitters.  So… how many hitters don’t know what they’re likely to get with two strikes from a given pitcher in a given count and in a given situation?

I’m sorry… but considering our day’s penchant for playing the victim and demanding that bullies be crucified up and down every highway and byway, I can’t find a lot of outrage to vent over this particular scandal.  We’re always on the lookout for another occasion to scream, “Unfair!”  And the MLB, of course (like the NFL, the NBA, and all other multi-billion-dollar industries), is always quick to do damage control when it can’t keep every detail of its sausage-making from leaking out before a gullible public.  If you “cheat smart”, then we up here in the penthouse see nothing; if you get caught… oh, boy, are we going to be outraged with you!  You’re fired!  You’re banned for life!  How dare you soil our sport!

Yeah, okay.  Okay.  Meanwhile… how about young hitters learn to hit something besides a single pitch that they know is coming?