baseball history, Deadball Era, hand use in hitting, hitter reaction time, mental approach, Uncategorized

Switch-Hitting and Small Ball: Not an Obvious Pairing


George Davis, Hall of Famer: formally inducted in 1998, almost a century to the year after his retirement.  As someone wrote lately, the best ballplayer you’ve never heard of.  Okay, I admit that I’d never heard of him, either, before delving into the history of switch-hitting.  George was that rarest of animals, a “bats both” from the nineteenth century.  During the Deadball Era and in the years preceding it, such artists were probably less common than cross-wristed hitters like Dave Bancroft.  It’s not hard to imagine why.  Power-hitting as we know it didn’t exist, so one of the two great motive forces for switch-hitting wasn’t in play.  We think readily of sluggers like Mantle, Murray, Reggie Smith… and more recently, Mark Texeira, Chipper Jones, and Lance Berkman.  They didn’t have to worry about the breaking ball dipping under and away from their bat: they could enter the box with the intent of pulling almost everything.

Slightly less glorified as superheroes, on-base machines like Tim Raines, Ozzie Smith, and the almost-immortal Pete Rose are a bit more of an enigma.  Primarily concerned with contact than power, they hit the ball where it was pitched and—like their mightier brethren—were difficult to neutralize with the slider.  A few batsmen of this category (and I don’t know the story of the three just named) seem to have taken up switching because their career from the right side was going absolutely nowhere.  Maury Wills springs to mind.  I half-believe that Nellie Fox may have adapted to batting south so well that he simply gave up on the right side; I’ve seen him listed both as a lefty hitter and a switcher.

As I say, though, the earliest switch-hitters were certainly not trying to compete with Babe Ruth.  Before stumbling upon Davis (and it took me some stumbling: try Googling “first switch-hitter in MLB” and notice how evasive the search engine becomes), I couldn’t dredge up anyone from my memory earlier than Max Carey and, a bit later, Frankie Frisch.  Now, these two logged plenty of extra-base hits… but that’s what you would expect of any speedy hitter before World War II, when ballparks often had very generous alleys.  Most skilled practitioners of the batsman’s craft would bat left exclusively for the benefit of the step or two they would gain toward first base.  Perhaps Carey and Frisch flat-out couldn’t hit the pitch that broke away from them.  I’m sure neither was trying to be Mark Texeira and ding the foul pole every time they possibly could.

Cobb, Speaker, Collins… all righties who batted left.  (Yes, Speaker: he grew up throwing left only because of a badly broken right arm during his formative years.)  I doubt that the typical big-league striker of the Deadball Era—and these three were far beyond typical—would have objected either to being clipped by a tight pitch or to dribbling it the other way and racing the third baseman’s throw.  Hence the extreme rarity of the switch-hitter in the game’s distant past.

George Davis, then, presents an oddity, to say the least.  At five-foot-nine, he profiles as the kind of batsman we like to study at; and yet, his true utility for the New York Giants appears to have been as an RBI-producer.  His homers are pretty impressive for the 1890’s: seven seasons in double digits from 1891 to 1904.  At the same time, however, his seasonal tally of two-baggers (usually in the mid-twenties) stacks up to about half of Speaker’s monumental totals, and his triples are also fairly mediocre for a star batsman of the time.  With 2665 hits in 9045 at-bats, then, George presumably legged out plenty of singles.  So the mystery remains: was he switching to magnify his pull-power or just to put the ball in play more often?

After I made a rather hasty video about switch-hitting last weekend (hasty because our Georgia weather keeps turning on a dime), I confronted the necessity of having to re-do it.  The result wasn’t all that bad… but why would a site post it that claimed to specialize in the Deadball Era?  Or if the point was precisely that batsmen of the glorious past were almost never switchers, then why hadn’t the video explained the crucial ground of distinction?  What exactly was I trying to accomplish for my viewers in those ten minutes?

What, indeed?  The claim I made repeatedly before the camera was that young switch-hitters should stop trying to mirror the stroke from their natural side in the side they’re trying to learn.  Almost nobody on earth is truly, fully ambidextrous.  That failing, you have one hand which is stronger and “smarter” than the other; and when the dominant hand is driving the bat like a piston, it has an effect very different from when it’s steering the bat down near the knob.  Allowances must be made for shifting points of emphatic power or precision.

Except that they don’t—or not nearly so much—when you’re simply hurling the barrel down into the zone from high above your rear shoulder.  What the Deadball approach teaches us, then, is transmitted through its active enlistment of feet, knees, hips, core muscles, shoulders, elbows, wrists, fingers… everything in the body is so ingeniously, harmoniously integrated into the Old School stroke that you’re much more apt to notice a cog along the edges getting out of sync.  I genuinely believe this.  I believe, in other words, that our contemporary passion for hurling blunt force at the pitch permits us to ignore a lot of energy leaking out along the way.  If you have a ten-ton tractor to do a job, you don’t care that it belches fumes and spins its treads before the burden attached to it gives way.  But if you have ten men with crowbars trying to budge the same mass, you can’t afford to waste a drop of sweat in the process.  Deadball hitting is the precision attack of a samurai, not the screaming onslaught of a claymore-wielding Rob Roy.  (Pardon the analogy’s inaccuracies: yesteryear’s bat, of course, was actually much more like a claymore—so the lighter, smaller player had to be especially clever about how to exploit the weapon’s imposing mass.)

When I take my favorite Deadball swing from the left side and try to replicate it from the right, I discover that major adjustments are necessary to stay somewhere close to the same paradigm.  That’s what I’ll stress when I remake the video—because I do like switch-hitting, at least when it’s done with a Cobb/Collins, “get on base” mentality.  It has to tie into an approach, a mental projection of the at-bat (and my earlier version just couldn’t have been squeezed under the “approach” rubric on our website).  The switch-hitter should be thinking “opposite field” most of the time, for it’s much easier to stay inside a pitch breaking into you (I find) than it is to be productively late on a pitch that breaks away and just keeps breaking and breaking.  In the latter case, you can outsmart yourself, chasing something far off the plate that—you thought—was right between your crosshairs.

Is this how George Davis hit?  I’ve no idea.  What about the ill-starred Pete Reeser, who couldn’t keep himself form colliding with the concrete walls of Ebbets Field?  I rather doubt it: subtlety wasn’t Pistol Pete’s game.  But I wish it could be more of our present game.  Among other things, standing off the plate to put a late swing on a pitch greatly diminishes the young hitter’s chances of getting hit by today’s flame-throwers who are trying to light up the scout’s JUGS gun.  Not having to guard against the fade-away allows you to frustrate the hurler’s plans more effectively without letting his homicidal wildness bully its way into the back of your mind.  That’s a winning strategy for a five-foot-niner.

Anyway… congratulations, George.  Very, very belated congratulations.

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


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, hand use in hitting, hitter reaction time, Uncategorized, weight transfer

Today’s Elite Hitters Could Profit From Some of Yesterday’s Lessons

Thanks to poor Internet, a busy schedule, and—okay, I’ll admit it—a rather shallow degree of interest, I haven’t really kept track of the deluge of play-off activity.  It’s all a bit too much for me, even though I understand that it’s more dollars in the coffers of the MLB.  Jeez… why not just create a tournament and let every team in?

But the little I’ve been able to see has left me more confident than ever of two lessons we teach in Metal Ropes.  I particularly noticed them being illustrated by their absence in the potent Dodger offense—potent until it faced the superior pitching of the Nationals.  Bellinger, Muncy, Lux… the big lefty guns in the middle of LA’s order seem intent on pulling.  Cody actually tends to stride open: if he can, he’ll rake anything he reaches to right field.  Now, if I were to label this a characteristic of “modern decadence”, I’d have to carry modernity back to Johnny Mize and Duke Snyder: the dead-pull hitter was very much a feature of the Fifties (when, except in the case of Ted Williams, there was no radical shift to contend with).  Nevertheless, I think the Dodgers would do well to research how certain guys not named Babe Ruth—say, Napoleon Lajoie, Honus Wagner, and Rogers Hornsby (to name three right-side oppo-hitters) went about their business.  It looked to me as though the Rays managed to breeze past the much-favored Athletics by hitting the other way in that do-or-die match.

Now, as we argue in my latest book, hitting the other way puts several things in your favor.  Most importantly, it gives you more time.  If you’re facing a Scherzer fastball, it allows you a split second more to get barrel to ball—for you’re trying to let the pitch get very deep.  If what Ernie Johnson, Jr., called Anibal Sanchez’s “dipsy-doodle” is making you look like a fool, then thinking oppo gives you time to track the pitch: to see, specifically, if it’s going to break into your wheelhouse or plunge out of the strike zone. And, yes, if you do barrel it up, you’ll probably pull that one in spite of yourself… but waiting on it has allowed you to get the barrel on it.  Pulling “by accident” is okay, you know.  Guys like Mike Schmidt used to hit a lot of home runs that way.

I won’t linger over the other advantages of hitting to the opposite field.  Let’s just say that, for lefties, forcing the far side of the infield to make a long throw works strongly in your favor.  Of course, with these extreme shifts we see, it’s unlikely that anyone on that side of the diamond can ever keep your hit from reaching the outfield!

The other thing that kept hammering away at me was how often the modest forward transfer of weight keeps the barrel off the ball.  We visit this subject in Metal Ropes again and again.  Most of yesteryear’s great batsmen were front-foot hitters.  If you see photos of them making contact as they lean back, it’s because they were fighting off a good, tight fastball and were unable to get forward as far as they typically would have.  That’s actually one of the assets of the strong forward transfer: you can instantly adjust to a blazing fastball and lean your hands into the pitch even as your weight is still trying to get off the back leg.

When, however, you are always rolling back in a bid to pull the ball from your all-important “launch angle”, a less-than-perfectly timed pitch will soon end your at-bat unproductively.  If the fastball slightly beats you, then your wood will sweep under it just as it passes over the plate.  (Thanks to all the high-tech slo-mo of today’s cameras, it’s very easy to study replayed instances of such failure.)  If, on the other hand, Sanchez has you a little out in front, the dip in your swing is already carrying the barrel over the ball as the two pass somewhere in front of the plate.  I see a great many weak roll-overs in the 2019 hitting game, and not just in these play-offs.  They have grown to be a very familiar outcome.  (Gotta say it: Trea Turner’s double to open Game 2 was a roll-over that Justin Turner misplayed at third.  If you looked closely, you could see Justin give a nod to Kershaw afterward signaling, “That one was on me.”)

By shifting your weight decisively forward, you postpone the point when the bat has to pull out of its mildly descending line into the ball.  You make solid contact, even after slight mistiming, much more probable.  Justin Turner has had a very good series at the plate; and, although I’m not a big fan of the high leg pump, he uses it well to achieve a strong forward weight transfer (without any of that “get your foot down early” folderol that fouls up the front-foot hitter’s dynamics).  The reference I made earlier to Deadball Era hitters who were sometimes photographed falling back—and Ty Cobb’s name would have appeared prominently if I’d offered a list—already had their bat going straight at (and slightly downward into) the pitch when they got fisted.  Even though their shift wasn’t completed, they had entered into it early enough to get their wood traveling a productive path.

Well… back to the grind.  Enjoy the rest of whatever series you’re following.  Personally, I’m trying to ignore the Braves.  They always seem to get my hopes up—and then dash them at the very end!

baseball history, footwork in the box, hand use in hitting, hitter reaction time, mental approach, Uncategorized, weight transfer

Hitting in a Pinch: Think Outside the Box When in the Box

Here’s a bit more from my forthcoming book, Metal Ropes (which is consuming most of my time these days).  Hope you enjoy.  These are NOT comments that I’ve seen echoed anywhere else–and maybe for good reason.  But I don’t write just to repeat what’s already been said.

two-strike hitting

This subject has already been covered by implication in previous comments… but let’s put all the implied directives together and assemble the puzzle. A contact hitter puts the ball in play: he doesn’t strike out. We want to promote contact hitting. Is there more to achieving our goal than simply choosing a style that’s short to the ball, as are all strong forward-shift swings when you don’t load the hands too far back?

Maybe not a whole lot more—yet you could still do a couple of things to maximize your chances. I would suggest standing off the plate a little if you have begun the at-bat close to the black, and I would also endorse closing up the stance if it began squared away (and certainly if it began open). The effect of both adjustments is to allow you to contact the pitch later—to let it get deeper. If you’re close to the plate, you force yourself to reach the ball early so that it doesn’t slip under your hands; and if you’re squared to the plate, you also have to be a little quicker to get the barrel down into the zone. As the point of possible contact slides farther outside and farther back toward the catcher, the barrel has the luxury of arriving later. Stepping back and closing up makes every pitch tend to behave more like a low/away pitch.  (Of course, think “opposite field” or you’ll ruin everything!)

To such a degree is this true that you might even consider sneaking a few inches closer to the mound, as well, if you don’t find the pitcher’s hard one already overpowering you. This will diminish the break of his breaking ball, which he may be very tempted to throw once he gets you in a hole. You may feel that you’re now excessively exposed to what was a manageable fastball before—but you’re still in a good position to foul Number One off. I should say that it’s a more high-percentage strategy to spoil the fastball and cheat on the breaking ball than to look fastball and hope to goodness that you don’t get a breaking ball. What do you think?

I’m going to add this, though it has nothing to do with hitting style: please don’t take close pitches with two strikes when you’ve observed the umpire consistently giving the pitcher four inches off the plate. Foul those nuisances off. Nick them one-handed if you have to. After a couple of innings, you should know if your ump likes his “Hee-rike Hreee!” routine so much that he probably practices it every night before the mirror. I hate seeing players—especially contact-hitters—get caught in this trap. Be preemptive. Fight to get on first.

using different styles in different counts

It was said of Ty Cobb that he assumed various stances during a single at-bat, and I’ve heard the same claim made of Rod Carew. Honestly, I had never given much thought to the matter until the final weeks of preparing this book—and I don’t know why it popped into my head at that time. Perhaps my comments about the dynamism of the Fall Step made me reflect, “You know… you could take that kind of lunging, all-or-nothing cut early in the count and perhaps early in the game. If you came up empty, you could revert to something a little more under control and high-percentage.” Imagine Carl Yastrzemski airing it out on the first good fastball he sees. Then, after fouling the pitch straight back, the hitter morphs into Bill Madlock.

The subject is worth further consideration, and serious consideration. One hears some of the more experienced TV commentators complain occasionally about batsmen who do nothing to adjust to the count after they collect two strikes. Usually the phrase “choke up” is dropped in somewhere if such comments are elaborated. What I’m suggesting here could go well beyond choking up, however. What if I were to set up on top of the plate in leading off one of the early innings of a scoreless game, intending to stride away vigorously in that big “swoosh” of a Fall Step stroke which could either rake an inside pitch or chase an outside one up the off-field power alley? And what if, upon the failure of my plan to land a hit in fair territory, I decided to back well off the plate and execute a similar swing, but aimed the other way from the start? Maybe the count goes full as the battle continues; and maybe I then decide to slip far back in the box and do a shuffle into the pitch, allowing me to reach the breaking ball before it breaks but also, hopefully, to fight off any fastball with quick hands?

Would this be too much for a single at-bat? Perhaps. Would such diversity of approach be more permissible over the course of several at-bats in one game? Why not? Would the objection be that the hitter will mess himself up by straying from the single swing that he’s practiced over and over, even hundreds of times, in the cage between games? But is it really so very hard to bend a swing in various directions? Why should it be hard? If the hitter needs his hundreds of reps just to avoid jumping the one narrow track where his stroke seems to run on time, then how good a stroke can it be, to begin with? And if opposing pitchers and catchers perceive (as they surely will) how dependent he is on rigidly preserved mechanics for success, will they not devise a way to exploit his holes in full confidence that he cannot adjust?

There are many things I don’t understand about the game as it’s played today, and maybe some of these things are products of my not having ever faced anything like a Pedro Martinez or a Justin Verlander with a bat in my hands. Yet it’s precisely the thought of such formidable adversaries that convinces me of the diverse, resourceful, multi-pronged attack’s necessity. No, I simply don’t understand the determination with which hitters rehearse themselves into rigidly defined parameters. What I do know well—better than most professionals today, few of whom have explored the game’s history—is that the greatest players of yesteryear didn’t share their obsession with invariable form.

Doesn’t this subject deserve further thought? If you try to put various styles into practice during a single at-bat and you get fouled up, then don’t try it again. But what if it works?

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!