baseball history, bat design, hand use in hitting, low line drives, metal bat use, off-season preparation, opposite-field hitting, Uncategorized

Get a Grip

I liked the Cubs before the major networks decided to adopt them as America’s team.  Hell, I would have liked the resuscitated Washington Senators if the cheerleading media had just left them alone instead of trying to make us all Nationals fans.  I don’t like feeling manipulated, and I also don’t like—purely from a baseball perspective—the profile of the big, burly hitter who crowds the plate and pulls everything he can reach.  Those crushers have their uses, but they’re the diametric opposite of everything we preach at smallballsuccess.com.

A Cub, a plate-crowder supreme, a pull hitter’s pull hitter… Anthony Rizzo should represent a big swathe of what I detest about today’s game.  But he’s also an invincibly amiable human being; and now that I myself am a cancer survivor (well, sort of: first I have to survive the drug overdoses to which I was submitted this fall), he’s one of my favorite men in uniform for another reason.  I forgive him his gripping the bat like a club, thumbs wrapped tightly round and pressing the wood deep into the palm.  Every hitting manual from the old days, from Johnny Mize’s to Ted Williams’ to Cal Ripken, Jr.’s (and that’s not so old, children), strongly recommended holding the handle as you would an axe’s, with wrists somewhat closed in a “v” and thumbs and forefingers actually floating free until the intricacies of attack create complex shifts in pressure point.  But you just don’t see the “lumberjack” grip any more.

And why would you?  The bats themselves fight against it.  The metal sticks that kids grow up swinging have handles about as thick as a large rope.  They cry out to be grasped and yanked.  The top hand heaves the barrel down from over the shoulder, then releases as the bottom hand clings for dear life to the whirlybirding weapon.  It’s a steep swing, relying heavily on severe backspin for long-ball success, and it doesn’t work well for boys who aren’t tall.  Yet bats have gotten shorter and their barrels thicker as handles have grown skinnier, so the tall boy with his great wingspan is the only one who might effectively wield this bludgeon, anyway.  A boy without as much reach needs a longer stick, which will also allow his stroke to level off and spray line drives around… but we no longer have that bat in the game, so we no longer have the short, scrappy contact hitter and the offensive antidote to shifts and strikeouts.  It all holds together.

It wasn’t always so, I promise you.  Nobody had bigger hands than Roberto Clemente (except perhaps Jackie Robinson), and nobody’s handle was more massive (except perhaps Jackie Robinson’s).  Yet despite having so much lumber to steer with their fingers, both Clemente and Robinson honored their day’s practice of “aligning the knuckles” in taking their grip and not cramming the handle deep into their palms.  Even after the entry of metal-cloned wooden bats into the game, along with now-indispensable batting gloves, maestros like Rod Carew cradled their handle in very loose fingers attached to very limber wrists. 

It’s not that neither hand ever clamped down on the bat at any point of the swing.  On the contrary, the loose-and-limber initial grasp was important precisely because it gave the hitter flexibility in rotating the hands through different stages of the stroke.  In a classic Williams or Mantle cut, the bottom hand would close a little (but still not lock its thumb) as it thrust the handle back and out during the load; the top hand, resisting this rearward thrust to create a “full cock” effect, would bend its wrist inward more than ever.  Then the bottom hand’s thumb would indeed close on the bat as the load’s backward roll leveled off into a forward attack; and the top hand, just a split second later, would punch down through the pitch, its wrist straightening just at contact and its thumb closing tightly.  (There was a lot of debate in coaching literature of the time about whether the back arm is fully extended and the elbow locked upon contact.  Answer: no.  The wrist straightens into a punch, but the elbow is faintly bent until follow-through.)

A martial arts master, you know, throws his punches from bent wrists: he doesn’t begin them with straight wrists and locked fingers, as in the so-called roundhouse punch.  The Rizzo type of hitter (and I’ll pick on Anthony only because he’s about the best there is at the style) throws those rounded punches, not the straight karate shots that drive linearly through the point of contact.  Again, he doesn’t really have much of a choice.  He will have grown up, this contemporary slugger, using metal that wants to be yanked on rather than caressed; and if he graduates to professional ball, his wooden sticks will naturally preserve the dimensions of his metal ones as closely as the bat-maker can engineer.

In Metal Ropes, I recommend wrapping the handle in two layers of insulating tape, just to thicken it up.  An incidental benefit of that adjustment, though, is that you really don’t need gloves with so much padding beneath your fingers.  Your fingers can now be a little closer to the action.  I would add yet a third layer of wrap—not for thickness, because electrician’s tape is ultra-thin; but I would apply a coating of that slick black adhesive precisely so that the hands would not firmly grip the bat.  As I tried to indicate a couple of paragraphs back, the stick needs to rotate subtly and smoothly in the fingers as it’s taken through a complex circle striving to become a straight line.  Everything in our skeletal structure is built to produce pivotal motions.  If we’re to get our barrel directly to the ball, therefore, our marvelous joints have to make loops and curves on either side of the straight vector—and it all has to happen in a split second.  Landing dead-center on a pitch to produce a line drive is really a little work of art, suitable for framing (if only your shutter could capture the protracted instant).

Flexibility.  That’s why, in those Paleolithic days before the alloy bat, we kids would emulate big-leaguers by rubbing our handles with dirt.  I never saw anyone using pine tar when I was a kid.  I know it was around by then, but I still associate heavy tarring of the handle with the “metal swing”.  (I think some hitters probably wanted one hand to stay relatively secure in its grasp: power hitters might want to glue a firm top hand to the bat, while spray hitters might want to be sure their bottom hand’s fingers always had a good grip.)  Now, I distinctly remember that we kids always said we performed the dirt-rubbing ritual in order to grip the bat better (if Mom asked us why we had to play in the dirt).  That’s what we believed.  But the truth is that sweat, like pure water, will make wood refuse to glide smoothly under the fingers.  We were really trying to neutralize the effects of nervous sweat on our war club that would have denied our hands a chance to work into different positions.

Isn’t this why today’s sluggers, having stepped out of the box to readjust their batting gloves, proceed to deposit a load of spittle into them just before resuming their grip?  (I can still see David Ortiz: oh, the life of a batting glove!)  You’ve already rubbed the handle with pine tar; you’ve already clothed your hands in a substance that catches on the tar tightly.  So now… now you need to lubricate that substance lest it be too “catchy” and not allow your fingers any rotational ability at all.  I have to wonder if we couldn’t strip away a few layers of counter-measure here and there.

If you really wanted to develop a Rod Carew-style stroke—a batting champ’s manual flexibility—my advice would be that you sit on a stool and have a teammate toss you pitches in the cage.  Take your lower half out of the equation until you learn to use your hands.  The coach shouldn’t be sitting on a bucket while you’re pirouetting from head to toe: you should be sitting on the bucket, and your hands should be getting to know their handle.

arm health, baseball history, Deadball Era, footwork in the box, general health, hand use in hitting, hand-spreading, low line drives, mental approach, metal bat use, opposite-field hitting, productive outs, Uncategorized

Mea Culpa… But Error Is Science’s Plumbline

There’s a lot of talk these days about “good science”, “scientific consensus”, and so forth—most of it on the part of people who are trying to get other people to shut up: an oddly un-scientific objective for the self-styled “pro-science” crowd. Real science, you know, doesn’t turn up its nose at anything before the eyes have a close look. Sure, science may quickly turn down its thumb at an hypothesis openly defiant of the evidence… but the verdict is more against a defiance that ignores evidence-collection.  The fact that most of us possess no eye-witness evidence of Bigfoot, for instance, is no proof that the creature doesn’t exist.  None of us has ever directly seen a quark, an isotope, or a genetic marker on a DNA strand, either.  We “know” of such things by inference—by their effect upon the surrounding, more observable environment.  The difficulty about Bigfoot isn’t that he doesn’t stand up and show himself; for, if he exists, he would by definition be an extremely intelligent hominid with a highly evolved ability to remain hidden.  No, the greater problem is that “Bigfoot researchers” seem to practice a method of collecting one-time, sui generis curiosities: nothing systematic, no repeatable results.  Even Sasquatch footprints may just be the indentations left by displaced rocks.  Like T.S. Eliot’s Macavity the Mystery Cat, one may say of the Squatch and his seekers, “For when they reach the scene of crime—Macavity’s not there!”

Well… this is taking the long way around to confessing that I made a mistake.  Several months ago, I conceived the notion—based on some encouraging initial experiments—that a pitch might be effectively pulled with our typical Deadball grip at SmallBallSuccess.com (i.e., hands spread, handle in knocker-knuckles, wrists pressed into a “v”) if only the bat were lifted higher than usual and the hands kept close to the shoulders.  I must have had this notion in my head for well over a year, in fact.  I was surprised to see it pop up in my book Metal Ropes, which I’m currently giving a complete overhaul.  (The second edition will be out by the end of November, I hope.)  I finally got around to testing the technique more thoroughly in a video published a little more than a month ago.  I was very excited in that “shoot” by how balls were flying off my barrel.  The video’s title is “Pull-Hitting the Deadball Way”.

Okay, fine.  But then I developed some right-arm problems that inhibited me from further experiments.  When I finally thought myself fit enough to have another go at it, I added two components to the script: 1) I used a metal bat, since I was now deep into my revision of Metal Ropes; and 2) I mixed in sequences of going the other way with those of my pulling pitches as described.  I called this video “Spreading Hits Around With the Tris Speaker Shuffle”, since I was loading out of a shuffle-step for all my swings.

One thing that the second video taught me was that my swings in the first video were the culprit behind my arm pain.  It returned with a vengeance.  I’m typing this blog left-handed, thanks mostly to the severe compression of shoulder and elbow joints that occurs when you hold a bat’s handle right before your chin and power the barrel straight down.  Umm… don’t try that at home, please.  I’m somewhat reassured that I haven’t set an injury-trap for the general public only because I happen to be on hormone-suppressants, and I’m sure these have far reduced my ability to recover from stress below the average ballplayer’s (and below my personal level before I started cancer therapy).

Now, my pain is a big problem to me personally… but the bigger problem to my faithful viewers is that they’ve been misled.  My first video gave them some “bad dope” (as Jake Daubert would have called it).  Well, not entirely bad: I mean, my solid contact and line drives were real enough.  Significantly, though, both the reliability of contact and the airborne trajectory of the drives tended to fizzle when I switched to metal.  In the second video, I’m forced to conclude that I haven’t solved the problem of how to pull with authority from a Speaker swing, after all, even though that stroke continues to shoot drives very reliably the other way.

I suspect that “hugging the hands in” and swinging down doesn’t work so well with metal because it works too well.  The lifted hands, that is, are actually riding high—whereas, with the heavier wood, I was deceived into thinking them shifted up high.  It’s not the first time a hitting theorist hasn’t properly read his own body’s motions.  The other day, I was laughing over Ted Williams’ insistence in his 1966 instructional video (titled—what else?—Batting With Ted Williams) that any trace of a hitch should be eliminated in the interest of hastening the swing.  As a YouTube viewer correctly commented on one of my uploads about hitching, the Thumper did indeed stir a little roll of the hands into every game-time swing he ever took!

I think the almost battle-hatchet hack from the chin has a high probability of pulling the ball simply because it rushes the barrel out in front of the plate so quickly.  It is good for that!  However, the barrel is now entering the pitch at too severe a downward angle to create line-drive backspin—and its angle is also skewed toward the vertical.  In other words, the ball’s upper/inner quadrant is being struck, not its rear/lower quadrant; and while the early contact is driving it to the pull side, the vertically angled contact is driving it into the ground.  The metal-bat demo illustrates this to perfection.  About the only pitches I could get to fly were those I struck one-handed: that is, I got to them so early that my top hand relinquished the handle and the barrel therefore leveled off.  Otherwise… well, I had discovered a good “butcher boy” technique for getting the ball on the ground to the right side (I typically bat left) and advancing runners.  I certainly hadn’t achieved our operational objective of smacking low line drives.

The wooden-bat experiment had given me false hope because, once again, the barrel’s weight was leveling off my swing more than I’d realized.  The bat’s handle and its head need to be fairly equidistant from the ground for straight, low shots to fly off the barrel—yet the barrel’s entry into the ball also needs to be slightly downward to kiss the globe with backspin.  That’s the problem I have to solve, newly rephrased: how do you catch a pitch in front of the plate while keeping you stick in a level, slightly descending plane?

The best way might actually be to shuffle up on the plate and then stride away with a good lunge, taking care to keep your hands from straying far above or beyond the rear shoulder.  Just let the barrel fall into the ball—but open up so that the bat can flatten out as it leaves the shoulder.  A “lunge into the bucket” wouldn’t cover the outside corner very well… but it allow the barrel to be relatively level even as it reached back for that corner, and a “push” hit to the off-field would be possible.  Anyway, that’s an hypothesis for a day when the old man has two functional arms again.

I have a feeling that Ty Cobb almost obsessed over being able to pull.  He had no doubt mastered the art of going the other way early on; but pulling is actually harder than pushing (except in our era, when every man uses a kid’s bat), and Ty liked to give out that he was a “place-hitter”—that he could hit ’em anywhere he pleased.  The two photos above were culled from an online video.  The first shows a very promising drive into the pitch.  Then the unthinkable happens: Ty Cobb’s mechanics utterly break down.  He’s early, so all he needs to do is keep his head down and release the handle with his top hand.  The barrel will then stay squared to the ball and travel a bit further along the same slightly downward vector—with reduced power; but that’s okay, because square contact should pop the pitch right into center field.  Instead… instead, the game’s greatest hitting wizard refuses to get off the gas with his top hand and even rears his head back in a bid to keep the barrel circling in “pull” mood.  What in hell’s he doing?

You can tell from the surroundings that this isn’t a live game.  The Georgia Peach is devoting valuable BP to figuring out how to pull a pitch any time he feels like it.  I don’t think he found the answer on this day.

I can sympathize.  But I’ll leave you with this thought: in science, progress is made through failure.  You’re trying to find a passage through uncharted waters, and all you can do is crawl ahead under one jib while throwing the plumbline again and again.  You hope you can read a sudden rise in the bottom before your feel it through the hull.  My body took some hits thanks to my miscalculations… but now I know.  If I live to fight another day, I’ll edge right back into the same shoal waters and then steer a different course.  I never seem to pencil anything new onto the chart, though, without the help of mistakes and erasures.

Come to think of it, what most puts me off about Ted’s Science of Hitting is that it reads more like a man’s lecture on why his way is right, with plenty of after-the-fact rationalizations shoring up the shakier planks, than like a scientific treatise.  Science makes errors.  It thrives on them.  I’m sure I’ll keep finding smoother paths by bruising my shins on rocky ones; and every time I take a fall, I’ll let you know about it.

baseball history, bat acceleration, bat design, Deadball Era, footwork in the box, hand use in hitting, low line drives, mental approach, opposite-field hitting, weight transfer

Excavating Treasures From Forgotten Techniques: Hitting

Billy Herman

As I noted in my opening words last time, hitting is both the preferred subject of the casual fan and the specific subject that drew me into examining disused baseball practices all the way back to the Deadball Era.  I think I’ve made genuine progress.  Lately I have had occasion every afternoon to review black-and-white footage on DVD’s chronicling yesteryear’s game. I crank up the show before going to languish for twenty minutes in a far-infrared sauna. (It’s called “hyperthermic therapy”: cancer cells loathe heat!)  Discoveries which I had already added to my treasure box are constantly being confirmed.  Take the controversial matter of what I call the “shuffle step” (controversial only because nobody today has the guts to break the mold and judge by actual results).  I had read years ago that Tris Speaker somewhat “ran” himself into the pitch—or, more accurately (in my conjecture), we may say that Spoke took a forward step with his back foot before the front foot strode.  I subsequently observed Edd Roush doing something of the sort in batting practice before the 1919 World Series… as well as Babe Ruth, of all people, cheating forward with such a shuffle to anticipate Wee Willy Sherdel’s curveball in the 1928 Series.

To that distinguished list, thanks to my sessions in the sauna, I can now add Hall-of-Famer Billy Herman for certain.  Billy’s shuffling was probably intended to orient him better for taking an oppo shot to right field.  Less obvious was Joe Cronin’s slight resettling of the rear foot in conjunction with his raise of the barrel.  I was irresistibly reminded of Nolan Arenado.

Now, my faithful readers (also known as “gluttons for punishment”) know how much I love hitting to the opposite field… but the advantages of the shuffle step extend far beyond turning the cannon aft, and indeed may be observed in dead-pull hitting, as well.  The shuffle fights against rotation in the swing.  If you keep your weight back upon a dug-in foot, or if you shift it emphatically rearward again after a stride forward, you force your barrel to circle a stable axis that descends more or less precisely down the middle of your body.  Color commentators on TV love to use their telestrators in showing the inherent beauty of such a swing—and, yes, it can be as graceful as a Kristi Yamaguchi pirouette.

But in our sport, you don’t get points for grace.  What the shuffle does is mobilize this stable axis so that it slides forward into the pitch.  The barrel is allowed to descend straight into the ball over a much longer span.  The term “front-foot hitting” has been flung about over the years to designate the movement (though, as my examination of old photos and videos and my own experiments repeatedly demonstrate, a full forward weight shift doesn’t necessarily send you straight up-and-down over the front foot: indeed, it rarely does, as illustrated in the photo of Billy Herman above).  A line bisecting the ball’s heart is a more dynamic kind of baseball engineering than a curve that tops the ball, and the forward weight shift assists enormously in constructing that line; because when the barrel cuts through the ball in a slightly descending line, the result is a hard line drive—a shot that travels a long way in a short time.  That’s Old School hitting, à la Joe Cronin.

Meanwhile, the beautifully pirouetting “lean back and hack” hitter (my personal term) is forced by his stable axis to lift his barrel immediately after plunging it down into the pitch.  This swing (usually associated with its glorious advocate, Ted Williams—though Teddy actually leaked forward a lot more than he realized) has virtually no chance of cutting a straight line into the ball’s center.  Positive outcomes are few: 1) the barrel may well miss the ball entirely as it swoops into and out of the pitch’s plane; 2) it may backspin the ball during the descent to produce a harmless pop-up; 3) it may top the ball as it pulls out of its nosedive to generate a “rollover” grounder; or 4) it may happen to smack the ball’s center if the swing-hyperbola intersects the pitch-plane at just the right point.  Of course, #4 is what our contemporary sluggers are betting on, with all their chips.  Sometimes, in certain small ballparks, they get #2 to carry over a fence in fair territory; and #3 can produce true line drives… but these are usually neutralized by the radical shift, since today’s defenders have learned inductively that the stable hitting axis makes pull-hitting inevitable (of course, neither they nor their coaches would put the formula in those words).

With a longer, heavier bat, by the way, a Fifties pull-hitter like Eddie Mathews or Duke Snider might have kept the barrel on its descending line in spite of the uncooperative axis—for a barrel extending three or four inches farther from the hands wouldn’t yield to a quick rise after a steep descent.  This is why you see finishes from sixty years ago featuring a low wrap around the front shoulder (classic Ted Williams) rather than today’s typical high, one-handed flourish.  During my afternoon DVD tutorials, I heard no less an immortal than Jimmie Foxx explain on a newsreel that the power hitter’s objective was to throw the barrel’s weight into the pitch, not to swish the bat through the zone with maximum effort from start to finish.  The longer bat rewarded such thinking: nowadays those dynamics don’t work so well.

It should also be noted that sluggers got higher pitches in 1960.  That meant that the ascending barrel might just backspin a fastball even though the swing-hyperbola had already bottomed out.  Today’s boppers, in contrast, are constantly fed low pitches (since umpires don’t call anything at the letters).  As a result, their barrel is descending very steeply and pulling back up almost as steeply: a happy split-second rendezvous with the pitch has become more improbable than ever.

Back to the shuffle (and I’m going to write a book if I don’t get back there immediately): it greatly assists in delivering the barrel straight into the pitch, though Foxx himself didn’t employ it.  It throws the weight directly forward rather than channeling weight into a circle.  Okay… basta: I’ve said all that before.  Now here’s something new.  I’m currently working on the theory that the action of the hands during this shuffle can determine whether the line-drive is pulled or “pushed”.  In other words, if my theory is correct, it may be possible for the hitter to step into the box with the intent of stroking a liner to left or to right and then executing that intent with a high degree of success.  In an age of radical shifts, harmless pop-ups, and anemic rollovers, wouldn’t that be something?

If the hands rise close to the body and the forward leg doesn’t cock or coil, the barrel can fall straight into the pitch in what feels almost like the swing of an axe.  We particularly want the bottom hand to take an extra “micro-load” just before the attack, pushing the handle so far up that the barrel droops slightly toward the ground.  (I shared this discovery in a somewhat off-the-cuff video a few weeks ago: “Tweaking Yesteryear’s Line-Drive Swing”.)   The barrel’s line into the ball becomes so straight with this technique that weak pop-ups and rollovers are highly unlikely; and because the front leg is doing little more than lifting and then descending, with minimal rotation of any kind, contact will be rushed into the pitch and the hit will streak up the middle or to the pull side.  Everything in this technique aims to meet the ball in front of the plate.  The hands, rather than loading far back, stay forward.  They hurl down into the pitch: they do not whirl toward it in a tornadic motion that may or may not enter the pitch-plane at just the right instant.

And oppo hitting?  Simple: just change two of the parameters above.  Give the forward knee a cock as you load: the slight coil will close the front shoulder and prepare you to enter the pitch late and from the side.  With the same objective in mind, thrust the bottom hand out from the body, keep it lower than if you were pulling, and allow it to stray just a bit farther to the rear.  (The leg’s coil almost requires this complementary motion: the two movements are joined at the hip, we might say.)  By contacting the pitch more laterally, just before it pops the catcher’s mitt, you’re guaranteed a hit that isn’t pulled if it lands fair.  Even the inside pitch has a chance of being “pushed” over the opposite-side infield in a bloop safety as long as your bat has a little meat above the trademark.

These days. of course, few bats do.  Oh, those bats!

I don’t know why somebody wouldn’t want to have the talents of the legendary place-hitter on tap in our day’s game, when radical shifts are deflating averages by fifty points.  The table-setting guys in the line-up, at least, should want to be able to spread out the defenders and multiply chances of getting a hit through the net.  So why isn’t anyone doing what’s suggested here?  Why isn’t anyone even trying it?

baseball history, bunting, low line drives, mental approach, opposite-field hitting, productive outs, strike zone

My Strategic Line-Up: Moneyball + Situational IQ

I haven’t gotten used to Mike Trout and Manny Machado batting second… and then Snitker decides to slide Freddie Freeman into the Number Two slot.  It’s insane!  Or is it?

Proponents of the new line-up claim that you should want your best hitters to have the most plate appearances in the course of the afternoon.  As far as I know, no skipper has yet advanced Brian Harper or Cody Bellinger into the lead-off spot… but I grasp the general principle.  It is said (not always accurately) that yesteryear’s manager wanted a scrappy get-on-base hitter to lead off, a good bunter to follow who would sacrifice him over, and then the team’s best all-round hitter coming third.  The big bruisers wait to get their licks in the fourth and fifth positions, Six has some power but a rather anemic average, and then the bottom third… well, with the pitcher occupying Nine, the only remaining decision is the difficult Eight assignment.  You need somebody there who’s aggressive enough to go out of the zone successfully and do damage in front of the pitcher, but not so aggressive that he’s getting himself out with the same consistency as the .035-batting Slim Moundsman.

To cut to the chase, the old-school system pretty much conceded that one third of the line-up was virtually good for nothing.  Weak hitters were concentrated there.  Better to go three-up-and-three-down every second or third inning than to have rally-killers stitched throughout the batting order.

Yet even with the jettisoning of the pitcher’s turn at bat (and I suspect that the DH is now here to stay in both leagues: might as well be, since pitchers take no interest whatever in offensive preparation today), the New Way doesn’t seem to me all that different.  It may even magnify the effect I just identified: best hitters crowded toward the top, weaker hitters—elbowed to the bottom—told to take a lot of pitches in hopes of copping a walk or at least elevating pitch count.  Or stroke a homer.  Everybody now strokes homers… once in a while.  Even the humblest big-league second baseman hit 22 last year in Triple A, while batting .231.

So… what do you think of all this?  Again, the claim made by the talking heads is that the classic strategy played for single runs here and there, whereas today’s strategy is to keep betting Seven because you enjoy such a big payday if the bead stops at just the right place in the dish.  Is that really a fair statement of the contrast: playing for one run in the first, third, fifth, and seventh vs. tallying six runs in single innings every third game?  How many of those four-run games are losses?  How many losses are nestled between those nine-or-ten-run victories?

The sabermetrics guys could answer such questions with minute precision.  The problem is that we have no control group—no team legitimately going Old School to compare with the overhauled offensive strategies.  Even if a manager tried to resist the trend (and I don’t watch enough baseball now to propose a specific example… the Cardinals, maybe?), he would still inherit Emiliano at second base with his 22 taters, .231 BA, and .294 OBP.  You can’t play any hand but the one you’re dealt.

If I were granted king-for-a-year powers, there are lots of things in our confused, decaying society that I’d attempt to mend before undertaking to manage a ball club; but were I to be given carte blanche as a GM/manager, I’d strive to produce Moneyball, Part II.  That is, I’d select role-players rather than guys with eye-popping but contextless stats.  My roster would be filled with Tommy La Stellas and Bryan Reynoldses.  And here are some of the criteria which I would apply in making my selections.

Lead-Off: takes a lot of pitches, at least early in the game.  Lets everyone in the dugout see what Fireball Frank has today.  Hits to all fields, and keeps his drives low.  Good speed; can steal a base when needed.

Two Hole: very similar to lead-off, in that he takes close pitches before two strikes, hits to all fields, and doesn’t elevate his contacts.  Left-handed, so that he can exploit the gap when the lead-off man reaches and also give himself a better chance of frustrating a double-play attempt.  Notice I say nothing here about bunting.  Moving a runner from first to second with a sacrifice has a rather low probability of producing a run later, even when the bunt comes with no outs.

Third Spot: yes, my best all-round hitter.  High average, also show power (especially up the alleys for extra-base hits), can go out of the zone—especially on the outside corner—effectively and drive the ball; very high contact ratio; very confident in his abilities.  Again, I stress doubles and not home runs.

Clean-Up: Mighty Casey steps to the plate.  I’m certainly not waging war on four-baggers—we need Casey to hit his 35 per season.  But we need other, more subtle contributions from him, as well.  Hold on to your chairs: I’d like Casey, even more than the first or second hitters, to know how to bunt!  There will be many late-inning situations during the year when two outs have already been recorded against us and the Great One simply needs to get that one run home from third, or when no outs have yet been logged and the tying or winning run is on second.  Sure, I’m paying Casey a Cadillac salary (as Fritz Ostermueller would say) because he hits bombs… but at just this moment, a bomb is statistically improbable, whereas the infield is playing so deep that a bunt hit should be a given.  I don’t need a clean-up T-Rex who also kays twice a game and pops up when he isn’t clearing the fences.  I need a little humility and common sense to go with that energizing confidence.  I need Mike Schmidt, not Bye-Bye Balboni.

Fifth Hole: Here is where I turn everything conventional on its ear.  I know the accepted wisdom well: you have to protect your best hitters.  Maris is protecting Mantle, so you have to protect Roger with Elston Howard or Moose Skowron.  Tony Kubek was a fine hitter, but… protection means a power threat.  McGwire protects Canseco; so, to keep the chain of protection strong, you have to follow Mark not with Carney Lansford—who, while a one-time batting champ, was no heavy-weight—with Dave Parker or Dave Henderson.  Yet I say, give me Lansford in Slot Five.  Give me Kubek.  Essentially, I want to repeat the previous cycle: I want a lead-off hitter batting fifth.  Why?  Well, if my clean-up hitter is pitched around, then it’s probably because runners before him have reached base.  If he has the discipline that I need of him, he accepts the walk.  Now several base-runners are waiting to come home—and I send a guy to the plate who makes the pitcher throw strikes and hits low liners.  So let the pitcher, with runners all over the place, choose to work to this fellow instead of another who’s not quite strong enough and dependable enough to bat fourth.  Would you rather deliver the situation into the hands of a .241 hitter who bags 28 homers a season, or into those of a .312 hitter whose on-base percentage is over .400?  I’ll take the latter, or whoever is as close to him as I can get.  To be sure, in a given season, Elston Howard would likely bat higher than Kubek and Dave Parker higher than Lansford… but you follow my intent, hopefully.  Most teams aren’t loaded with superstars, and I would like my fifth hitter to have a high OBP and three homers rather than a high home run total and a .298 OBP.

Sixth Spot: Just as few teams would have a fifth-slot hitter of Dave Parker’s quality, so too would few have a sixth-place hitter as good at working counts and putting the ball in play as their Number Two hitter.  Still, this is ideally the kind of guy I’d like: knows the strike zone, doesn’t strike out or pop up, possesses the potential of moving along whatever base-runners he inherits.  The tradition has the Punch-and-Judy types rounding out the line-up at seventh and eighth, preceded by fellows with a little more sting in their bat.  I would flip-flop those selections.  Put guys at Five and Six who get on base (and will move up those who have preceded them on base).  Let the higher-caliber guns who haven’t yet learned to hit a target reliably make their noise farther toward the bottom.

Seven and Eight… and Ninth?: If we’re going to assume the presence of a Designated Hitter, then I would have the same little speech prepared for all three of these bottom-dwellers; viz., “You guys are in the line-up mostly because of your gloves, but also because you show promise with the bat.  Offensively, you’re works-in-progress… and I hope you get there sooner rather than later.  You have potential, but you’ve displayed too little situational sense.  You roll over low breaking balls when you know the pitcher is looking for a double play.  You can’t get out of the habit of pulling everything.  Then, to snap your slump, you take the first pitch right down the middle… or you start guessing, and give up on a two-strike pitch that’s not exactly where you expected it… or you chase something at the letters because it looks very pullable.  Sometimes you’ll hit me a solo home run.  Thanks.  But I need for you to be thinking about why you’re so low in the order, and what you need to do to climb higher.”

Again, the misery of the manager’s job today is that the cards in his hand are all a bunch of One-Eyed Jacks.  They all look the same, and they all have the same objective.  The game has made them so, in the process of greatly impoverishing itself… and I doubt that a big-league manager, paradoxically, has as much ability to reshape his material as a Single A skipper.  Once you’ve made it to the top by pulling hangers over the left-field wall, why should you listen to this mother hen who’ll be replaced by next spring?

So… yeah, why not just let Goldschmidt lead off?

baseball history, bat acceleration, Deadball Era, footwork in the box, hand use in hitting, low line drives, opposite-field hitting, strike zone, Uncategorized

A Comparison of Barrel Paths: Vague Results, But One Strong Conclusion

Below is an excerpt from the utterly new Chapter Fifteen of Landing Safeties, Second Edition, which I hope to have available on Amazon before the end of May.  Please do not mistake the copy of the book currently advertised at the right of this page for that update: it will clearly read “Second Edition” on the cover.  Yet if you’ve bought the first edition in the past, I believe you’re eligible to receive a free Kindle update when the next edition appears.  (It will be in both Kindle format and hard copy.).

The first edition of Landing Safeties contained nothing whatever that would correspond to this chapter.  In fact, I’d thought that I was done with the second edition when the idea struck me for including a graphic breakdown of various swings.  I had made claims at two or three points earlier in the book about how the forward weight shift reaches places in the zone that more “approved” swings today can’t touch—and reaches them from a productive, line-drive angle.  But could I show that visually to be true?  And how should I show it?  Should I sketch the outlines of hitters swinging their sticks from various angles?  Would that be convincing?  After all, a sketch can be squeezed or stretched to illustrate “facts” that aren’t valid in the real world.

But if I shot live footage of actual swings and then froze certain critical frames, would the features I wanted to emphasize come clear?  I don’t have the resources to film myself in a dark studio with a luminescent bat (the like of which Walt Hriniak did for his classic manual).  Could I make the barrel stand out sufficiently in black and white to sell my propositions?

Well, in my own low-tech manner, I fashioned a couple of pretty good demonstrations.  A white sock was duck-taped to the end of each of three bats.  That sock stands out well enough to emphasize the bat path in the isolated frames.  One sequence of swings, furthermore, was shot from directly overhead (itself no mean technical feat: but my trusty duck tape permitted me to extend the camera’s mounting several feet from an upstairs balcony).  The horizontal view was relatively easy, and was captured against an L-screen draped in a dark tarp.  I wish I hadn’t chosen to wear a white-topped cap throughout the filming… but I never said I was Steven Spielberg.

Frankly, the overhead view was disappointing, to the extent that I thought it would be very revealing.  It licenses several insights, but not as clearly as I’d hoped.  The details must be analyzed very finely.  To complicate matters, my three bats were of different sizes.  I suppose I should have used a single bat throughout: that way I would not have had to qualify my conclusions about how much of the zone was being covered by allowing for different lengths of stick.  Yet I was between a rock and a hard place on that one.  You really can’t use a single bat for all three strokes—not if you want to reproduce them with their peculiar effects highlighted.  Variation in bat is indeed part of the reason why swings have changed so much over the past century.  A Deadball swing doesn’t mix well with a short, top-heavy club; a Juan Gonzalez/Alex Rodriguez type of swing isn’t something you’d want to try with a yard of timber (not if you value your spine).

So, with those caveats acknowledged, let me proceed to describe how the demo’s below are organized.  The three swings I have chosen to model are the following.  First I start in the present.  I call this paradigm the Twenty-First Century Swing (or TFCS).  I noticed it becoming all the rage back in the Nineties of the previous century.  We’ve discussed it lengthily before, and I’m sure you know it by heart: bat cocked high to the rear, back elbow pointed up restlessly, big leg kick, foot down early, lower the boom into the zone, early release of top hand, high finish with bottom hand.  It’s an ideal stroke for the metal bat, though more risky with wood.  Even the shortest wooden bats carry enough weight to place a lot of strain on the back when put through such gyrations.  The two home-run superstars I mentioned in the previous paragraph both suffered from chronic back pain.  I myself thought I was having kidney failure as I tried to crawl out of bed the morning after I took these videos!

I used a 33” Tony Gwynn model in executing the TFCS.  I believe Tony himself actually employed a shorter stick.  The barrel is quite broad compared to the handle.  Obviously, a lot of flare brings the two ends together.  Gwynn was one of the first big-league hitters to insist that his wooden tools be engineered as closely as possible to resemble the metal ones he had know in high school and college.

Moving back in time (though, of course, the boundaries aren’t rigid), I replicate what I call the Golden Age Swing (GAS). Williams—both Ted and Billy, in fact—Mize, Mantle, Musial, Mathews, Snider, Kaline, Killebrew, McCovey… all of them operated within these parameters, some more narrowly than others.  The Fifties have been dubbed baseball’s “golden age” because they produced this new generation of uppercutting power-hitters who, it is said, made the game more exciting than it has ever been.  The GAS begins in a backward glide rather than a leg kick, with hands gathered in at the rear armpit.  The backward coil of the loading knee is often synchronized with a slight dip or roll of the hands (some call it a hitch; I don’t think it’s pronounced enough to justify that label).  Then the front foot strides out as about half the weight spills immediately back onto the rear leg.  The barrel rushes off the shoulder into its descent in no time and continues to trace most of its path through a faint but steady rise—a long, sweeping rise that typically ends with the bat wrapped around beside (not above) the front shoulder.  It is indeed a powerful swing.  Most of its practitioners were dead-pull hitters.  With so much emphasis on staying back (what I sometimes call “lean back and hack”), their only possible adjustment to an outside pitch was to undercut it severely and hope that the opposite-field defender was caught off guard by the bloop.

My lumber for this round was a 34” Fred Lynn model that fits my hands very well for the kind of load required.  The bat’s flare isn’t as abrupt as the Gwynn model’s, but the stick remains formidably massive.

And this brings us to our Deadball Swing (DS).  I essentially took the approach outlined at the end of Chapter 12: load the barrel almost straight up and not far back, use that load to catalyze a stiff lift of the forward leg, drop down on the leg heavily in a movement that draws the barrel directly after it, carry the cut down and through the pitch as far as possible, and finally follow through with a parabolic sweep that sends the barrel far over the front shoulder.  The weight shift, as we have stressed, should be as complete as reaction time will allow. Since I wasn’t swinging at an actual pitch during any of these exercises, my shift showed no evidence of being interrupted.

I used a 35” Robin Ventura model in this third round of demonstrations.  Robin wasn’t even born when Ty Cobb died; but the slim, moderate design of this sweet bat is remarkably similar to what I can make out of Cobb’s weapon.

Since I devoted Chapter 13 exclusively to the shuffling load, and since I’m so delighted with that forgotten tactic, I tossed in a few additional photos in my DS discussions that underscore how shuffling enhances the best elements of yesteryear’s stroke.

I was pleasantly surprised by how much I learned from isolating particular instants of each swing and then comparing them, even though (as I’ve confessed) the overhead sequences needed a lot more analyzing than I would have supposed necessary.  All of us have become accustomed to viewing video in the twenty-first century—perhaps too much so.  Stopping and freezing on certain moments that rush past too quickly in live time can unveil a hidden world to the careful observer.

The Overhead View

I begin with the overhead view because it turns out to be a little less revealing—and I prefer to finish with the angle that drives home the important lessons better.  I have to believe now that so much significant up-and-down motion (visible only from a lateral angle) is going on in any swing as to make the overhead angle almost uninteresting.

Nevertheless, we can obtain some useful insights if we break up the swing into three parts and then look at Part One in all of our strokes, followed by Part Two and then Part Three.  That’s exactly what I have done.

The first part consists of three frames. These bring the barrel from its fully loaded position (I saw no reason to represent anything previous to the full-cock moment) forward to the instant when it’s about to enter the hitting zone. The TFCS and the GAS are so similar as to be indistinguishable: you could almost suppose yourself to be looking at the same three shots. The only real contrast we have going here, then, is between the two more contemporary paradigms and the Deadball Swing—and there’s little enough difference, even between the upper pair of sequences and the bottom one.

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Now, let’s acknowledge a couple of compromising deficiencies right off the bat (so to speak).  I’ve already noted that the length of my sticks varied, from 33” to 35”.  A close look at the frames will also reveal that the shots are not reduced to the same exact scale.  (In some positions, my bat trailed so far to one side or another that matching three perfectly scaled frames would never have fit a page—or else would have required too much shrinking for details to be visible.)  That said, I nevertheless think we see plain evidence of the barrel’s trailing farther to the rear in TFCS and GAS than in DS.  Instead of trying to measure how much bat extends rearward in the bottom photos versus how much does so in the two upper tiers, pay attention to the barrel’s distance from my cap or my rear shoulder in individual frames.  That is, orient yourself to points within the frame in order to arrive at an accurate sense of how much the bat is circling the zone.  The newer swings appear to be more hyperbolic: there’s a generous curve in how they wheel away from the back shoulder.  The Deadball cut travels more directly into the zone.

If this is hard to make out (and I know it is), the reason is mostly because the 35” bat I use in the bottom sequence appears to claim a much longer slice of the photo.  In fact, its being an inch or two longer than the bats above it can’t account for how far its thin, pale line extends.  Two things here: again, notice that the bat head doesn’t trail my rear shoulder in the DS by more than (or I would say as much as) it does in the other two swings. Secondly—and very importantly—understand that the bat creates such a long line in these overhead shots because it has already come relatively flat in its straight, linear passage through the zone.  Even during the full load (the first frame of each sequence), DS shows the barrel more inclined toward the rear.  TFCS has the bat’s head veering forward, coiled like a spring to sweep in a swooshing dive at the ball.  GAS dips the barrel more toward the plate (in the fashion so reminiscent of Ted Williams), because—as we shall see later from the lateral angle—it plummets down into the trough of its dip with a single-minded quickness.

The Deadball Swing, however, puts the barrel in the plane of productive, backspinning contact almost at once.  That, and not the extra inch or two, is why the bat looks so very long in these initial instants.  Were a high-inside fastball to surprise a hitter using one of the other two strokes, it would likely slip right over that steeply circling barrel.  The DS would stand the best chance of fouling off such a pitch, and maybe even of pushing it the other way over the infielders’ gloves.

I’ll be posting two videos of these experiments (from which I drew my still photos) on YouTube later today.  I’ll nip back in tomorrow and add links for the Overhead Angle and the Lateral Angle, if all goes well.