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

Ty Cobb, Hitting Instructor (Part Two)

File:1900 Fred Clarke.jpeg - Wikimedia Commons

If I hadn’t already committed myself to the title above by calling last week’s blog “Part One”, I’d definitely rechristen this piece. The subject I want to explore now isn’t so much Cobb’s hitting advice to the world as the world’s confusion over certain aspects of his hitting. If only he had left us a little more direction in the matter of his hand-spreading, the controversy would evaporate.

But instead… well, let me get more specific by sharing a passage that I lately blundered upon in F.C. Lane’s 1925 classic, Batting—a wide-ranging series of reflections on baseball topics enlightened by Lane’s dozens (perhaps hundreds) of interviews with the game’s greats. As well as I recall, by the way, the book is available as a Kindle download for practically nothing. Anyway, the chapter that snapped me to attention was “Pulling the Unexpected”, and the particular passage was the following paragraph:

That this alert, original attitude may be an important factor in a batter’s success is indicated by Urban Shocker. He said, “The secret of Ty Cobb’s success as a batter was the fact that he always established a mental hazard. He was always on the offensive and you never knew exactly how to guard against him. Sometimes he would choke up on the bat and punch a hit through the infield. Sometimes he would swing from the handle and slug. Sometimes he would bunt. The only thing you could depend upon in his case was the fact that he would give you something that you weren’t expecting.”

Now, Shocker doesn’t say that Cobb would only take a full swing after making one of the two manual adjustments mentioned: i.e., sliding the bottom hand up to meet the top so as to “punch” or sliding the top hand down on the bottom one so as to “slug”. Yet this is precisely what Charles Leehrsen claims in his superior book, Cobb: A Terrible Beauty. I’ve tried to contact Mr. Leehrsen and learn the source of his claim, since he doesn’t document it. Not having ever received a reply, I’m inclined to conclude that the paragraph I just cited is that source, and that Leehrsen excessively generalized its contents. Shocker’s point is that you never knew what the Georgia Peach might try next: bunting, shooting his hands up and slapping at the pitch, slipping both hands down and hacking away, etc., etc. But Mr. Leehrsen, I believe, takes this invaluable eye-witness testimony out of context by ignoring the unstated “et cetera”. To him, if Ty were not bunting but taking a full cut, then either one hand would slide up or the other would slide down. Cobb supposedly would never make contact with his distinctively spread hands preserving their distance apart.

I don’t really know why observers of yesteryear’s game—of what relics it has left behind—find hand-spacing so hard to accept as a straightforward advantage.  When I was a small boy, Leon Wagner was spreading his hands almost as wide as Cobb (having learned his ball in the Negro Leagues, where Deadball was still alive in the Fifties). Daddy Wags clearly wasn’t spreading his large mitts to fake out the infield.  I recall being fascinated by his special grip as I thumbed through my baseball cards.  Leon logged 173 home runs (if my quick math isn’t off) from the 1961 through the 1966 seasons.  Spreading the hands need not create a power deficit if you do it right: on the contrary!

The photo at this article’s masthead isn’t actually of Cobb, but of his Hall of Fame forerunner, Fred Clarke (who coached that other Wagner early in the twentieth century and taught him, among other things, hand-spreading).  If you look very closely, you can tell that too much of Fred’s bottom hand is visible for the top hand to be clamped down hard on top of it.  Even though the bat’s head is nearly pointing into the camera, the bottom hand’s knuckles remain suspiciously clear.  This signals us that the top paw would finish pressed against the bottom one in batters who used the technique because the follow-through would bring the two together.

How on earth, for that matter, would you suddenly slam top hand on bottom just before you swing, as Leehrsen pictures Cobb doing?  Would you do this just before beginning your attack on the ball?  Wouldn’t it disrupt timing and concentration to be messing around with grip at the critical moment?  Or if you made the adjustment sooner, then… then there would be no point in doing it.  You would have tipped off the infield sufficiently to give them a headstart moving to your pull side (since anyone who “slugs” from down on the knob is trying to pull).  If the essence of Cobb’s strategies was trickery, then this trick would have neutralized itself.  The rabbit’s tail would be showing before the magician could get his hat off.

Last week I created two videos that attempt to explain what I think might have been happening.  (They were going to be a single video, but the material kept mushrooming on me.)  In the second video—the actual demonstration—I try to show how Ty’s top hand would inevitably have ended up snugged against his bottom one if he were putting a full swing on the pitch so as to pull it.  The first video explains my objectives pretty much as I’ve laid them out here, complete with a reading of the Shocker paragraph from Lane.

To tell the truth, I find replication of Cobb’s contorted, awkward stroke quite a challenge.  I produced better results in a follow-up sequence where I shuffle off the back foot toward the plate in my load, then fly open.  And Cobb, by the way, may have done this, too!  We know from testimony as solid as Shocker’s (some of it appearing elsewhere in Lane’s book) that Tyrus would occasionally skip around in the box during his load, like Tris Speaker.  You have to believe that versatility carried to such degree would have driven corner infielders crazy.

As for the second piece of this two-part puzzle—the slipping of the bottom hand up to the top—I had little success demonstrating it either from a stationary set-up or a more mobile load.  Yet I feel confident that the intent here would have been to go the other way (for why would you want to hit the ball lightly to your pull side?).  The problem of giving away that intent too early may evaporate if we consider that a slide of the bottom hand up the barrel as the pitcher winds up would telegraph a bunt, bringing the third baseman (in Ty’s case) charging in… and to follow up that feint by pushing the barrel into the ball with both hands might well shove a scratch hit to the outfield grass.  Today we’d call it a “slap bunt”.

Ty Cobb didn’t exactly clarion his masterful use of deceptive techniques while he was an active player, and one can understand why.  In later years, however, he dispensed plenty of advice to those who would lend an ear (it could be argued, for instance, that he prepared Charlie Gehringer for a Hall of Fame career).  It’s a shame—no, it’s an outrage—that this generous side of Cobb’s character has been not just ignored, but erased by the slanders in Al Stumpf’s phony scribbles and purveyed far and wide by elite media types (looking at you, Ken Burns) who needed a “white Southern racist” to play Satan beside their cherubic Babe Ruth.

The real obstacle to unearthing instruction from Cobb’s legacy isn’t that he tried to bury his nuggets ten feet underground.  I think, rather, it’s simply that the game has changed too much for us to grasp certain principles that he would have assumed as givens.  Why explain the virtues of hand-spreading when approximately half the game’s hitters had been doing it since the mid-nineteenth century?  For that matter, why make a big noise about Tris Speaker’s skipping around in the box when, as Willie Mays tells us, Bobby Richardson had inherited enough of this wisdom to fade back from the plate suddenly if he wanted to advance a runner with a grounder to the right side?  In 1925, wouldn’t you suppose that everybody knew such things?  Jeez… do you have to tell a young driver where the ignition is?  Do you have to tell him to open the door before trying to sit down?

In Donald Rumsfeld’s immortal words, we don’t know what we don’t know.  My video’s very limited success at replication certainly taught me humility.  You can’t just pick up a bat and start doing what Cobb or Speaker did.  They must have put hundreds, perhaps thousands of reps into their signature moves.  Few of us can comprehend how those moves worked because, among other things, we can’t convince ourselves that spending time to master them would be a good investment.

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

Ty Cobb, Hitting Instructor (Part One)

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I’m confident that Mr. Mudzinski will forgive me for sharing a terrific email that he sent me while I was getting “decarcinofied” at the Immunity Therapy Center in Tijuana.  It really perked me up.  Those of you who haven’t (God forbid) been through a similar experience can’t imagine what a lift it is to receive a few words from someone who’s not already assuming that your obituary will appear next month.  More than that (now that I’m very much not a member of the “obits” page), these nuggets from Ty Cobb suggest a great topic for today’s short ramble.

P.S. Any comments I presume to make on Tyrus’s advice are offered humbly in italics.

Dear Dr. Harris,

I found this advice from Ty Cobb to Sam Chapman in a book entitled Baseball’s Greatest Quotations c1991, HarperCollins. The letter to Chapman is dated May 18, 1938.  By the way, Chapman batted right. Hope it sheds more light on your pursuit.

  1. DON’T GRIP YOUR BAT AT THE VERY END; leave, say, an inch or two. ALSO, LEAVE AT LEAST AN INCH OR MORE SPACE BETWEEN YOUR HANDS; that gives you balance and control of bat, and also keeps hands from interfering with each other during the swing.  These would not have been received as radical suggestions at the time.  Look through any collection of photos drawn from the 1890’s, and you’ll find plenty of the day’s stars using precisely this grip.  Ty is advising a return to the old ways!
  2. Take position at plate, especially against right-hand pitchers, BACK OF PLATE, and against a man with a real curve, YOU CAN STAY ON BACK LINE OF BATTING BOX. Now try to hit to right-center. I don’t mean you should place the ball in any one spot, but start now practicing to hit your righthanders to the opposite field. An inside ball from a right-hand pitcher you will naturally pull, say, to left-center.  I think Ty is recommending a position both back toward the catcher (see a item 5 below) and far away from the plate, which could describe Honus Wagner’s off-field hitting.  I’m guessing that he doesn’t want the hitter on the chalk line near the catcher, but simply somewhat behind the plate.  Getting as far from the mound as the rules allowed would be very rare for this period; it would also give the curve more time to break.  Cobb is probably assuming that the hypothetical pitcher has a good fastball to go with #2, and he wants Sam to defend against both at once.
  3. DON’T SLUG AT FULL SPEED; LEARN TO MEET THEM FIRMLY, and you will be surprised at the results.  I just uploaded a video on this subject last week!  The oldtimers had longer bats that would largely generate their own acceleration with the right stroke.  Less is more.
  4. Now, to hit as I ask, to right-center. YOU STAND AWAY FROM PLATE the distance you can see with mind’s eye that you can hit the ball that curves on inside corner, to center. This distance away from plate will allow you to hit the outside ball to right. In other words, you protect the plate both on inside pitches and outside.  Not the happiest wording here—but I’ve already described this strategy in my bracketed comments.  It’s classic Cobb… and classic Lajoie, Clarke, Wagner, and others.  Be late on the outside pitch so as to direct it to the opposite field: then you can fight off the inside pitch by not “lurching” over the plate and take it up the middle, or even pull it if it has little velocity.
  5. Remember, THE PLATE IS THE PITCHER’S OBJECTIVE AND HE HAS TO COME TO IT. I use “back of plate” expression to mean towards the catcher, away from plate to denote distance from plate towards outside of box. Now, USE A SLIGHTLY CLOSED STANCE, AND KEEP A LITTLE MORE WEIGHT ON YOUR FRONT FOOT THAN BACK. That gives you balance and won’t pull you away from curves. You are always in position to give maximum drive. *There is inserted a diagram showing a batter’s right foot almost in the outside corner of the box, left foot forward and pointed forward to run nearly parallel with the plate. “Try this,” Cobb wrote, “and a curve ball will not bother you.”]  This stance was in common use even in the Seventies (remember Dan Ford?)  The only thing that surprises me a little is Cobb’s apparent assumption that the swing involves little or no weight transfer.  Hitters of yesteryear were less aware of their lower body, probably, due to the utter absence of video to to study.  If we stir in some lower-body motion, what Ty describes is the emphatic forward weight transfer of a front-foot hitter.
  6. DON’T PULL A CURVE BALL FROM A RIGHTHANDER. The ball is revolving away from you. Hit with the revolution and to right field.  Isn’t this an admission that modest backspin is the goal, as we stress as SmallBallSuccess?  Now, if Sam had batted left-handed, I imagine Ty would have been all for dribbling one occasionally between the pitcher and the third baseman—but a righty doesn’t escape the box fast enough to turn grounders into safeties reliably.
  7. KEEP YOUR LEFT ELBOW COCKED ON LEVEL WITH YOUR HANDS OR EVEN HIGHER. Never let the elbow down below the hands, and keep your hands always well away from your body—keep pushing them out, even with your body or back.  Okay… this is a hard saying, in the biblical phrase.  How do you thrust the handle away from you while also keeping the rear elbow elevated?  I have to conclude that the Maestro is going for a quick, linear stroke—which you can’t achieve if the hands drift far behind the torso—and also the kind of linear descent of barrel into ball which a driving top hand can provide.  Again, had Cobb been able to study slo-mo videos of his own stroke, he would have backed off these recommendations somewhat, or at least conceded that they apply mostly to the set-up before the load.
  8. KEEP YOUR BACK LEG STRAIGHT. Of course, if you put your weight more on the front leg, then the back leg will be straight.  Nuff said: we’re talking about front-foot hitting.  Hitters who “lean back and hack”, swiveling violently on the hips in the Ted Williams fashion and elevating the barrel quickly to a “launch angle”, are NOT modeling the Cobbian swing.
  9. IF HIGH FAST BALLS INSIDE REALLY BOTHER YOU; Crouch over from waist and pass them up. Don’t bite, in other words, In crouching, you make the pitcher throw lower, which forces him away from the position that bothers you. But I think with the instructions I have given, you will hit them wherever they pitch.  Really smart!  It’s a wise man who knows his own limitations—and every hitter has a weakness somewhere.  Ty is trying to help Sam smack pitches that break outside—and a high hard one will obviously become the Achilles Heel of this focus.  So… he doesn’t even advise his pupil just to take the high-and-in strike: he says to adjust the body’s posture so that the strike zone squeezes out that wicked pitch!
  10. AGAINST A SPEEDY LEFT-HANDER: DON’T PULL. Use same stance I have given you, and when he throws you his curve, knock him down with it or you will naturally pull it, as the ball is breaking in to you. BUT AGAINST A LEFT-HANDER OF FAIR SPEED: Move up in the box, also closer to plate, and PULL THIS STYLE OF PITCHING.  Two things.  First, how I wish that today’s players would absorb this advice!  A lefty with junk ties our hunky superstars into pretzels every time.  There’s no Mike Schmidt anywhere in sight.  Secondly, note Cobb’s recommendation that it’s okay to move toward the mound against a pitcher who never shows you much velocity.  We observed above that this was a standard tactic of the time (and a tactic, by the way, equally ignored today with woeful results).  But Ty warns not to surrender the up-the-middle approach, even now.  Pull everything from a junk-balling lefty, and you quickly put yourself in an 0-2 hole after parking a couple of long fouls in Lot C.

Hope you beat your medical problems, or at least stave them off for a long time.

Sincerely, Mike Zmudzinski

Thank you, Mike.  God bless you for your thoughtfulness!

And for the rest of you, I’ll try to have a little more about Cobb’s extraordinary hitting practices next week.

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

My Big Inning: Back in the Game

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I honestly didn’t expect to be writing in this space again, unless through somebody’s Ouija board.  When I arrived at the Immunity Therapy Center in Tijuana, Mexico, on the morning of June 8, my PSA reading (a measure of cancer cell density associated with the prostate) was 295.  No older man of my acquaintance has ever heard of a value remotely that high.  After two weeks of non-invasive (and unrecognized, not-covered-by-US-insurance) therapy, that figure was down to 65.  By the time of my departure, it was 4.3: well within the normal range for a man of my years.  I’m still classed as a Stage 4 case because I continue to receive treatment and take supplements.  Technically, I suppose I have to remain “clean” for a certain number of months to be in remission.  But I’m back in the game after a seven-run inning.  All my American doctors could do was tell me to let the bull pen catcher throw the eighth and ninth.

Many sincere thanks to those of you who sent me messages of encouragement.  They mean more to their recipients in situations like this than you can possibly know unless you’ve walked through the dark tunnel yourself.

While my wife and I frittered away hours in our hotel between terms of therapy, not wanting to stray far into a foreign city on our own and not understanding most of what was on TV (and definitely not wanting to pollute our rest with the political sniping that passed for news on all-English CNN and FOX), I discovered that I could access tons of old ballgames on YouTube.  (Our WiFi connection was actually better than it is back here on the farm!)  One game of great interest to me was the Twins/Red Sox match played on September 30, 1067, billed as the earliest surviving color broadcast of an MLB contest.  The distance of the camera’s focus from the action was disappointing, but still far better than the angles and zooms of the 1952 World Series final match (the oldest complete game on film, I believe).  I didn’t quite understand why regular-season Games 163 and 164 were being played that weekend in September; apparently two previous games in the Twin Cities had been fought to a tie—and halted because of weather events, I presume.  Minneapolis was a fairly humble Minor League venue before the Washington Senators fled there in 1961 from their chronically empty big-league stadium.

You can watch the full game here.  All I’ll say in the context of SmallBallSuccess.com is that Tony Oliva really impressed me.  He appeared to stand so far from the plate—not toward the catcher, but away from the black—that his rear (left) foot was resting on the outer chalk line.  Yet with a closed stance and a deliberately late stroke, he was able to drive the outside pitch on a line to the opposite field.  No wonder he led his league in doubles for so much of the decade!  We’ve discussed such issues on this site a great deal.  For my money, I agree with Bill James that Oliva deserves a spot in Cooperstown.  If Koufax’s arm problems excused his lack of longevity, then Tony’s knee problems should do the same.  Both utterly dominated their span of play, though it fell short of an “era”.

(By the way, situational positioning of any kind in the box appears to be utterly ignored in today’s game.  In a game filmed about a decade later whose details I can’t remember, virtually all of the hitters were cheating toward the mound a bit when they stepped in against… Phil Niekro, maybe?  But you could observe this in any match of the Seventies when a junkballer was throwing.  It doesn’t happen now.)

Then there was the following year’s All Star Game: 1968.  I particularly enjoyed listening to Peewee Reese, who split time on the mike with Curt Gowdy.  It brought back hordes of childhood memories from when Peewee and Dizzy Dean would call the Game of the Week in our living room.  (Diz managed to lose the gig—and apparently didn’t care—by badmouthing the network’s decision to cover only Yankee games after CBS bought the New York franchise in 1964… the root cause of a boy raised in Fort Worth, Texas, becoming a rabid Yankee fan!)  Even though this broadcast was in black and white, and even though its quality seems painfully inferior to that of almost a year earlier, I still enjoyed seeing images of Aaron, Mays, Big Frank Howard, Yaz… images that may have been more ghostly because of the Astrodome’s lighting.  I hope the director whose bright idea it was to film part of the action from the “gondola” twelve stories above the field found employment soon after for which his talents were better suited.

And, of course, there was Mickey Mantle, fanning on a Tom Seaver fastball during his final All Star at-bat (a kind of honorary pinch-hitting assignment).  Like me, the crowd appeared happy just to view the mighty Mantle swoosh.  Rarely has a ballplayer gotten such an ovation for striking out!  What I noticed of greater technical interest was how many younger stars were doing the same thing.  Mays had opened up by now, and he was staying on the ball well despite his lunging cuts.  Aaron was always under control.  But Stretch McCovey?  Ron Santo?  Even the promising sophomore, Rod Carew?  How could they have ascended so high in the ranks when their face ended up planted in the on-deck circle after every furious hack?

1968 was the so-called Year of the Pitcher.  Admittedly, the likes of Drysdale, Gibson, Marichal, and Seaver were pretty special… but how much of their extraordinary success was due to whirlybird hitting that had come to prize long balls over contact?  Little Matty Alou had won a batting crown two seasons earlier at .342 (and collected a base hit in the All Star contest by beating a pitch into the Astrodome’s hard turf).  Our friend Tony Oliva picked up another of his doubles by—yes—going with the pitch and driving it to left-center.  Nobody else seemed to get the memo.  Well, maybe Tommy Helms… but we don’t remember Tommy Helms, do we?  Everybody wanted to drive the home run king’s Cadillac—with the result that good pitchers logged seasons for the ages.

Those who wish to draw parallels with the game’s state since the Steroids Era are free to do so.  I know that a lot of the public loves the Home Run Derby.  And some of you may know that I detest it.

Carl Yastrzemski could get himself in a tighter pretzel than Mickey’s worst-ever hack… and yet, Yaz was having another big season (which would see him lead the American League with an all-time basement .301 average).  How’d he do it?  I think the Green Monster must have been the answer.  When I began researching yesteryear’s hitting techniques over two decades ago, I noticed that Red Sox immortals like Joe Cronin and Bobby Doer would stand on top of the plate and fly open, pulling for a near wall that wouldn’t be green until after World War II—but also, with the barrel’s brief steep descent from the shoulder, allowing themselves to be very late on the outside pitch and, just maybe, to pop one over the even nearer target that would become known as Pesky’s Pole.  Even in our time, sluggers like Dustin Pedroia have embraced a very similar style.

I’m guessing that Carl, though a left-handed hitter, had learned the Fenway style as a yearling.  Why not?  It worked just as well in reverse: Pesky Pole down one line, Green Monster down the other.  A lighter-hitting Pete Runnels was competing for batting titles with that stroke until he got traded (probably without great anguish, for he was a native of the Houston area) to the newly minted Colt 45’s.  End of Pistol Pete.  The method doesn’t translate well to other circumstances: it just creates a lot of harmless pop-ups.  I suspect the old Brooklyn crew—Billy Cox, Peewee, Duke Snider—exploited their home park in the same way; for Ebbets Field, by the way, also had a massive wall down one line (on the right side) and a short poke down the other.

With apologies to Yaz… I wonder how many youngsters ruined their future as hitters by trying to copy his swing?  When you hear your hero draw ooohs and aaahs just for sucking air, your ten-year-old mind may reach the wrong conclusions.

Baseball forever!  I hope the game comes back—the real game, with crowds and scrappy players and long summers of travel for kids out of school.  I hope our nation exits its collective sickness soon.  Until then… well, we have timorous peak-fitness athletes tip-toeing around in empty stadiums.  And then we have the better option, YouTube.

P.S. If you’d like to know more about how to beat cancer using methods that have been banished by our close-minded medical establishment, please write me.  I’ll share everything I know with you.

baseball history, bat acceleration, bat design, Deadball Era, footwork in the box, general health, hand use in hitting, mental approach, opposite-field hitting, Uncategorized, weight transfer

Putting New Patches on Old Wineskins: Seldom a Good Idea

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My son sent me a link to Instagram footage of Ronald Acuna, Jr., mashing a few pitches at batting practice.  I though it might be instructive to do this week what I did last week with Yogi Berra: isolate a few frames and discuss what’s happening.  At least the technology of 2020 allows me to freeze on an instant without getting a complete blur everywhere: that wasn’t true of our 1952 newsreel!

By way of preface, I’ll share that a few viewers of my video contrasting the Deadball swing (a composite of tendencies, to be accurate) with what I called the Twenty-First Century Swing asked if I didn’t think some elements of both strokes might produce an effective hybrid swing.  In a manner of speaking, this has already happened in the TFCS.  The steep forward leg pump in the load forces a strong weight shift onto that leg, and front-foot hitting is indeed one of the signatures of yesteryear’s style.  Yet at the same time, the Charley Lau/Walt Hriniak teaching that dominated hitting instruction of the Seventies and Eighties (I refer to the twentieth century here!) allowed for weight to shift farther forward than gurus of the Fifties and Sixties would have liked.  So New School and Old School already have that much in common.

I don’t think you can do much integrating of the two beyond that point, however.  The main reason for the roadblock is the bat.  Watching Ronald, I understand this more powerfully than ever before.  Junior doesn’t cock his rear elbow steeply above his shoulder, unlike most of today’s sluggers—and that should give him a better chance of taking barrel to ball in a smooth plane rather than in a sweeping dip.  BUT… despite hugging the handle closer to his torso than most of our time’s hitters and transferring his weight emphatically forward, he nevertheless manages to put a severe dip into his cut.  As in severe!  This has to be because of the bat, as far as I can make out.  Rocket Ronny’s thumbs are locked around the super-skinny handle, and the bludgeon-like barrel burdening the short stick’s end wants to dive-bomb into the pitch.  As a result, he uses his weight shift merely to rock back in the most undercutting fashion possible, putting such an arc in his spine during the high finish that my own recently injured vertebrae cry out in pain.

The heavily planted front foot has become a launching pad for channeling energy upward and rearward.  It’s not a smoothly planted rest channeling the energy’s vector along the pitch’s flight corridor.  The barrel is a sort of reverse trebuchet or ferociously heaving shovel: it’s not an arrow traveling over a long span straight toward the target’s heart.

Now, the complete forward weight shift and the relatively low-held hands during the load do allow Ronald to stay inside the pitch much better than most hitters today can manage.  We’ve all heard commentators marveling over his power to the opposite field.  I hope the kid can play past thirty—that his back doesn’t give out somewhere between now and then.  Again, I blame the bat; and I blame it for inducing similar outcomes in a two generations of ballplayers at all levels.  You just can’t help gripping the metal club with locked thumbs and hurling it steeply down into the ball: it practically won’t let you do anything else.  And professional players today are all graduating to wood after using metal models, which they try to replicate in birch and ash as much as possible.  The resulting stroke is nothing approaching Charlie Gehringer’s, let alone Ginger Beaumont’s.

So, no, I don’t see many opportunities for productive collaboration.

Okay: to the photos.  Here’s the load over the back foot, with the front knee pumping.  Observe that the rear elbow, as noted above, doesn’t have a steep cock.  The hands, rather, are gathered near the rear armpit in something much closer to yesteryear’s fashion.

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Now three frames of the barrel shooting through the zone.  Ronald has rushed his weight fully to the front foot, and is indeed fairly upright on the lead leg.  But his hands are drawing the bat in a kind of whiplash down through the ball’s path rather than moving directly to the ball.  The final frame shows a white blur either about to contact the barrel or having just contacted it.  The trajectory is low: this is a line drive.

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The finish, or follow-through, reminds me of a golfer’s.  You simply couldn’t whip a 35” stick of lumber through this kind of gyration and stay out of traction.

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Now, visitors to SmallBallSuccess.com will know that we love line drives… and a lot of the contact in this BP session produced just such low bullets.  So… what’s wrong with that?  The problem for me is one of percentages.  With the barrel entering the zone in such a dipping, hyperbolic fashion, the chances of solid contact for most hitters would be greatly reduced.  Acuna’s rockets in the cage are topspun: he’s actually clipping the ball as his barrel is in the ascent.  That’s not necessarily a bad thing, especially since he stays inside the pitch so well and can take it up the middle.  Many hitters, however, will find that getting the barrel out too early will just result in a roll-over ground ball to their pull side.  That’s generally not a productive outcome.

And remember that this is batting practice.  On game-caliber fastballs, most hitters attempting to use Ronald’s method (i.e., to employ the forward weight shift as a way of lifting up and back in a great sweep) are apt to clip the pitch as the bat is still descending and before its very brief leveling off.  The outcome in such cases might be a foul straight back, or maybe a high pop-up on the infield: no more productive than a roll-over.

I love watching Ronald Acuna, Jr., play, and especially swing the bat.  Who wouldn’t?  I’m not saying that he should break everything down and reconstruct what he does by my specifications.  I’m saying, rather, that young players probably shouldn’t try to copy him.  Shorter players, in particular, should not count on being able to muscle their way into the line-up by reproducing Ronald’s power stroke.  A much better bet is to send the barrel on a straight, slightly downward plane (leveled off by the forward weight shift) into the ball’s heart, with the intended result of modest backspin that puts a little charge into contact.  That’s Old School.  Sweeping the barrel down and up again in a breathtaking swoosh not only would sabotage the batting average of most young hitters: it would jeopardize the long-term health of their back.  Ask Juan Gonzalez, or Mark McGwire, or Arod.

baseball ethics, baseball history, coaches and trust, general health, mental approach, opposite-field hitting, Uncategorized

How to Ruin an All-Star Hitter

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It’s been a rough week.  Among other things, I’ve spent altogether too much time trying to upload to Amazon the paperback version of Landing Safeties, Second Edition.  After a long series of tests, I figured out that my local Internet connection couldn’t handle the job and managed to send the PDF to another terminal for transfer.  This edition has a great many new photos, even though I haven’t raised its price a penny over Edition One.

The present occasion, at any rate, seems like the perfect time to deliver on my promise about giving out some details on George Altman.  This standout performer of the early Sixties seemed destined for greatness–a five-tool player who could and should have taken his place among the game’s new stars of African descent.  Instead, he disappeared into a galaxy of competing talents.  He became one of my most intriguing cases when I wrote Key to a Cold City.  I have decided simply to paste in below the section of that book where I offered my discoveries about George’s all-too-common (as it turned out) case.  Incredibly, he vanished into the night because front-office fools had urged him to change his swing!

The mystery of George Altman became less opaque to me (though it did not disappear) after a discovery. First the mystery, then the discovery. George spent his first four Major League seasons with the Cubs, and his batting average improved with each year, climaxing in a sixth-place finish for the batting crown after the 1962 campaign at .318. His power numbers observed almost the same glorious ascent, peaking a year earlier with 27 home runs and 96 RBIs—and, by the way, a league-leading 12 triples. Not that ’62 witnessed a sudden power-outage: Altman’s 22 home runs and 74 RBIs were easily the second-best marks of his career, and his 27 doubles fell just one shy of the previous year’s mark.

Nevertheless, the Cubs decided to unload their All-Star outfielder to the Cardinals after the 1962 season. In return, they essentially received pitchers Larry Jackson and Lindy McDaniel. These two starters were a fine acquisition for a team perennially troubled by weak pitching—and, of course, the starting-rotation omelet could only be fried up by breaking a fat egg, such as a potential batting champ. That’s how trades work: teams cripple one aspect of their game to fortify another (often, alas, with a zero-sum result). In retrospect, this particular trade was about as fruitless as most—but it was more defensible than a great many.

Too bad for George Altman that he got packed off to a pitcher’s paradise (which had probably made Jackson and McDaniel look a little better than they were). His average and power figures both took a beating in 1963 (though .274 is not to be scoffed at in any ballpark). The Cardinals had apparently expected Wrigley Field numbers out of their new star, so George was again shipped out in the winter of ’63—this time in a two-for-one deal to the New York Mets, with Roger Craig being the one worth two. Craig had posted 15 wins and 46 losses during his two previous seasons with the Mets: August Busch must have taken George’s 9 homers pretty hard. It probably hadn’t helped Altman’s concentration, either, that he had been trying to fill Stan Musial’s shoes, or that Stan had announced his impending retirement in plenty of time for fans to ride George.

In any case, the bad luck didn’t wear off in New York. Though Altman saw over 400 at-bats in 1964, he batted an anemic .230, and his home runs and RBIs were ironically identical to the previous year’s tallies—which, of course, was a slight upswing if pegged to the reduced at-bats. Yet the statistics show that Altman was pressing by this point. He had always managed to draw about half as many walks as he logged strike-outs: in ’64, the ratio plummeted to 18/70. The Cubs, surely remembering his glory days with them, re-acquired him in a trade after the ’64 season, and for three miserable years George struggled to catch fire again (now, however, spending well over half his time on the bench). There was no combustion left. In 1967 he was released after appearing in only fifteen games.

In the light of my research, the mystery is not why the Cubs traded Altman, to begin with, but why some players rebound so much better than others to having the rug pulled out from under them. On paper, George’s case anticipates that of Leon Durham, another black slugger from the left side whom the Cubs rendered thunderstruck when they traded him to Cincinnati for reliever Pat Perry. Durham—would you believe it?—shortly ended up in St. Louis, where his hot bat turned to ice. He, too, never recovered from the gaping wound of being unloaded after a six year stint over which he hit 20 or more home runs five times. There was nothing ostensibly race-indexed about either of these deals, to be sure (though one may observe that neither Ron Santo nor, in 1988, Ryne Sandberg was made the sacrificial lamb to the Cubs’ ever-deficient pitching staff). Once the Cubs had recovered Altman at a discount, however, why didn’t they at least give him something like a full season to locate his missing confidence? Why obtain the former All-Star a mere two years later just to put him out to pasture?

I could muse, once again, upon the many sub-.250 seasons that Detroit tolerated from Norm Cash and Dick McAuliffe en route to letting them fulfill splendid careers. On the other hand, I could meditate a little further on the resilience that allowed a Frank Robinson or a Tommy Davis to keep floating to the top after every trade. Race was not unconnected to the enormous pressures placed upon young athletes at this time, but neither, I think, was it the primary source of pressure. The mystery of what George Altman might have been had Chicago not disrupted his productive rhythm in his prime, like all mysteries of squandered potential, is at last insoluble.

In Altman’s case, though, a surprising epilogue seems to reinforce the notion that the Cubs wasted a rare opportunity. I recently discovered that George went on to have a very fine career playing ball in Japan. From 1969-1975, he hit 205 home runs for his new employers and batted a combined .309. Though insider’s wisdom has it that Japanese baseball presented less of a challenge to American-bred hitters than what they encountered in the States, one might adjust for inflation and still suppose that Altman could have posted 20 annual homers and an average around .280 in the friendly confines of Wrigley Field for quite some time if he had been handled with greater care. The Cub’s loss was Japan’s gain and, for once, a happy ending in those chronicles of neglect where the careers of so many black ballplayers may be found.

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Postscript: Mr. Altman very kindly responded after I had sent him a copy of my remarks above. Below I reproduce this response in its entirety:

Your pressure theory concerning power was partly right in my St. Louis experience. I was batting over .350 three weeks into the 1963 season. Busch Stadium in St. Louis had a short porch [in right field]. Someone from the front office came to me saying Mr. Rickey, the GM or VP, wanted me (a straight-away hitter) to pull the ball to take advantage of the short porch. I mistakenly tried to heed this advice and started “stepping in the bucket” and pulling off the ball. I was pulling the ball a lot but wasn’t getting the loft needed to clear the high stands in right. I started to drop my hands and upper-cut. I also was fouling a lot of balls off my right foot. This caused me to have to wear a shin guard. This led to groin problems in trying to beat out grounders. As my average declined I developed pressure in the back of my eyes causing blurred vision. I tried glasses for a while. Finally, after my average dropped to .230, I abandoned the pull-hitter experiment and got back into the line-up on a regular basis. I was a part of the team surge in late August when we won 18 out of 19 games. I played against left-handers and righties. I had a 19-game hitting streak going when the Dodgers came to St. Louis and pitched four left-handers in the series to beat us four straight. I was benched for that series and used only sparingly as a pinch-hitter.

In 1964 I was traded to the New York Mets. I dove for a ball on the last day of spring training and dislocated my shoulder. I should have been out a month or more. Casey Stengel came to me a week later on opening day and asked me to play. It was too early and the shoulder bothered me all year.

In 1965 I returned to Chicago. I started well, batting .300. Then my groin muscle separated from the bone while I was beating out a bunt. Again I was pressured to return to the line-up too soon and had groin trouble all year.

In 1966 Leo Durocher signed to manage the Cubs. We opened in San Francisco. I hit well in that series, including a home run. I was benched for the next series in Los Angeles. Leo was officially on a youth movement. Regardless of how well I played, I was relegated to part-time duty.

In 1967, I went to the Pacific Coast League and did very well there, playing full time. When I was recalled to the Cubs, I sat for two weeks before getting a chance to play. After one or two games, back on the bench. I knew I could still play, so when the Japan offer came I took it.

I found out in Japan that I wasn’t ever in tip-top shape while playing in the Major Leagues. Even though I worked harder than most players, it wasn’t enough for me. 1961 was probably the only year that I was injury-free in the Major Leagues. I was able to play virtually injury-free in Japan due to their hard training methods.

Obviously, there must be many such cases as George’s in this section’s following thumb-nail sketches where a player’s somewhat irregular career was impacted by injuries far more than I could ever know. Ballplayers would not have thought it wise in this era to complain about an injury or to refuse the manager’s request that they start. [Stengel, by the way, was notorious for badgering injured players to get back on the field.]   In the case of black players, especially, who were routinely cut during a “youth movement” or were instantly assumed to have their best years behind them as soon as they hit a slump, the pressure to play in mangled condition must have been considerable.

I continue to believe that the identification of home runs with job security altered a great many swings besides George’s in 1963, and that theme shall recur throughout this and subsequent chapters. Branch Rickey was actually employed by the Cardinals as a senior advisor at this time (he would be carried away by a stroke within a couple of years). Rickey had always liked the pulling, slightly upper-cutting swing, and he had directed his scouts to look for it in previous years. Anyone can understand why the young George, trying hard to please his new bosses and slipped a word of advice from a living legend, would want to oblige… but the DiMaggio/Williams swing was not his style, and it certainly contributed to short-circuiting his Major League career.

An even broader theme, however, is simply that lurking sense of not being likely to receive the benefit of any doubt—a sense which might, for instance, have made George dive for a ball in a spring-training game. The hunger to silence one’s critics utterly can be almost suicidal when those critics are not susceptible to reasonable proof. Is there another case in baseball history, I wonder, of a player’s being benched after a 19-game hitting streak? I, at least, have never heard of such a thing. Any remotely thoughtful person would be bound to grow a little paranoid in such circumstances.