baseball history, bat acceleration, footwork in the box, hand use in hitting, mental approach, metal bat use, Uncategorized, weight transfer

The Hitch: Something Great Hitters Never Do (Except for the Really Great Ones)

The following paragraphs are excerpting from my forthcoming book, Metal Ropes, which is still very much a work in progress.

I’ll admit that my affection for the shuffle step wavers whenever I try to hit right-handed. With my stronger hand on top, I appear much more inclined to drive from the back side than to throw down (with uncoiling leg and levering hand) from the front side—and this, after all, makes perfect sense. It’s surely part of the reason why classic “stickers” who shifted around more in the box and sprayed pitches to all fields were often natural righties batting left. Such a profile fits Tris Speaker as well as Ty Cobb, in a strict sense; for Speaker threw left only because his right arm was badly broken during his boyhood years of learning the game. Fred Clarke belongs to the same fraternity: so do Eddie Collins, Jake Daubert, Elmer Flick, and Joe Sewell. Except perhaps for Daubert, everyone on that list may be identified in photos, furthermore, with hands spread—and Jake choked up rather fiercely. A lot of batting titles found a home among the era’s left-hitting righties.

With the stronger hand on top, the “levering” action essential to hand spreading presents more of a challenge. The bottom hand may not be “smart” enough to do its job well. At least in my own experience, the top hand becomes something of a tyrant, and the bottom hand just tries to stay out of the way. Certainly Honus Wagner spread his hands on occasion—but less often than the left-hitting righties and with less of a gap. Napoleon Lajoie was more typical of top-hand-dominant hitters in that, while he indeed choked up, his hands remained together. (The “Emperor” briefly tried to market a bat that possessed two knobs: an ordinary one and a higher one for choking!) To be sure, Lajoie and Wagner won a truckload of batting titles in their own right. In them, however, we see the rare phenomenon of the power-hitter who likes to drive the ball the opposite way: someone who has to be played deep and who crosses up defenders. Add Rogers Hornsby to this pair, a man who hit .400 for three out of four years in a decade when fairy-tale averages had started to pass out of style.

So why am I pursuing this discussion of top-hand versus bottom-hand dominance in a section dedicated to hitching? For a couple of reasons. The more obvious is that batsmen generally hitch when their stronger hand is on top. This was true of all the worthies named previously: Ruth, Gibson, Foxx, Greenberg, and Mel Ott. (If the right-throwing Joe Jackson were the hitcher that Ruth implied him to be, then he breaks the mold… but Shoeless Joe never learned to write, so right-dominance quite possibly never developed in him as it would have in others.) The top hand is the “punch” hand, and we know that you load for a powerful move by relaxing your limb (hand or foot) in the reverse direction; so if the top hand wants to drive hard from above into the pitch, it’s tempted to prepare for that drive by pumping downward. The rear leg also has to balance the hitter’s weight for a rather long time in a hitch—and most of us balance better on our strong-side leg. (I don’t… but my scrambled brain has some very peculiar left/right preferences.)

Did those right/right immortals, Lajoie and Wagner and Hornsby, exhibit a hitch? I can’t see much evidence that the first of them did; but I believe Hans and the Rajah may very well have pumped their hands deeply. Let’s get the set-up in the box out of the way by citing these two as an example. When I wrote earlier of how the nineteenth-century stickers might have pumped as their front foot pointed toward the pitcher, I was guessing. By the time we get to Wagner and, still later, Hornsby, we’re looking at two hitters whose initial position is much more familiar to us. Their feet were much more squared to the plate, and their hands were basically resting on the rear shoulder. The emphasis, in other words, has shifted to the rear. That’s where we would expect it to be in a hitch—because, again, a hitch is very popular with hitters whose stronger side is the back one.

Now, here’s a second point that makes me suspect Wagner and Hornsby of hitching—and it’s also a quality of their stroke that we want to emulate. Both set up well off the plate. They could hit even the inside pitch to right field, apparently, because they stood so far back. Yet they could also cover the outside corner, and even go a bit beyond that corner. How did they do that? They must certainly have possessed the ability to surge outside after the pitch if they needed to; and I don’t see how they could have created the energy necessary to produce such a surge (since they didn’t shuffle-step) unless they fired out of a hand-pump and a crouch. Ted Williams’ swiveling hips won’t get you there: Ted usually wouldn’t even offer at outside pitches. The Dutchman and the Texan cleaned up on them.

That’s the kind of hitch I would like to replicate: the kind that can either drive us powerfully forward or carry us all the way to the outside corner, in a pinch. If Wagner and Hornsby had the kind of load that I believe they did, this opposite-field capacity would have distinguished them from Ruth, Gibson, Foxx, et al., who were ferocious pull-hitters. They were also big, strong men for their day, these later sluggers—taller than average, to be sure, but also incredibly muscled-up. This book is dedicated to the player of smaller body type, and such a body type usually doesn’t lend itself to the dead-pull power-hitter mold.

bat acceleration, hitter reaction time, mental approach, pitching velocity, Uncategorized

Why Pitching Machines Can Help

My trusty old Personal Pitcher finally died the other day.  We had been through a lot together.  This handy, highly portable machine (if you’re unfamiliar with the model) fires out golf-sized Wiffleballs from atop a tripod.  Naturally, it doesn’t fire them very fast; but in hitting–and pitching–the relevant datum is reaction time or, as some call it, perceived velocity.  In other words, you can position yourself so closely to a little coffee grinder incapable of shooting out anything faster than 40 mph that you have just a split second to react; and you can whittle that split second down until it’s equal to the few dozen milliseconds that an Aroldis Chapman fastball gives you.

That’s how I used my Personal Pitcher.  To make matters even more challenging for me, it had decided in its waning years to vary the times between giving me the green alert-flashes that signal imminent firings; and then, going a step farther, it would tend to abbreviate the amount of time that flashes actually flashed, especially once it had been pumping a while.  I got to where I would listen for the rattle of a ball dropping into the firing chute rather than key on the treacherous light.  If a plane, a loud vehicle, or a lawnmower passed at the wrong moment, I was helpless.

A love/hate relationship developed between us–but, honestly, I did not intend to strike PP with my bat on one occasion, though I had pondered doing so on many occasions.  It was the crafty midget’s own fault: I got so far out in front of a change-up that the handle slipped away from me.  Then again, maybe that was my fault.  I should have rotated the used, cracked balls out for new ones more often… but I wanted the additional challenge of having pitches approach me at varying speeds and traveling different paths.

Well, R.I.P., old enemy, old friend.  Fortunately, I have a replacement all warmed up and ready to take the mound (for the signs of wear and tear in PP Senior had become all too apparent after the “flying bat” incident).

What I really wish to accomplish here is not the eulogizing of an old piece of equipment, but the emphasizing that my experimental methods have some validity.  No, I haven’t been testing myself against live pitching.  I don’t have the resources for that.  On the other hand, I am able to position myself so near to my pitching machine that I can simulate reaction times less generous than any I would have if a healthy youngster were trying to bore one in (and I don’t have to worry about getting concussed by a regulation hardball).  A critic might respond, “That’s exactly the problem.  Your reaction time is too brief.  You’re not simulating a game situation where the hitter has to key his load on the motions of a moving human body–you’re just coiling up and then springing at the first white you see in the air.”

Here’s my answer to that–and I will wrap up this short commentary after I make the point.  Hitting is all about giving yourself time.  If you can create a method that reliably produces low line drives off a reaction time simulating 90+ mph, then you can always scale that method down to circumstances that are more “real life”.  Said another way, if you develop a hitting method that allows you to be very quick, then you can wait for a very long time.  You can watch the pitch almost into the catcher’s mitt.

That’s what I seek to offer with the Deadball Era methods advanced on this site.  I want to go up the middle or even a little oppo, and I want to strike the ball’s heart with the barrel modestly descending rather than have to carry my bat head out well in front of the plate to achieve “launch angle”.  I can test whether I’m achieving my ends quite effectively by hacking away at the old Personal Pitcher… or, now, my new Personal Pitcher.  If I recruit human arms and legs at some point to give me more cues in my load–why, so much the better!

baseball history, mental approach, Uncategorized

Be Selective About When to Be Selective

Several years ago, I remember watching on YouTube the entirety of a game played in the Los Angeles Coliseum, where the Dodgers made their home for a couple of years in the late Fifties.  Seating capacity was about a hundred thousand.  The trouble was that right field was approximately 450 feet from home plate… and left field was 200 feet closer!  To prevent right-handed pull-hitters from racking up five homers per game, a high net was string a good way along the left-field bleachers.  Fans could see through it, but batted balls would strike the netting and plop harmlessly at the left fielder’s feet unless they were really jacked up.  That fielder would often have a play at second.  During the YouTube game, Stan Musial was thrown out at the keystone sack in a critical late-inning play after ripping an oppo-liner into the ropes.

Musial, Gilliam, Wally Moon, Charlie Neal… I really enjoyed that game, even though its dubious black-and-white quality had me thinking in the back of my mind that the whole thing was happening under the lights rather than in broad daylight.  One thing that leapt out at me was the pace.  I believe the contest actually reached ten innings—but it lasted well under three hours.  To be sure, players weren’t stepping out of the box and messing with their gloves (for you youngsters, there were no batting gloves back then).  More than that, however, was the eagerness of every hitter to put bat to ball.  There were very few deep counts.  Everyone was hacking.

Now, I’m not going to say that working the count is a bad thing.  I’m not going to say that it’s good, either.  As a strategy, I find it fully neutral, dependent on specific conditions.  Sleeping under a heavy blanket is a good idea at certain times of year; at other times, it would be idiotic.

The immortal Oscar Charleston liked for his protégés to take lots of pitches during their first couple of plate appearances so as to lull the opposition into thinking that they would keep that approach throughout the game.  Then, as the stakes began to rise during the later innings, Oscar’s boys would ambush groved, get-me-over strikes early in the count.  That makes lots of sense… but you have to assume that his opponents would catch on if the two teams played each other regularly.

It seems like I must have sat through hundreds of my son’s games—between travel teams, high school, and college—where one or both sides had been told to take pitches and wear down the starter.  This could be effective if the starter weren’t pumping strike after strike across the plate.  Let’s say he is, and your side makes a mid-game adjustment.  Now you’re determined to swing at everything, which he very quickly notices, and you soon find yourselves chasing sliders that dip two feet outside.  Yeah, I’ve seen that game a few dozen times, if not a few hundred.

Coaches, for the most part, appear to believe that they do their job well when they put the “take” sign on.  Again… it depends.  Leading off a game, you would surely want to make the pitcher deliver five or six pitches, just so that your bunch could see what he’s got.  Striking out in that circumstance isn’t necessarily bad.  You also don’t want to go up hacking on a hot day in a very close game as the innings pile up for your starter.  For pity’s sake… give the poor guy a few minutes to stay off his feet in the dugout!

The mindset I don’t understand has a middle-of-the-order hitter feeling good about himself after he strikes out looking at four deliveries—all because he was “patient” and just didn’t get his pitch.  What single positive outcome does this approach achieve?  I suppose if our Mighty Casey never misses a mistake and is facing a hurler known for leaving hangers over the plate, patience might be a virtue; but I would prefer to have a line-up of guys who can hit the ball where it’s pitched, at least with two strikes.

I never got a chance to play at a very high level (and I do mean “chance”: what with Vietnam, an unstable economy, and rioting in the streets, my generation had a lot of trouble focusing on things like baseball).  With the Old School style that we preach on this site, however, I imagine that I would be a pretty aggressive hitter at any level.  This is because our line-drive swing is especially well suited to taking outside pitches up the middle or the opposite way.  Pitchers like to stay outside.  I would be looking for that location from Pitch One, without much concern for speed; because if I get a little in front on a change, I pull the ball.  The one pitch I don’t want to see and would probably take until I had two strikes would be high and in.  How many times do today’s moundsmen throw that pitch—and how many times is it called a strike on a take?

Now, if the pitcher has just walked three batters in a row, I’ll naturally be more selective.  If we’re in the mid-innings on a hot day and we know that their bullpen is pitiful, I’ll be more selective.  If I have shown myself to be a tad too aggressive all day long, I’ll be more selective.

It seems to me that in the matter of taking or attacking pitches, everything depends on circumstance: on the count, the number of outs, the score, the inning, the runners on base, the pitcher, the bullpen, your special hitting abilities, your history with this pitcher, your pattern at the plate so far today—and let’s not forget the umpire!

Being patient?  Yeah, sure… but no.  It depends.