In everything I’ve been writing about baseball for years, I’ve dealt very dismissively with the eternal coach’s admonition, “Stay back!” When you don’t stay back as a hitter, supposedly, all of the power you’ve released into the pitch cycles through before contact is made. You have only your hands left to swipe at the ball—and, more often than not, you have only one hand left, because the handle slips away from the top hand. The feet are so flat beneath you that you rock awkwardly after the barrel makes its pass, perhaps almost falling on your face. You let everything go too soon: you didn’t stay back.
Of course, the above is a picture of someone who’s been badly fooled by a change-up. You can have “stay back” problems even on a fastball. That may well be, indeed, how most young hitters make the acquaintance of the problem. Fastballs keep beating them, and so they fall into the habit of waiting for nothing—of being early on everything. Then the finish that’s produced is less often the one-handed flail than a two-handed rip at empty space: great launch angle, feet and hips and core and hands all working in sync… just no ball anywhere near the point of rendezvous. Additional recommendations such as, “Wait on it,” or, “See it,” are apt to come floating down from the third-base coaching box.
I’m not dismissing the notion that these are real events in a hitter’s life with really unpleasant consequences for him. No, the reason I’ve been perhaps a little too sweeping in my disparagement of the advice is because it is usually offered in such a sweeping manner, to begin with. Staying back isn’t always good. For a front-foot hitter, especially, the idea of keeping your weight transfer from shifting fully forward undermines everything you’re trying to do; and as proponents of a Deadball hitting style, we at SmallBallSuccess.com are big fans of front-foot hitting. I’ll give you a quick summation of why this is so, and then return to the discussion’s mainstream.
Our species of batsman wants to hit low line drives. To stroke the line drive, he needs to contact the ball squarely in the center but at a slightly downward angle—downward because he wants a bit of backspin on the ball to carry it beyond the infield. His hands lead the barrel into the ball, with the barrel trailing so far behind that it often “pushes” the pitch to the opposite field. Oppo-hitting is actually a secondary objective, because the hitter can wait longer when targeting the off-field and also stand a better chance of spraying the ball around when he slightly misjudges pitches. So far, so good.
Now, we want the bottom half of the body to allow the hands as long a transit straight into the pitch as possible. If the front hit is flipping out in classic Ted Williams fashion, then the weight shift is thrust back by the planted leg and the barrel transits up and out of the zone very quickly. This is just what the Thumper wanted, of course: an uppercut (or launch-angle) swing. Not only is it difficult to keep the barrel traveling down through the ball for very long with this method, however: the barrel is also diving down and then quickly riding aloft as it pursues the rotation of the hips. It’s apt, that is, to undercut a pitch that arrives too soon or to topspin a pitch that it beats to the plate. In this latter case, you could nag the hitter, “Now, Johnny, you need to stay back better”… but just be aware that you’re requiring Johnny to time his swing with absolute perfection if the barrel is to enter the ball’s heart in a fairly level plane. Your advice isn’t of much more use than saying, “Now, Johnny, you’re not being perfect.”
When a Honus Wagner or Napoleon Lajoie would leave his back foot to reach a pitch, or when a Ty Cobb or Tris Speaker would catch his full shift on a bent forward knee, the descending hands were allowed to carry down along the same plane for perhaps four or five feet through the pitch’s plane. Williams et al. would indeed use this propensity as the basis of their deriding the Old School method, claiming that there’s only a single point of possible contact if the barrel’s plane descends into the pitch’s reversely descending plane—whereas, with the patented lean-back-and-hack uppercut swing, the barrel would be traveling in the pitch’s plane over a long span. Sorry, Teddy: this just ain’t so. The rotational, hip-throwing stroke (as has been explained) is in fact drawing the barrel into and out of the pitch plane very quickly. The barrel that steadily, lengthily descends at a mild angle, in contrast, may come too late and push the ball rather weakly off the hitter’s shoulder; or it may come too early and catch a breaking pitch on its dive. Either way, it tends to score some contact. Especially in the latter case, when contact comes early and the batsman is almost one-handing the ball, the barrel can continue powerfully into the collision. The forward weight transfer allows it to ride momentum almost into the ground: it’s not fighting to get to the ball against an outward-flung hip.
So… does all this mean that, at SmallBallSuccess.com, we just don’t worry about staying back? No—and the times when I have appeared to sound that note have been over-reactive. A front-foot hitter wants his hands to follow his foot-plant very closely into the pitch: none of that “Get the front foot down early!” blather for him! (Got you again, third-base coach.) If he doesn’t trust his load to pour his weight shift into the pitch at just the right instant, then his misses will profile with the same ugly qualities that I sketched when I opened this article. He has to develop what we call in Metal Ropes a “kinetic loop”: that is, a roll of the hands (sometimes invidiously called a “hitch”) or a loosey-goosey leg lift (not a spectacularly high kick, please!) that lets his mobilized energy cycle in waiting until the precise instant for attack.
Today’s hitters have few, if any, kinetic loops. Hitting instructors convince them that any such lollypopping in the load can only throw off timing… whereas the truth is that, done properly, a well-practiced loop allows timing to be micro-adjusted to perfection. Try going from zero to 90 with your hands tightly gripping the stick over your head… and then try accelerating the barrel with loose fingers and limber wrists as your hands and forward leg describe a faint loop that can be channeled into a line instantly. There’s no question which is faster.
Maybe I can discuss the kinetic loop further at another time. I apologize, by the way, for being so stinting with YouTube demonstrations lately. I’ve only just discovered that consistent overdosing on one of my medicines—consistent as in “for the past half year”—has been sabotaging the healthy recovery of my muscles after any sort of vigorous workout. What a year it’s been… God, please see me through the last month of it!