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, Deadball Era, Hall of Fame, mental approach, opposite-field hitting, Uncategorized

And the Greatest Ballplayer Ever Is…

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I enjoyed Allan Barra’s Yogi Berra: The Eternal Yankee so much when I happened upon it recently that I looked around for other books by the same author. I was amazed to discover that one of these had long been sitting on my bookshelf: Brushbacks and Knockdowns, a collection of essays. Then, as I started browsing, it all came back. I really didn’t fancy the essays because so many of them… well, they address subjects that the typical sports fan would bite on, but they just don’t draw me in. The discussion of “the greatest ballplayer of all time” is one of these. Odd, isn’t it? Why does that kind of debate irritate me so much?

It isn’t the barrages of stats that get heaved back and forth, or not just those. I could say—and I do say—of McGwire and Sosa and Bonds that their surpassing Roger Maris’s 61 home runs is a phenomenon of the steroids era and has little value after adjustment for cheating. That’s my opinion; others have another. So we argue back and forth about just what percentage of homer output steroid usage might have accounted for as the millennium turned over; and we also bandy about that Roger played in Ruth’s Yankee Stadium of the friendly right-field porch, and that pitchers weren’t throwing that hard in the Sixties or that well in the expansion year of 1961. Back and forth, back and forth… a never-ending dispute, and also one which really doesn’t get at what needles me.

This might get us closer. McGwire, Sosa, and Bonds were all represented as superheroes in the popular media to a degree that Maris—or even Mays or Mantle—couldn’t approach. The sluggers of our time have agents, advisors, brokers… and probably personal trainers and private chefs. They harvest fabulously lucrative contracts and are veritable commodities: nobody would dare undermine their health as they go about courting “immortality”. Maris lived at time when owners could ship a fielder who made one hapless play in a World Series to deepest, darkest Kansas (as happened to Norm Siebern), when obtaining a good salary required putting your entire career on the line, when endorsements amounted to a few hundred bucks for slapping Aqua Velva on your face, and when pressure could drive a man almost to suicide without the public’s ever catching a hint of it.

The late Nineties were not the early Sixties: no, not in terms of pitching prowess and field design… but also not socially or culturally. The sabermetricians may be able to adjust for the former—but how does anyone adjust for the latter? How do you compare an era when a man’s wife might take the kids and leave him if he gets traded one more time to an era when the gossip columns celebrate how many girls a guy has on the sidelines? How do you adjust for psychological impact when society at one stage considers the journeyman shortstop a ne’er-do-well husband and at another considers the wife who skips as deserting the ideal provider? How would you factor in stress related to racial prejudice in the Fifties? How about the Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder that must have messed with many a World War II veteran (e.g., the chain-smoking Gil Hodges), but which hadn’t even been given a name in the Forties?

Okay, so forget about the “mental”… though you can’t and shouldn’t, but say that you could. Say (as many have said to me) that the greatest player ever simply has to be drawn from our era, because our guys are in so much better shape physically. But doesn’t that just beg the question? Is a Pujols or a Trout the greatest player because he’s the best fed and best conditioned? What kind of player would either have been in an era of poorer diet and no science of weight training whatever? If distance to the home park’s pull-side porch calls for an adjustment, then why doesn’t the “unfair” advantage of superior dietary and kinesiological guidance call for one?

How good would Cody Bellinger or Max Scherzer be if he had to ride a train all night to reach the next series? How would such supermen make out if they had to sleep in a downtown hotel with paper-thin walls and no air conditioning?

At some point, you’re simply left with what you see on the field. You have to start and end there when adjustments and corrections always open the door to more adjustments and corrections. And if the “eye test” is the ultimate test… well, how do we apply it to performers we’ve never seen and can now never see? Those who saw him in the midst of all his peers claimed that Oscar Charleston was the greatest thing ever to emerge from the Negro Leagues. How can we say here and now that he wasn’t the greatest ballplayer ever?

As I begin the home stretch of this ramble, I wish take it in still another direction. Since we’ve been reduced to such subjectivity in our judgments, then… well, why not admit that I personally may admire a kind of play that you value less? Maybe my “great” isn’t yours. I risk sacrilege when I write that Mike Trout impresses me primarily as a really, really big human being. I don’t particularly like his hitting style, which seems to me to leave a couple of holes almost as huge as he is—yet which doesn’t hurt him because, as Tom Verducci (without detectable irony) observed shortly before another Trout homer in Arlington a few days ago, umpires won’t call high-inside strikes on him. So we’re left with a Titan carrying a kid’s bat who has his own little zone around the knees….

More sacrilege: I’m not even a devoted adorer of Ted Williams. Any hitter whose reaction to being radically shifted is to drive the ball through or over the shift doesn’t seem to me to be using all the resources that a Ty Cobb or an Eddie Collins deployed. So the WAR geeks prove that Teddy’s bat won more ballgames than Ty’s… yeah, okay. I won’t cycle back to the “attendant circumstances” species of argument which could explain so much of that (the Pesky Pole, the absence of sharp pitching after World War II, etc). Indeed, I could just double down on my Mike Trout response; for Williams (so the anecdotes run) seems to have been conceded a shrunken strike zone by many veteran umpires.

And Babe Ruth, probably much the most popular candidate in the “best ever” sweepstakes? Why, he was the greatest home-run hitter for generations and a superior left-handed pitcher! Okay… but he wasn’t both at once: he didn’t pitch and slug concurrently throughout his career. Maybe Ichiro would have been a star closer as well as a batting champ if he’d been allowed to indulge his mound ambitions as Shohei Ohtani has been. Mickey Mantle, we hear from those who warmed up with him, had a killer knuckleball.

And the Bambino’s mighty blasts? It’s been said that Cy Williams (another, and an earlier, Williams who was radically shifted) could have equaled them if he had flourished in the days on the lively ball. Cobb hit three homers in a single game one afternoon just to show that he could.

I guess where I’m going with this is here: the best ballplayers ever to me are those who play the brand of baseball I most admire. Yes, that’s subjective—but what have I been demonstrating about other measures if not that their objectivity is illusory? Why cannot our answer to “greatest ballplayer ever” be the best who played what we happen to consider great ball? I’ve already betrayed my preference for a guy who can hit to all fields—and I’d like him to concentrate on doing this all the time, winning every battle that he possibly can against every pitcher in any situation. He’s always bearing down, even when his team is suffering an eight-run deficit. I once read a remark of Henry Aaron’s where the Hammer admitted to guessing—to guessing all afternoon, perhaps: looking at two called third strikes before finally getting his pitch halfway through the game. That remark disappointed me. Why would you be hunting a certain pitch with two strikes? I know it’s Hank Aaron, but… but why wouldn’t you just be making contact? That’s what my kind of player would be doing: Ty Cobb, Tris Speaker… Roberto Clemente, Tony Oliva… Tim Raines, Tony Gwynn. Speaker had the advantage over Cobb of having revolutionized his defensive position: he would even creep in from his shallow center-field spot and pick runners off second base on occasion. Clemente likewise staked his claim to being one of the greatest right fielders ever. And Tim Raines on the base paths… well, you could make it Rickey Henderson and I wouldn’t object, but I had a special fondness for Timmy because he was a switch hitter.

Maybe, in fact, I bear a grudge against the Hendersons and the Bondses and the Harpers for being showboats. I want my all-time best player to hate losing, to be in the game at every moment… but also to hate vainglorious or humiliating displays. That may very well be why I have to dig into baseball’s past for my superman. The showboating in today’s game repels me.

So… the greatest player ever? Don’t know, don’t care: not if you expect an “objective” answer out of me. My favorite players are my nominees for best player. I love them because of all they brought to the field, and not what they bring to a spread-sheet.

As for Willie and Mickey, Mr. Barra—no, I didn’t forget about them. I scarcely felt the need to mention their names. I was trying to be a bit original. But yes, definitely Willie and Mickey. And Yogi, too. All of them were the best.

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.