baseball history, bat acceleration, coaches and trust, hand use in hitting, low arm angle, low line drives, metal bat use, pitching, submarine pitching, Uncategorized, weight transfer

High Strikes: Nothing New Under the Sun

I was both delighted and dismayed to hear Jessica Mendoza remark on Sunday Night Baseball that pitching up in the strike zone—even with a mediocre fastball—has suddenly become the go-to strategy in the game’s upper echelons.  I was delighted because we’ve essentially been preaching this gospel from the reverse angle on SmallBallSuccess.com for years.  In fact, I personally was preaching it long before I had any idea of founding the site.  The metal bat, with its massive barrel and skinny handle, invites the hitter to hurl down on the ball, cocking the rear elbow and then unloading so steeply that the top hand slips off immediately upon contact.  The hefty leg kick and the “foot down early” imperatives (how often I’ve heard Jessica praise that dogma!) are part of the same stroke.

But none of it belongs to yesteryear’s game—and the reason is pretty obvious.  The bat path is too “dippy”.  If a tall guy collides with the pitch just as it passes over the plate (i.e., as his divebombing barrel is beginning to pull back on the joystick), then he may well impart so much backspin in the process that the resultant buzzard-beater carries over a fence.  Yet not only do smaller body types not have the equipment needed to accelerate the barrel sufficiently for this result: they, along with the big guys, risk a complete miss or a pitiful roll-over.  The barrel, that is, spends too much time on its long transit being nowhere near the plane of the ball’s flight.  It’s likely to descend too late or come up too early.  For big fellows, the frequent K’s and ground-outs are considered an acceptable trade-off for a homer every third game.  For smaller guys, useless pop-ups and dribblers are terminal.

And the high strike, of course, is the pitcher’s best option for exploiting this stroke’s big holes.  A barrel starting from well above the shoulder simply cannot come at a letter-high fastball productively.  (It does stand a good chance of clobbering a lazy hanger as it sweeps back upward: then the only question is… will the drive stay fair?)  Since the strike zone was particularly high in the Deadball Era and even well after World War II, hitters knew better than to take that steep hack and then, immediately, roll back with lifting, opening shoulders.  They kept their cut straight through the ball for as long as they could, usually finishing with their weight mostly or completely on the front foot.  I have a feeling that the Fifties were the pivotal period of change, as the home run once again captivated the public and the uppercut swing (your grandad’s version of Launch Angle) was all that hitting instructors talked about.

I tried to get my son, who was a dandy little submarine pitcher, to shoot some of his 0-2 and 1-2 pitches way up in the zone.  Even with his very modest velocity, I don’t think the chesty boppers that squared off against him in high school could have done him much harm there, especially since the pitch would literally be gaining altitude (the only pitch that truly does so).  No, they would have chased it all the way to the roots of their hair! But his coach absolutely nixed the idea.  Stay low, always low.  Never change the incoming vertical angle.  And today Ms. Mendoza is crowing, “Wow!  We hadn’t thought that this could work! Now it’s the very latest thing.”

“Late” is right.  Too late to help my son or to hit Coach Donkey between the ears.  And that, naturally, is the source of my dismay.  It’s flattering to be voted right, for a change, by the professional establishment… but it came too late to help my son—and, of course, none of the establishment is remotely aware of having given this independently publishing dad a thumbs-up.  The game will move right along at its standard glacial pace, its elite patting themselves on the back every time they figure out something that others of us knew a decade or two earlier.  (The uppercut swing, by the way, would eventually lead to the Year of the Pitcher and the lowering of the mound after the coaching brain trust had thoroughly ruined a generation of hitters with it.)  Well, you know… so it is in all human affairs.  There’s nothing new under the sun.

But the good news, if you have a teachable youngster, is that you don’t have to wait for baseball’s magnetosphere to reverse its polarities.  Get your boy (or girl) swinging like Cobb and Speaker—and Oscar Charleston, and Martin Dihigo—right now!  The coaches may want to jump right out of their cleats and shout, “What in… blazes are you doing?”  But when they see one line drive after another after another rolling to the fence, that shout is likely to catch in their throat.

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.

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

Help Is on the Way for Metal-Bat Users

I’m getting excited about a new avenue of exploration for the Old School stroke.  In both Hitting Secrets and Landing Safeties, I held out little hope that the techniques I had studied from the Deadball Era could be transferred to today’s metal bat.  In the later book, especially, this struck me belatedly as a pretty defeatist admission.  Why expect people to read a manual pushing an alternative hitting style and then wind up telling them that they can’t use the only widely available type of bat?  This could be the ultimate case of sawing off the limb you’re sitting on!

So I revisited my conclusions.  I published a couple of videos that I wish I had back now, exploring the possibility of wrapping a finger or two of the bottom hand around the knob.  The solution preached therein is far too extreme, but here’s what sent me off in that direction. I had sometimes encountered pain in the bottom wrist or even all the way up to the elbow.  That area of the leading arm apparently stood at risk for becoming too compressed if you swung down into the ball while also shifting your weight decisively forward.  Of course, you can strain a joint out of any swing if it’s rushed—but this discomfort was happening too regularly to suit me.  The last thing I ever want to do is recommend a technique that isn’t healthy.  As the Hippocratic Oath runs, First do no harm.

Turns out that the risk can be virtually removed, however, if you focus on gripping the metal handle only with the bottom two fingers.  Oldtimers (and I mean those of Mantle and Aaron vintage, long after the Deadball Era) always used to keep the index and middle fingers—of both hands—very loose on the handle (though the top hand would clamp down as the stroke entered the zone).  With a metal bat, the bottom hand needs to have sufficient control to steer, yet it must not allow the larger fingers to close until the finish.  I think the reason for this is the handle’s extreme thinness.  Though we’re only talking about a differential ranging, probably, between a quarter and a half inch, that little bit of extra grip in wooden models seems to avert the “braking train” effect of jammed joints, where one joint comes crashing into the one immediately preceding it.

Now, you practically never see a kid using a metal bat who doesn’t clamp his thumbs—both thumbs—tightly around the handle.  That’s what the handle is made for. To resist such a grip is like trying to resist running your palm along the rounded arm of an old rocker.  The consequence of the tight-fisted swing, though, is a one-handed finish; the one-handed finish (with the top hand coming off very early) requires that the weight not be shifted heavily forward; and holding back the weight causes the barrel to describe a very “dippy” path through the zone.  These are all movements drawing us far, far away from the Deadball Era; hence my pessimism in the earlier books about being able to combine “then” with “now”.

It still amazes me that something as minor as adjusting the lower hand’s grip could completely “rewrite the book”—and I actually hope to bring out a new book later this summer, devoted strictly to the metal bat.  I’ve already updated my videos to reflect my altered thinking on the subject.  Good things are coming!