arm health, baseball history, Deadball Era, fathers and sons, low arm angle, pitchers of short stature, pitching, pitching velocity, strike zone, Uncategorized

Excavating Treasures From Forgotten Techniques: Pitching

Wee Willie” Sherdel

I began peering back into distant baseball history perhaps twenty years ago, when my son was becoming strong enough to lift a bat and I was discovering my own deficiencies as a hitting instructor.  Oh, I also boned up on the latest hitting pedagogy—which was part of why I fled to the ancients with increasing interest.  The “cutting edge” instruction about batsmanship was clearly meant for tall boys, and clearly producing a lot of poor contact even in them.  The notion that hitters once upon a time logged 600 at-bats and only two dozen strikeouts in a season intrigued me more and more.

What I didn’t do at the same time was pry into the dusty annals of pitching.  That turns out to be a formidable challenge, as I try now to direct more attention toward the mound.  For one thing, most of us are more attracted to hitting in our youth.  Kids tend to dream of being Mike Trout (or Mickey Mantle, in my day) rather than Clayton Kershaw or Max Scherzer.  Christy Mathewson and Pete Alexander were not photographed as often in some stage of their delivery as Cobb and Ruth were in some stage of their swing.  And for that matter, a player may actually find it easier to freeze for a camera with a primitive shutter-speed as he swings a bat than as he slings a ball.  Certain classic “stills” of mound stars looked awfully bogus even on the baseball cards of my childhood (and I don’t date back to the days when cars had running boards).  For instance, the pitcher would be shot with both feet forward, toes squared to home plate, knees bent, and a ball-laden hand coming more or less at the lens as his eyes pretended to drill the catcher’s target.  Not many useful clues there: too much dynamism has been gutted and stuffed by the camera-wielding taxidermist.  In contrast, a hitter holding his coil into a load or his finish after contact will somewhat interrupt the flow of explosive energy, but not to the degree that the careful detective can’t draw some important conclusions from the film’s evidence.

(After writing all that, I realized that the Pitching tab at SmallBallSuccess.com actually presents the reader with some visual clues to reconstruct yesteryear’s dominant mound technique.  These are few and tendentious, but they do exist.  See also my video, Reconstructing the Pitching Technique of 90 Years Ago.)

Honestly, I didn’t get started down the path I intend to map for you in this discussion by looking at old baseball cards.  My labors at SmallBallSuccess.com have repeatedly brought me to the conclusion that players of shorter stature and broad body type can probably fire pitches in ways that wouldn’t be recommended for taller, thinner guys.  I know that I myself was always able to throw sidearm and submarine without any strain.  The motion was natural to me.  My son also seemed to take to odd arm angles like the proverbial duck to water.

That’s not to say that when elite contemporary pitching gurus like Paul Reddick share their teaching, I don’t listen with respect.  A lot of Reddick’s fundamental advice seems rock-solid to me, such as his rejecting the traditional lesson that the hurler reach and hold a “balance point” straight up-and-down over the rubber before delivering.  Ouch—I once taught kids that lesson myself!  But Paul is right.  Boys who try to go from 0 to 85 after a moment of complete stasis risk damaging their arms, and at the very least have trouble finding the zone.  Their hand comes back much too soon, their back arches as they deliver, and their lead foot falls out to the side.  Today’s revised coaching orthodoxy (and not just Paul’s teaching) urges us to “stay in a tunnel”.  Stride powerfully straight toward the plate, and let your leading shoulder rush into the glove elevated by your bent front arm.  Be Nolan Ryan or Roy Halliday, not Juan Marichal or Luis Tiant, Jr.

The trouble was that I myself could only stick with the program up to a certain point.  I think the Reddick “wall drill”, where you set up with a confining structure next to your rear shoulder and practice delivering pitches without striking that wall or fence as your hand rises, is brilliant.  I also agree that you don’t want your head to roll back or your spine to arch.  But… but the “stay in the tunnel” thing has always severely cramped me.  I’m just too broad-framed.  My stride is also too short to give me a fighting chance at equaling the acceleration of taller competitors, although I have very strong legs.  If I were to be judged (assuming that I were forty years younger and trying out for a spot in the bull pen) strictly according to the Reddick paradigm, I’d never make the cut.  Neither would practically any other short kid.  Guys who can master that model do throw very hard… but the model also filters out those of short-and-broad build, an exclusion which is always justified by pointing at the JUGS gun’s objective testimony.

What if my type of build could keep from loading up too soon, keep from arching the back and rearing up with the head… but also throw the lead leg powerfully outward?  Not directly toward the plate, where our diminutive stride would produce little advantage, but to the side like a Ted Williams aficionado throwing his front hip in a swing?  Such “falling away” produces arm strain and inaccuracy only when the pitcher is trying to throw high-overhand—from as close to high noon as he can get.  What if, instead, this “fire plug” pitcher were to use his muscular core in a sidewise motion of unfolding that drew his throwing arm along the slanted plane blazed by the opening leg?  Now he would be delivering from ten o’clock, or even nine-thirty—and the sidewise thrust of the “fall away” step would trail both arms fluidly along its incline rather than depriving a high-overhand delivery of a stable base because lower and upper body weren’t traveling the same course.

Do you know what’s just occurred to me?  The “balance point” business also becomes much less sinister if you intend to open out while keeping your arm angle low.  That’s because the lift of the forward leg is no longer a direct entry into the surge toward home plate: it’s a preparation for surging in another direction.  No longer is the energy flow interrupted.  The lift’s objective might be considered potential rather than kinetic: i.e., your knee’s pump is storing up energy to unleash sidewise when you choose to “go”, not trying to harness the energy created immediately when you’re tilting with just one prop beneath you.  This could explain why Satchel Paige and other oldtimers (hello, Luis Tiant, Jr.!) were able to mix various degrees of hesitation so effectively into their delivery.

To be sure, if all variables were controlled, such “kinky” style would probably still fail to rival the Reddick model in pure velocity—but it would produce more velo than the short mound-aspirant would have been able to achieve through the new-mainstream model, and it would also confront the hitter with a perplexing release point and a pitch that never keeps to a rigidly flat line.  I know Paul Reddick understands the merits of “perceived velocity” (i.e., hitter’s reaction time) and movement.  When the hitter needs an extra split-second to find the ball, the pitch essentially travels five or ten mph faster; and when that ball is severely breaking east to west even as it descends north to south, getting a barrel to it becomes an immense challenge.

Last week I posted a two-part video detailing my latest excursion into the forbidden land of sidestepping, low-overhand pitching.  (Part One is a discussion that sets up the trial; Part Two shows me attempting to apply my principles from the left side, where my natural aptitude wouldn’t be able to cover up theoretical errors.)  I hope to explore this subject further when my health stabilizes.  Because of all the hormone-suppressants I’m on as my prostate cancer is chased into oblivion, my joints and muscles don’t repair themselves as fast as they used to after a day of vigorous exercise.  As any ballplayer knows, you have to stay open to making adjustments!  Well, I’m still seeking out the happy middle ground between denying fuel to cancer and denying my muscles the food they need for recovery.  Be patient with me.

Anyway… it was in this experimental theorist’s frame of mind that I happened to watch a terrific DVD from my collection titled 1913-1938: The Sports Album (Rare Sportsfilms, Inc.), a succession of very early newsreels apparently created as filler for use between feature movies.  I couldn’t help but notice how many more pitchers were throwing in the fashion explored by my experiments than in the Reddick way.  Long strides toward home were virtually unheard-of (though it looks like Dizzy Dean was in that category–and Lefty Grove was folding his front arm into his body just to keep it out of the way).  High-overhand arm angles were very rare.  While it’s true, furthermore (as so many of you keep telling me), that pitchers before World War II didn’t throw nearly as hard as they do today, it’s also true that they were far more durable.  Going nine innings every start was an implicit assumption; logging 300 innings for the season wasn’t at all unusual.  Four-man rotations were the norm.  Yes, many hurlers of great promise blew their arms out under this regimen… but how many of our young prospects do the same, and are redeemed from the junk heap only because of advances in medicine?

I’ll leave off today by conceding that not all of my sidestepping exemplars were short, broad fellows.  Wee Willie Sherdel wasn’t extraordinarily wee at 5’10”; neither was Fidgety Phil Collins at 5’11”.  Dickey Kerr, Dolf Luque, Bobby Shantz… yes, they would have been under average (at around 5’7”) even for position-players.  But Pete Alexander and Dazzy Vance also made my list; and Walter Johnson, though I didn’t observe him to fly open, certainly didn’t lunge lengthily toward the plate.  Ditto for the immortal Satchel.  I’d say that the low-overhand flip was simply the standard of the day—and that it was demonstrably healthier for the arm than the style we now prescribe.  That I’m holding it out as an option for shorter pitching prospects is somewhat dictated by the hard fact that those lads won’t be taken seriously no matter how well they emulate the Reddick model.  Paul once responded to a dad’s online query about submarine pitching (I’ve never forgotten the words), “It’s just a gimmick.”  No interest whatever in exploring that option.  Such is the cocksureness of Space Age science: “We have the formula for rocket fuel, so stop trying to mix in Tabasco sauce!”

Well, try lecturing the Tampa Bay Rays in that manner, or any other innovative organization that has very effectively deployed unusual release points on the mound.

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, bat acceleration, bat design, footwork in the box, hand use in hitting, hitter reaction time, metal bat use, opposite-field hitting, strike zone, Uncategorized

Oppo-Hitting Is Hard Because We’ve Made It So

raw-1

In the Year of the Lockdown, I’ve enjoyed watching whatever games I can find featuring the Tampa Bay Rays. More than any other team I’ve seen lately, their line-up features a variety of hitting techniques, not nine guys who could have fallen out of a cookie cutter or who, at any rate, are all trying to do the same thing (i.e., hit home runs). Lowe keeps his hands below the shoulder and close to the torso, like most hitters a couple of generations ago. Brosseau and Díaz drive their barrel down almost in one motion with their lead foot—something that you’d see in abundance only if you set your time machine to travel back before World War II. It’s really fun to watch an offense that features so much diversity of attack.

I find it ironic, then, that the Rays broadcasters were the pair I heard remarking on the difficulty of hitting against the shift. The exact words were something like, “A lot of fans wonder why players don’t beat the shift by taking the ball the other way. Most people don’t realize how hard it is to go opposite-field.” Well… yes. That’s certainly so in my case, anyway: I don’t realize why it should be so hard to hit the other way. For one thing, you’re deliberately trying to be late, and being late should be much easier than being early. You have more time to react, to look at the pitch and decide if you wish to offer. Why is it hard to be given more time?

Naturally, if you’re all dug in and your swing is so grooved that you can’t adjust your footwork to the situation in any manner, no matter how minute, then being late with your hands is pretty much all you have going for you. But why would a professional ballplayer be incapable of a little flexibility in his lower body? Here’s what Willie Mays had to say about Yankee singles-hitter deluxe Bobby Richardson:

It’s a pleasure to watch a professional like Bobby Richardson, the former Yankee second baseman, when he’s about to move the runner on first base around to third. Bobby hit behind the runner better than anybody else, for my money…. The batter, as the pitch is delivered, shifts his weight slightly and steps back with the rear foot a couple of inches [if he bats right, like Richardson]. Then, swinging a fraction of a second late, he just meets the ball with a short, sharp “punch” and bangs it to the right side of the playing field.   (My Secrets of Playing Baseball, 1970, p. 70)

Now, I consider Bobby a very interesting subject in his own right.  Richardson was no Pete Runnels or Dick Groat: he wasn’t going to compete for a batting crown.  But he did manage to become the only Yankee to top .300 in 1959, and he did muster a league-leading 209 hits in 1962 (when the number of games on the schedule had but lately increased by eight).  He had progressed from a smooth-field, no-hit prospect to a respectable component of a potent Yankee line-up.  Many have faulted him for not drawing walks from the lead-off position, to which he was admittedly not well suited.  I have to assume that an aggressive approach was part of what allowed him to hang around the .270 mark for years.  Okay, he might have pushed that to .290 if he’d been more selective.

Maybe part of the reason Bobby wasn’t more persnickety at the plate was his huge bat.  I vaguely recall marveling at that stick as a boy of seven or eight, when I’d get to watch my beloved Mickey on our black-and-white screen every Saturday and would wonder, “Who’s this little guy with the biggest bat on the team?”  Oh, Bobby would choke up a bit… but he still had to hurl the barrel down into the pitch in a manner that required early commitment—and probably allowed for being late.  Not that a child’s memory is a reliable witness… but it seems to me that most Richardson base-knocks went right up the middle.  His knees were distinctly bent as he assumed his stance, and on them he would glide into the pitch.  Think of a Scotsman hurling a caber: it all starts from the feet, and especially the knees.

It was Bill Dickey, then a Yankee coach, who advised Bobby to use the larger bat (as Richardson reveals in The Bobby Richardson Story, 1965). This Hall-of-Fame mentor was obviously a product of the Old School; there weren’t a whole lot of active players (with Rizzuto having just retired) who would have possessed such arcane knowledge.  At any rate, Richardson’s success at the plate took off when the big bludgeon was placed in his hands.  No, he didn’t have much bat speed.  His entire twelve-year career—for three consecutive years of which he led the league in at-bats (that’s what can happen when you never draw walks)—produced only 34 home runs.  But with the likes of Mantle, Maris, Skowron, Berra, and Howard batting behind him, homering wasn’t really a priority.  (Honesty compels me to observe that, despite such firepower at his back, Bobby never quite managed to score 100 runs.)

So what has all of this to do with oppo-hitting?  I think it’s the bat.  The reason Dewayne Staats and Brian Anderson (two of my favorite announcers, by the way) may have deemed off-field hitting “harder than you think” is because today’s bats are mere conveyances for a tiny, explosive sweet spot.  They make no allowance for misjudgment: they work extremely well only when everything in the swing is right on time.  If you try to reach for an outside pitch and push it (perhaps one-handed) to the infield’s far side), you encounter two problems: 1) your bat may be too short by a couple of inches; and 2) the balance in that bat is so top-heavy that you’ll probably foul off or pop up the pitch by dipping under it, if you contact it at all.

And that’s if you can get an outside pitch, or if you adjust your position to the far corner by recoiling with a Richardson-like move (for who doesn’t crowd the plate these days?).  What if the pitcher insists on pounding you inside, as more and more of the good ones dare to do?  Then is when you really need some bulk in the handle.  With the old-school lumber in your hands, you might have fought off the tight pitch to the off-field grass by inside-outing (in the fashion described in Ted Williams’ Science of Hitting, of all places: I wonder if Ted ever used the technique once in his life?).  Armed with today’s club, however, you’ll be picking splinters out of your face; or if you have the advantage of a metal bat, your chances of a weak infield pop-up are still very high just because of the handle’s tiny diameter.

So, yes: upon consideration, I suppose opposite-field hitting these days is indeed harder than I think—with emphasis on “these days”.  Even the resourceful Tampa Bay Rays can’t seem to do much about the hardware they take to the plate.  How about at least giving an audition to shifting your feet in the box, though, guys?  Devote a little practice to it and see if you don’t get good results.  Please?  A touch of small ball from yesteryear’s handbook would make today’s game so much more interesting!

baseball history, bat acceleration, Deadball Era, footwork in the box, hand use in hitting, low line drives, opposite-field hitting, strike zone, Uncategorized

A Comparison of Barrel Paths: Vague Results, But One Strong Conclusion

Below is an excerpt from the utterly new Chapter Fifteen of Landing Safeties, Second Edition, which I hope to have available on Amazon before the end of May.  Please do not mistake the copy of the book currently advertised at the right of this page for that update: it will clearly read “Second Edition” on the cover.  Yet if you’ve bought the first edition in the past, I believe you’re eligible to receive a free Kindle update when the next edition appears.  (It will be in both Kindle format and hard copy.).

The first edition of Landing Safeties contained nothing whatever that would correspond to this chapter.  In fact, I’d thought that I was done with the second edition when the idea struck me for including a graphic breakdown of various swings.  I had made claims at two or three points earlier in the book about how the forward weight shift reaches places in the zone that more “approved” swings today can’t touch—and reaches them from a productive, line-drive angle.  But could I show that visually to be true?  And how should I show it?  Should I sketch the outlines of hitters swinging their sticks from various angles?  Would that be convincing?  After all, a sketch can be squeezed or stretched to illustrate “facts” that aren’t valid in the real world.

But if I shot live footage of actual swings and then froze certain critical frames, would the features I wanted to emphasize come clear?  I don’t have the resources to film myself in a dark studio with a luminescent bat (the like of which Walt Hriniak did for his classic manual).  Could I make the barrel stand out sufficiently in black and white to sell my propositions?

Well, in my own low-tech manner, I fashioned a couple of pretty good demonstrations.  A white sock was duck-taped to the end of each of three bats.  That sock stands out well enough to emphasize the bat path in the isolated frames.  One sequence of swings, furthermore, was shot from directly overhead (itself no mean technical feat: but my trusty duck tape permitted me to extend the camera’s mounting several feet from an upstairs balcony).  The horizontal view was relatively easy, and was captured against an L-screen draped in a dark tarp.  I wish I hadn’t chosen to wear a white-topped cap throughout the filming… but I never said I was Steven Spielberg.

Frankly, the overhead view was disappointing, to the extent that I thought it would be very revealing.  It licenses several insights, but not as clearly as I’d hoped.  The details must be analyzed very finely.  To complicate matters, my three bats were of different sizes.  I suppose I should have used a single bat throughout: that way I would not have had to qualify my conclusions about how much of the zone was being covered by allowing for different lengths of stick.  Yet I was between a rock and a hard place on that one.  You really can’t use a single bat for all three strokes—not if you want to reproduce them with their peculiar effects highlighted.  Variation in bat is indeed part of the reason why swings have changed so much over the past century.  A Deadball swing doesn’t mix well with a short, top-heavy club; a Juan Gonzalez/Alex Rodriguez type of swing isn’t something you’d want to try with a yard of timber (not if you value your spine).

So, with those caveats acknowledged, let me proceed to describe how the demo’s below are organized.  The three swings I have chosen to model are the following.  First I start in the present.  I call this paradigm the Twenty-First Century Swing (or TFCS).  I noticed it becoming all the rage back in the Nineties of the previous century.  We’ve discussed it lengthily before, and I’m sure you know it by heart: bat cocked high to the rear, back elbow pointed up restlessly, big leg kick, foot down early, lower the boom into the zone, early release of top hand, high finish with bottom hand.  It’s an ideal stroke for the metal bat, though more risky with wood.  Even the shortest wooden bats carry enough weight to place a lot of strain on the back when put through such gyrations.  The two home-run superstars I mentioned in the previous paragraph both suffered from chronic back pain.  I myself thought I was having kidney failure as I tried to crawl out of bed the morning after I took these videos!

I used a 33” Tony Gwynn model in executing the TFCS.  I believe Tony himself actually employed a shorter stick.  The barrel is quite broad compared to the handle.  Obviously, a lot of flare brings the two ends together.  Gwynn was one of the first big-league hitters to insist that his wooden tools be engineered as closely as possible to resemble the metal ones he had know in high school and college.

Moving back in time (though, of course, the boundaries aren’t rigid), I replicate what I call the Golden Age Swing (GAS). Williams—both Ted and Billy, in fact—Mize, Mantle, Musial, Mathews, Snider, Kaline, Killebrew, McCovey… all of them operated within these parameters, some more narrowly than others.  The Fifties have been dubbed baseball’s “golden age” because they produced this new generation of uppercutting power-hitters who, it is said, made the game more exciting than it has ever been.  The GAS begins in a backward glide rather than a leg kick, with hands gathered in at the rear armpit.  The backward coil of the loading knee is often synchronized with a slight dip or roll of the hands (some call it a hitch; I don’t think it’s pronounced enough to justify that label).  Then the front foot strides out as about half the weight spills immediately back onto the rear leg.  The barrel rushes off the shoulder into its descent in no time and continues to trace most of its path through a faint but steady rise—a long, sweeping rise that typically ends with the bat wrapped around beside (not above) the front shoulder.  It is indeed a powerful swing.  Most of its practitioners were dead-pull hitters.  With so much emphasis on staying back (what I sometimes call “lean back and hack”), their only possible adjustment to an outside pitch was to undercut it severely and hope that the opposite-field defender was caught off guard by the bloop.

My lumber for this round was a 34” Fred Lynn model that fits my hands very well for the kind of load required.  The bat’s flare isn’t as abrupt as the Gwynn model’s, but the stick remains formidably massive.

And this brings us to our Deadball Swing (DS).  I essentially took the approach outlined at the end of Chapter 12: load the barrel almost straight up and not far back, use that load to catalyze a stiff lift of the forward leg, drop down on the leg heavily in a movement that draws the barrel directly after it, carry the cut down and through the pitch as far as possible, and finally follow through with a parabolic sweep that sends the barrel far over the front shoulder.  The weight shift, as we have stressed, should be as complete as reaction time will allow. Since I wasn’t swinging at an actual pitch during any of these exercises, my shift showed no evidence of being interrupted.

I used a 35” Robin Ventura model in this third round of demonstrations.  Robin wasn’t even born when Ty Cobb died; but the slim, moderate design of this sweet bat is remarkably similar to what I can make out of Cobb’s weapon.

Since I devoted Chapter 13 exclusively to the shuffling load, and since I’m so delighted with that forgotten tactic, I tossed in a few additional photos in my DS discussions that underscore how shuffling enhances the best elements of yesteryear’s stroke.

I was pleasantly surprised by how much I learned from isolating particular instants of each swing and then comparing them, even though (as I’ve confessed) the overhead sequences needed a lot more analyzing than I would have supposed necessary.  All of us have become accustomed to viewing video in the twenty-first century—perhaps too much so.  Stopping and freezing on certain moments that rush past too quickly in live time can unveil a hidden world to the careful observer.

The Overhead View

I begin with the overhead view because it turns out to be a little less revealing—and I prefer to finish with the angle that drives home the important lessons better.  I have to believe now that so much significant up-and-down motion (visible only from a lateral angle) is going on in any swing as to make the overhead angle almost uninteresting.

Nevertheless, we can obtain some useful insights if we break up the swing into three parts and then look at Part One in all of our strokes, followed by Part Two and then Part Three.  That’s exactly what I have done.

The first part consists of three frames. These bring the barrel from its fully loaded position (I saw no reason to represent anything previous to the full-cock moment) forward to the instant when it’s about to enter the hitting zone. The TFCS and the GAS are so similar as to be indistinguishable: you could almost suppose yourself to be looking at the same three shots. The only real contrast we have going here, then, is between the two more contemporary paradigms and the Deadball Swing—and there’s little enough difference, even between the upper pair of sequences and the bottom one.

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Now, let’s acknowledge a couple of compromising deficiencies right off the bat (so to speak).  I’ve already noted that the length of my sticks varied, from 33” to 35”.  A close look at the frames will also reveal that the shots are not reduced to the same exact scale.  (In some positions, my bat trailed so far to one side or another that matching three perfectly scaled frames would never have fit a page—or else would have required too much shrinking for details to be visible.)  That said, I nevertheless think we see plain evidence of the barrel’s trailing farther to the rear in TFCS and GAS than in DS.  Instead of trying to measure how much bat extends rearward in the bottom photos versus how much does so in the two upper tiers, pay attention to the barrel’s distance from my cap or my rear shoulder in individual frames.  That is, orient yourself to points within the frame in order to arrive at an accurate sense of how much the bat is circling the zone.  The newer swings appear to be more hyperbolic: there’s a generous curve in how they wheel away from the back shoulder.  The Deadball cut travels more directly into the zone.

If this is hard to make out (and I know it is), the reason is mostly because the 35” bat I use in the bottom sequence appears to claim a much longer slice of the photo.  In fact, its being an inch or two longer than the bats above it can’t account for how far its thin, pale line extends.  Two things here: again, notice that the bat head doesn’t trail my rear shoulder in the DS by more than (or I would say as much as) it does in the other two swings. Secondly—and very importantly—understand that the bat creates such a long line in these overhead shots because it has already come relatively flat in its straight, linear passage through the zone.  Even during the full load (the first frame of each sequence), DS shows the barrel more inclined toward the rear.  TFCS has the bat’s head veering forward, coiled like a spring to sweep in a swooshing dive at the ball.  GAS dips the barrel more toward the plate (in the fashion so reminiscent of Ted Williams), because—as we shall see later from the lateral angle—it plummets down into the trough of its dip with a single-minded quickness.

The Deadball Swing, however, puts the barrel in the plane of productive, backspinning contact almost at once.  That, and not the extra inch or two, is why the bat looks so very long in these initial instants.  Were a high-inside fastball to surprise a hitter using one of the other two strokes, it would likely slip right over that steeply circling barrel.  The DS would stand the best chance of fouling off such a pitch, and maybe even of pushing it the other way over the infielders’ gloves.

I’ll be posting two videos of these experiments (from which I drew my still photos) on YouTube later today.  I’ll nip back in tomorrow and add links for the Overhead Angle and the Lateral Angle, if all goes well.

arm health, baseball history, general health, hand use in hitting, low arm angle, off-season preparation, pitchers of short stature, pitching, pitching velocity, strike zone, Uncategorized

Throwing Lefty: Not As Hard As You May Think

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One thing’s for sure: we all have a lot of time on our hands right now.  I need to keep a tight rein on myself beyond this point.  I have another blog where I vent my frustration with the Nanny State and with our day’s saturation in unresearched factoids and malicious propaganda.  Part of the reason I flee to baseball is so that the acid of those reflections doesn’t dissolve what’s left of my sanity.

So… here’s a thought.  If you want to pitch but are of short stature or otherwise limited by unpromising parameters, why not throw left?  I know, I know: it’s not like you can just go out and become a southpaw the way you can learn to pick a guitar in a few months of practice… or is it?  Are we so very sure it’s not?

I’ve often found that the learning curve involved in preparation for a seemingly impossible undertaking is very steep only on the initial slope.  Unlike climbing Everest, which gets steeper as one moves higher, the roughest spots confront the first few steps.  Mountain-climbing is itself a good example.  Overcoming a fear of heights, learning to keep one’s balance, resisting the natural sense of panic or rush… these are all tasks that might crush the novice.  If only he can get past them, then subsequent stages of achievement fit together much more speedily, like a jigsaw puzzle already half-assembled.

I think the heftiest obstacle to throwing left-handed is just the “I can’t do this” feeling which greets your first tries.  Be analytical.  Why can’t you do this?  Why can you do it right-handed: what are you doing one way that you’re not doing the other?  Break it all down.  What’s your first move from your good side?  Are you replicating that move from the other side?  Follow Phase One with Phase Two.  Where does the train jump the track?  Be hyper-aware of how all parts are connected.  If your left hand seems to come up and rotate back much earlier than your right, that’s probably because your back is arching—which, in turn, is probably because your head is falling off to the side rather than driving forward, a movement itself caused by the front shoulder’s flopping open immediately rather than mapping out a powerful, fluid path toward the objective.  Very, very often in pitiable weak-side endeavors, the hidden culprit is the strong side.  When it doesn’t get to take the lead, it wants to pack up its marbles and go home rather than assume a supporting role.

At the very least, acquiring a little dexterity (literally, “right-handedness”) on your weak side will make you better informed about your strong side.  I really like the low overhand angle—almost sidearm—that I call “9:30” or “10 o’clock” (with 9 being full sidearm).  I throw that way from the right side with very little effort or discomfort, whereas a more overhand delivery puts a strain on my physique (since my frame is quite broad for my height).  As a matter of fact, I just posted a video summarizing my current “best advice” about delivering from this arm angle: see “Update of the Low Overhand Motion”.

I would likely never have known the importance of keeping my throwing hand from rising too soon if I hadn’t encountered a little pain when making that error left-handed.  Now I know, consciously and objectively, that I want to keep my hand from reaching full cock until my chin breaks away from my front shoulder… and by that point, I’m already far from the up-and-down on the rubber, and am indeed about to leave that perch behind entirely.  In the future, if my right-hand mechanics were to get fouled up, I’d have those items on my checklist.  In other words, through having made my strong-side successes explicit by trying to repeat them on the weak side, I know pretty much exactly what’s happening when things are going well.

Naturally, this all applies equally to hitting.  But switch-hitters, rare as they are, seem a thousand times more abundant than switch-pitchers.  Or since switching is in itself a very labor-intensive skill, even if you have good coordination from either side, let’s look at it from a less fanciful angle.  Guys who bat with their stronger hand on the bottom aren’t all that rare (George Brett, Wade Boggs, Freddie Freeman… and even the much rarer lefty-batting-right isn’t unheard-of, as in the case of Rickey Henderson or of my hometown hero, Carl Warwick); yet guys who reach for doorknobs with their right while throwing left are one in a million.  I can think only of Tris Speaker and Billy Wagner, both of whom became southpaws because of injury to their right wing.

So the insight seems to be this: pitching from your weaker side is a heck of a lot harder than hitting from that side.  There are actually several advantages to having the stronger hand down on the bat’s knob; there are none to having the stronger arm driving toward the plate with a glove on.

Why bother learning to pitch left-handed, then, since it’s sure to be extremely challenging?  Like the Everest-climber, you could say, “Because it’s there”… but ballplayers have better things to do than accept idle challenges just to prove their character.  The game demands exhausting practice even of the most natural skills.  No, the basic reason is precisely because so few pitchers throw left-handed.  As a result, right-side hitters (about ninety percent of the typical line-up) don’t quite know what to do with offerings that come veering into them.  They’re used to crowding the plate in order to rake an evasive slider and be quick on a sneaky inside fastball.  When a pitch, especially from the 10 o’clock angle, comes looping under their barrel, they roll over the outside offering and completely whiff on the inside one—or else pull it far foul or smack it off their toe.  Our lefty has to keep that inside one low, to be sure: he has to exploit the physical fact that the bat lifts into the hands at a severe angle when it’s trained through the low/inside quadrant.  The high pitch is better off staying outside (or else chin-high… or both).

I speak here in the assumption that Lefty is a natural right-hander who (unlike Billy Wagner) has never learned to throw very hard from his weaker side.  As long as he has mastered control, he doesn’t really need velocity—or not nearly so much as the right-hander.  He’s better off trying to be Whitey Ford than Randy Johnson.  Attempting to rush it up there when Mother Nature isn’t sending him a lot of immediate bio-feedback is a good way to become a permanent righty, whether he wants to be or not.

But there’s the dilemma: consistent accuracy from your weaker side poses a tremendous challenge.  Well, that’s where practice comes in—that’s why you shouldn’t try this unless you’re willing to grind it out, any more than you should aspire to play flamenco guitar in two weeks.  Nevertheless, I think accuracy is a much more desirable target than velocity.  Not only will it get more hitters out: it will expose your arm to less risk, since your mind will be better focused on specific movements and less inclined to override your body’s incidental warnings.

Start small—start tiny.  Throw indoors, without actually throwing: just rehearse the motion, over and over.  When you do throw baseballs at a screen, stand close.  Don’t tempt your mind to chase after velocity in the early stages.  As long as you’re a mere fifteen or twenty feet from the target, the devil in you won’t be whispering, “Let’s see if we can get this one to pop!”

Well, that’s my crazy idea for today’s crazy times.  If you want to see a video that I made just a few days ago on this very subject, click here.