My son sent me a link to Instagram footage of Ronald Acuna, Jr., mashing a few pitches at batting practice. I though it might be instructive to do this week what I did last week with Yogi Berra: isolate a few frames and discuss what’s happening. At least the technology of 2020 allows me to freeze on an instant without getting a complete blur everywhere: that wasn’t true of our 1952 newsreel!
By way of preface, I’ll share that a few viewers of my video contrasting the Deadball swing (a composite of tendencies, to be accurate) with what I called the Twenty-First Century Swing asked if I didn’t think some elements of both strokes might produce an effective hybrid swing. In a manner of speaking, this has already happened in the TFCS. The steep forward leg pump in the load forces a strong weight shift onto that leg, and front-foot hitting is indeed one of the signatures of yesteryear’s style. Yet at the same time, the Charley Lau/Walt Hriniak teaching that dominated hitting instruction of the Seventies and Eighties (I refer to the twentieth century here!) allowed for weight to shift farther forward than gurus of the Fifties and Sixties would have liked. So New School and Old School already have that much in common.
I don’t think you can do much integrating of the two beyond that point, however. The main reason for the roadblock is the bat. Watching Ronald, I understand this more powerfully than ever before. Junior doesn’t cock his rear elbow steeply above his shoulder, unlike most of today’s sluggers—and that should give him a better chance of taking barrel to ball in a smooth plane rather than in a sweeping dip. BUT… despite hugging the handle closer to his torso than most of our time’s hitters and transferring his weight emphatically forward, he nevertheless manages to put a severe dip into his cut. As in severe! This has to be because of the bat, as far as I can make out. Rocket Ronny’s thumbs are locked around the super-skinny handle, and the bludgeon-like barrel burdening the short stick’s end wants to dive-bomb into the pitch. As a result, he uses his weight shift merely to rock back in the most undercutting fashion possible, putting such an arc in his spine during the high finish that my own recently injured vertebrae cry out in pain.
The heavily planted front foot has become a launching pad for channeling energy upward and rearward. It’s not a smoothly planted rest channeling the energy’s vector along the pitch’s flight corridor. The barrel is a sort of reverse trebuchet or ferociously heaving shovel: it’s not an arrow traveling over a long span straight toward the target’s heart.
Now, the complete forward weight shift and the relatively low-held hands during the load do allow Ronald to stay inside the pitch much better than most hitters today can manage. We’ve all heard commentators marveling over his power to the opposite field. I hope the kid can play past thirty—that his back doesn’t give out somewhere between now and then. Again, I blame the bat; and I blame it for inducing similar outcomes in a two generations of ballplayers at all levels. You just can’t help gripping the metal club with locked thumbs and hurling it steeply down into the ball: it practically won’t let you do anything else. And professional players today are all graduating to wood after using metal models, which they try to replicate in birch and ash as much as possible. The resulting stroke is nothing approaching Charlie Gehringer’s, let alone Ginger Beaumont’s.
So, no, I don’t see many opportunities for productive collaboration.
Okay: to the photos. Here’s the load over the back foot, with the front knee pumping. Observe that the rear elbow, as noted above, doesn’t have a steep cock. The hands, rather, are gathered near the rear armpit in something much closer to yesteryear’s fashion.
Now three frames of the barrel shooting through the zone. Ronald has rushed his weight fully to the front foot, and is indeed fairly upright on the lead leg. But his hands are drawing the bat in a kind of whiplash down through the ball’s path rather than moving directly to the ball. The final frame shows a white blur either about to contact the barrel or having just contacted it. The trajectory is low: this is a line drive.
The finish, or follow-through, reminds me of a golfer’s. You simply couldn’t whip a 35” stick of lumber through this kind of gyration and stay out of traction.
Now, visitors to SmallBallSuccess.com will know that we love line drives… and a lot of the contact in this BP session produced just such low bullets. So… what’s wrong with that? The problem for me is one of percentages. With the barrel entering the zone in such a dipping, hyperbolic fashion, the chances of solid contact for most hitters would be greatly reduced. Acuna’s rockets in the cage are topspun: he’s actually clipping the ball as his barrel is in the ascent. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, especially since he stays inside the pitch so well and can take it up the middle. Many hitters, however, will find that getting the barrel out too early will just result in a roll-over ground ball to their pull side. That’s generally not a productive outcome.
And remember that this is batting practice. On game-caliber fastballs, most hitters attempting to use Ronald’s method (i.e., to employ the forward weight shift as a way of lifting up and back in a great sweep) are apt to clip the pitch as the bat is still descending and before its very brief leveling off. The outcome in such cases might be a foul straight back, or maybe a high pop-up on the infield: no more productive than a roll-over.
I love watching Ronald Acuna, Jr., play, and especially swing the bat. Who wouldn’t? I’m not saying that he should break everything down and reconstruct what he does by my specifications. I’m saying, rather, that young players probably shouldn’t try to copy him. Shorter players, in particular, should not count on being able to muscle their way into the line-up by reproducing Ronald’s power stroke. A much better bet is to send the barrel on a straight, slightly downward plane (leveled off by the forward weight shift) into the ball’s heart, with the intended result of modest backspin that puts a little charge into contact. That’s Old School. Sweeping the barrel down and up again in a breathtaking swoosh not only would sabotage the batting average of most young hitters: it would jeopardize the long-term health of their back. Ask Juan Gonzalez, or Mark McGwire, or Arod.