bat acceleration, hitter reaction time, mental approach, pitching velocity, Uncategorized

Why Pitching Machines Can Help

My trusty old Personal Pitcher finally died the other day.  We had been through a lot together.  This handy, highly portable machine (if you’re unfamiliar with the model) fires out golf-sized Wiffleballs from atop a tripod.  Naturally, it doesn’t fire them very fast; but in hitting–and pitching–the relevant datum is reaction time or, as some call it, perceived velocity.  In other words, you can position yourself so closely to a little coffee grinder incapable of shooting out anything faster than 40 mph that you have just a split second to react; and you can whittle that split second down until it’s equal to the few dozen milliseconds that an Aroldis Chapman fastball gives you.

That’s how I used my Personal Pitcher.  To make matters even more challenging for me, it had decided in its waning years to vary the times between giving me the green alert-flashes that signal imminent firings; and then, going a step farther, it would tend to abbreviate the amount of time that flashes actually flashed, especially once it had been pumping a while.  I got to where I would listen for the rattle of a ball dropping into the firing chute rather than key on the treacherous light.  If a plane, a loud vehicle, or a lawnmower passed at the wrong moment, I was helpless.

A love/hate relationship developed between us–but, honestly, I did not intend to strike PP with my bat on one occasion, though I had pondered doing so on many occasions.  It was the crafty midget’s own fault: I got so far out in front of a change-up that the handle slipped away from me.  Then again, maybe that was my fault.  I should have rotated the used, cracked balls out for new ones more often… but I wanted the additional challenge of having pitches approach me at varying speeds and traveling different paths.

Well, R.I.P., old enemy, old friend.  Fortunately, I have a replacement all warmed up and ready to take the mound (for the signs of wear and tear in PP Senior had become all too apparent after the “flying bat” incident).

What I really wish to accomplish here is not the eulogizing of an old piece of equipment, but the emphasizing that my experimental methods have some validity.  No, I haven’t been testing myself against live pitching.  I don’t have the resources for that.  On the other hand, I am able to position myself so near to my pitching machine that I can simulate reaction times less generous than any I would have if a healthy youngster were trying to bore one in (and I don’t have to worry about getting concussed by a regulation hardball).  A critic might respond, “That’s exactly the problem.  Your reaction time is too brief.  You’re not simulating a game situation where the hitter has to key his load on the motions of a moving human body–you’re just coiling up and then springing at the first white you see in the air.”

Here’s my answer to that–and I will wrap up this short commentary after I make the point.  Hitting is all about giving yourself time.  If you can create a method that reliably produces low line drives off a reaction time simulating 90+ mph, then you can always scale that method down to circumstances that are more “real life”.  Said another way, if you develop a hitting method that allows you to be very quick, then you can wait for a very long time.  You can watch the pitch almost into the catcher’s mitt.

That’s what I seek to offer with the Deadball Era methods advanced on this site.  I want to go up the middle or even a little oppo, and I want to strike the ball’s heart with the barrel modestly descending rather than have to carry my bat head out well in front of the plate to achieve “launch angle”.  I can test whether I’m achieving my ends quite effectively by hacking away at the old Personal Pitcher… or, now, my new Personal Pitcher.  If I recruit human arms and legs at some point to give me more cues in my load–why, so much the better!

coaches and trust, low arm angle, pitchers of short stature, pitching, pitching velocity, submarine pitching, Uncategorized

East/West vs. North/South on the Mound

I hope to make a video later this morning (the third of Spring 2019) dedicated to pitching.  I’m always a little insecure when I speak on this subject; I actually did a “discussion” video yesterday in preparation for today’s, which is intended to be more of a demonstration—and I found myself wandering off topic more than once in defense of my method.  Me, a pitcher?  What a joke!  I have no credentials whatever as a mound artist!  But I have the relatively short, broad-framed body type for which this site is designed: how many professional pitchers have that?  How many professional pitching coaches have enough imagination to counsel someone with such a build… unless their counsel is, “Find another sport”?

So I muddle on, hopefully forward… and I think I am indeed making progress.  The matter that’s especially holding my interest right now is the forward leg lift.  Every pitcher is told, and has probably always been told, to close the front hip and then open it.  A lot of power is supposed to come from that motion.  It’s a perfect analogue to Ted Williams’s gospel of cocking the front hip and then throwing it open to catalyze the swing.  The liability of such emphatic hip action, in a hitter’s case, is that the swing becomes very rotational.  That’s not necessarily bad if you have the tall, lanky build of the Splendid Splinter, however.  The acceleration latent in so many long appendages is worth tapping even at a cost of extra time and increased inaccuracy.

So for a lanky pitcher.  He’s easy to steal on as he cartwheels toward home plate—but the payoff is worth the risk, since his long stride and long fall into the catapulting of a long arm puts a lot of juice into the pitch.  What if God didn’t give you that kind of body, though?  Why are you tumbling down when you don’t have very many steps on the staircase to tumble down from?

My theory is this.  From the sidearm angle, you draw more acceleration from lateral movements than from vertical ones.  You should be emphasizing side-to-side activity for acceleration rather than up-and-down activity.  That means that the forward leg should be driving open as it drives down—and hauling it back over the rubber actually impedes it from opening up, since it will have to clear the back leg before it can move more laterally.  Why not just start with that front leg somewhat open as you get your sign, then pump it almost straight up, then give a little hop on the rubber and drive hard open-and-down?  From the 9:30 (i.e., slightly above sidearm) angle that we’ve been exploring, this creates a very natural path for the arm.  It minimizes risk of injury as well as maximizes velocity… but you do have to drive off the mound hard and low, keeping your head well down like a submariner.

Speaking of submariners… we began our site’s discussion of pitching by recommending that technique.  My son, who pitched “down under” throughout college very effectively, impressed upon me that he was a fluke—that the tall, lanky kid is again the one who’s really best suited for submarining.  And drawing the front leg back over the rubber is as important in that technique as in the classic overhand style.  You have to bend your torso over as much as possible before you launch forward, so opening up and using your lateral muscles becomes a matter of secondary importance.  In fact, I’ve never seen a submariner who didn’t throw at least a little “over the body” (meaning that his path to home plate never fully opens up—in a righty, the front foot plants slightly toward third base).

What I’m exploring now, therefore, is unique in my experience—but I don’t notice anyone else nosing his way down this trail, so I’ll just keep blazing it in my blindfold.  No coach, that is, seems to teach a very low overhand angle, and boys who throw that way naturally are not advised that they might do well to emphasize the side-to-side more and the fore-and-aft less.  Okay, fine.  That’s more cake for those few of us who decide to come to the feast.

P.S. View these videos now: Shorter Pitchers: Find Good Velocity Throwing Sidearm (Part I) and a live demo in Shorter Pitchers: Find Good Velocity Throwing Sidearm (Part II).

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!

baseball ethics, baseball history, fathers and sons, Performance-Enhancing Drugs, Uncategorized

The Evil of Being Better Than Your Best

I’ve almost finished the twelve-year-old copy of Jose Canseco’s Juiced that my son gave me.  I’ll admit that I have a lot more sympathy for Canseco as a human being than I previously did.  Any man who loved his mother and loves his daughter as this fellow does… and his father was one of those we know from Little League games who screams at his kid every time he’s not a polished All Star in the field.  Combine that with a generally low self-image, and you have a recipe for foolish choices.  This lad needed some good advice along the way, and he doesn’t seem to have gotten much.

Canseco’s take on baseball’s racism in the Nineties pulled me in the other direction, however.  If you want to take control of your future by changing the rules and moving the foul lines, Jose, don’t complain because you see doors opening for blue-eyed blonds that close in your face.  Haven’t you already pried enough doors open by crowbar that weren’t supposed to admit you or anyone else?  I don’t know why people of color assume that the blond-and-blue stereotype doesn’t work against us Caucasians, too, who are dark around the edges—but my black friends are always shocked when I pull the veil from that illusion.  Van Johnson and Robert Redford: good guy.  Claude Akins and John Ireland: bad guy.

Of course, the stereotype of the little guy who just can’t perform as well as the big guy cuts across racial boundaries.  It’s practically universal.  It’s what I founded this site to combat—in baseball.  I can’t do anything about it in a job interview or on the dating scene, where employers and the ladies eagerly join ranks to elbow shorter men out of the picture.  Jose certainly didn’t suffer from that kind of invidious prejudice.

And if some Latinos were at a disadvantage in professional baseball twenty-five years ago because no one on the coaching staff could speak their lingo, doesn’t that make the duty of a seasoned veteran like Canseco on the Texas Rangers all the more imperative?  And what big-brotherly guidance did he provide to Juan Gonzalez, Ivan Rodriguez, and his childhood buddy Rafael Palmeiro (who was quite fluent enough in English and apt in American culture, however, to know better)?  He sabotaged careers and lives by abusing his position of authority to introduce forbidden substances into the clubhouse.

Now, Canseco would say that the stuff was already there—a claim that he often contradicts by virtually celebrating his role in being its special conduit (for instance, in the Rangers’ case).  He would also say, and does say, that he created rather than destroyed careers.  I wonder how Palmeiro feels about that, in retrospect?  I was once one of Rafael’s biggest fans.  I didn’t want to believe that he had cheated—I thought he had probably failed the test because of some drug that he was using to speed recovery from a specific injury.  I have little doubt that he could have reached 3,000 hits without steroids; in fact, I think they probably impeded his ascent to that plateau, inasmuch as they turned him into a dead-pull hitter who tried to jack every pitch he saw over the wall.  Now, as a ballplayer, he is ruined in memory forever.  None of us who considered him a first-ballot Hall-of-Famer would cast that vote today.

To me, the most repellent thing about Jose’s unrepentant, almost boasting autobiography is its failure to grasp the glory of the game.  It makes you recognize your God-given limits… and then you learn on your own how to transform those liabilities into assets.  You become the best you could possibly be.  But for Jose, the formula takes a shocking turn: through the use of outlawed substances, you become better than you could possibly be—you reject what God created and substitute a fraudulent “you”.  You acquire no humility, no wisdom… but perhaps you do acquire lots of money.

There we go: do whatever it takes to get rich.  Thanks for that lesson, Jose—as if it needed another preacher from the pop-cultural pulpit!  And, yes, Don Fehr and the Players’ Union and the team owners like George Bush all must have known exactly what was happening as they feverishly kept brushing the steroids scandal under the rug while pointing at the ceiling.  Are you comfortable having a band of such hypocrites as allies?  “Yes, I did it.  Everyone else was doing it, too—or else they came up and begged me to show them how.  And we were just making ourselves into the superhuman machines that the fans wanted to see… and we would have been sacking groceries or selling used cars, otherwise.  And we Latinos especially needed an inside track to correct for latent racism.  And, anyway, the stuff is physically good for you if you use it right.”

If your lawyer presented arguments like these in a murder trial, you’d have grounds for appeal based on an incompetent defense.

baseball history, mental approach, Uncategorized

Be Selective About When to Be Selective

Several years ago, I remember watching on YouTube the entirety of a game played in the Los Angeles Coliseum, where the Dodgers made their home for a couple of years in the late Fifties.  Seating capacity was about a hundred thousand.  The trouble was that right field was approximately 450 feet from home plate… and left field was 200 feet closer!  To prevent right-handed pull-hitters from racking up five homers per game, a high net was string a good way along the left-field bleachers.  Fans could see through it, but batted balls would strike the netting and plop harmlessly at the left fielder’s feet unless they were really jacked up.  That fielder would often have a play at second.  During the YouTube game, Stan Musial was thrown out at the keystone sack in a critical late-inning play after ripping an oppo-liner into the ropes.

Musial, Gilliam, Wally Moon, Charlie Neal… I really enjoyed that game, even though its dubious black-and-white quality had me thinking in the back of my mind that the whole thing was happening under the lights rather than in broad daylight.  One thing that leapt out at me was the pace.  I believe the contest actually reached ten innings—but it lasted well under three hours.  To be sure, players weren’t stepping out of the box and messing with their gloves (for you youngsters, there were no batting gloves back then).  More than that, however, was the eagerness of every hitter to put bat to ball.  There were very few deep counts.  Everyone was hacking.

Now, I’m not going to say that working the count is a bad thing.  I’m not going to say that it’s good, either.  As a strategy, I find it fully neutral, dependent on specific conditions.  Sleeping under a heavy blanket is a good idea at certain times of year; at other times, it would be idiotic.

The immortal Oscar Charleston liked for his protégés to take lots of pitches during their first couple of plate appearances so as to lull the opposition into thinking that they would keep that approach throughout the game.  Then, as the stakes began to rise during the later innings, Oscar’s boys would ambush groved, get-me-over strikes early in the count.  That makes lots of sense… but you have to assume that his opponents would catch on if the two teams played each other regularly.

It seems like I must have sat through hundreds of my son’s games—between travel teams, high school, and college—where one or both sides had been told to take pitches and wear down the starter.  This could be effective if the starter weren’t pumping strike after strike across the plate.  Let’s say he is, and your side makes a mid-game adjustment.  Now you’re determined to swing at everything, which he very quickly notices, and you soon find yourselves chasing sliders that dip two feet outside.  Yeah, I’ve seen that game a few dozen times, if not a few hundred.

Coaches, for the most part, appear to believe that they do their job well when they put the “take” sign on.  Again… it depends.  Leading off a game, you would surely want to make the pitcher deliver five or six pitches, just so that your bunch could see what he’s got.  Striking out in that circumstance isn’t necessarily bad.  You also don’t want to go up hacking on a hot day in a very close game as the innings pile up for your starter.  For pity’s sake… give the poor guy a few minutes to stay off his feet in the dugout!

The mindset I don’t understand has a middle-of-the-order hitter feeling good about himself after he strikes out looking at four deliveries—all because he was “patient” and just didn’t get his pitch.  What single positive outcome does this approach achieve?  I suppose if our Mighty Casey never misses a mistake and is facing a hurler known for leaving hangers over the plate, patience might be a virtue; but I would prefer to have a line-up of guys who can hit the ball where it’s pitched, at least with two strikes.

I never got a chance to play at a very high level (and I do mean “chance”: what with Vietnam, an unstable economy, and rioting in the streets, my generation had a lot of trouble focusing on things like baseball).  With the Old School style that we preach on this site, however, I imagine that I would be a pretty aggressive hitter at any level.  This is because our line-drive swing is especially well suited to taking outside pitches up the middle or the opposite way.  Pitchers like to stay outside.  I would be looking for that location from Pitch One, without much concern for speed; because if I get a little in front on a change, I pull the ball.  The one pitch I don’t want to see and would probably take until I had two strikes would be high and in.  How many times do today’s moundsmen throw that pitch—and how many times is it called a strike on a take?

Now, if the pitcher has just walked three batters in a row, I’ll naturally be more selective.  If we’re in the mid-innings on a hot day and we know that their bullpen is pitiful, I’ll be more selective.  If I have shown myself to be a tad too aggressive all day long, I’ll be more selective.

It seems to me that in the matter of taking or attacking pitches, everything depends on circumstance: on the count, the number of outs, the score, the inning, the runners on base, the pitcher, the bullpen, your special hitting abilities, your history with this pitcher, your pattern at the plate so far today—and let’s not forget the umpire!

Being patient?  Yeah, sure… but no.  It depends.