baseball history, bat acceleration, coaches and trust, Deadball Era, footwork in the box, hand use in hitting, hitter reaction time, Uncategorized, weight transfer

Charley Lau vs. Ted Williams: The Art and Science of Coaching

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As the end of the year closes in, many of us find ourselves pressed for time.  I have a little more today than I’d expected because I managed to stump my toe severely while jogging up and down my half-mile rural driveway.  (The autumn leaves do a great job of concealing stones embedded in this hard red Georgia clay.)  No more exercise of that kind for me.  I can work back and forth in the back yard while shadow-boxing: my lower body will be shuffling and weaving, and my upper body (whose activity is where real cardio-vascular benefit occurs) will be much more involved than in an ordinary run.  Sayonara, jogging!

If I’d been able to put weight on my right foot, I would have made the second half of “The Lau/Hriniak Hitting System” yesterday.  (See Part One here. ) I’m feeling much better as the week wears on… but the weather today isn’t going to cooperate with videoing any demonstration.  Charley Lau, I should say, is one of my baseball heroes.  He managed to hang around the Big Leagues for parts of several seasons as a back-up catcher, but he never put together as much as a single full season of plate appearances in all that time.  As a hitter, he was… okay.  Sort of.  And therein lies his great virtue: thanks to having no purely natural gift for batsmanship, he had to grind everything out and piece one lesson laboriously onto another.  In the process of struggling to hit passably well, he was preparing himself to become one of the game’s greatest hitting instructors.

In more ways than the obvious ones, Charley was the antithesis of Ted Williams.  It’s not just a superstar-vs.-benchwarmer contrast: Charley’s whole system differed starkly from the Splendid Splinter’s.  Ted’s manual was titled The Science of Hitting, Charley’s The Art of Hitting .300.  (Therein lies an irony, by the way; for Charley’s “absolutes” are fully, comprehensibly explained, whereas Ted’s pronouncements are predicated largely on the art of being Ted Williams.) Ted wasn’t really adding anything much to the techniques that had dominated post-World War II ball, with his emphasis on throwing the front hip open and pulling the pitch.  Charley was all about fluidity and contact, with a tolerance of forward weight shift that echoed (unconsciously, I’m sure) the wisdom of the Deadball Era and the Negro Leagues.  Where Ted’s teaching seems to be full of tight circles, Charley’s has curves that tend toward the linear.

And speaking of teaching, while Ted was pretty much of a “do it my way” guy who never really imparted anything to his protégés except patience in waiting for a good pitch, Charley was a beloved instructor who helped his students refine whatever they brought to the table.  If that contrast seems unfair, read John Roseboro’s account of how Manager Williams (of the Washington Senators) once ordered him to keep signaling for curveballs even when a rookie pitcher was hanging every one of them and getting hammered.  Williams thought that the rookie would learn something if placed under this kind of pressure; Roseboro thought that he would lose whatever little bit of confidence he had brought to the mound.  Finally Johnny called for a fastball and got the kid out of trouble.  Furious, Ted benched his veteran catcher permanently: Roseboro never caught another Major League pitch.

And Charley?  Well, his tutelage helped along a fellow by the name of George Brett, along with several other Kansas City Royals of the championship Seventies teams.  Charley’s most famous coaching disciple, Walt Hriniak, went on to assist Wade Boggs, Dwight Evans, Bill Buckner, Carlton Fisk, and a big kid named Frank Thomas.  Of course, as the premier Red Sox alumnus, Williams was quite vocal in his criticism of Hriniak’s power-sapping, namby-pamby strategies.  Gee… you have to wonder how many homers the Big Hurt would have clubbed for Chicago if Walt hadn’t messed him up!

Now, as I explain in Part One of the video, I suppose that spreading the feet far apart probably does reduce power.  I had my young son spread out, as per the Lau/Hriniak method, when he was first learning to hit, for I knew he would never be the biggest kid on any team.  (He was often the smallest.)  After all the research I’ve done into Deadball hitters, I now wish that I could take that instruction back—not because a more active lower body can generate more raw power, but because it can increase bat speed if properly tapped.  Of course, more bat speed means more power; but it also, and primarily as far as I’m concerned, means better ability to wait on pitches and handle good fastballs.

In other words, I’m no longer as sold on Charley’s system as I was twenty years ago.  Much as I like to see hands emphasized in the swing, a cleverly operated lower body gives the hands more energy to tap.  (Frank Thomas, by the way, did not spread out in the box like Tim Raines, Wade Boggs, and other players whom I loved to follow but whose many extra-base hits were a product of foot speed, in one case, and the Green Monster, in the other.)

Am I taking Ted Williams’ side in this debate?  Maybe I am, just a bit.  But I prefer to think that I’m upholding the Cobb/Speaker position.  After all, nobody would ever have gotten away with putting a shift on those guys!

baseball history, hand use in hitting, hitter reaction time, Uncategorized, weight transfer

Today’s Elite Hitters Could Profit From Some of Yesterday’s Lessons

Thanks to poor Internet, a busy schedule, and—okay, I’ll admit it—a rather shallow degree of interest, I haven’t really kept track of the deluge of play-off activity.  It’s all a bit too much for me, even though I understand that it’s more dollars in the coffers of the MLB.  Jeez… why not just create a tournament and let every team in?

But the little I’ve been able to see has left me more confident than ever of two lessons we teach in Metal Ropes.  I particularly noticed them being illustrated by their absence in the potent Dodger offense—potent until it faced the superior pitching of the Nationals.  Bellinger, Muncy, Lux… the big lefty guns in the middle of LA’s order seem intent on pulling.  Cody actually tends to stride open: if he can, he’ll rake anything he reaches to right field.  Now, if I were to label this a characteristic of “modern decadence”, I’d have to carry modernity back to Johnny Mize and Duke Snyder: the dead-pull hitter was very much a feature of the Fifties (when, except in the case of Ted Williams, there was no radical shift to contend with).  Nevertheless, I think the Dodgers would do well to research how certain guys not named Babe Ruth—say, Napoleon Lajoie, Honus Wagner, and Rogers Hornsby (to name three right-side oppo-hitters) went about their business.  It looked to me as though the Rays managed to breeze past the much-favored Athletics by hitting the other way in that do-or-die match.

Now, as we argue in my latest book, hitting the other way puts several things in your favor.  Most importantly, it gives you more time.  If you’re facing a Scherzer fastball, it allows you a split second more to get barrel to ball—for you’re trying to let the pitch get very deep.  If what Ernie Johnson, Jr., called Anibal Sanchez’s “dipsy-doodle” is making you look like a fool, then thinking oppo gives you time to track the pitch: to see, specifically, if it’s going to break into your wheelhouse or plunge out of the strike zone. And, yes, if you do barrel it up, you’ll probably pull that one in spite of yourself… but waiting on it has allowed you to get the barrel on it.  Pulling “by accident” is okay, you know.  Guys like Mike Schmidt used to hit a lot of home runs that way.

I won’t linger over the other advantages of hitting to the opposite field.  Let’s just say that, for lefties, forcing the far side of the infield to make a long throw works strongly in your favor.  Of course, with these extreme shifts we see, it’s unlikely that anyone on that side of the diamond can ever keep your hit from reaching the outfield!

The other thing that kept hammering away at me was how often the modest forward transfer of weight keeps the barrel off the ball.  We visit this subject in Metal Ropes again and again.  Most of yesteryear’s great batsmen were front-foot hitters.  If you see photos of them making contact as they lean back, it’s because they were fighting off a good, tight fastball and were unable to get forward as far as they typically would have.  That’s actually one of the assets of the strong forward transfer: you can instantly adjust to a blazing fastball and lean your hands into the pitch even as your weight is still trying to get off the back leg.

When, however, you are always rolling back in a bid to pull the ball from your all-important “launch angle”, a less-than-perfectly timed pitch will soon end your at-bat unproductively.  If the fastball slightly beats you, then your wood will sweep under it just as it passes over the plate.  (Thanks to all the high-tech slo-mo of today’s cameras, it’s very easy to study replayed instances of such failure.)  If, on the other hand, Sanchez has you a little out in front, the dip in your swing is already carrying the barrel over the ball as the two pass somewhere in front of the plate.  I see a great many weak roll-overs in the 2019 hitting game, and not just in these play-offs.  They have grown to be a very familiar outcome.  (Gotta say it: Trea Turner’s double to open Game 2 was a roll-over that Justin Turner misplayed at third.  If you looked closely, you could see Justin give a nod to Kershaw afterward signaling, “That one was on me.”)

By shifting your weight decisively forward, you postpone the point when the bat has to pull out of its mildly descending line into the ball.  You make solid contact, even after slight mistiming, much more probable.  Justin Turner has had a very good series at the plate; and, although I’m not a big fan of the high leg pump, he uses it well to achieve a strong forward weight transfer (without any of that “get your foot down early” folderol that fouls up the front-foot hitter’s dynamics).  The reference I made earlier to Deadball Era hitters who were sometimes photographed falling back—and Ty Cobb’s name would have appeared prominently if I’d offered a list—already had their bat going straight at (and slightly downward into) the pitch when they got fisted.  Even though their shift wasn’t completed, they had entered into it early enough to get their wood traveling a productive path.

Well… back to the grind.  Enjoy the rest of whatever series you’re following.  Personally, I’m trying to ignore the Braves.  They always seem to get my hopes up—and then dash them at the very end!

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, coaches and trust, footwork in the box, hand use in hitting, low line drives, Uncategorized, weight transfer

Beware of Where You Begin: It Determines All That Follows

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As the summer—a long, hot summer—finally settles into fall, I look back with considerable satisfaction on Metal Ropes, the book I’ve just published through Amazon that imports Deadball Era lessons to our age of alloy bats.  Writing the book (like writing anything on any subject) was itself educational: I mean, I learned a lot just by setting down what I had learned.  One of my most painful lessons was realizing that the first thing I had my son do in a batter’s box when he was a little tyke was wrong.  I had him spread his feet wide.  I reasoned… well, I’m no longer sure just what I reasoned.  The tactic was vintage Charley Lau, so I could blame it on my great mentor, author of The Art or Hitting .300.  The widespread stance must have seemed sensible for a short kid, at any rate, because it emphasized a firm base that would allow the hands to go straight at the ball.  A contact hitter: that’s what we wanted.

But there are two erroneous assumptions in this theory.  One is that minimizing lower-body movement and focusing on the hands will make the attack quicker.  It won’t.  It actually slows the attack down.  The hands are quickest to the ball when they tap into energy that has already been generated in the lower body.  Reduce or remove that energy… and you have nothing but hands, all on their own: that translates into a slow swing.

The second error is that widespread feet create a level stroke that keeps the barrel in the hitting zone for a long time.  Intuitively, you would want to approve this connection.  If someone asked you to take a yardstick and describe as flat and broad a plane as you could in thin air, you’d spread your legs to stabilize and then rake the stick from side to side.  But no one is asking you to accelerate the stick at this moment; and once you try to add speed to the equation, the feet (as noted in the previous paragraph) have to get involved.  The most obvious and, I suppose, natural way for them to do so is for the front knee to coil in the load and the front hip to flip back open as the attack begins.  Now, however, your beautiful plane has scattered to the winds.  As the knee coils, the hands load up and back… and as the hip opens, the shoulders rotate out and up.  In other words, you’re leading the bat into a pronounced dip.  You’re likely to cut under the bull’s eye and pop the pitch up if the dip is still descending; or, if you catch the ball as the barrel begins to rise, you’ll topspin or “roll over” the pitch.

Of course, starting with the feet close together can create an even more extreme—much more extreme—undercut/uppercut dynamic.  (Look at Cody Bellinger: he may well be this year’s MVP, but he has cooled off, and he’s not 5”7’ tall. His pop-ups and roll-overs assume his own epic proportions.)  A relatively long, easy stride into the pitch can also produce the most level of swings, though.  Yesteryear’s great stickers knew this.  They knew, to be precise, that if they 1) didn’t load their hands far up and back, and 2) followed the striding foot very closely with those hands down into the pitch, the barrel would hold a straight, slightly descending line into the ball’s center all the way to the front of the batter’s box.  Then the bat would come up over the forward shoulder in a tight parabola with the head still pointing directly at the mound.  You can find that very finish in thousands of photos from before the Fifties (though in very few after then, thanks to the Age of the Uppercut).

A full forward weight shift, in short (also known as front-foot hitting), is the key to keeping a quick, linear stroke on target into the pitch and producing a line drive.  Aaron did it.  Clemente did it.  A lot of the players who entered the MLB through the Negro Leagues brought the Old School technique right along with them, though many were subsequently destroyed as hitters when “instructors” insisted that they lean back and hack.

I don’t want to rewrite Metal Ropes in this spot.  Just beware of what you’re telling your child—understand that the thigh bone’s connected to the hip bone.  When you have a boy assume a certain position in the box, that is to say, you’re already confining him to a narrow sequence of moves that can work fluidly with that position.  Think it all through.  Don’t start at a point that just happens to be what everyone else is doing… and therefore must be right.  Make every element of the swing contribute to the effect you want.

In my case, I wanted my son to hit low line drives—and I sabotaged my endeavor right out of the gate.  I wish I could take back those initial mistakes, but instead, I’ll have to live with them.  One way I’ve made my peace is to create SmallBallSuccess.com.

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

The Credo of Yesteryear’s Great Stickers: Whatever Works

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When I stumbled upon the above photo of Ty Cobb in Donald Honig’s Shadows of Summer (pp. 62-63), I was shocked. So was Mr. Honig, apparently. In his caption, he observes that New York Giants catcher Ed Sweeney seems incredibly far away from Cobb. Honig speculates that this may be because Sweeney isn’t wearing those newfangled shin guards. He further notices that the Giants’ backstop is almost standing up, even though Cobb is striding but hasn’t yet committed to swinging at the pitch. In other words, it appears unlikely that the catcher could already have identified the delivery as coming in neck-high. Rather, Honig supposes that someone must be on base and threatening to steal.

Now, none of that shocks me, frankly. Catchers in 1912 were not infrequently in an almost erect posture: the strike zone was much higher. Furthermore, Sweeney isn’t really positioned distantly from the plate. I’m afraid Mr. Honig didn’t detect the thin white line that distinguishes the dish from the surrounding dust in this shot taken more-or-less from the on-deck circle. He’s disoriented by Cobb’s position. Ty is actually stepping out of the box’s forward line: his rear foot is parallel with the front of the plate!

But even this isn’t what truly amazed me—for I knew that Deadball hitters often charged out of the box to neutralize a good breaking ball (despite the move’s being illegal: apparently umpires either didn’t call it or didn’t notice it). No, the true puzzler to me was that Cobb was pushing off from the instep of his rear heel! I’ve never done this in my life, I’ve never tried to do it, and I can’t recall seeing anyone else ever do it. My son informed me when I put the matter before him that pitchers are increasingly launching off the rubber on their heel rather than their toes. Okay… but it still seems a very odd style of launch for a hitter.

Besides, photos of Ty Cobb beginning his swing are surprisingly common. (With shutter speeds so slow a century ago, most photographers would avoid such shuts due to the considerable risk of a blur.) In no other photo that I’ve ever seen does Ty stride forward off his heel rather than the ball of his foot. I find that immensely puzzling.

My initial conclusion was this—and it may be the correct one, for all I know. Cobb bluffed a rush forward to bunt: that would explain why Sweeney has risen from whatever previous crouch he’d assumed. Then, in a fully Cobb-like change of plans, the batsman lunged backward, essentially striding to the rear. Because his weight was already so far forward, only his heel was able to dig in behind him.

But other possibilities exist, as well. Perhaps the Georgia Peach had set up on top of the plate, as he often did, and was now bailing out so lustily that he was, yes, coming off his heel. Cobb would have called this “pulling to the opposite field”: that is, he would fly open but trail his barrel far behind, hitting the pitch very deep over the plate to send it where fielders would have a long throw to first. In the meantime, he would be flying toward the bag out of this ferocious forward launch.

Or did he have an almost ungovernable degree of forward momentum because he had shuffled forward in the box a step or two before taking his stride? Tris Speaker used such a load routinely. Edd Roush also had a peculiar back-foot advance into his load that virtually ran his massive 48-ounce club into the ball.

We won’t be sure what Deadball hitters were doing until we invent a time machine… but we can be sure of this much. They didn’t dig in—not the best of them—and just wait for the pitch to drift into a certain zone. They were aggressive and proactive. Their lower bodies were very vigorous in the load, and they would do anything up to and including throwing the bat at the ball in order to send it to a desired point. Try shifting that!

I hope to offer young hitters many tips for reviving yesteryear’s magnificent game in my forthcoming book, Metal Ropes. Hopefully I’ll have it available at Amazon by the end of this month (July).