baseball history, bat acceleration, bat design, Deadball Era, footwork in the box, hand use in hitting, low line drives, mental approach, opposite-field hitting, weight transfer

Excavating Treasures From Forgotten Techniques: Hitting

Billy Herman

As I noted in my opening words last time, hitting is both the preferred subject of the casual fan and the specific subject that drew me into examining disused baseball practices all the way back to the Deadball Era.  I think I’ve made genuine progress.  Lately I have had occasion every afternoon to review black-and-white footage on DVD’s chronicling yesteryear’s game. I crank up the show before going to languish for twenty minutes in a far-infrared sauna. (It’s called “hyperthermic therapy”: cancer cells loathe heat!)  Discoveries which I had already added to my treasure box are constantly being confirmed.  Take the controversial matter of what I call the “shuffle step” (controversial only because nobody today has the guts to break the mold and judge by actual results).  I had read years ago that Tris Speaker somewhat “ran” himself into the pitch—or, more accurately (in my conjecture), we may say that Spoke took a forward step with his back foot before the front foot strode.  I subsequently observed Edd Roush doing something of the sort in batting practice before the 1919 World Series… as well as Babe Ruth, of all people, cheating forward with such a shuffle to anticipate Wee Willy Sherdel’s curveball in the 1928 Series.

To that distinguished list, thanks to my sessions in the sauna, I can now add Hall-of-Famer Billy Herman for certain.  Billy’s shuffling was probably intended to orient him better for taking an oppo shot to right field.  Less obvious was Joe Cronin’s slight resettling of the rear foot in conjunction with his raise of the barrel.  I was irresistibly reminded of Nolan Arenado.

Now, my faithful readers (also known as “gluttons for punishment”) know how much I love hitting to the opposite field… but the advantages of the shuffle step extend far beyond turning the cannon aft, and indeed may be observed in dead-pull hitting, as well.  The shuffle fights against rotation in the swing.  If you keep your weight back upon a dug-in foot, or if you shift it emphatically rearward again after a stride forward, you force your barrel to circle a stable axis that descends more or less precisely down the middle of your body.  Color commentators on TV love to use their telestrators in showing the inherent beauty of such a swing—and, yes, it can be as graceful as a Kristi Yamaguchi pirouette.

But in our sport, you don’t get points for grace.  What the shuffle does is mobilize this stable axis so that it slides forward into the pitch.  The barrel is allowed to descend straight into the ball over a much longer span.  The term “front-foot hitting” has been flung about over the years to designate the movement (though, as my examination of old photos and videos and my own experiments repeatedly demonstrate, a full forward weight shift doesn’t necessarily send you straight up-and-down over the front foot: indeed, it rarely does, as illustrated in the photo of Billy Herman above).  A line bisecting the ball’s heart is a more dynamic kind of baseball engineering than a curve that tops the ball, and the forward weight shift assists enormously in constructing that line; because when the barrel cuts through the ball in a slightly descending line, the result is a hard line drive—a shot that travels a long way in a short time.  That’s Old School hitting, à la Joe Cronin.

Meanwhile, the beautifully pirouetting “lean back and hack” hitter (my personal term) is forced by his stable axis to lift his barrel immediately after plunging it down into the pitch.  This swing (usually associated with its glorious advocate, Ted Williams—though Teddy actually leaked forward a lot more than he realized) has virtually no chance of cutting a straight line into the ball’s center.  Positive outcomes are few: 1) the barrel may well miss the ball entirely as it swoops into and out of the pitch’s plane; 2) it may backspin the ball during the descent to produce a harmless pop-up; 3) it may top the ball as it pulls out of its nosedive to generate a “rollover” grounder; or 4) it may happen to smack the ball’s center if the swing-hyperbola intersects the pitch-plane at just the right point.  Of course, #4 is what our contemporary sluggers are betting on, with all their chips.  Sometimes, in certain small ballparks, they get #2 to carry over a fence in fair territory; and #3 can produce true line drives… but these are usually neutralized by the radical shift, since today’s defenders have learned inductively that the stable hitting axis makes pull-hitting inevitable (of course, neither they nor their coaches would put the formula in those words).

With a longer, heavier bat, by the way, a Fifties pull-hitter like Eddie Mathews or Duke Snider might have kept the barrel on its descending line in spite of the uncooperative axis—for a barrel extending three or four inches farther from the hands wouldn’t yield to a quick rise after a steep descent.  This is why you see finishes from sixty years ago featuring a low wrap around the front shoulder (classic Ted Williams) rather than today’s typical high, one-handed flourish.  During my afternoon DVD tutorials, I heard no less an immortal than Jimmie Foxx explain on a newsreel that the power hitter’s objective was to throw the barrel’s weight into the pitch, not to swish the bat through the zone with maximum effort from start to finish.  The longer bat rewarded such thinking: nowadays those dynamics don’t work so well.

It should also be noted that sluggers got higher pitches in 1960.  That meant that the ascending barrel might just backspin a fastball even though the swing-hyperbola had already bottomed out.  Today’s boppers, in contrast, are constantly fed low pitches (since umpires don’t call anything at the letters).  As a result, their barrel is descending very steeply and pulling back up almost as steeply: a happy split-second rendezvous with the pitch has become more improbable than ever.

Back to the shuffle (and I’m going to write a book if I don’t get back there immediately): it greatly assists in delivering the barrel straight into the pitch, though Foxx himself didn’t employ it.  It throws the weight directly forward rather than channeling weight into a circle.  Okay… basta: I’ve said all that before.  Now here’s something new.  I’m currently working on the theory that the action of the hands during this shuffle can determine whether the line-drive is pulled or “pushed”.  In other words, if my theory is correct, it may be possible for the hitter to step into the box with the intent of stroking a liner to left or to right and then executing that intent with a high degree of success.  In an age of radical shifts, harmless pop-ups, and anemic rollovers, wouldn’t that be something?

If the hands rise close to the body and the forward leg doesn’t cock or coil, the barrel can fall straight into the pitch in what feels almost like the swing of an axe.  We particularly want the bottom hand to take an extra “micro-load” just before the attack, pushing the handle so far up that the barrel droops slightly toward the ground.  (I shared this discovery in a somewhat off-the-cuff video a few weeks ago: “Tweaking Yesteryear’s Line-Drive Swing”.)   The barrel’s line into the ball becomes so straight with this technique that weak pop-ups and rollovers are highly unlikely; and because the front leg is doing little more than lifting and then descending, with minimal rotation of any kind, contact will be rushed into the pitch and the hit will streak up the middle or to the pull side.  Everything in this technique aims to meet the ball in front of the plate.  The hands, rather than loading far back, stay forward.  They hurl down into the pitch: they do not whirl toward it in a tornadic motion that may or may not enter the pitch-plane at just the right instant.

And oppo hitting?  Simple: just change two of the parameters above.  Give the forward knee a cock as you load: the slight coil will close the front shoulder and prepare you to enter the pitch late and from the side.  With the same objective in mind, thrust the bottom hand out from the body, keep it lower than if you were pulling, and allow it to stray just a bit farther to the rear.  (The leg’s coil almost requires this complementary motion: the two movements are joined at the hip, we might say.)  By contacting the pitch more laterally, just before it pops the catcher’s mitt, you’re guaranteed a hit that isn’t pulled if it lands fair.  Even the inside pitch has a chance of being “pushed” over the opposite-side infield in a bloop safety as long as your bat has a little meat above the trademark.

These days. of course, few bats do.  Oh, those bats!

I don’t know why somebody wouldn’t want to have the talents of the legendary place-hitter on tap in our day’s game, when radical shifts are deflating averages by fifty points.  The table-setting guys in the line-up, at least, should want to be able to spread out the defenders and multiply chances of getting a hit through the net.  So why isn’t anyone doing what’s suggested here?  Why isn’t anyone even trying it?

baseball history, Deadball Era, Hall of Fame, mental approach, opposite-field hitting, Uncategorized

And the Greatest Ballplayer Ever Is…

raw

I enjoyed Allan Barra’s Yogi Berra: The Eternal Yankee so much when I happened upon it recently that I looked around for other books by the same author. I was amazed to discover that one of these had long been sitting on my bookshelf: Brushbacks and Knockdowns, a collection of essays. Then, as I started browsing, it all came back. I really didn’t fancy the essays because so many of them… well, they address subjects that the typical sports fan would bite on, but they just don’t draw me in. The discussion of “the greatest ballplayer of all time” is one of these. Odd, isn’t it? Why does that kind of debate irritate me so much?

It isn’t the barrages of stats that get heaved back and forth, or not just those. I could say—and I do say—of McGwire and Sosa and Bonds that their surpassing Roger Maris’s 61 home runs is a phenomenon of the steroids era and has little value after adjustment for cheating. That’s my opinion; others have another. So we argue back and forth about just what percentage of homer output steroid usage might have accounted for as the millennium turned over; and we also bandy about that Roger played in Ruth’s Yankee Stadium of the friendly right-field porch, and that pitchers weren’t throwing that hard in the Sixties or that well in the expansion year of 1961. Back and forth, back and forth… a never-ending dispute, and also one which really doesn’t get at what needles me.

This might get us closer. McGwire, Sosa, and Bonds were all represented as superheroes in the popular media to a degree that Maris—or even Mays or Mantle—couldn’t approach. The sluggers of our time have agents, advisors, brokers… and probably personal trainers and private chefs. They harvest fabulously lucrative contracts and are veritable commodities: nobody would dare undermine their health as they go about courting “immortality”. Maris lived at time when owners could ship a fielder who made one hapless play in a World Series to deepest, darkest Kansas (as happened to Norm Siebern), when obtaining a good salary required putting your entire career on the line, when endorsements amounted to a few hundred bucks for slapping Aqua Velva on your face, and when pressure could drive a man almost to suicide without the public’s ever catching a hint of it.

The late Nineties were not the early Sixties: no, not in terms of pitching prowess and field design… but also not socially or culturally. The sabermetricians may be able to adjust for the former—but how does anyone adjust for the latter? How do you compare an era when a man’s wife might take the kids and leave him if he gets traded one more time to an era when the gossip columns celebrate how many girls a guy has on the sidelines? How do you adjust for psychological impact when society at one stage considers the journeyman shortstop a ne’er-do-well husband and at another considers the wife who skips as deserting the ideal provider? How would you factor in stress related to racial prejudice in the Fifties? How about the Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder that must have messed with many a World War II veteran (e.g., the chain-smoking Gil Hodges), but which hadn’t even been given a name in the Forties?

Okay, so forget about the “mental”… though you can’t and shouldn’t, but say that you could. Say (as many have said to me) that the greatest player ever simply has to be drawn from our era, because our guys are in so much better shape physically. But doesn’t that just beg the question? Is a Pujols or a Trout the greatest player because he’s the best fed and best conditioned? What kind of player would either have been in an era of poorer diet and no science of weight training whatever? If distance to the home park’s pull-side porch calls for an adjustment, then why doesn’t the “unfair” advantage of superior dietary and kinesiological guidance call for one?

How good would Cody Bellinger or Max Scherzer be if he had to ride a train all night to reach the next series? How would such supermen make out if they had to sleep in a downtown hotel with paper-thin walls and no air conditioning?

At some point, you’re simply left with what you see on the field. You have to start and end there when adjustments and corrections always open the door to more adjustments and corrections. And if the “eye test” is the ultimate test… well, how do we apply it to performers we’ve never seen and can now never see? Those who saw him in the midst of all his peers claimed that Oscar Charleston was the greatest thing ever to emerge from the Negro Leagues. How can we say here and now that he wasn’t the greatest ballplayer ever?

As I begin the home stretch of this ramble, I wish take it in still another direction. Since we’ve been reduced to such subjectivity in our judgments, then… well, why not admit that I personally may admire a kind of play that you value less? Maybe my “great” isn’t yours. I risk sacrilege when I write that Mike Trout impresses me primarily as a really, really big human being. I don’t particularly like his hitting style, which seems to me to leave a couple of holes almost as huge as he is—yet which doesn’t hurt him because, as Tom Verducci (without detectable irony) observed shortly before another Trout homer in Arlington a few days ago, umpires won’t call high-inside strikes on him. So we’re left with a Titan carrying a kid’s bat who has his own little zone around the knees….

More sacrilege: I’m not even a devoted adorer of Ted Williams. Any hitter whose reaction to being radically shifted is to drive the ball through or over the shift doesn’t seem to me to be using all the resources that a Ty Cobb or an Eddie Collins deployed. So the WAR geeks prove that Teddy’s bat won more ballgames than Ty’s… yeah, okay. I won’t cycle back to the “attendant circumstances” species of argument which could explain so much of that (the Pesky Pole, the absence of sharp pitching after World War II, etc). Indeed, I could just double down on my Mike Trout response; for Williams (so the anecdotes run) seems to have been conceded a shrunken strike zone by many veteran umpires.

And Babe Ruth, probably much the most popular candidate in the “best ever” sweepstakes? Why, he was the greatest home-run hitter for generations and a superior left-handed pitcher! Okay… but he wasn’t both at once: he didn’t pitch and slug concurrently throughout his career. Maybe Ichiro would have been a star closer as well as a batting champ if he’d been allowed to indulge his mound ambitions as Shohei Ohtani has been. Mickey Mantle, we hear from those who warmed up with him, had a killer knuckleball.

And the Bambino’s mighty blasts? It’s been said that Cy Williams (another, and an earlier, Williams who was radically shifted) could have equaled them if he had flourished in the days on the lively ball. Cobb hit three homers in a single game one afternoon just to show that he could.

I guess where I’m going with this is here: the best ballplayers ever to me are those who play the brand of baseball I most admire. Yes, that’s subjective—but what have I been demonstrating about other measures if not that their objectivity is illusory? Why cannot our answer to “greatest ballplayer ever” be the best who played what we happen to consider great ball? I’ve already betrayed my preference for a guy who can hit to all fields—and I’d like him to concentrate on doing this all the time, winning every battle that he possibly can against every pitcher in any situation. He’s always bearing down, even when his team is suffering an eight-run deficit. I once read a remark of Henry Aaron’s where the Hammer admitted to guessing—to guessing all afternoon, perhaps: looking at two called third strikes before finally getting his pitch halfway through the game. That remark disappointed me. Why would you be hunting a certain pitch with two strikes? I know it’s Hank Aaron, but… but why wouldn’t you just be making contact? That’s what my kind of player would be doing: Ty Cobb, Tris Speaker… Roberto Clemente, Tony Oliva… Tim Raines, Tony Gwynn. Speaker had the advantage over Cobb of having revolutionized his defensive position: he would even creep in from his shallow center-field spot and pick runners off second base on occasion. Clemente likewise staked his claim to being one of the greatest right fielders ever. And Tim Raines on the base paths… well, you could make it Rickey Henderson and I wouldn’t object, but I had a special fondness for Timmy because he was a switch hitter.

Maybe, in fact, I bear a grudge against the Hendersons and the Bondses and the Harpers for being showboats. I want my all-time best player to hate losing, to be in the game at every moment… but also to hate vainglorious or humiliating displays. That may very well be why I have to dig into baseball’s past for my superman. The showboating in today’s game repels me.

So… the greatest player ever? Don’t know, don’t care: not if you expect an “objective” answer out of me. My favorite players are my nominees for best player. I love them because of all they brought to the field, and not what they bring to a spread-sheet.

As for Willie and Mickey, Mr. Barra—no, I didn’t forget about them. I scarcely felt the need to mention their names. I was trying to be a bit original. But yes, definitely Willie and Mickey. And Yogi, too. All of them were the best.

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

The Hitch: Something Great Hitters Never Do (Except for the Really Great Ones)

The following paragraphs are excerpting from my forthcoming book, Metal Ropes, which is still very much a work in progress.

I’ll admit that my affection for the shuffle step wavers whenever I try to hit right-handed. With my stronger hand on top, I appear much more inclined to drive from the back side than to throw down (with uncoiling leg and levering hand) from the front side—and this, after all, makes perfect sense. It’s surely part of the reason why classic “stickers” who shifted around more in the box and sprayed pitches to all fields were often natural righties batting left. Such a profile fits Tris Speaker as well as Ty Cobb, in a strict sense; for Speaker threw left only because his right arm was badly broken during his boyhood years of learning the game. Fred Clarke belongs to the same fraternity: so do Eddie Collins, Jake Daubert, Elmer Flick, and Joe Sewell. Except perhaps for Daubert, everyone on that list may be identified in photos, furthermore, with hands spread—and Jake choked up rather fiercely. A lot of batting titles found a home among the era’s left-hitting righties.

With the stronger hand on top, the “levering” action essential to hand spreading presents more of a challenge. The bottom hand may not be “smart” enough to do its job well. At least in my own experience, the top hand becomes something of a tyrant, and the bottom hand just tries to stay out of the way. Certainly Honus Wagner spread his hands on occasion—but less often than the left-hitting righties and with less of a gap. Napoleon Lajoie was more typical of top-hand-dominant hitters in that, while he indeed choked up, his hands remained together. (The “Emperor” briefly tried to market a bat that possessed two knobs: an ordinary one and a higher one for choking!) To be sure, Lajoie and Wagner won a truckload of batting titles in their own right. In them, however, we see the rare phenomenon of the power-hitter who likes to drive the ball the opposite way: someone who has to be played deep and who crosses up defenders. Add Rogers Hornsby to this pair, a man who hit .400 for three out of four years in a decade when fairy-tale averages had started to pass out of style.

So why am I pursuing this discussion of top-hand versus bottom-hand dominance in a section dedicated to hitching? For a couple of reasons. The more obvious is that batsmen generally hitch when their stronger hand is on top. This was true of all the worthies named previously: Ruth, Gibson, Foxx, Greenberg, and Mel Ott. (If the right-throwing Joe Jackson were the hitcher that Ruth implied him to be, then he breaks the mold… but Shoeless Joe never learned to write, so right-dominance quite possibly never developed in him as it would have in others.) The top hand is the “punch” hand, and we know that you load for a powerful move by relaxing your limb (hand or foot) in the reverse direction; so if the top hand wants to drive hard from above into the pitch, it’s tempted to prepare for that drive by pumping downward. The rear leg also has to balance the hitter’s weight for a rather long time in a hitch—and most of us balance better on our strong-side leg. (I don’t… but my scrambled brain has some very peculiar left/right preferences.)

Did those right/right immortals, Lajoie and Wagner and Hornsby, exhibit a hitch? I can’t see much evidence that the first of them did; but I believe Hans and the Rajah may very well have pumped their hands deeply. Let’s get the set-up in the box out of the way by citing these two as an example. When I wrote earlier of how the nineteenth-century stickers might have pumped as their front foot pointed toward the pitcher, I was guessing. By the time we get to Wagner and, still later, Hornsby, we’re looking at two hitters whose initial position is much more familiar to us. Their feet were much more squared to the plate, and their hands were basically resting on the rear shoulder. The emphasis, in other words, has shifted to the rear. That’s where we would expect it to be in a hitch—because, again, a hitch is very popular with hitters whose stronger side is the back one.

Now, here’s a second point that makes me suspect Wagner and Hornsby of hitching—and it’s also a quality of their stroke that we want to emulate. Both set up well off the plate. They could hit even the inside pitch to right field, apparently, because they stood so far back. Yet they could also cover the outside corner, and even go a bit beyond that corner. How did they do that? They must certainly have possessed the ability to surge outside after the pitch if they needed to; and I don’t see how they could have created the energy necessary to produce such a surge (since they didn’t shuffle-step) unless they fired out of a hand-pump and a crouch. Ted Williams’ swiveling hips won’t get you there: Ted usually wouldn’t even offer at outside pitches. The Dutchman and the Texan cleaned up on them.

That’s the kind of hitch I would like to replicate: the kind that can either drive us powerfully forward or carry us all the way to the outside corner, in a pinch. If Wagner and Hornsby had the kind of load that I believe they did, this opposite-field capacity would have distinguished them from Ruth, Gibson, Foxx, et al., who were ferocious pull-hitters. They were also big, strong men for their day, these later sluggers—taller than average, to be sure, but also incredibly muscled-up. This book is dedicated to the player of smaller body type, and such a body type usually doesn’t lend itself to the dead-pull power-hitter mold.