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!