1890 baseball, baseball history, bat design, Deadball Era, footwork in the box, hand use in hitting, hand-spreading, metal bat use, Uncategorized, weight transfer

The Past Holds No Lessons Only If You Don’t Pause to Examine It

After four months of work, my second Edition of Metal Ropes: Deadball-Era Tactics for Stroking Line Drives With Today’s Alloy Bat, is available at Amazon, both as a Kindle download and as a paperback book.  I can honestly say that I’ve never so thoroughly overhauled a piece of writing in my life… which, if it sounds like praise for the new edition, doesn’t speak very well of the old one.  Understanding ways of hitting a baseball that are buried under more than a century’s worth of rubble isn’t easy.  Even the most basic descriptive terms in the earlier literature are sometimes radically different: “a sticker poles a bingle” more often than “a hitter cracks a single.’

I don’t intend in this very confined space to revisit all of the changes I made.  One generality that I can certainly float with confidence is that the book is now far better organized.  A gremlin that I chased ineffectively throughout the entire first edition was the late nineteenth-century set-up at the plate, commemorated on many a baseball card like John Reilly’s 1888 issue above. (Usually these were produced by tobacco manufacturers, you might be surprised to hear, and not chewing-gum companies).  You’d see Dan Brouthers or Sam Thompson or King Kelly or James O’Rourke standing completely upright, 42-inch stick gripped in a choke (and often with hands spread) just above the belt buckle, legs so close as to be almost touching, and the front foot inscrutably pointing out toward the pitcher.  It was the last of these characteristics that I could never fully account for: all the others made perfect sense if viewed from a certain angle.  Yet why would anyone ever want his lead foot flopping out toward the mound as he awaited the pitch?  Cody Bellinger stands upright with his feet very close together; so did Mickey Tettleton, not so very long ago.  Yet neither of them balanced the bat slackly over his belt buckle—and neither, most certainly, splayed his front foot out toward the mound!

As the subtitle declares, the book’s objective is to translate Deadball practices into something useful for our metal weapon.  Kelly and O’Rourke actually have no overlap with the Deadball Era as usually defined, having terminated their careers in the mid-Nineties.  (O’Rourke appeared in one game in 1904 at the instigation of his friend John McGraw as a kind of publicity stunt; he landed a hit, too.)  I perhaps dedicated too much time and effort to seeking after an explanation of the odd nineteenth-century stance, since it had been widely discarded by the time the century turned over.  I certainly wouldn’t recommend that any kid today strike up the same posture in a metal-bat league.  The lesson I delivered on that score was, “Don’t do this at home.”

Still… still, the practices of one generation are always rooted in those of the previous generation.  (Believe me, there were Beatniks long before there were Hippies.)  While the 1890 front-foot placement seemed a non-starter to me, I wanted to understand what technique it would have fed into—because surely other elements of that technique would have been passed along.  I found a satisfactory answer in the notorious hitch.  That is, you can quite smoothly swing a stiff front leg from the bucket in over the plate once you let those hands at your buckle drop until your elbows lock.  It’s a very good means, not exactly of maintaining balance, but of “kinetic looping”.  (Contrary to some popular theories, it is the object neither of effective hitting nor of effective pitching is to reach a balance point, but rather to cycle kinetic energy in fluid reserve until the instant of release.)  If you proceed to fall into the pitch with that stiff front leg while also loading your hands upward and outward (not so much backward) during the stride, you can actually get your long stick to descend straight—and at a slightly downward, productively backspinning angle—into the ball.

And make no mistake: some of these guys, handlebar mustaches and all, were no slouches at smacking baseballs.  The fluffy spheres were so worked-over and unresilient that, until the end of their reign in 1920, fielders would say that they would take crazy hops when springing from a bulge to a flattened side.  So just because nobody was stroking 30 home runs over these years doesn’t mean that everyone was bunting.  The Deadball game featured some pretty hard swings.

I ended up breaking what I call the basic Fall Step—a simple lunge into the pitch without even the leg lift that I’ve just described—into several pieces.  If the barrel was dipped and then reared to energize the lifting of the forward leg, then I labeled the result the Upright Hitch.  I don’t know how many strikers would have used such a pump of the long barrel to create an energy loop and how many would have surged immediately into the ball, not wasting time on any cycling sort of load.  You’d think that hitters in 1890 would have had lots and lots of time.  Ironically, it seems to me that the forenamed Cody Bellinger is maybe one of the first ballplayers to feature a true, pure Fall Step.  I think Ronald Acuña, Jr., has an even better version.  Notice how easily, almost lazily, Ronald rests his hands over his jersey’s buttons before launching his attack.  That particular practice is remarkably similar to something that might have been lost over a hundred years ago after being all the rage.  Some of Carl Yastrzemski’s swings (Yaz tinkered with his stroke constantly) also fit this paradigm rather well.

Then we have the Hunching Hitch, where the hitter bends his torso to bring lowered hands and recoiling front knee into close proximity.  This, I believe, would not have been common in the Deadball Era.  It was closer to what Jimmie Foxx and Josh Gibson were doing, and was carried by Hank Greenberg into the generation than gave us Frank Howard.  By now, speaking historically, sluggers were no longer choking up on their massive bats: they were holding them down on the knob, from where they could hurl the barrel down into the pitch after looping it high aloft with a pump.

My recommended version of this species of swing for young hitters who want to give something new a test run would be the Lift-and-Land.  Differentiating between LL and the Upright Hitch proved a challenge.  I really didn’t make many adjustments beyond putting more emphasis on the hands and less on a back-swinging leg.  Throughout the book, in fact, I found that a major corrective we have to introduce into a Deadball swing is to substitute vigorous hand motion for lower-body activity.  Without the long bat to balance your gyrations, you simply can’t do as much with your legs as old strikers like Edd Roush did. (Edd could be said literally to run his bat into the ball.)  In our era, the hands need to be prominently involved in creating any sort of kinetic loop.

Of course, there were other types of swing besides the “hitch” family.  My personal favorite isn’t even included therein.  But the amount of complexity surrounding this one issue may suggest to you why it took so long to rewrite the book!

I wish you all a meaningful Thanksgiving.  I am thankful for having my life restored to me by the Immunity Therapy Center in Tijuana this year after the American medical establishment sentenced me to death by prostate cancer; I’m thankful for the caring people I came to know on my journey, and I’m thankful that I had “trivial” work like SmallBallSuccess.com to keep me occupied.  I’m thankful, too, that we have a game like baseball to help us learn about failure, objective self-criticism, acceptance of limitation, and eventual success through adjusting to hard realities.  It turns out that those are not trivial lessons at all.  Being able to assist young people in learning them is one of the greatest privileges bestowed upon me during my earthly passage.

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!