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, Performance-Enhancing Drugs, Uncategorized

Trying Too Hard for Too Long: Baseball’s Peculiar Penalty

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I honestly don’t pay much attention to the Hall of Fame these days.  On the one hand, political concerns (and I mean “political” as in “woke”) are starting to play far too large a role in the unstated criteria for admission; and on the other, new and somewhat controversial metrics like WAR are beginning to nudge aside common sense as a robotic generation of nerds insists that everything can be reduced to numbers.

In my relative indifference, then, I’m afraid that the selection of Ted Simmons to Cooperstown this past fall blew past me like a quick-pitched fastball.  There I was, getting sucked into discussions about Larry Walker… and the committee finally did right by one of the most all-around productive players of the rather unglamorous Seventies and Eighties.  Maybe there’s some use to Wins Above Replacement, after all (or maybe not: Ted’s WAR is almost identical to Fred McGriff’s, who is supposed to be a mere also-ran).

I mean, a switch-hitting catcher who hits for both average and power… how much versatility can you ask for?  Of course, power stats in those lackluster years would soon be eclipsed by the emergence of Steroids Superstars.  In the long, dark shadow of the Nineties, nobody remembers slugger Steve Balboni, who topped 30 home runs only once in his career; and scarcely more fans will recall Tony Armas (Senior), who reached that plateau just three times.  Ted’s comparatively modest average of 15 homers over a span of 14 seasons might fly under the radar; but the decade-and-a-half figure is highly significant.  Balboni and Armas both did their damage over about half a decade… and I could mention, say, Jeff Burroughs or Reggie Smith, who had more protracted and successful careers, but who likewise didn’t regularly log seasonal home runs in the thirties.

Ted’s 2,472 hits especially catch the eye.  His .285 career batting average matches Yogi’s—but Berra, surprisingly, had over 300 fewer safeties.  Johnny Bench is over a hundred behind Yogi, and his average trails that of the other two by almost twenty points.  Now, Johnny fought hard and bravely against injuries and ill health.  He was also the premier defensive catcher of his generation.  Yet there’s something—indeed, much—to be said for durability, particularly at the backstop position.  Ted had that in spades.

I’m sure that the sabermetricians are aware of such intangibles, and also of the relevance of “the times”… but the essence of such things is that you can’t really quantify them.  I respect anyone who tries, up to a point.  I may begin to grow a little disgusted, though, when Dexter Sliderule forgets that he’s only approximating, and shifts into a more insistent mode.  The numbers are helpful.  They’re indispensable, even.  Yet they cannot be considered as the first and last word, with nothing in between.

I’ll devote the final half of today’s ramble to a thought that first struck me when I was viewing the career of Sam Rice.  The lifetime .322 hitter accumulated 2,987 career hits—yes, a puny thirteen shy of 3.000.  Any fan of today would wonder immediately why Rice didn’t polish off such a superhuman accomplishment.  Did he lose his eyesight?  Was his hand destroyed in an off-season accident?  Nothing so dramatic: he simply hadn’t realized that he was within a sneeze of turning over the “thousands” counter!

Now consider how many later players (Sam hung it up in 1934) desperately plod along just to reach some magic number that almost assures admission to the corridors of Mount Olympus: 400 homers (now 500), 3,000 hits or strikeouts, 300 wins.  Because these somewhat arbitrary figures came to achieve canonical status as the game aged, chasing after one of them often grew to be the obsession of the individual player and—with all the publicizing made possible by television—the prime marketing strategy of many a franchise.

The obsession can be fatal.  In wasn’t to Pete Rose: he found other ways to shoot himself in the foot.  But his career average very nearly dipped under .300 (.303) as he stumbled after Ty Cobb’s all-time hits record.  During his final seven seasons on the active roster, Pete topped .300 only once (and .271 only once more).  His official at-bats over that period ranged between a part-time 365 and a nearly invisible 26.  Anything to get Number 4,190!

Craig Biggio at least registered full seasons right to the end, with his seasonal batting average dipping below .250 just once (by four points).  Why the HOF electors treated him like a pathetic nag toppling over the 3,000-hit finish line on three legs, I’ll never understand.

I mentioned Fred McGriff parenthetically above.  Having come short of 500 home runs by a paltry seven, Fred perhaps damaged more than helped his case by hanging around for a final 410 AB’s only to grind out fifteen more dingers.  His average over this span dipped well under the .250 mediocrity mark.

Duke Snider, likewise, may have rubbed more luster off his career than he added by hanging around long enough to tally 407 round-trippers.  Very similar to McGriff, Duke had a bit over 500 AB’s in his final two seasons, hitting well under .250 during the span.  The trade-off was an additional 18 homers.

You could say that Snider at least found his happy ending (though he had to wait sixteen years for the Sportswriters’ approval).  His teammate Gil Hodges suffered what has been the fate—so far—of Fred McGriff.  The cornerstone of the champion Brooklyn Dodgers’ defense, said to have the surest hands of any first-sacker in his generation, Gil sadly ran out of offensive gas in his bid to reach 400 home runs.  Hodges was already at 298 after his first ten full years of service.  You had to figure that he could round up another 102 within three of four years… certainly within five.  But the Dodgers moved from Brooklyn to LA at just that point, and the shift to a track-and-field stadium ridiculously rehabilitated as a baseball quasi-diamond favored neither his style nor Snider’s.  Gil’s offensive totals plunged across the board; he eked out a mere 25 home runs over his last four seasons—which, to be sure, represented scarcely over 500 AB’s.  Two of these seasons saw Hodges returning to New York (again, like Snider) on the expansion-formed Mets in a clever marketing scheme to capture some of the old Ebbets Field enthusiasm.  Like Jackie Robinson, Gil should probably have said “no” to the original West Coast move; he should certainly have declined to be humiliated over those final four seasons (during one of which—1960—he batted .198).

What shall we say, then, of players who were perennial All Stars for a decade, had probably stacked enough lumber over that period to achieve serious consideration for Cooperstown… and then stayed year after frustrating year trying to seal the deal?  Albert Pujols won’t damage his legacy, or even his first-round election… but he should have retired two or three years ago.  Barry Bonds would not be cooling his heels in Pete Rose and Shoeless Joe Limbo if he hadn’t allowed majestic numbers to woo him beyond the parameters set by Mother Nature.

Numbers.  They’re too much in our heads, with too little context.  WAR is apparently an attempt to supply context and to substitute a more legitimate number. How, though, do you factor in an allowance for a player who would have been among your elite few if you hadn’t distracted him with other magical numbers?