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, footwork in the box, hand use in hitting, hitter reaction time, Uncategorized

How to Bat .400: Keep an Open Mind!

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Ty Cobb vs. an inside pitch

Since I got a new lease on life thanks to the Immunity Therapy Center in Tijuana, I’ve had no more pleasurable moments during the course of a week than those when I plug in my Personal Pitcher and try to make contact with some golf-sized Wiffle Balls. I’ve explained before why this amusement can also be educational, but maybe it’s about time to do so again. For one thing, no matter how slow your machine fires, by setting up very close to it you can reduce your reaction time to approximate that of very competitive pitching. For another, Wiffle Balls, as we know, don’t always travel very straight. Since I tend to keep mine in use even after they’ve become cracked, I can thereby add to the challenge of slender reaction time a variety of crazy wobbles and drops in the deliveries. For a third thing, measuring about half the diameter of a baseball, my plastic golf balls give better feedback on how well I’m contacting each pitch. If I were just a little bit on top of a baseball, I’d be badly topspinning a Wiffle Ball.

It’s quite annoying that my machine gives me no warning prior to releasing a ball other than a green light that’s supposed to flash one second in advance. In my mind, I have to graft the flash onto an image of a pitcher breaking his hands and starting toward the plate. I’d rather be able to see a real body’s progress: the light often tempts me into “selling out”, and I transfer my weight too early. But at least no one can credibly accuse me of arranging a practice where I have an unrealistically leisurely period to get loaded up. On the contrary, because the flash can be almost a distraction, the time I have to get from a relaxed pose into “attack mode” is truly about as brief as a top-tier professional pitcher would give to his opponents.

I’ve also found that I have to shift my eyes slightly from the green light to the hole through which the ball will exit as soon as I can. Though the hole sits just beneath the light, failing to pick it up and rivet upon it definitely produces poorer contact. The application to real-life pitching is clear: you have to stop fixating on the pitcher’s hands as soon as they spring into motion and, instead, start hunting traces of that white orb half-hidden in one of them.

Add certain practical considerations, such as that I simply can’t find a kid who throws reasonably hard and true to pitch to me in a cage. Furthermore, even if I were to have such a helper, he’d be giving me more reaction time than does my machine–or else I wouldn’t step in against him! I’m too old to risk life and limb by standing in against someone who’s trying to rocket balls over the plate from about thirty feet.

Put it all together, I repeat, and you have an hour not only filled with fun but also bristling with potential lessons. I’m sure that the practice I mined from my hundreds of hours in front of Personal Pitcher which readers view with the most suspicion has to be my shuffle-step as I load up.

I know it’s hard to accept this mobile load as feasible, let alone desirable, at first glance.  Just remember that Tris Speaker employed some version of it routinely—and that batsmen like Edd Roush used it just as routinely, by some accounts.  That’s 5,890 hits, between these two.  Is it so unreasonable to suppose that the skip-step was actually helping rather than hurting their offensive game somehow?

I had actually seen Roush shuffle into the pitch in a rare video.  Just the other day, I read this confirmation in a book originally published shortly after World War II.  The author volunteered it in the midst of a list of unorthodox things done by Edd:

Students of the game will tell you that although a batter can assume a stance in any given place in the batter’s box, a firm stand in one place is absolutely imperative.  Roush always shifted about in the box, moving both feet, and often changed his stance after the pitcher delivered the ball.  He led the league in hitting three times.

Lee Allen, The Cincinnati Reds, p. 194 (Kent State UP: 2006–first published in 1948)

I made a video a couple of weeks ago (“Bottom-Hand IQ”) illustrating the importance of leading the swing with the hands: a.k.a. staying inside the ball.  (I mentioned online coach Joe Brockoff’s happy metaphor of shining the knob’s flashlight on the pitch.)  I demonstrated the technique in three types of swing, two of them using a stationary rear foot.  The one that left me feeling the most flexibility in my drive through the pitch was my third example, with the mobile rear foot shuffling into a load.  I also achieved the best results that way.  My sometimes unpredictable Personal Pitcher (which has been known to chew on balls a bit even after the green light’s second of warning has elapsed) and its arsenal of variously cracked projectiles couldn’t get a lot past me, once my lower body had already channeled energy up toward the hands.  I’m not making this up.  The shuffle-step works.

More lately, just this past week, I edited and posted a video (“Pull-Hitting the Deadball Way”) about how I think yesteryear’s stickers may have been able to step where they saw the pitch coming—a seemingly outrageous claim made not just by Ty Cobb, but by Honus Wagner, Fred Clarke, and several others.  Were they all lying… or was pitching of the day just that slow?  Neither, I think.  My current theory is the following, as I demonstrate in the video.  I believe the batsman would plan to take the same step in the same direction on pretty much every pitch: for instance, toward the plate from deep in the box, and angled at least 45 degrees toward the mound, as well.  If he saw the pitch coming sharply in on him, the master-hitter would simply cut his stride short.  He’d plant his front foot as quickly as ever he could, immediately following it down with his hands.  This might create an image of a hitter leaning back as he makes contact, despite having shifted his weight fully forward (for all of these chaps were front-foot hitters).  The torso would be falling backward over the rear leg even though that leg might be airborne! You see one of those images at the top of this page. You can find a great many others featuring Cobb’s contemporaries.

The interrupted stride can actually be executed against rapid pitching.  No, you’re not exactly stepping to where you observe the ball coming, in the sense that you step toward third base on this pitch and toward first on the next.  But you are indeed adjusting your stride in response to the ball’s flight path.  Cut the stride short, draw in the hands… and voilà!  You find yourself pulling inside pitches hard, or at least shooting them up the middle.

So… is this research done with the help of my Personal Pitcher (I’ll call him Satchel, on account of his devastating hesitations) valid at any level?  All I can say is that I don’t see anyone else trying anything better.  Far from it: when I read a Gen X commentator who puzzles over how the oldtimers did so-and-so a century ago and then builds a theory out of present-day practices, without even getting up from behind his laptop, I’m not very impressed.  You have to get your hands dirty… yes, literally.  Ditch the batting gloves!

I love life in “the lab”.  Maybe I’m wrong, but at least I’m experimenting rather than speculating.  Where else have you read about either the shuffle-load or the adjustable stride?  Who else is saying anything more than, “Nah!  They couldn’t really have been doing that!” Oh yes, they could have.  And they did.