baseball history, Deadball Era, footwork in the box, hand use in hitting, hitter reaction time, Uncategorized

How to Bat .400: Keep an Open Mind!

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.

baseball history, bunting, Deadball Era, footwork in the box, hand use in hitting, hand-spreading, mental approach, opposite-field hitting, Uncategorized, weight transfer

Ty Cobb, Hitting Instructor (Part Two)

File:1900 Fred Clarke.jpeg - Wikimedia Commons

If I hadn’t already committed myself to the title above by calling last week’s blog “Part One”, I’d definitely rechristen this piece. The subject I want to explore now isn’t so much Cobb’s hitting advice to the world as the world’s confusion over certain aspects of his hitting. If only he had left us a little more direction in the matter of his hand-spreading, the controversy would evaporate.

But instead… well, let me get more specific by sharing a passage that I lately blundered upon in F.C. Lane’s 1925 classic, Batting—a wide-ranging series of reflections on baseball topics enlightened by Lane’s dozens (perhaps hundreds) of interviews with the game’s greats. As well as I recall, by the way, the book is available as a Kindle download for practically nothing. Anyway, the chapter that snapped me to attention was “Pulling the Unexpected”, and the particular passage was the following paragraph:

That this alert, original attitude may be an important factor in a batter’s success is indicated by Urban Shocker. He said, “The secret of Ty Cobb’s success as a batter was the fact that he always established a mental hazard. He was always on the offensive and you never knew exactly how to guard against him. Sometimes he would choke up on the bat and punch a hit through the infield. Sometimes he would swing from the handle and slug. Sometimes he would bunt. The only thing you could depend upon in his case was the fact that he would give you something that you weren’t expecting.”

Now, Shocker doesn’t say that Cobb would only take a full swing after making one of the two manual adjustments mentioned: i.e., sliding the bottom hand up to meet the top so as to “punch” or sliding the top hand down on the bottom one so as to “slug”. Yet this is precisely what Charles Leehrsen claims in his superior book, Cobb: A Terrible Beauty. I’ve tried to contact Mr. Leehrsen and learn the source of his claim, since he doesn’t document it. Not having ever received a reply, I’m inclined to conclude that the paragraph I just cited is that source, and that Leehrsen excessively generalized its contents. Shocker’s point is that you never knew what the Georgia Peach might try next: bunting, shooting his hands up and slapping at the pitch, slipping both hands down and hacking away, etc., etc. But Mr. Leehrsen, I believe, takes this invaluable eye-witness testimony out of context by ignoring the unstated “et cetera”. To him, if Ty were not bunting but taking a full cut, then either one hand would slide up or the other would slide down. Cobb supposedly would never make contact with his distinctively spread hands preserving their distance apart.

I don’t really know why observers of yesteryear’s game—of what relics it has left behind—find hand-spacing so hard to accept as a straightforward advantage.  When I was a small boy, Leon Wagner was spreading his hands almost as wide as Cobb (having learned his ball in the Negro Leagues, where Deadball was still alive in the Fifties). Daddy Wags clearly wasn’t spreading his large mitts to fake out the infield.  I recall being fascinated by his special grip as I thumbed through my baseball cards.  Leon logged 173 home runs (if my quick math isn’t off) from the 1961 through the 1966 seasons.  Spreading the hands need not create a power deficit if you do it right: on the contrary!

The photo at this article’s masthead isn’t actually of Cobb, but of his Hall of Fame forerunner, Fred Clarke (who coached that other Wagner early in the twentieth century and taught him, among other things, hand-spreading).  If you look very closely, you can tell that too much of Fred’s bottom hand is visible for the top hand to be clamped down hard on top of it.  Even though the bat’s head is nearly pointing into the camera, the bottom hand’s knuckles remain suspiciously clear.  This signals us that the top paw would finish pressed against the bottom one in batters who used the technique because the follow-through would bring the two together.

How on earth, for that matter, would you suddenly slam top hand on bottom just before you swing, as Leehrsen pictures Cobb doing?  Would you do this just before beginning your attack on the ball?  Wouldn’t it disrupt timing and concentration to be messing around with grip at the critical moment?  Or if you made the adjustment sooner, then… then there would be no point in doing it.  You would have tipped off the infield sufficiently to give them a headstart moving to your pull side (since anyone who “slugs” from down on the knob is trying to pull).  If the essence of Cobb’s strategies was trickery, then this trick would have neutralized itself.  The rabbit’s tail would be showing before the magician could get his hat off.

Last week I created two videos that attempt to explain what I think might have been happening.  (They were going to be a single video, but the material kept mushrooming on me.)  In the second video—the actual demonstration—I try to show how Ty’s top hand would inevitably have ended up snugged against his bottom one if he were putting a full swing on the pitch so as to pull it.  The first video explains my objectives pretty much as I’ve laid them out here, complete with a reading of the Shocker paragraph from Lane.

To tell the truth, I find replication of Cobb’s contorted, awkward stroke quite a challenge.  I produced better results in a follow-up sequence where I shuffle off the back foot toward the plate in my load, then fly open.  And Cobb, by the way, may have done this, too!  We know from testimony as solid as Shocker’s (some of it appearing elsewhere in Lane’s book) that Tyrus would occasionally skip around in the box during his load, like Tris Speaker.  You have to believe that versatility carried to such degree would have driven corner infielders crazy.

As for the second piece of this two-part puzzle—the slipping of the bottom hand up to the top—I had little success demonstrating it either from a stationary set-up or a more mobile load.  Yet I feel confident that the intent here would have been to go the other way (for why would you want to hit the ball lightly to your pull side?).  The problem of giving away that intent too early may evaporate if we consider that a slide of the bottom hand up the barrel as the pitcher winds up would telegraph a bunt, bringing the third baseman (in Ty’s case) charging in… and to follow up that feint by pushing the barrel into the ball with both hands might well shove a scratch hit to the outfield grass.  Today we’d call it a “slap bunt”.

Ty Cobb didn’t exactly clarion his masterful use of deceptive techniques while he was an active player, and one can understand why.  In later years, however, he dispensed plenty of advice to those who would lend an ear (it could be argued, for instance, that he prepared Charlie Gehringer for a Hall of Fame career).  It’s a shame—no, it’s an outrage—that this generous side of Cobb’s character has been not just ignored, but erased by the slanders in Al Stumpf’s phony scribbles and purveyed far and wide by elite media types (looking at you, Ken Burns) who needed a “white Southern racist” to play Satan beside their cherubic Babe Ruth.

The real obstacle to unearthing instruction from Cobb’s legacy isn’t that he tried to bury his nuggets ten feet underground.  I think, rather, it’s simply that the game has changed too much for us to grasp certain principles that he would have assumed as givens.  Why explain the virtues of hand-spreading when approximately half the game’s hitters had been doing it since the mid-nineteenth century?  For that matter, why make a big noise about Tris Speaker’s skipping around in the box when, as Willie Mays tells us, Bobby Richardson had inherited enough of this wisdom to fade back from the plate suddenly if he wanted to advance a runner with a grounder to the right side?  In 1925, wouldn’t you suppose that everybody knew such things?  Jeez… do you have to tell a young driver where the ignition is?  Do you have to tell him to open the door before trying to sit down?

In Donald Rumsfeld’s immortal words, we don’t know what we don’t know.  My video’s very limited success at replication certainly taught me humility.  You can’t just pick up a bat and start doing what Cobb or Speaker did.  They must have put hundreds, perhaps thousands of reps into their signature moves.  Few of us can comprehend how those moves worked because, among other things, we can’t convince ourselves that spending time to master them would be a good investment.

baseball history, footwork in the box, hand use in hitting, Uncategorized

How Old-School Hitting Would Invigorate Today’s Game: Bunting

Here’s another excerpt–just written–from my forthcoming book, Metal Ropes:


For my money, batting left-handed while being a natural right-hander presents the ideal situation for bunting. History appears to bear me out, as well. Deadball times do not offer us precise records of bunt hits, as distinguished from sacrifices; but in more recent days, Nellie Fox, Don Blasingame, and Pete Rose all achieved spectacular results by bunting from the first-base side box with their throwing hand on the bottom of the bat. That bottom hand holds the key: it needs to be clever enough to stabilize and steer the bat, so that the barrel quickly and minutely adjusts to the pitch’s action. You can actually dip the head and, as long as the ball’s top half is contacted, lay down a very nice bunt down the third-base line. You can also drag the pitch with you toward first with the bottom hand tucking itself close to the bottom and trailing the stick behind it. Of course, you can do nothing analogous to this from the right-hand batter’s box.

In both the “push” and the “drag” bunts, furthermore, the top hand should be no firmer near the beginning flare of the barrel than is needed to keep your tool relatively parallel. The top hand is a mere prop, and picture-hanger. I think most bunts that go wrong have suffered from an overly assertive top hand. If that hand doesn’t show enough “give” upon contact, the ball comes off too hard. If the hand goes after the ball aggressively rather than letting its mate on the bottom do such steering, the ball is poked at and tends to be popped up. Having your weaker hand riding on top reduces the chances of these unfortunate outcomes. If the “control” hand is your naturally stronger one and the “prop” hand your naturally weaker one, then bunting can come as easily as swimming to a fish. If your hands have to reverse their natural inclination, then… then we’d better hope that the coach doesn’t give you that sign very often.

Yes, yes… practice makes perfect. I’m not trying to disparage right-handed hitters here, but to encourage smaller righties to experiment with left-handed hitting. In any case, none of what I’ve written so far has to do directly with Deadball techniques—so let me spend the rest of this space pointing out how the styles of yesteryear particularly play into the bunting attack.

Obviously, if your feet are active in your load, bending the knees into a bunting posture and then launching yourself toward first base should be easier. I see a lot of hitters at the highest levels (on rare occasions when I witness a bunt attempt on TV) who bend at the waist more than in the knees, and who don’t even pivot to face the pitch. Your back should be relatively straight when you bunt, presenting your eyes with a clear and stable view of the delivery. It’s the knees that take your hands down. A batsman who is using his lower body to surge or shuffle or glide into the pitch is already on the balls of his feet and flexing his calves and thigh muscles. The emphasis of his swinging attack is also, ever and always, straight into the pitch rather than back-and-up or back-and-out with a hope that barrel and pitch will explosively intersect. There’s no essential change of mindset involved when the former—the Old School artist—shifts to bunting. You need to fix your barrel in the pitch’s path when you bunt and let the ball chase you along its route rather than aggressively rushing to meet it up the road—and, yes, I suppose that requires a mild change of mindset. But for the Deadball hitter, everything that happens still takes place along the same familiar path. He is always thinking “straight through”, not “collision at the intersection”.

One of the reasons that we lack reliable statistics of how often the oldtimers bunted for hits is probably the difficulty an observer would have encountered in distinguishing some of their swings from bunts. I’ve seen written claims that Ty Cobb did not often drop a bunt, but I’ve seen further claims (sometimes in the same sources) that he liked to poke a grounder to the left side past the pitcher and beat the throw to first base. Would the stroke Cobb executed in the latter instances be his full one? Doesn’t sound like it. I doubt that he would have squared around during the pitcher’s delivery, or even have slid his top hand farther up to the barrel area. I picture him as simply leading the bat with the bottom hand as he charged out of the box and letting a loose top hand drive just enough send the ball past the mound. And, again… I’d bet that a great many of Ty’s contemporaries (such as Eddie Collins and the older scrappers, Fred Clarke and Willie Keeler) did the same thing.

Would an Ichiro-like raking swing as the hitter sprints from the box be so ineffectual today, when an entire half of the infield is often left virtually unpoliced? Such a tactic wouldn’t count formally as a bunt attempt and thus wouldn’t send the hitter back to the bench if his bid went foul. It would be the simplest thing in the world to execute out of a Fall Step where the batsman sets up on top of the plate and then strides wide open. For that matter, it would be the perfect ingredient for concocting a successful hit-and-run play; for the left-side hitter wouldn’t have to pull the ball (which is hard to do in any circumstances, since you have to be early), and he would also get a running start out of the box. With the runner moving from first on the pitch, the shortstop or third-baseman might well be befuddled about where to make his throw on the slow roller just long enough that both runners would reach safely; and if the throw to first were made while the infield was shifted to the pull side, the lead runner could easily continue on to third. I could cite Al Smith’s fond reminiscence about how often they worked that stunt in the Negro Leagues.

What I’m trying to say is just that several varieties of bunt-like contact would flow naturally from the endeavor if the bunt itself were ever to return… but a much more active lower body will have to be enlisted into the swing, I think, before any of that happens. What we have now is a line-up of home-run-hitting prima donnas who draw fans, perhaps, but don’t win ballgames regularly. The eternal baseball question: do more fans show up to see the Babe take mighty cuts on a second-division team, or to see a squad of resourceful nobodies win a hundred games?