baseball history, bat acceleration, bat design, Deadball Era, footwork in the box, general health, hand use in hitting, mental approach, opposite-field hitting, Uncategorized, weight transfer

Putting New Patches on Old Wineskins: Seldom a Good Idea

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My son sent me a link to Instagram footage of Ronald Acuna, Jr., mashing a few pitches at batting practice.  I though it might be instructive to do this week what I did last week with Yogi Berra: isolate a few frames and discuss what’s happening.  At least the technology of 2020 allows me to freeze on an instant without getting a complete blur everywhere: that wasn’t true of our 1952 newsreel!

By way of preface, I’ll share that a few viewers of my video contrasting the Deadball swing (a composite of tendencies, to be accurate) with what I called the Twenty-First Century Swing asked if I didn’t think some elements of both strokes might produce an effective hybrid swing.  In a manner of speaking, this has already happened in the TFCS.  The steep forward leg pump in the load forces a strong weight shift onto that leg, and front-foot hitting is indeed one of the signatures of yesteryear’s style.  Yet at the same time, the Charley Lau/Walt Hriniak teaching that dominated hitting instruction of the Seventies and Eighties (I refer to the twentieth century here!) allowed for weight to shift farther forward than gurus of the Fifties and Sixties would have liked.  So New School and Old School already have that much in common.

I don’t think you can do much integrating of the two beyond that point, however.  The main reason for the roadblock is the bat.  Watching Ronald, I understand this more powerfully than ever before.  Junior doesn’t cock his rear elbow steeply above his shoulder, unlike most of today’s sluggers—and that should give him a better chance of taking barrel to ball in a smooth plane rather than in a sweeping dip.  BUT… despite hugging the handle closer to his torso than most of our time’s hitters and transferring his weight emphatically forward, he nevertheless manages to put a severe dip into his cut.  As in severe!  This has to be because of the bat, as far as I can make out.  Rocket Ronny’s thumbs are locked around the super-skinny handle, and the bludgeon-like barrel burdening the short stick’s end wants to dive-bomb into the pitch.  As a result, he uses his weight shift merely to rock back in the most undercutting fashion possible, putting such an arc in his spine during the high finish that my own recently injured vertebrae cry out in pain.

The heavily planted front foot has become a launching pad for channeling energy upward and rearward.  It’s not a smoothly planted rest channeling the energy’s vector along the pitch’s flight corridor.  The barrel is a sort of reverse trebuchet or ferociously heaving shovel: it’s not an arrow traveling over a long span straight toward the target’s heart.

Now, the complete forward weight shift and the relatively low-held hands during the load do allow Ronald to stay inside the pitch much better than most hitters today can manage.  We’ve all heard commentators marveling over his power to the opposite field.  I hope the kid can play past thirty—that his back doesn’t give out somewhere between now and then.  Again, I blame the bat; and I blame it for inducing similar outcomes in a two generations of ballplayers at all levels.  You just can’t help gripping the metal club with locked thumbs and hurling it steeply down into the ball: it practically won’t let you do anything else.  And professional players today are all graduating to wood after using metal models, which they try to replicate in birch and ash as much as possible.  The resulting stroke is nothing approaching Charlie Gehringer’s, let alone Ginger Beaumont’s.

So, no, I don’t see many opportunities for productive collaboration.

Okay: to the photos.  Here’s the load over the back foot, with the front knee pumping.  Observe that the rear elbow, as noted above, doesn’t have a steep cock.  The hands, rather, are gathered near the rear armpit in something much closer to yesteryear’s fashion.

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Now three frames of the barrel shooting through the zone.  Ronald has rushed his weight fully to the front foot, and is indeed fairly upright on the lead leg.  But his hands are drawing the bat in a kind of whiplash down through the ball’s path rather than moving directly to the ball.  The final frame shows a white blur either about to contact the barrel or having just contacted it.  The trajectory is low: this is a line drive.

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The finish, or follow-through, reminds me of a golfer’s.  You simply couldn’t whip a 35” stick of lumber through this kind of gyration and stay out of traction.

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Now, visitors to SmallBallSuccess.com will know that we love line drives… and a lot of the contact in this BP session produced just such low bullets.  So… what’s wrong with that?  The problem for me is one of percentages.  With the barrel entering the zone in such a dipping, hyperbolic fashion, the chances of solid contact for most hitters would be greatly reduced.  Acuna’s rockets in the cage are topspun: he’s actually clipping the ball as his barrel is in the ascent.  That’s not necessarily a bad thing, especially since he stays inside the pitch so well and can take it up the middle.  Many hitters, however, will find that getting the barrel out too early will just result in a roll-over ground ball to their pull side.  That’s generally not a productive outcome.

And remember that this is batting practice.  On game-caliber fastballs, most hitters attempting to use Ronald’s method (i.e., to employ the forward weight shift as a way of lifting up and back in a great sweep) are apt to clip the pitch as the bat is still descending and before its very brief leveling off.  The outcome in such cases might be a foul straight back, or maybe a high pop-up on the infield: no more productive than a roll-over.

I love watching Ronald Acuna, Jr., play, and especially swing the bat.  Who wouldn’t?  I’m not saying that he should break everything down and reconstruct what he does by my specifications.  I’m saying, rather, that young players probably shouldn’t try to copy him.  Shorter players, in particular, should not count on being able to muscle their way into the line-up by reproducing Ronald’s power stroke.  A much better bet is to send the barrel on a straight, slightly downward plane (leveled off by the forward weight shift) into the ball’s heart, with the intended result of modest backspin that puts a little charge into contact.  That’s Old School.  Sweeping the barrel down and up again in a breathtaking swoosh not only would sabotage the batting average of most young hitters: it would jeopardize the long-term health of their back.  Ask Juan Gonzalez, or Mark McGwire, or Arod.

baseball history, coaches and trust, Deadball Era, footwork in the box, hand use in hitting, Uncategorized, weight transfer

Front-Foot Hitting: Stigma vs. Success

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My most recently posted video is a bit “inside baseball” in its subject matter.  It discusses how to shift weight to the front foot—something that mature hitters occasionally ask me about on the sly, and that their coaches universally discourage or condemn, it seems.  As near as I can make out, practically everyone was a front-foot hitter throughout the Deadball Era… or, at least, the transition to what I call “lean back and hack” was very gradual.  Certainly by the home-run crazy Fifties, every kid was advised to keep his weight back; because front-foot shifting is, after all, a way to stroke line drives (which is why we teach it at SmallBallSuccess.com), and Fifties brain trusts all wanted balls leaving the yard.

Some of this long-ball obsession was probably (or possibly… how can we know?) a response to the clear availability of talented black players and the mounting pressure to sign them.  In the Negro Leagues, the standard hitting style remained very similar to what you would have seen in the MLB before Ruth (and the Babe himself, by the way, was a pronounced front-for hitter).  Most of the rising stars from that quarter were thin fellows who could slap the ball everywhere and run like the wind.  If GM’s and owners wanted to seal off Major League access to their darker-skinned brethren without raising a ruckus, they couldn’t have found a more subtle way of doing so than demanding that rookies show home-run power.  A conspiracy?  Or did the game’s magnates really believe that pinging bingles was a thing of the past?  They seemed okay with Nellie Fox and Richie Ashburn choking up and punching hits through the infield.

But they also gave a lot of grief to young white players who fought the new “elevation orthodoxy”—what we currently call “launch angle”.  I vividly recall Coot Veal’s lamentations in the classic anthology, We Played the Game, about being variously ordered to swing down, swing level, and swing up during one spring training.  He complained that he had always been a front-foot hitter—that Harvey Kuenn was a front-foot hitter, and nobody harassed him about it.  For that matter, the young Henry Aaron also transferred his weight heavily forward, as did Roberto Clemente.  So the emerging “stay back” orthodoxy couldn’t simply have been a snare laid by closet racists, in the final analysis.

Ironically, I recall Joe Morgan bitterly opining in print about the racism of Houston manager Harry “the Hat” Walker, who molded Bob Watson into a line-drive hitter rather than leaving him to be the homering machine that Mother Nature had made him.  The “racist” charge appears to have worked full circle in Joe’s comments.  Bob, a career .294 hitter who topped .300 eight times, could scarcely have done much to combat the Astrodome’s reputation for being Death Valley… yet Walker was a racist for not letting Watson air it out!

Whatever.  I wasn’t there.  Maybe it wasn’t what Harry said, but how he said it.  More common, though, was the attitude, “I can give a utility job to a white kid if he’s only going to spank a few singles.  If I have to take blacks on board, then give me a Mays, an Aaron, a Robinson, or a Banks.”  At least the first three of those four did a pretty poor job of “staying back”, by the way; so one moral of this story—and it holds good today—is that you can break with the orthodoxy if you can walk onto a tryout field and immediately start smoking pitches.  The coaches will shake their heads and mumble to each other, “I don’t know how he hits that way—must be a freak of nature!”… but they won’t mess with success.  They like wins better than racial purity or philosophical rigidity or whatever other objective is elevated by their prejudice.  Winning is always first.

Now, the debate about whether you win more games by letting Mighty Casey strike out twice, pop up once, and then drive one into the bleachers or, alternatively, letting Wee Willie draw two walks and beat out two infield hits in five trips is a legitimate discussion.  I also think it’s more than a little reductive.  Line-drive hitting isn’t Punch and Judy hitting.  Cobb and Speaker, for instance, continue to rank among the top twenty in all-time total bases: their totals in doubles and triples are staggering.  I don’t think a lot of consideration goes into evaluating this middle ground.  In 1961, youngster of African descent named Jake Wood led the American League in triples (with 14)… but also struck out 141 times.  Jake’s career as a starter was essentially over at that point; he had to move over so that Dick McAuliffe, whose decade-and-a-half of averages hovering around Wood’s rookie .258 mark of mediocrity, could smack 15-20 homers a year.  Both second-sackers averaged almost exactly one base advanced per every three plate appearances, after careers of very different lengths—but Wood swiped an additional 79 bases in his brief stint, and McAuliffe only 63 in sixteen seasons.  Dick also logged three years of 100+ strikeouts, so… so the difference remains the home runs.

In such contrasts, the distinction between driving the ball into the gaps and pulling it over the fence is brought into a somewhat more realistic focus.  Was Dick really such a clear upgrade over Jake?

For that matter (to get back to the original matter of this discussion), was Jake perhaps whiffing so often because coaches were nagging him to stay back, as they did George Altman and Mack Jones—two brilliant young black players ruined by big-league pedagogy?  Maybe these three would all be in Cooperstown, Joe, if they’d had a Harry Walker.

Shifting strongly forward allows your barrel to stay on the ball longer.  It removes much of the swing’s dip.  If you’re swinging down, as an oldtimer would have told you to do, it draws the descent into a remarkably level cut.  It also keeps your momentum headed into the pitch and makes pulling off the ball almost impossible.

Oh, but… but the power!  What happens to the power?  Doubles?  Who wants a double when you can have a home run?

And who wants a homer, two k’s, and a pop-up when you can have a single, two doubles, and a long sac fly?

There are ways to shift your weight forward that don’t cost you valuable micro-seconds.  It’s not just a strategy for an era when pitches were slower: lots of guys are doing it today.  Watch the video, if you’re intrigued.

baseball history, bat acceleration, coaches and trust, footwork in the box, hand use in hitting, low line drives, Uncategorized, weight transfer

Beware of Where You Begin: It Determines All That Follows

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As the summer—a long, hot summer—finally settles into fall, I look back with considerable satisfaction on Metal Ropes, the book I’ve just published through Amazon that imports Deadball Era lessons to our age of alloy bats.  Writing the book (like writing anything on any subject) was itself educational: I mean, I learned a lot just by setting down what I had learned.  One of my most painful lessons was realizing that the first thing I had my son do in a batter’s box when he was a little tyke was wrong.  I had him spread his feet wide.  I reasoned… well, I’m no longer sure just what I reasoned.  The tactic was vintage Charley Lau, so I could blame it on my great mentor, author of The Art or Hitting .300.  The widespread stance must have seemed sensible for a short kid, at any rate, because it emphasized a firm base that would allow the hands to go straight at the ball.  A contact hitter: that’s what we wanted.

But there are two erroneous assumptions in this theory.  One is that minimizing lower-body movement and focusing on the hands will make the attack quicker.  It won’t.  It actually slows the attack down.  The hands are quickest to the ball when they tap into energy that has already been generated in the lower body.  Reduce or remove that energy… and you have nothing but hands, all on their own: that translates into a slow swing.

The second error is that widespread feet create a level stroke that keeps the barrel in the hitting zone for a long time.  Intuitively, you would want to approve this connection.  If someone asked you to take a yardstick and describe as flat and broad a plane as you could in thin air, you’d spread your legs to stabilize and then rake the stick from side to side.  But no one is asking you to accelerate the stick at this moment; and once you try to add speed to the equation, the feet (as noted in the previous paragraph) have to get involved.  The most obvious and, I suppose, natural way for them to do so is for the front knee to coil in the load and the front hip to flip back open as the attack begins.  Now, however, your beautiful plane has scattered to the winds.  As the knee coils, the hands load up and back… and as the hip opens, the shoulders rotate out and up.  In other words, you’re leading the bat into a pronounced dip.  You’re likely to cut under the bull’s eye and pop the pitch up if the dip is still descending; or, if you catch the ball as the barrel begins to rise, you’ll topspin or “roll over” the pitch.

Of course, starting with the feet close together can create an even more extreme—much more extreme—undercut/uppercut dynamic.  (Look at Cody Bellinger: he may well be this year’s MVP, but he has cooled off, and he’s not 5”7’ tall. His pop-ups and roll-overs assume his own epic proportions.)  A relatively long, easy stride into the pitch can also produce the most level of swings, though.  Yesteryear’s great stickers knew this.  They knew, to be precise, that if they 1) didn’t load their hands far up and back, and 2) followed the striding foot very closely with those hands down into the pitch, the barrel would hold a straight, slightly descending line into the ball’s center all the way to the front of the batter’s box.  Then the bat would come up over the forward shoulder in a tight parabola with the head still pointing directly at the mound.  You can find that very finish in thousands of photos from before the Fifties (though in very few after then, thanks to the Age of the Uppercut).

A full forward weight shift, in short (also known as front-foot hitting), is the key to keeping a quick, linear stroke on target into the pitch and producing a line drive.  Aaron did it.  Clemente did it.  A lot of the players who entered the MLB through the Negro Leagues brought the Old School technique right along with them, though many were subsequently destroyed as hitters when “instructors” insisted that they lean back and hack.

I don’t want to rewrite Metal Ropes in this spot.  Just beware of what you’re telling your child—understand that the thigh bone’s connected to the hip bone.  When you have a boy assume a certain position in the box, that is to say, you’re already confining him to a narrow sequence of moves that can work fluidly with that position.  Think it all through.  Don’t start at a point that just happens to be what everyone else is doing… and therefore must be right.  Make every element of the swing contribute to the effect you want.

In my case, I wanted my son to hit low line drives—and I sabotaged my endeavor right out of the gate.  I wish I could take back those initial mistakes, but instead, I’ll have to live with them.  One way I’ve made my peace is to create SmallBallSuccess.com.