baseball history, bat acceleration, coaches and trust, footwork in the box, hand use in hitting, hitter reaction time, off-season preparation

The Kinetic Loop

I have advocated baseball as a way to stay sane during these times of lockdown and paranoia—not that you can run out and watch a game, let alone play one; but our enforced confinement is a good opportunity to consider little tweaks that we can play with in the back yard or the batting cage.

I’m also finding a very personal kind of support in my baseball research.  I didn’t have an encouraging report last week about the status of my prostate cancer, although the evidence seems to me to point at least as clearly in the direction of a certain hormone-suppressing drug as in that of cancer-compromised bones.  Earlier this year, I came to know the pain of bones under attack, while muscle strain and I have been close acquaintances throughout my life.  What’s torturing me right now is torn, bleeding muscle—the pain of muscles not allowed to heal.  Baseball distracts me from that misery better than anything else.  I only regret that I’ve had to suspend the creation of new instructional videos on YouTube.  I just can’t make any moves at the moment, no matter how trivial, without suffering the consequences later that evening.

Fun Fact: did you know that medical error (as in prescribing the wrong dose of Firmagon, in my case) is the Number Three cause of fatalities in the US of A?

Well, amigos, I can’t promise to doctor your hitting any better than my disease has lately been doctored.  But I do listen to my own body, I do question even “expert advice” when it doesn’t tally with what my muscles and nerves are telling me… and I bring the same respectful skepticism to the “science of hitting”, as taught by professional coaches.

Most coaches will tell you not to hitch, for instance.  Ted Williams explained very logically in a 1966 video that hitching puts unnecessary motion into your swing and costs you valuable time.  A couple of kind souls who’ve seen my own videos about hitching and been moved to make comments have observed that the Thumper was among those immortals of the game visibly employing a hand-pump in his load: nothing so dramatic as Mel Ott’s hitch, or even Jimmie Foxx’s… but a kind of hitch, nonetheless.  Williams would set up with his hands about as high as his armpit, sure enough… but then he’d drop them as he coiled and allow them to ride back up as he strode into the pitch.  One has to suppose that he didn’t know he was doing this, or he wouldn’t have warned against it!  There wasn’t a lot of film-watching in the mid-Sixties as a means of self-analysis.

The hitch is one example of what I call a kinetic loop in my book, Metal Ropes.  What I mean by that is this.  You don’t make a dynamic movement by starting cold.  You don’t throw a punch from a position where your hands are dead-still in mid-air.  You don’t kick a soccer ball without pulling your leg back, and you don’t throw a football without pulling your arm back.  What you’re doing in all such cases is setting energy in motion through a kind of loop that can be very suddenly exited when the instant for the forward attack is ripe.

Now, Teddy Ballgame may have figured that going straight from dead-still to locus-of-contact was the shortest distance between two points; as I’ve admitted, there’s a kind of logic to the thesis.  But the only hitter I can recall swinging in that manner as I grew up was Roger Maris.  With hands poised high above the rear shoulder, Roger simply lowered the boom on incoming pitches, finishing with just his bottom hand still on the handle.  In many ways, he anticipated strokes of the Nineties and early Two-Thousands: say, those of Juan Gonzalez and Albert Pujols.  Roger was one of my boyhood heroes (and remains for me a kind of moral hero for all the abuse he endured from fans, press, and ownership).  Yet he didn’t have much in the way of a kinetic loop: he was a dive-bomber who could pull pitches over the fence or dribble them to the right side when he arrived too early.  He couldn’t keep his power on tap for just the correct millisecond: he was a constant guesser.  His batting average topped .280—barely—in just two seasons, and the career figure was .260.

Now, Roger’s teammate Mickey Mantle, whose swing generally possessed a lot more swoosh and was capable of generating lofty strikeout totals, nevertheless logged much higher averages, as well.  Mick had more loops.  During his load, he dipped his hands (in Williams fashion) near to his recoiling knee.  Then he unreeled a healthy stride as the hands rode up and inclined the barrel toward the plate just before whiplashing it through the zone.  Too much excess motion, the nagging coach would protest… but would you really prefer to have Maris on your team over Mantle?  Somehow, Mick was able to pour all that rocking and rolling into the pitch with impressive regularity.

I submit that kinetic looping, when done properly, not only doesn’t sabotage timely contact with “hot-dogging”, but that it actually makes contact more powerful by drawing upon energy already set in motion.  And since the bat head is already dipping, circling, or weaving, its accelerated launch at the ball can be withheld for a split second, giving the hitter the immense luxury of locating his target a little more precisely.

To be sure, a loop can get out of hand and pose significant problems to timing.  That’s why, as a kid trying to graduate from sandlot ball to high-school hard ball, I felt obliged to ditch my dazzling Mickey Mantle stroke for a no-nonsense Roger Maris stroke.  By that point, we youngsters were getting a lot of our practice off of pitching machines.  (I find In Peter Morris’s Game of Inches that the first mass-marketed pitching machine was patented in 1956 by a fireman named Wilson.)  Such machines will make a Maris-like “see-react” kind of hitter out of anyone.  When you have no practice synchronizing your load to human motions on the mound, your coil or kick or hitch—the whole bag of tricks—will just make you eternally late on everything.  I noticed recently that the coaching establishment has apparently convinced Orlando Arcia to discontinue his José Cruz-like leg lift of a few years back.  Joe Garagiola once remarked of José Canseco’s pump that, when you hit forty home runs, they start calling your hitch a “timing mechanism”.

I don’t particularly like that characterization of the kinetic loop, all joking aside.  You’re not lifting your knee and/or rolling your hands to enhance your chances of meeting the pitch head-on: you’re setting things in motion so as to get the power flowing—and then timing is addressed by your being able to exit the loop immediately.  If that exit proves too challenging, then you may need to develop a bigger loop rather than jettisoning any hint of a loop.  That is, you may need to create a circling pattern where you feel sufficiently comfortable to spill into a linear attack at any stage of the circuit rather than one which forces you to attack at Turn X whether or not the ball’s there yet.  The most explosive hitters of the recent past, though not so recent that evidence of the loop has vanished—guys like Orlando Cepeda, Dick Allen, and Ruben Sierra—were “loosey-goosey”.  Their amazing quickness to the ball wasn’t magically achieved in spite of a lot of hand and leg motion, but because of it.  And if such players tend to hail from the inner cities or the backwoods or a Caribbean island… well, couldn’t that be because they learned the game without being tormented by pitching machines?

Try developing kinetic loops that work for you during this prolonged winter.  Relax, have some fun… and then get serious about the lessons your fun is teaching you.

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

How Foxx and Greenberg Hit Bombs With Massive Bats Pumped to the Beltline

I’ll confess that using baseball research as my refuge of sanity hasn’t always worked in recent days. We’re watching–we athletes, we former athletes, we boys and men who are being raised or were long ago raised to honor the rules of our game–we’re watching the rules upon which our society’s smooth, fair functioning depends turned to complete mockery. It’s rubbed in our faces. Imagine an umpire who collected greenbacks from the other team’s coach during half-innings, and then proceeded to call every pitch a strike on your guys and every pitch a ball for the other side’s guys. That’s what we’re living through.

Well, damn. I just can’t do any better today than to share some of the revisions to my book, Metal Ropes. The result is looking great. It ought to: I’ve honestly never engaged in half so much revising of anything ever to leave my pen.

So here’s a bit about the distinctive hitch used by Jimmie Foxx, Hank Greenberg, and many of the more ancient Immortals. Only in overhauling the book did I realize that Mel Ott’s variety of hitching was fundamentally different. The point of all the historical analysis, furthermore, is to produce useful recommendations for innovating today’s hitting game. I graze that objective at the end of the following excerpt.

I suspect that right-handed immortals Honus Wagner, Napoleon Lajoie, and Rogers Hornsby all three had a hitch (of the upright variety typical of their day). We know that they set up well off the plate. They could push even the high/inside pitch to right field, apparently, because they stood so far back. Yet they could also cover the outside corner, and even go a bit beyond that corner. How did they do that? They must certainly have possessed the ability to surge outside after the pitch if they needed to; and I don’t see how they could have created the energy necessary to produce such a surge unless they fired out of a hand-pump and a rear knee-bend. Ted Williams’ swiveling hips won’t get you there: Ted usually wouldn’t even offer at outside pitches. The Dutchman and the Texan cleaned up on them.

To revisit the dynamics of the Old School Upright Hitch, let’s consider Jimmie Foxx. Double X didn’t move his front foot until after pumping his massive barrel. As the barrel rebounded from its descent, the momentum thus created carried the front foot faintly aloft—nothing as airborne as Mel Ott’s lead foot: just a few inches off the ground. The leg was almost stiff-kneed. There was no particular curl of the knee to the rear. Such rigidity, as has been said of footwork in the Hunching Hitch [my term for the Ott variety], forced the subsequent weight transfer forward to be firm and committed. There was no rotating outward of the ankle to channel energy off to the side.

Now, Jimmie’s lumber supplied a lot of his swing’s pop.  He wasn’t a believer in swinging out of his shoes.  The lift of the barrel would have occurred much later than when a hitter today would imagine executing such a move.  The pitcher might have started his drive home before the hefty weight was flung above the rear shoulder.  This would permit the barrel to tap its “what goes up must come down” energy in looping back upon the pitch (with much fine adjustment from the hands, naturally).  Its punch would be delivered without its weight having to be put in motion from a dead standstill.  Foxx’s fingers were indeed likely so loose on the handle during the split second that the barrel reached the apex of its ascent that they would hardly have been holding on.  They would be about to resettle themselves for the great yank into the pitch.

Willie Stargel’s technique of whirling the barrel around until the very instant when he wanted it to descend had much in common with these ancient dynamics.  But “Pops” wasn’t using a particularly light wooden bat in the Seventies, let alone a metal one.  Even in players who were yet alive when many of us were born, we see few clues about how to employ a “lower the boom” method from the age of big bats in our present game.  How can we translate all of this, or indeed any of it, to a tool made of alloy?

Strangely enough, I suspect that our solution may lie in what batsmen did in the days before we had any filmic record of the full swing.  If the generation of doughty strikers that featured Ed Delahanty and King Kelly had differed in any significant detail from the Foxx/Greenberg paradigm, I think the action of the front leg would have been that detail.   I wouldn’t expect many hitters of any era to have elevated the leg like Mel Ott, or even Harold Baines (our own time’s version of Mighty Melvin).  Yet I’m a little surprised that what Upright Hitchers I can pass in review—Foxx, Greenberg, Walker Cooper, Rudy York—scarcely lifted their lead foot more than an inch.  My surprise may well come from the fact that the wooden bats in my possession, some over half a century old, are nevertheless not nearly as massive as Jimmie Foxx’s.  When I tried to do an Upright Hitch, I found that I wanted my raised leg more involved… and this must surely have been just because of my bat’s relative lightness.  I was discovering a formula for fitting the lighter bat to the ancient paradigm—and I wasn’t even trying to do so!

Okay, so the Delahanty/Brouthers crew used bats even longer (and often heavier) than Foxx’s and Greenberg’s… but all of those turn-of-the-century strikers were choked up, many of them even gripping with spread hands.  Foxx, Greenberg, Cooper—they were all down on the knob.  The amount of weight extending beyond Sam Thompson’s top hand would have corresponded more closely to what we hold today, whether in wood or metal, than to what Foxx was balancing as he hefted his telephone pole.

I submit that this is why the oldtimers in the tobacco cards have that forever-puzzling splay of the front foot out toward the pitcher.  That is, I think they were placing the foot in a somewhat compromising position so that it would be forced to lift and close stiffly after they pumped their barrel down and then heaved it aloft.  They were stepping down into the pitch along roughly the same vector that their hands would follow; they weren’t simply catching a heavy weight shift as a tree came toppling off their rear shoulder.

We speculated at the outset of Part Two that metal-bat strokes would have more up-and-down in them and less laterality.  That’s exactly the essential adjustment I’m suggesting now for the Upright Hitch: shoot the hands up with more vigor when lifting the barrel and let the front foot ride up on the same wave.  In fact, I find this swing to be so stunningly simple, so easy to control, and so ready to direct just where you want it that I believe it’s where any youngster should start with “modernized Deadball” at the plate.

Be well, my friends, stay safe… and play by the rules! No one would respect your home-run record if the left field fence were moved in 100 feet every time you came to the plate. You’d get tired of all the mockery, in fact; but worst of all, you’d lose your self-respect.

baseball history, bat acceleration, footwork in the box, hand use in hitting, mental approach, metal bat use, Uncategorized, weight transfer

The Hitch: Something Great Hitters Never Do (Except for the Really Great Ones)

The following paragraphs are excerpting from my forthcoming book, Metal Ropes, which is still very much a work in progress.

I’ll admit that my affection for the shuffle step wavers whenever I try to hit right-handed. With my stronger hand on top, I appear much more inclined to drive from the back side than to throw down (with uncoiling leg and levering hand) from the front side—and this, after all, makes perfect sense. It’s surely part of the reason why classic “stickers” who shifted around more in the box and sprayed pitches to all fields were often natural righties batting left. Such a profile fits Tris Speaker as well as Ty Cobb, in a strict sense; for Speaker threw left only because his right arm was badly broken during his boyhood years of learning the game. Fred Clarke belongs to the same fraternity: so do Eddie Collins, Jake Daubert, Elmer Flick, and Joe Sewell. Except perhaps for Daubert, everyone on that list may be identified in photos, furthermore, with hands spread—and Jake choked up rather fiercely. A lot of batting titles found a home among the era’s left-hitting righties.

With the stronger hand on top, the “levering” action essential to hand spreading presents more of a challenge. The bottom hand may not be “smart” enough to do its job well. At least in my own experience, the top hand becomes something of a tyrant, and the bottom hand just tries to stay out of the way. Certainly Honus Wagner spread his hands on occasion—but less often than the left-hitting righties and with less of a gap. Napoleon Lajoie was more typical of top-hand-dominant hitters in that, while he indeed choked up, his hands remained together. (The “Emperor” briefly tried to market a bat that possessed two knobs: an ordinary one and a higher one for choking!) To be sure, Lajoie and Wagner won a truckload of batting titles in their own right. In them, however, we see the rare phenomenon of the power-hitter who likes to drive the ball the opposite way: someone who has to be played deep and who crosses up defenders. Add Rogers Hornsby to this pair, a man who hit .400 for three out of four years in a decade when fairy-tale averages had started to pass out of style.

So why am I pursuing this discussion of top-hand versus bottom-hand dominance in a section dedicated to hitching? For a couple of reasons. The more obvious is that batsmen generally hitch when their stronger hand is on top. This was true of all the worthies named previously: Ruth, Gibson, Foxx, Greenberg, and Mel Ott. (If the right-throwing Joe Jackson were the hitcher that Ruth implied him to be, then he breaks the mold… but Shoeless Joe never learned to write, so right-dominance quite possibly never developed in him as it would have in others.) The top hand is the “punch” hand, and we know that you load for a powerful move by relaxing your limb (hand or foot) in the reverse direction; so if the top hand wants to drive hard from above into the pitch, it’s tempted to prepare for that drive by pumping downward. The rear leg also has to balance the hitter’s weight for a rather long time in a hitch—and most of us balance better on our strong-side leg. (I don’t… but my scrambled brain has some very peculiar left/right preferences.)

Did those right/right immortals, Lajoie and Wagner and Hornsby, exhibit a hitch? I can’t see much evidence that the first of them did; but I believe Hans and the Rajah may very well have pumped their hands deeply. Let’s get the set-up in the box out of the way by citing these two as an example. When I wrote earlier of how the nineteenth-century stickers might have pumped as their front foot pointed toward the pitcher, I was guessing. By the time we get to Wagner and, still later, Hornsby, we’re looking at two hitters whose initial position is much more familiar to us. Their feet were much more squared to the plate, and their hands were basically resting on the rear shoulder. The emphasis, in other words, has shifted to the rear. That’s where we would expect it to be in a hitch—because, again, a hitch is very popular with hitters whose stronger side is the back one.

Now, here’s a second point that makes me suspect Wagner and Hornsby of hitching—and it’s also a quality of their stroke that we want to emulate. Both set up well off the plate. They could hit even the inside pitch to right field, apparently, because they stood so far back. Yet they could also cover the outside corner, and even go a bit beyond that corner. How did they do that? They must certainly have possessed the ability to surge outside after the pitch if they needed to; and I don’t see how they could have created the energy necessary to produce such a surge (since they didn’t shuffle-step) unless they fired out of a hand-pump and a crouch. Ted Williams’ swiveling hips won’t get you there: Ted usually wouldn’t even offer at outside pitches. The Dutchman and the Texan cleaned up on them.

That’s the kind of hitch I would like to replicate: the kind that can either drive us powerfully forward or carry us all the way to the outside corner, in a pinch. If Wagner and Hornsby had the kind of load that I believe they did, this opposite-field capacity would have distinguished them from Ruth, Gibson, Foxx, et al., who were ferocious pull-hitters. They were also big, strong men for their day, these later sluggers—taller than average, to be sure, but also incredibly muscled-up. This book is dedicated to the player of smaller body type, and such a body type usually doesn’t lend itself to the dead-pull power-hitter mold.