There are a lot of good reasons why you shouldn’t lose your mind, but—alas—far fewer ways to keep it from actually happening in the young year of 2020. They’ve even taken baseball from us! Well… yes and no. We can always dig into the video library, and serious players-in-becoming should certainly use these days of lull to refine their game. As the old Stoic teacher Epictetus said, “No one is free who who cannot rule himself.” Forget about circumstances: take control of your own life.
My personal library of ancient baseball videos is pretty substantial. The trouble is that many are altogether too ancient: they feature a single camera sitting in one spot among the fans along the right-field line, and the “sound technicians” crack a wooden ball-on-a-string with a stick to simulate explosive contact. Can’t tell a whole lot from that!
Worst of all, in those seventy-year-old edits, the creators of newsreels apparently judged that the hitter’s load as the pitcher started pumping would be a matter of utter uninterest… and so the cut was almost always made as the swing started forward, leaving students of the swing like me to make blind guesses about what went before. Annoying.
Last week, I lurched in the opposite temporal direction. I decided to view some of the games I didn’t have time to catch during Fall 2019. The American League Wild Card Game, featuring Tampa Bay at Oakland, was a gem. I’ll lay all of my cards on the table right now. I intend to argue in this brief space, on the basis of what I saw in one playoff game, that the rather rigid coaching doctrine of the past three decades is loosening up. Younger guys who are still very active in baseball have suggested as much to me lately. Paul Reddick has also been busily peddling Mike Ryan’s revolutionary hitting videos online over the past month; and Coach Ryan appears to endorse such drills as the Dominican practice of hacking away at pitches that are bounced a couple of times up to the plate. I suppose it’s all about tracking the ball while being aggressive.
(A sidebar here: may I point out that hitting a ball on a hop is routine in cricket, and that many Caribbean products like Josh Bell actually took their first cuts in that game rather than in baseball? This already forges a link, not just to the Deadball Era, but all the way back to nineteenth-century baseball, when awareness of cricket in New England was fairly strong. One of the Rays hitters I’m going to mention below reminds me more than a little of something from the panel of an 1880’s tobacco card when he sets up in the box. The shuffle-step load that we like so much at SmallBallSuccess.com also has analogues in the history of cricket. Charley Lau found the subtle skip being used very effectively when he visited Australian little leagues—a location where, of course, cricket is again the acknowledged older brother of baseball.)
Anyway… back to the playoff game. The first hitter I’ll highlight was the first hitter of the contest: Yandy Diaz, who led off with an opposite-field, line-drive homer on an outside pitch delivered by lefty Sean Manaea. This is right in our wheelhouse. In fact, my previous post on this site was dedicated to right-handers who take pitches the other way. Commentator Jessica Mendoza observed that the Rays had invested in Diaz because they believed they could teach him to elevate the ball… and this may be true. It sounds, indeed, like that thirty-year-old hitting pedagogy that won’t relinquish its hold. I thought Jessica was more on the mark earlier, however, when she voiced her personal opinion that Yandy had approached the at-bat intent upon driving the ball the other way. She noted that he set up far away from the plate (in the fashion that we identified last week as belonging to Lajoie, Wagner, and Hornsby) and then hunted something outside. His “circuit clout” actually didn’t get very elevated: it barely cleared the barrier. It was a low liner that he struck by driving late into a high/outside pitch from a fairly level, slightly downward plane… and he did this by letting his weight shift decisively forward.
Now, I don’t know that anyone was teaching Diaz to do this. Most hitters with a strong forward transfer do it naturally and in spite of what their coaches tell them. Look at the photo opening this post. Diaz is hitting off the stiff front leg that makes coaches swoon. Beautiful, isn’t it? But that stiff, rearward-inclined leg also induces shifting weight to channel up and back, so that the barrel sweeps under the pitch’s center rather than cutting straight through its heart. That slight dip produces elevating backspin, all right—too much backspin, unless you’re a lot taller than Yandy and can expect your big flies to carry. So how did Diaz stay on the outside pitch so well (and he hit the same pitch to the same destination his second time up) without bending his forward knee?
Two things. It’s possible to shift fully onto the front leg and, paradoxically, be leaning back on it as you make contact. That calls for pretty violent activity around the hips, and I would worry about how well the hitter could maintain a steady view of the ball… but some guys manage it. I first noticed a full forward transfer onto a severely backward-inclined leg in Lou Gehrig’s swing, and I have noticed it since in Bryce Harper’s. Those are two really big, muscular guys! I have to wonder if Yandy really wants to join the club… or if, instead, his natural shift is competing with the “stay back” dictum that coaches tried to pound into their young Negro League stars who had graduated to the Bigs back in the Fifties. Budding superstars like George Altman were ruined by the “uppercut gospel”.
Perhaps Diaz (and this is my second point) has struck a truce with the contradiction by releasing the handle early with his top hand. Lajoie always did this, by the way, as he chased pitches. Honus Wagner appears to have done it on outside offerings while preserving a two-handed follow-through on inside pitches—and that’s the Diaz strategy, I believe, based upon the dozens of images I’ve studied on Google. (The photo above has to be displaying his cut at an inner-half pitch.) The straight front leg forces the top hand to pull up short and start its backward transit… but the top hand can beat the rap and keep the barrel headed straight into the ball if it simply relinquishes its hold.
Yandy was able to muster enough backspin on a Jesus Luzardo slider during his final AB to drop an offering into center field that had mystified previous Rays hitters. Contact was off the end of the bat, which was likely cracked—but the stick died a good death. Heading down into the pitch rather than pulling out of its dive early, the heroic barrel produced our lead-off man’s third hit of the night.
Mike Brosseau is a second Rays batsman who intrigues me. He’s the one I find vaguely reminiscent of an 1888 tobacco card, with his low hands in waiting that then follow the forward leg’s pump immediately into the pitch. Hitting coaches will probably tell Mike to “get that foot down early”… and then we’ll hear no more of him, because he’ll be rocking back instead of staying down through the pitch, and everything will be ineffectually topped. He’s extremely quick with his coordinated foot-and-hands descent into the ball—quite quick enough to stand back from the plate more than he does now, use another inch or two of wood in his stick, and take an up-the-middle approach. I recall seeing him crack one offering very soundly… and I think it rocketed right into the glove of the left fielder. A guy who pulls that naturally doesn’t need to have pulling on his mind. He’s not going to get beat very often by anyone’s fastball.
Finally, a brief shout-out to Matt Olson, who is no longer a secret in the game. I love his hand position. Of course, he loads up and to the rear from a Carew-like starting point—but the top hand preserves the curl in its wrist, and this allows him a very level and protracted descent into the pitch as that hand straightens out its punch. Locking thumbs tightly around the handle, as most contemporary hitters do, removes such flexibility from the wrists. It forces that excessively steep descent into the pitch that sweeps under it and produces clean misses, pop-ups, roll-overs (if the swing is early), and—oh, yes—soaring home runs. But seldom enough of the last to compensate for an abundance of the other three.
Aren’t we being sent a message by the number of rising stars who don’t follow rigid hitting orthodoxy? Shouldn’t it be telling us something that kids who grow up in the Dominican or Curaçao playing the game with a broom handle are today’s most dynamic offensive performers?