baseball history, Deadball Era, hand use in hitting, hitter reaction time, mental approach, Uncategorized

Switch-Hitting and Small Ball: Not an Obvious Pairing

raw

George Davis, Hall of Famer: formally inducted in 1998, almost a century to the year after his retirement.  As someone wrote lately, the best ballplayer you’ve never heard of.  Okay, I admit that I’d never heard of him, either, before delving into the history of switch-hitting.  George was that rarest of animals, a “bats both” from the nineteenth century.  During the Deadball Era and in the years preceding it, such artists were probably less common than cross-wristed hitters like Dave Bancroft.  It’s not hard to imagine why.  Power-hitting as we know it didn’t exist, so one of the two great motive forces for switch-hitting wasn’t in play.  We think readily of sluggers like Mantle, Murray, Reggie Smith… and more recently, Mark Texeira, Chipper Jones, and Lance Berkman.  They didn’t have to worry about the breaking ball dipping under and away from their bat: they could enter the box with the intent of pulling almost everything.

Slightly less glorified as superheroes, on-base machines like Tim Raines, Ozzie Smith, and the almost-immortal Pete Rose are a bit more of an enigma.  Primarily concerned with contact than power, they hit the ball where it was pitched and—like their mightier brethren—were difficult to neutralize with the slider.  A few batsmen of this category (and I don’t know the story of the three just named) seem to have taken up switching because their career from the right side was going absolutely nowhere.  Maury Wills springs to mind.  I half-believe that Nellie Fox may have adapted to batting south so well that he simply gave up on the right side; I’ve seen him listed both as a lefty hitter and a switcher.

As I say, though, the earliest switch-hitters were certainly not trying to compete with Babe Ruth.  Before stumbling upon Davis (and it took me some stumbling: try Googling “first switch-hitter in MLB” and notice how evasive the search engine becomes), I couldn’t dredge up anyone from my memory earlier than Max Carey and, a bit later, Frankie Frisch.  Now, these two logged plenty of extra-base hits… but that’s what you would expect of any speedy hitter before World War II, when ballparks often had very generous alleys.  Most skilled practitioners of the batsman’s craft would bat left exclusively for the benefit of the step or two they would gain toward first base.  Perhaps Carey and Frisch flat-out couldn’t hit the pitch that broke away from them.  I’m sure neither was trying to be Mark Texeira and ding the foul pole every time they possibly could.

Cobb, Speaker, Collins… all righties who batted left.  (Yes, Speaker: he grew up throwing left only because of a badly broken right arm during his formative years.)  I doubt that the typical big-league striker of the Deadball Era—and these three were far beyond typical—would have objected either to being clipped by a tight pitch or to dribbling it the other way and racing the third baseman’s throw.  Hence the extreme rarity of the switch-hitter in the game’s distant past.

George Davis, then, presents an oddity, to say the least.  At five-foot-nine, he profiles as the kind of batsman we like to study at SmallBallSuccess.com; and yet, his true utility for the New York Giants appears to have been as an RBI-producer.  His homers are pretty impressive for the 1890’s: seven seasons in double digits from 1891 to 1904.  At the same time, however, his seasonal tally of two-baggers (usually in the mid-twenties) stacks up to about half of Speaker’s monumental totals, and his triples are also fairly mediocre for a star batsman of the time.  With 2665 hits in 9045 at-bats, then, George presumably legged out plenty of singles.  So the mystery remains: was he switching to magnify his pull-power or just to put the ball in play more often?

After I made a rather hasty video about switch-hitting last weekend (hasty because our Georgia weather keeps turning on a dime), I confronted the necessity of having to re-do it.  The result wasn’t all that bad… but why would a site post it that claimed to specialize in the Deadball Era?  Or if the point was precisely that batsmen of the glorious past were almost never switchers, then why hadn’t the video explained the crucial ground of distinction?  What exactly was I trying to accomplish for my viewers in those ten minutes?

What, indeed?  The claim I made repeatedly before the camera was that young switch-hitters should stop trying to mirror the stroke from their natural side in the side they’re trying to learn.  Almost nobody on earth is truly, fully ambidextrous.  That failing, you have one hand which is stronger and “smarter” than the other; and when the dominant hand is driving the bat like a piston, it has an effect very different from when it’s steering the bat down near the knob.  Allowances must be made for shifting points of emphatic power or precision.

Except that they don’t—or not nearly so much—when you’re simply hurling the barrel down into the zone from high above your rear shoulder.  What the Deadball approach teaches us, then, is transmitted through its active enlistment of feet, knees, hips, core muscles, shoulders, elbows, wrists, fingers… everything in the body is so ingeniously, harmoniously integrated into the Old School stroke that you’re much more apt to notice a cog along the edges getting out of sync.  I genuinely believe this.  I believe, in other words, that our contemporary passion for hurling blunt force at the pitch permits us to ignore a lot of energy leaking out along the way.  If you have a ten-ton tractor to do a job, you don’t care that it belches fumes and spins its treads before the burden attached to it gives way.  But if you have ten men with crowbars trying to budge the same mass, you can’t afford to waste a drop of sweat in the process.  Deadball hitting is the precision attack of a samurai, not the screaming onslaught of a claymore-wielding Rob Roy.  (Pardon the analogy’s inaccuracies: yesteryear’s bat, of course, was actually much more like a claymore—so the lighter, smaller player had to be especially clever about how to exploit the weapon’s imposing mass.)

When I take my favorite Deadball swing from the left side and try to replicate it from the right, I discover that major adjustments are necessary to stay somewhere close to the same paradigm.  That’s what I’ll stress when I remake the video—because I do like switch-hitting, at least when it’s done with a Cobb/Collins, “get on base” mentality.  It has to tie into an approach, a mental projection of the at-bat (and my earlier version just couldn’t have been squeezed under the “approach” rubric on our website).  The switch-hitter should be thinking “opposite field” most of the time, for it’s much easier to stay inside a pitch breaking into you (I find) than it is to be productively late on a pitch that breaks away and just keeps breaking and breaking.  In the latter case, you can outsmart yourself, chasing something far off the plate that—you thought—was right between your crosshairs.

Is this how George Davis hit?  I’ve no idea.  What about the ill-starred Pete Reeser, who couldn’t keep himself form colliding with the concrete walls of Ebbets Field?  I rather doubt it: subtlety wasn’t Pistol Pete’s game.  But I wish it could be more of our present game.  Among other things, standing off the plate to put a late swing on a pitch greatly diminishes the young hitter’s chances of getting hit by today’s flame-throwers who are trying to light up the scout’s JUGS gun.  Not having to guard against the fade-away allows you to frustrate the hurler’s plans more effectively without letting his homicidal wildness bully its way into the back of your mind.  That’s a winning strategy for a five-foot-niner.

Anyway… congratulations, George.  Very, very belated congratulations.

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:

bunting

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?