baseball history, coaches and trust, Deadball Era, fathers and sons, footwork in the box, hand use in hitting, hitter reaction time, mental approach, Uncategorized, weight transfer

Tame Fear at the Plate by Taking Hints From It

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Something took me by surprise last Thursday that probably would have left me dead by Friday if I had lived a century ago.  Without going into gruesome detail, poisonous fluids would have backed up into my kidneys within hours—and I imagine that I would have flipped off my own switch soon thereafter, for the exit route provided by a purely biological meltdown would have been incredibly unpleasant.

At any rate, I won’t be doing any more baseball videos in the immediate future.  I’ll need a couple of weeks, anyway… and then I’ll see what amplitude God has given me to play about with bat and ball.  When I began writing these words, Their Lordships of the medical establishment were still consulting their busy schedules to decide whether I might be granted an appointment within the next month to supply a permanent fix for the Emergency Room’s temporary rigging.  (The latest flash is that I’ve been penciled in for next week… hallelujah!) Those of you who long for socialized medicine had better hope that your prayers aren’t heard.  Believe me, the waiting and waiting in our present system is already almost beyond endurance.

Ironically, I’ve just begun reading David King’s book about Ross Youngs, the Hall of Fame right fielder who died of Bright’s Disease (a rare and mysterious kidney ailment).  I may have more to say about Ross later.  Turns out that he stood a mere five-foot-six, so he’s a natural for us to study at SmallBallSuccess.com.

In the meantime, inactivity has placed me in a perfect position (though it’s hard to think of anything about this position as perfect) to upgrade our humble website.  I’m working on a new page that will break down what is currently my favorite version of the Deadball swing.  I’m convinced that small players (and big players) everywhere could use it with devastating effectiveness.  They probably wouldn’t drive many pitches over the fence—but they’d likely be driving more than their fair share to the fence.  It’s a line-drive stroke, of course, with a high probability of contact.  It also has several features that would allow the hitter to be physically more protected from wild pitches and provide more time for appropriate reaction to any pitch.

Now, I know we aren’t supposed to let fear of the ball enter our psyche.  Even though it’s surely there somewhere (unless you’re as revved up on adrenaline and drugs as Lenny Dykstra), you mustn’t admit its presence to yourself.  That’s the old “be a man” school of coaching.  My son had one of those blowhards during a particularly forgettable Little League season.  The boy very nearly quit baseball at the age of nine, because the pompous ass to whose genius I’d surrendered him had all the kids who weren’t already explosive hitters (i.e., all who weren’t big for their age) stand on top of the plate in a bid to get a hit-by-pitch free pass.  Be a man… according to an idiot’s definition of manhood.

I’ve had many occasions to think about “mindset” at the plate (Coach Blowhard being only the most obvious).  Obviously, you want to carry a certain aggression into the box.  That doesn’t necessarily mean, however, that you’re seeking to attack the ball in a fearless, spherocidal rage.  A dead-pull hitter, granted, might inch up to the black and then prepare to wallop anything that moves.  I should think a clever pitcher would be very happy to see a guy like that step in.  If I didn’t have confidence in my breaking ball that day, I’d feed him some slow stuff that he could majestically pull foul, then chance some of my mediocre but collar-high fastballs.  I could readily devise a promising plan for Bruno.

Now let’s picture a smaller lad who has been taught nothing by his coaches except to keep the stick on his shoulder until he has two strikes… or maybe he can crowd the plate like Big Bruno and get himself hit.  Speaking of confidence, this boy has not a shred, does he?  He’s been given no useful map to success, no tools for making good contact.  Instead, his batsmanship has been denigrated to the point that he believes an HBP—or a four-pitch walk, if the pitcher’s radar is crossed up by plate-crowding—should be the objective of every trip to the dish; and in pursuit of that objective, he needs to silence any “unmanly” peep of apprehension about thrusting knee and elbow into the strike zone.  In a nutshell, his only chance of escaping “automatic out” futility is to fight down the vile inward surge of cowardice.

Gee… why wouldn’t that kid want to sign up for baseball every time a new season rolls around?

Let us now redirect this self-sabotaging mindset so that it becomes an offensive weapon.  I’m going to step into the box, not imagining that the baseball killed my parents and burned our house down, but that it’s a determined little rider galloping from A to B through Home Plate Pass.  And me?  I’m a highwayman, a stick-up artist just waiting to swoop down on the arrogant traveler—you know, the way Robin Hood would swing out of Sherwood Forest on a festoon and unseat the coach driver.  (Okay, my pop-cultural references are really dating me… I’d better stop right there.)  In other words, my design is not to meet blunt, rude force with blunter, ruder force: it’s to snipe at the unsuspecting mark and pick him off.  I’m no longer trying to deny to myself that he carries serious firepower.  I’m just denying him the opportunity to deploy it against me.

How can I do that?  By standing well back from the plate—not on top of it, for the love of Pete, but so far off that the pitcher will suppose that I’m scared of his fastball and will quickly decide to hum some hard ones over the vacated outside corner.  He’ll rush right into my ambush.  I actually want to swing at pitches far away from me, for three reasons: 1) I have more time to react when deliberately “swinging late”, 2) I can get my arms extended into an outside pitch (though the desired point of contact is really just before the back elbow locks—certainly before the wrists begin to roll over), and 3) I can drive an outside pitch hard to the opposite field.

And how, you ask, am I going to make said contact from so deep in the box?  For the answer, you’ll have to wait until I finish and post the page, “My Favorite Deadball Swing”.  Or you can go to YouTube right now and watch a video titled, Why (and How) Deadball Batsmen Swung Down on the Pitch.  That title, of course, transmits a clue.  I’ll just stress for now the importance of following the forward foot’s stride very closely with the hands.  You do not “get the foot down early” with this stroke, contrary to the refrain of countless well-paid batting instructors and TV color commentators.  You get it down very late—you shift your weight onto it as fully as you can, with your hands pursuing it straight (and slightly downward) into the pitch.  That’s how they did it over a century ago, and pretty much until World War Two.  That’s how Ross Youngs did it, for sure.  I can tell by photos of his tight-over-the-front-shoulder finish, with rear leg dragging.

Let the big guys lean back and hack.  You little dynamos, stand back from the plate and shoot the pitch the other way.  Don’t try to bully it, and don’t make a ball magnet of your forward shoulder.  Pick it off just as it’s about to nestle in the catcher’s mitt.  Play your own special game: don’t listen to Coach Blowhard, who doesn’t really even want you in the line-up or on the team. In fact, if you’re on his team… find another team.

When I pass through the Big Door, I hope I’ll get to shake Ross Youngs’ hand.  He’s from my grandfather’s stomping grounds—they may have played against each other in central Texas.  In the meantime, and for whatever time I have left on this earth, I’ll always devote a few minutes a day to baseball.  It makes heaven seem a little more familiar.

baseball history, hand use in hitting, hitter reaction time, Uncategorized, weight transfer

Today’s Elite Hitters Could Profit From Some of Yesterday’s Lessons

Thanks to poor Internet, a busy schedule, and—okay, I’ll admit it—a rather shallow degree of interest, I haven’t really kept track of the deluge of play-off activity.  It’s all a bit too much for me, even though I understand that it’s more dollars in the coffers of the MLB.  Jeez… why not just create a tournament and let every team in?

But the little I’ve been able to see has left me more confident than ever of two lessons we teach in Metal Ropes.  I particularly noticed them being illustrated by their absence in the potent Dodger offense—potent until it faced the superior pitching of the Nationals.  Bellinger, Muncy, Lux… the big lefty guns in the middle of LA’s order seem intent on pulling.  Cody actually tends to stride open: if he can, he’ll rake anything he reaches to right field.  Now, if I were to label this a characteristic of “modern decadence”, I’d have to carry modernity back to Johnny Mize and Duke Snyder: the dead-pull hitter was very much a feature of the Fifties (when, except in the case of Ted Williams, there was no radical shift to contend with).  Nevertheless, I think the Dodgers would do well to research how certain guys not named Babe Ruth—say, Napoleon Lajoie, Honus Wagner, and Rogers Hornsby (to name three right-side oppo-hitters) went about their business.  It looked to me as though the Rays managed to breeze past the much-favored Athletics by hitting the other way in that do-or-die match.

Now, as we argue in my latest book, hitting the other way puts several things in your favor.  Most importantly, it gives you more time.  If you’re facing a Scherzer fastball, it allows you a split second more to get barrel to ball—for you’re trying to let the pitch get very deep.  If what Ernie Johnson, Jr., called Anibal Sanchez’s “dipsy-doodle” is making you look like a fool, then thinking oppo gives you time to track the pitch: to see, specifically, if it’s going to break into your wheelhouse or plunge out of the strike zone. And, yes, if you do barrel it up, you’ll probably pull that one in spite of yourself… but waiting on it has allowed you to get the barrel on it.  Pulling “by accident” is okay, you know.  Guys like Mike Schmidt used to hit a lot of home runs that way.

I won’t linger over the other advantages of hitting to the opposite field.  Let’s just say that, for lefties, forcing the far side of the infield to make a long throw works strongly in your favor.  Of course, with these extreme shifts we see, it’s unlikely that anyone on that side of the diamond can ever keep your hit from reaching the outfield!

The other thing that kept hammering away at me was how often the modest forward transfer of weight keeps the barrel off the ball.  We visit this subject in Metal Ropes again and again.  Most of yesteryear’s great batsmen were front-foot hitters.  If you see photos of them making contact as they lean back, it’s because they were fighting off a good, tight fastball and were unable to get forward as far as they typically would have.  That’s actually one of the assets of the strong forward transfer: you can instantly adjust to a blazing fastball and lean your hands into the pitch even as your weight is still trying to get off the back leg.

When, however, you are always rolling back in a bid to pull the ball from your all-important “launch angle”, a less-than-perfectly timed pitch will soon end your at-bat unproductively.  If the fastball slightly beats you, then your wood will sweep under it just as it passes over the plate.  (Thanks to all the high-tech slo-mo of today’s cameras, it’s very easy to study replayed instances of such failure.)  If, on the other hand, Sanchez has you a little out in front, the dip in your swing is already carrying the barrel over the ball as the two pass somewhere in front of the plate.  I see a great many weak roll-overs in the 2019 hitting game, and not just in these play-offs.  They have grown to be a very familiar outcome.  (Gotta say it: Trea Turner’s double to open Game 2 was a roll-over that Justin Turner misplayed at third.  If you looked closely, you could see Justin give a nod to Kershaw afterward signaling, “That one was on me.”)

By shifting your weight decisively forward, you postpone the point when the bat has to pull out of its mildly descending line into the ball.  You make solid contact, even after slight mistiming, much more probable.  Justin Turner has had a very good series at the plate; and, although I’m not a big fan of the high leg pump, he uses it well to achieve a strong forward weight transfer (without any of that “get your foot down early” folderol that fouls up the front-foot hitter’s dynamics).  The reference I made earlier to Deadball Era hitters who were sometimes photographed falling back—and Ty Cobb’s name would have appeared prominently if I’d offered a list—already had their bat going straight at (and slightly downward into) the pitch when they got fisted.  Even though their shift wasn’t completed, they had entered into it early enough to get their wood traveling a productive path.

Well… back to the grind.  Enjoy the rest of whatever series you’re following.  Personally, I’m trying to ignore the Braves.  They always seem to get my hopes up—and then dash them at the very end!

baseball history, footwork in the box, hand use in hitting, hitter reaction time, mental approach, Uncategorized, weight transfer

Hitting in a Pinch: Think Outside the Box When in the Box

Here’s a bit more from my forthcoming book, Metal Ropes (which is consuming most of my time these days).  Hope you enjoy.  These are NOT comments that I’ve seen echoed anywhere else–and maybe for good reason.  But I don’t write just to repeat what’s already been said.

two-strike hitting

This subject has already been covered by implication in previous comments… but let’s put all the implied directives together and assemble the puzzle. A contact hitter puts the ball in play: he doesn’t strike out. We want to promote contact hitting. Is there more to achieving our goal than simply choosing a style that’s short to the ball, as are all strong forward-shift swings when you don’t load the hands too far back?

Maybe not a whole lot more—yet you could still do a couple of things to maximize your chances. I would suggest standing off the plate a little if you have begun the at-bat close to the black, and I would also endorse closing up the stance if it began squared away (and certainly if it began open). The effect of both adjustments is to allow you to contact the pitch later—to let it get deeper. If you’re close to the plate, you force yourself to reach the ball early so that it doesn’t slip under your hands; and if you’re squared to the plate, you also have to be a little quicker to get the barrel down into the zone. As the point of possible contact slides farther outside and farther back toward the catcher, the barrel has the luxury of arriving later. Stepping back and closing up makes every pitch tend to behave more like a low/away pitch.  (Of course, think “opposite field” or you’ll ruin everything!)

To such a degree is this true that you might even consider sneaking a few inches closer to the mound, as well, if you don’t find the pitcher’s hard one already overpowering you. This will diminish the break of his breaking ball, which he may be very tempted to throw once he gets you in a hole. You may feel that you’re now excessively exposed to what was a manageable fastball before—but you’re still in a good position to foul Number One off. I should say that it’s a more high-percentage strategy to spoil the fastball and cheat on the breaking ball than to look fastball and hope to goodness that you don’t get a breaking ball. What do you think?

I’m going to add this, though it has nothing to do with hitting style: please don’t take close pitches with two strikes when you’ve observed the umpire consistently giving the pitcher four inches off the plate. Foul those nuisances off. Nick them one-handed if you have to. After a couple of innings, you should know if your ump likes his “Hee-rike Hreee!” routine so much that he probably practices it every night before the mirror. I hate seeing players—especially contact-hitters—get caught in this trap. Be preemptive. Fight to get on first.

using different styles in different counts

It was said of Ty Cobb that he assumed various stances during a single at-bat, and I’ve heard the same claim made of Rod Carew. Honestly, I had never given much thought to the matter until the final weeks of preparing this book—and I don’t know why it popped into my head at that time. Perhaps my comments about the dynamism of the Fall Step made me reflect, “You know… you could take that kind of lunging, all-or-nothing cut early in the count and perhaps early in the game. If you came up empty, you could revert to something a little more under control and high-percentage.” Imagine Carl Yastrzemski airing it out on the first good fastball he sees. Then, after fouling the pitch straight back, the hitter morphs into Bill Madlock.

The subject is worth further consideration, and serious consideration. One hears some of the more experienced TV commentators complain occasionally about batsmen who do nothing to adjust to the count after they collect two strikes. Usually the phrase “choke up” is dropped in somewhere if such comments are elaborated. What I’m suggesting here could go well beyond choking up, however. What if I were to set up on top of the plate in leading off one of the early innings of a scoreless game, intending to stride away vigorously in that big “swoosh” of a Fall Step stroke which could either rake an inside pitch or chase an outside one up the off-field power alley? And what if, upon the failure of my plan to land a hit in fair territory, I decided to back well off the plate and execute a similar swing, but aimed the other way from the start? Maybe the count goes full as the battle continues; and maybe I then decide to slip far back in the box and do a shuffle into the pitch, allowing me to reach the breaking ball before it breaks but also, hopefully, to fight off any fastball with quick hands?

Would this be too much for a single at-bat? Perhaps. Would such diversity of approach be more permissible over the course of several at-bats in one game? Why not? Would the objection be that the hitter will mess himself up by straying from the single swing that he’s practiced over and over, even hundreds of times, in the cage between games? But is it really so very hard to bend a swing in various directions? Why should it be hard? If the hitter needs his hundreds of reps just to avoid jumping the one narrow track where his stroke seems to run on time, then how good a stroke can it be, to begin with? And if opposing pitchers and catchers perceive (as they surely will) how dependent he is on rigidly preserved mechanics for success, will they not devise a way to exploit his holes in full confidence that he cannot adjust?

There are many things I don’t understand about the game as it’s played today, and maybe some of these things are products of my not having ever faced anything like a Pedro Martinez or a Justin Verlander with a bat in my hands. Yet it’s precisely the thought of such formidable adversaries that convinces me of the diverse, resourceful, multi-pronged attack’s necessity. No, I simply don’t understand the determination with which hitters rehearse themselves into rigidly defined parameters. What I do know well—better than most professionals today, few of whom have explored the game’s history—is that the greatest players of yesteryear didn’t share their obsession with invariable form.

Doesn’t this subject deserve further thought? If you try to put various styles into practice during a single at-bat and you get fouled up, then don’t try it again. But what if it works?