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.

baseball ethics, baseball history, mental approach, Performance-Enhancing Drugs, umpires, Uncategorized

“Crime Dog” Permanently Exiled to Sportswriters’ Doghouse

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I found an article by Matt Snyder that says most of what I have to say much better than I can say it.  The bottom line is that Fred McGriff again came woefully short of entry into the Hall of Fame, that this was his last year of normal eligibility… and that he’s been done wrong.

Snyder observes that the Crime Dog logged ten seasons of thirty or more home runs.  I would add that seven of these came consecutively, and that the two ensuing seasons of 27 and 28 were both reduced thanks to a players’ strike.  (Well… Snyder had to remind me here that 1994 was virtually cut in half—and he finely observes that McGriff would have blown the lid off several categories if allowed to continue his work that year).  Twelve 30+ home-run seasons adorned Fred’s résumé by the time he hung up the spikes (two of them played out under the extreme distraction of a mid-season trade).

Here’s my special gripe about the matter, which a professional sportswriter would probably be ill advised to express as openly as I will do.  McGriff’s totals were compiled right in the heart of the Steroids Era.  They did not fluctuate so as to indicate mysteriously magnified physical power: they reached a plateau and stayed there for a decade.  That McGriff was his league’s home-run leader in only two seasons (36 with the Blue Jays in 1990, 35 with the Padres in 1992) isn’t a sign that he was an “average” middle-order slugger for his time; it is instead evidence, I should say, that the average was being grossly inflated around him by PED’s.  Furthermore, Fred’s ability to replicate his power numbers in Toronto, San Diego, Atlanta, and Chicago (Cubs) demonstrates that there was nothing place-specific (e.g., dry, thin air or a secret system for stealing pitches) about his performance.

I’ll diverge from my main point for just a moment.  Let’s stick with hitter-friendly ballparks briefly.  From 1987 to 2002, Fred’s On-Base Percentage dipped into the .350s (still very respectable) only twice.  From 1997 to 2004, however, one of this year’s inductees, Larry Walker, reeled off a really impressive string of nine seasons with an OBP of over .400.  Yet these were Walker’s Colorado years; elsewhere his typical value fluctuated much more than McGriff’s.  Walker’s 383 homers, besides, are not overwhelming when one considers his ten seasons in Coors Field (only one of which—1997—saw his tally exploding up to 49; he topped 30 only three other times); and his career doubles total, while regal at 471, is only 30 ahead of McGriff’s in ballparks where hits didn’t carry with the same force.  Yes, Fred enjoyed about 1,700 more AB’s than Larry… but he also walked almost 400 more times, notably higher than Walker’s rate.

Indeed, I suspect we may see here part of the “reverse mystique” of Fred McGriff.  He was the ultimate in patient hitting.  He consistently gave up the outside corner.  The “damage” he did to his reputation as a savage slugger by exhibiting such self-control makes me recall what I’ve read about Ted Williams’ relative unpopularity when Joe DiMaggio was stirred into the same discussion during their days of active play.  People like to see Mighty Casey expand the zone with two strikes and take his chances on chipping one down the off-field line with a furious hack.  Not only did Fred, like Ted, not fit this model: McGriff, unlike Williams, never had a caustic word for umpires who rung him up on something a little off the plate.  Fred McGriff was as polite a human being as ever wore a baseball uniform.

Another debatable Hall-of-Famer, Orlando Cepeda, amassed numbers mostly a bit better than Larry Walker’s across the board—and he did so without benefit of Coors Field’s thin air.  Where Cepeda’s figures distinctly underperform Walker’s (BA, OBP), they seem to me to reflect his time’s preference for more aggressive sluggers who didn’t try to work walks.  Again, fans like the “madman with a machete” image of power-hitting—which fact may indeed have impeded Larry’s ascent to the Hall.  (Snyder rightly scoffs at the word-of-mouth “most feared of his day” criterion, another morph of the “wild man” stereotype.)  Cepeda had two other off-the-field factors working in his favor, as well.  One was his Latino identity: the sportswriter clan wanted somebody besides Clemente representing that demographic.  The other was that Orlando ran afoul of laws prohibiting the use of recreational drugs.  The feeling among the chattering white-collar classes (and I lived through those days, so I can tell you that such “feelings” were palpable) was in favor of sticking it to self-righteous “family values” politicians.  That feeling, by the way—in case you’ve been living in a world engineered by your own preferred hallucinogen—has so mushroomed among the Hall’s electors as to overshadow a lot of factual evidence.

Now, I’m not arguing that either Orlando Cepeda or Larry Walker doesn’t belong on baseball’s Mount Olympus.  What I believe we see in an alignment of all three cases is just how subjective the verdict of these “sportswriters” can be.  I’m not even going to tackle the question of Wins Above Replacement: Wikipedia observes that sabermetricians have not even reached agreement on how to make the calculation.  Grounding into double-plays, for instance, apparently brings a mandatory deduction—and I have to say that only a bunch of nerdy eggheads could seriously exact such a sanction.  Double-play balls are hard hit (just ask Hank Aaron, the all-time leader); and any professional batsman will tell you that his objective is to make solid contact and leave the rest to the baseball gods.  You can’t control such factors as how slow afoot the batting champ is who hits in front of you or how slick the middle infielders of your division rivals are.

So let’s return to subjectivity in the voting: to “perception”.  The major issue that seems to me unaddressed in McGriff’s case is steroids.  He didn’t use them.  If the sun rises in the east, this man was clean.  Fred was as thin as a rail, from his rookie year to his last AB with Tampa Bay.  I don’t know how he did it, because most of us bulk up simply from the normal effects of aging.  Larry Walker certainly became “thicker”.  So did Frank Thomas.  Did Walker fall under an unvoiced suspicion among the electors, like Craig Biggio with his Popeye-like forearms in later years—or like Jeff “I ain’t saying nothing” Bagwell (both of them teammates of Ken Camminiti, who lost his life to the effects of PED’s)?  Thomas was admitted to Cooperstown immediately; Craig had to wait three years.  Why?  Was it because the “writers” were afraid to slander the Big Hurt lest their reluctance be interpreted as bigotry—the same dread that made them back off when Albert Pujolz indignantly denied rumors of “using” a few years back?

But the same writers and broadcasters will counter, “No, we never looked at size—you can’t tell by size.  Steroids make you heal faster: they don’t necessarily make you bigger.”  Oh, so… so that lets you conjure up a cloud of steroid-usage pretty much anywhere you want, just to reinforce or justify an existing prejudice.  The astonishing steadiness of McGriff’s output straight through the minefield of the Steroids Era, then, is of no interest to you: you’ll just keep analyzing his performance against the Rafael Palmeiros and Andres Galarragas of his day… and that makes for a mediocre WAR.  Okay.

Fred McGriff deserves to be rewarded for not breaking the rules: besides a career which is distinguished by any measure, he deserves special consideration for that.  How are we to expect law-abiding conduct of our children when they see that (in Leo Durocher’s immortal phrase) “nice guys finish last”?  But the twits who make these calls have little respect for society’s rules.  They’re the same pack, essentially—their intellectual DNA is the same—as persistently ignored Gil Hodges, the supreme first-stacker of his generation who was briefly the National League’s all-time right-handed home-run king, and who served his nation fighting in the heart of World War Two’s bloodiest theater… and who skippered the Miracle Mets… ignored Gil Hodges because he was a quiet man and didn’t vocally, fists flying, champion Jackie Robinson.  So they say, these twits with their algorithms who never had the guts to champion anyone chin-first.

Look at what they’ve done to Curt Schilling.  At least Curt knew what he was getting into by speaking his mind in our “free society”.  As for Fred… Fred is so like Gil, in a way: a quiet gentleman who didn’t spout quotable comments and didn’t fuel exciting controversies.  Just a decent human being who went about his business.  They hate those.