baseball history, bat acceleration, coaches and trust, hand use in hitting, low arm angle, low line drives, metal bat use, pitching, submarine pitching, Uncategorized, weight transfer

High Strikes: Nothing New Under the Sun

I was both delighted and dismayed to hear Jessica Mendoza remark on Sunday Night Baseball that pitching up in the strike zone—even with a mediocre fastball—has suddenly become the go-to strategy in the game’s upper echelons.  I was delighted because we’ve essentially been preaching this gospel from the reverse angle on SmallBallSuccess.com for years.  In fact, I personally was preaching it long before I had any idea of founding the site.  The metal bat, with its massive barrel and skinny handle, invites the hitter to hurl down on the ball, cocking the rear elbow and then unloading so steeply that the top hand slips off immediately upon contact.  The hefty leg kick and the “foot down early” imperatives (how often I’ve heard Jessica praise that dogma!) are part of the same stroke.

But none of it belongs to yesteryear’s game—and the reason is pretty obvious.  The bat path is too “dippy”.  If a tall guy collides with the pitch just as it passes over the plate (i.e., as his divebombing barrel is beginning to pull back on the joystick), then he may well impart so much backspin in the process that the resultant buzzard-beater carries over a fence.  Yet not only do smaller body types not have the equipment needed to accelerate the barrel sufficiently for this result: they, along with the big guys, risk a complete miss or a pitiful roll-over.  The barrel, that is, spends too much time on its long transit being nowhere near the plane of the ball’s flight.  It’s likely to descend too late or come up too early.  For big fellows, the frequent K’s and ground-outs are considered an acceptable trade-off for a homer every third game.  For smaller guys, useless pop-ups and dribblers are terminal.

And the high strike, of course, is the pitcher’s best option for exploiting this stroke’s big holes.  A barrel starting from well above the shoulder simply cannot come at a letter-high fastball productively.  (It does stand a good chance of clobbering a lazy hanger as it sweeps back upward: then the only question is… will the drive stay fair?)  Since the strike zone was particularly high in the Deadball Era and even well after World War II, hitters knew better than to take that steep hack and then, immediately, roll back with lifting, opening shoulders.  They kept their cut straight through the ball for as long as they could, usually finishing with their weight mostly or completely on the front foot.  I have a feeling that the Fifties were the pivotal period of change, as the home run once again captivated the public and the uppercut swing (your grandad’s version of Launch Angle) was all that hitting instructors talked about.

I tried to get my son, who was a dandy little submarine pitcher, to shoot some of his 0-2 and 1-2 pitches way up in the zone.  Even with his very modest velocity, I don’t think the chesty boppers that squared off against him in high school could have done him much harm there, especially since the pitch would literally be gaining altitude (the only pitch that truly does so).  No, they would have chased it all the way to the roots of their hair! But his coach absolutely nixed the idea.  Stay low, always low.  Never change the incoming vertical angle.  And today Ms. Mendoza is crowing, “Wow!  We hadn’t thought that this could work! Now it’s the very latest thing.”

“Late” is right.  Too late to help my son or to hit Coach Donkey between the ears.  And that, naturally, is the source of my dismay.  It’s flattering to be voted right, for a change, by the professional establishment… but it came too late to help my son—and, of course, none of the establishment is remotely aware of having given this independently publishing dad a thumbs-up.  The game will move right along at its standard glacial pace, its elite patting themselves on the back every time they figure out something that others of us knew a decade or two earlier.  (The uppercut swing, by the way, would eventually lead to the Year of the Pitcher and the lowering of the mound after the coaching brain trust had thoroughly ruined a generation of hitters with it.)  Well, you know… so it is in all human affairs.  There’s nothing new under the sun.

But the good news, if you have a teachable youngster, is that you don’t have to wait for baseball’s magnetosphere to reverse its polarities.  Get your boy (or girl) swinging like Cobb and Speaker—and Oscar Charleston, and Martin Dihigo—right now!  The coaches may want to jump right out of their cleats and shout, “What in… blazes are you doing?”  But when they see one line drive after another after another rolling to the fence, that shout is likely to catch in their throat.

baseball history, mental approach, Uncategorized

Be Selective About When to Be Selective

Several years ago, I remember watching on YouTube the entirety of a game played in the Los Angeles Coliseum, where the Dodgers made their home for a couple of years in the late Fifties.  Seating capacity was about a hundred thousand.  The trouble was that right field was approximately 450 feet from home plate… and left field was 200 feet closer!  To prevent right-handed pull-hitters from racking up five homers per game, a high net was string a good way along the left-field bleachers.  Fans could see through it, but batted balls would strike the netting and plop harmlessly at the left fielder’s feet unless they were really jacked up.  That fielder would often have a play at second.  During the YouTube game, Stan Musial was thrown out at the keystone sack in a critical late-inning play after ripping an oppo-liner into the ropes.

Musial, Gilliam, Wally Moon, Charlie Neal… I really enjoyed that game, even though its dubious black-and-white quality had me thinking in the back of my mind that the whole thing was happening under the lights rather than in broad daylight.  One thing that leapt out at me was the pace.  I believe the contest actually reached ten innings—but it lasted well under three hours.  To be sure, players weren’t stepping out of the box and messing with their gloves (for you youngsters, there were no batting gloves back then).  More than that, however, was the eagerness of every hitter to put bat to ball.  There were very few deep counts.  Everyone was hacking.

Now, I’m not going to say that working the count is a bad thing.  I’m not going to say that it’s good, either.  As a strategy, I find it fully neutral, dependent on specific conditions.  Sleeping under a heavy blanket is a good idea at certain times of year; at other times, it would be idiotic.

The immortal Oscar Charleston liked for his protégés to take lots of pitches during their first couple of plate appearances so as to lull the opposition into thinking that they would keep that approach throughout the game.  Then, as the stakes began to rise during the later innings, Oscar’s boys would ambush groved, get-me-over strikes early in the count.  That makes lots of sense… but you have to assume that his opponents would catch on if the two teams played each other regularly.

It seems like I must have sat through hundreds of my son’s games—between travel teams, high school, and college—where one or both sides had been told to take pitches and wear down the starter.  This could be effective if the starter weren’t pumping strike after strike across the plate.  Let’s say he is, and your side makes a mid-game adjustment.  Now you’re determined to swing at everything, which he very quickly notices, and you soon find yourselves chasing sliders that dip two feet outside.  Yeah, I’ve seen that game a few dozen times, if not a few hundred.

Coaches, for the most part, appear to believe that they do their job well when they put the “take” sign on.  Again… it depends.  Leading off a game, you would surely want to make the pitcher deliver five or six pitches, just so that your bunch could see what he’s got.  Striking out in that circumstance isn’t necessarily bad.  You also don’t want to go up hacking on a hot day in a very close game as the innings pile up for your starter.  For pity’s sake… give the poor guy a few minutes to stay off his feet in the dugout!

The mindset I don’t understand has a middle-of-the-order hitter feeling good about himself after he strikes out looking at four deliveries—all because he was “patient” and just didn’t get his pitch.  What single positive outcome does this approach achieve?  I suppose if our Mighty Casey never misses a mistake and is facing a hurler known for leaving hangers over the plate, patience might be a virtue; but I would prefer to have a line-up of guys who can hit the ball where it’s pitched, at least with two strikes.

I never got a chance to play at a very high level (and I do mean “chance”: what with Vietnam, an unstable economy, and rioting in the streets, my generation had a lot of trouble focusing on things like baseball).  With the Old School style that we preach on this site, however, I imagine that I would be a pretty aggressive hitter at any level.  This is because our line-drive swing is especially well suited to taking outside pitches up the middle or the opposite way.  Pitchers like to stay outside.  I would be looking for that location from Pitch One, without much concern for speed; because if I get a little in front on a change, I pull the ball.  The one pitch I don’t want to see and would probably take until I had two strikes would be high and in.  How many times do today’s moundsmen throw that pitch—and how many times is it called a strike on a take?

Now, if the pitcher has just walked three batters in a row, I’ll naturally be more selective.  If we’re in the mid-innings on a hot day and we know that their bullpen is pitiful, I’ll be more selective.  If I have shown myself to be a tad too aggressive all day long, I’ll be more selective.

It seems to me that in the matter of taking or attacking pitches, everything depends on circumstance: on the count, the number of outs, the score, the inning, the runners on base, the pitcher, the bullpen, your special hitting abilities, your history with this pitcher, your pattern at the plate so far today—and let’s not forget the umpire!

Being patient?  Yeah, sure… but no.  It depends.