baseball history, bat acceleration, coaches and trust, Deadball Era, footwork in the box, hand use in hitting, hitter reaction time, mental approach, opposite-field hitting, Uncategorized, weight transfer

Staying Back

In everything I’ve been writing about baseball for years, I’ve dealt very dismissively with the eternal coach’s admonition, “Stay back!”  When you don’t stay back as a hitter, supposedly, all of the power you’ve released into the pitch cycles through before contact is made.  You have only your hands left to swipe at the ball—and, more often than not, you have only one hand left, because the handle slips away from the top hand.  The feet are so flat beneath you that you rock awkwardly after the barrel makes its pass, perhaps almost falling on your face.  You let everything go too soon: you didn’t stay back.

Of course, the above is a picture of someone who’s been badly fooled by a change-up.  You can have “stay back” problems even on a fastball.  That may well be, indeed, how most young hitters make the acquaintance of the problem.  Fastballs keep beating them, and so they fall into the habit of waiting for nothing—of being early on everything.  Then the finish that’s produced is less often the one-handed flail than a two-handed rip at empty space: great launch angle, feet and hips and core and hands all working in sync… just no ball anywhere near the point of rendezvous.  Additional recommendations such as, “Wait on it,” or, “See it,” are apt to come floating down from the third-base coaching box.

I’m not dismissing the notion that these are real events in a hitter’s life with really unpleasant consequences for him.  No, the reason I’ve been perhaps a little too sweeping in my disparagement of the advice is because it is usually offered in such a sweeping manner, to begin with.  Staying back isn’t always good.  For a front-foot hitter, especially, the idea of keeping your weight transfer from shifting fully forward undermines everything you’re trying to do; and as proponents of a Deadball hitting style, we at SmallBallSuccess.com are big fans of front-foot hitting.  I’ll give you a quick summation of why this is so, and then return to the discussion’s mainstream.

Our species of batsman wants to hit low line drives.  To stroke the line drive, he needs to contact the ball squarely in the center but at a slightly downward angle—downward because he wants a bit of backspin on the ball to carry it beyond the infield.  His hands lead the barrel into the ball, with the barrel trailing so far behind that it often “pushes” the pitch to the opposite field.  Oppo-hitting is actually a secondary objective, because the hitter can wait longer when targeting the off-field and also stand a better chance of spraying the ball around when he slightly misjudges pitches.  So far, so good.

Now, we want the bottom half of the body to allow the hands as long a transit straight into the pitch as possible.  If the front hit is flipping out in classic Ted Williams fashion, then the weight shift is thrust back by the planted leg and the barrel transits up and out of the zone very quickly.  This is just what the Thumper wanted, of course: an uppercut (or launch-angle) swing.  Not only is it difficult to keep the barrel traveling down through the ball for very long with this method, however: the barrel is also diving down and then quickly riding aloft as it pursues the rotation of the hips.  It’s apt, that is, to undercut a pitch that arrives too soon or to topspin a pitch that it beats to the plate.  In this latter case, you could nag the hitter, “Now, Johnny, you need to stay back better”… but just be aware that you’re requiring Johnny to time his swing with absolute perfection if the barrel is to enter the ball’s heart in a fairly level plane.  Your advice isn’t of much more use than saying, “Now, Johnny, you’re not being perfect.”

When a Honus Wagner or Napoleon Lajoie would leave his back foot to reach a pitch, or when a Ty Cobb or Tris Speaker would catch his full shift on a bent forward knee, the descending hands were allowed to carry down along the same plane for perhaps four or five feet through the pitch’s plane.  Williams et al. would indeed use this propensity as the basis of their deriding the Old School method, claiming that there’s only a single point of possible contact if the barrel’s plane descends into the pitch’s reversely descending plane—whereas, with the patented lean-back-and-hack uppercut swing, the barrel would be traveling in the pitch’s plane over a long span.  Sorry, Teddy: this just ain’t so.  The rotational, hip-throwing stroke (as has been explained) is in fact drawing the barrel into and out of the pitch plane very quickly.  The barrel that steadily, lengthily descends at a mild angle, in contrast, may come too late and push the ball rather weakly off the hitter’s shoulder; or it may come too early and catch a breaking pitch on its dive.  Either way, it tends to score some contact.  Especially in the latter case, when contact comes early and the batsman is almost one-handing the ball, the barrel can continue powerfully into the collision.  The forward weight transfer allows it to ride momentum almost into the ground: it’s not fighting to get to the ball against an outward-flung hip.

So… does all this mean that, at SmallBallSuccess.com, we just don’t worry about staying back?  No—and the times when I have appeared to sound that note have been over-reactive.  A front-foot hitter wants his hands to follow his foot-plant very closely into the pitch: none of that “Get the front foot down early!” blather for him!  (Got you again, third-base coach.)  If he doesn’t trust his load to pour his weight shift into the pitch at just the right instant, then his misses will profile with the same ugly qualities that I sketched when I opened this article.  He has to develop what we call in Metal Ropes a “kinetic loop”: that is, a roll of the hands (sometimes invidiously called a “hitch”) or a loosey-goosey leg lift (not a spectacularly high kick, please!) that lets his mobilized energy cycle in waiting until the precise instant for attack.

Today’s hitters have few, if any, kinetic loops.  Hitting instructors convince them that any such lollypopping in the load can only throw off timing… whereas the truth is that, done properly, a well-practiced loop allows timing to be micro-adjusted to perfection.  Try going from zero to 90 with your hands tightly gripping the stick over your head… and then try accelerating the barrel with loose fingers and limber wrists as your hands and forward leg describe a faint loop that can be channeled into a line instantly.  There’s no question which is faster.

Maybe I can discuss the kinetic loop further at another time.  I apologize, by the way, for being so stinting with YouTube demonstrations lately.  I’ve only just discovered that consistent overdosing on one of my medicines—consistent as in “for the past half year”—has been sabotaging the healthy recovery of my muscles after any sort of vigorous workout.  What a year it’s been… God, please see me through the last month of it!

arm health, baseball history, Deadball Era, footwork in the box, general health, hand use in hitting, hand-spreading, low line drives, mental approach, metal bat use, opposite-field hitting, productive outs, Uncategorized

Mea Culpa… But Error Is Science’s Plumbline

There’s a lot of talk these days about “good science”, “scientific consensus”, and so forth—most of it on the part of people who are trying to get other people to shut up: an oddly un-scientific objective for the self-styled “pro-science” crowd. Real science, you know, doesn’t turn up its nose at anything before the eyes have a close look. Sure, science may quickly turn down its thumb at an hypothesis openly defiant of the evidence… but the verdict is more against a defiance that ignores evidence-collection.  The fact that most of us possess no eye-witness evidence of Bigfoot, for instance, is no proof that the creature doesn’t exist.  None of us has ever directly seen a quark, an isotope, or a genetic marker on a DNA strand, either.  We “know” of such things by inference—by their effect upon the surrounding, more observable environment.  The difficulty about Bigfoot isn’t that he doesn’t stand up and show himself; for, if he exists, he would by definition be an extremely intelligent hominid with a highly evolved ability to remain hidden.  No, the greater problem is that “Bigfoot researchers” seem to practice a method of collecting one-time, sui generis curiosities: nothing systematic, no repeatable results.  Even Sasquatch footprints may just be the indentations left by displaced rocks.  Like T.S. Eliot’s Macavity the Mystery Cat, one may say of the Squatch and his seekers, “For when they reach the scene of crime—Macavity’s not there!”

Well… this is taking the long way around to confessing that I made a mistake.  Several months ago, I conceived the notion—based on some encouraging initial experiments—that a pitch might be effectively pulled with our typical Deadball grip at SmallBallSuccess.com (i.e., hands spread, handle in knocker-knuckles, wrists pressed into a “v”) if only the bat were lifted higher than usual and the hands kept close to the shoulders.  I must have had this notion in my head for well over a year, in fact.  I was surprised to see it pop up in my book Metal Ropes, which I’m currently giving a complete overhaul.  (The second edition will be out by the end of November, I hope.)  I finally got around to testing the technique more thoroughly in a video published a little more than a month ago.  I was very excited in that “shoot” by how balls were flying off my barrel.  The video’s title is “Pull-Hitting the Deadball Way”.

Okay, fine.  But then I developed some right-arm problems that inhibited me from further experiments.  When I finally thought myself fit enough to have another go at it, I added two components to the script: 1) I used a metal bat, since I was now deep into my revision of Metal Ropes; and 2) I mixed in sequences of going the other way with those of my pulling pitches as described.  I called this video “Spreading Hits Around With the Tris Speaker Shuffle”, since I was loading out of a shuffle-step for all my swings.

One thing that the second video taught me was that my swings in the first video were the culprit behind my arm pain.  It returned with a vengeance.  I’m typing this blog left-handed, thanks mostly to the severe compression of shoulder and elbow joints that occurs when you hold a bat’s handle right before your chin and power the barrel straight down.  Umm… don’t try that at home, please.  I’m somewhat reassured that I haven’t set an injury-trap for the general public only because I happen to be on hormone-suppressants, and I’m sure these have far reduced my ability to recover from stress below the average ballplayer’s (and below my personal level before I started cancer therapy).

Now, my pain is a big problem to me personally… but the bigger problem to my faithful viewers is that they’ve been misled.  My first video gave them some “bad dope” (as Jake Daubert would have called it).  Well, not entirely bad: I mean, my solid contact and line drives were real enough.  Significantly, though, both the reliability of contact and the airborne trajectory of the drives tended to fizzle when I switched to metal.  In the second video, I’m forced to conclude that I haven’t solved the problem of how to pull with authority from a Speaker swing, after all, even though that stroke continues to shoot drives very reliably the other way.

I suspect that “hugging the hands in” and swinging down doesn’t work so well with metal because it works too well.  The lifted hands, that is, are actually riding high—whereas, with the heavier wood, I was deceived into thinking them shifted up high.  It’s not the first time a hitting theorist hasn’t properly read his own body’s motions.  The other day, I was laughing over Ted Williams’ insistence in his 1966 instructional video (titled—what else?—Batting With Ted Williams) that any trace of a hitch should be eliminated in the interest of hastening the swing.  As a YouTube viewer correctly commented on one of my uploads about hitching, the Thumper did indeed stir a little roll of the hands into every game-time swing he ever took!

I think the almost battle-hatchet hack from the chin has a high probability of pulling the ball simply because it rushes the barrel out in front of the plate so quickly.  It is good for that!  However, the barrel is now entering the pitch at too severe a downward angle to create line-drive backspin—and its angle is also skewed toward the vertical.  In other words, the ball’s upper/inner quadrant is being struck, not its rear/lower quadrant; and while the early contact is driving it to the pull side, the vertically angled contact is driving it into the ground.  The metal-bat demo illustrates this to perfection.  About the only pitches I could get to fly were those I struck one-handed: that is, I got to them so early that my top hand relinquished the handle and the barrel therefore leveled off.  Otherwise… well, I had discovered a good “butcher boy” technique for getting the ball on the ground to the right side (I typically bat left) and advancing runners.  I certainly hadn’t achieved our operational objective of smacking low line drives.

The wooden-bat experiment had given me false hope because, once again, the barrel’s weight was leveling off my swing more than I’d realized.  The bat’s handle and its head need to be fairly equidistant from the ground for straight, low shots to fly off the barrel—yet the barrel’s entry into the ball also needs to be slightly downward to kiss the globe with backspin.  That’s the problem I have to solve, newly rephrased: how do you catch a pitch in front of the plate while keeping you stick in a level, slightly descending plane?

The best way might actually be to shuffle up on the plate and then stride away with a good lunge, taking care to keep your hands from straying far above or beyond the rear shoulder.  Just let the barrel fall into the ball—but open up so that the bat can flatten out as it leaves the shoulder.  A “lunge into the bucket” wouldn’t cover the outside corner very well… but it allow the barrel to be relatively level even as it reached back for that corner, and a “push” hit to the off-field would be possible.  Anyway, that’s an hypothesis for a day when the old man has two functional arms again.

I have a feeling that Ty Cobb almost obsessed over being able to pull.  He had no doubt mastered the art of going the other way early on; but pulling is actually harder than pushing (except in our era, when every man uses a kid’s bat), and Ty liked to give out that he was a “place-hitter”—that he could hit ’em anywhere he pleased.  The two photos above were culled from an online video.  The first shows a very promising drive into the pitch.  Then the unthinkable happens: Ty Cobb’s mechanics utterly break down.  He’s early, so all he needs to do is keep his head down and release the handle with his top hand.  The barrel will then stay squared to the ball and travel a bit further along the same slightly downward vector—with reduced power; but that’s okay, because square contact should pop the pitch right into center field.  Instead… instead, the game’s greatest hitting wizard refuses to get off the gas with his top hand and even rears his head back in a bid to keep the barrel circling in “pull” mood.  What in hell’s he doing?

You can tell from the surroundings that this isn’t a live game.  The Georgia Peach is devoting valuable BP to figuring out how to pull a pitch any time he feels like it.  I don’t think he found the answer on this day.

I can sympathize.  But I’ll leave you with this thought: in science, progress is made through failure.  You’re trying to find a passage through uncharted waters, and all you can do is crawl ahead under one jib while throwing the plumbline again and again.  You hope you can read a sudden rise in the bottom before your feel it through the hull.  My body took some hits thanks to my miscalculations… but now I know.  If I live to fight another day, I’ll edge right back into the same shoal waters and then steer a different course.  I never seem to pencil anything new onto the chart, though, without the help of mistakes and erasures.

Come to think of it, what most puts me off about Ted’s Science of Hitting is that it reads more like a man’s lecture on why his way is right, with plenty of after-the-fact rationalizations shoring up the shakier planks, than like a scientific treatise.  Science makes errors.  It thrives on them.  I’m sure I’ll keep finding smoother paths by bruising my shins on rocky ones; and every time I take a fall, I’ll let you know about it.