baseball history, bat design, hand use in hitting, low line drives, metal bat use, off-season preparation, opposite-field hitting, Uncategorized

Get a Grip

I liked the Cubs before the major networks decided to adopt them as America’s team.  Hell, I would have liked the resuscitated Washington Senators if the cheerleading media had just left them alone instead of trying to make us all Nationals fans.  I don’t like feeling manipulated, and I also don’t like—purely from a baseball perspective—the profile of the big, burly hitter who crowds the plate and pulls everything he can reach.  Those crushers have their uses, but they’re the diametric opposite of everything we preach at smallballsuccess.com.

A Cub, a plate-crowder supreme, a pull hitter’s pull hitter… Anthony Rizzo should represent a big swathe of what I detest about today’s game.  But he’s also an invincibly amiable human being; and now that I myself am a cancer survivor (well, sort of: first I have to survive the drug overdoses to which I was submitted this fall), he’s one of my favorite men in uniform for another reason.  I forgive him his gripping the bat like a club, thumbs wrapped tightly round and pressing the wood deep into the palm.  Every hitting manual from the old days, from Johnny Mize’s to Ted Williams’ to Cal Ripken, Jr.’s (and that’s not so old, children), strongly recommended holding the handle as you would an axe’s, with wrists somewhat closed in a “v” and thumbs and forefingers actually floating free until the intricacies of attack create complex shifts in pressure point.  But you just don’t see the “lumberjack” grip any more.

And why would you?  The bats themselves fight against it.  The metal sticks that kids grow up swinging have handles about as thick as a large rope.  They cry out to be grasped and yanked.  The top hand heaves the barrel down from over the shoulder, then releases as the bottom hand clings for dear life to the whirlybirding weapon.  It’s a steep swing, relying heavily on severe backspin for long-ball success, and it doesn’t work well for boys who aren’t tall.  Yet bats have gotten shorter and their barrels thicker as handles have grown skinnier, so the tall boy with his great wingspan is the only one who might effectively wield this bludgeon, anyway.  A boy without as much reach needs a longer stick, which will also allow his stroke to level off and spray line drives around… but we no longer have that bat in the game, so we no longer have the short, scrappy contact hitter and the offensive antidote to shifts and strikeouts.  It all holds together.

It wasn’t always so, I promise you.  Nobody had bigger hands than Roberto Clemente (except perhaps Jackie Robinson), and nobody’s handle was more massive (except perhaps Jackie Robinson’s).  Yet despite having so much lumber to steer with their fingers, both Clemente and Robinson honored their day’s practice of “aligning the knuckles” in taking their grip and not cramming the handle deep into their palms.  Even after the entry of metal-cloned wooden bats into the game, along with now-indispensable batting gloves, maestros like Rod Carew cradled their handle in very loose fingers attached to very limber wrists. 

It’s not that neither hand ever clamped down on the bat at any point of the swing.  On the contrary, the loose-and-limber initial grasp was important precisely because it gave the hitter flexibility in rotating the hands through different stages of the stroke.  In a classic Williams or Mantle cut, the bottom hand would close a little (but still not lock its thumb) as it thrust the handle back and out during the load; the top hand, resisting this rearward thrust to create a “full cock” effect, would bend its wrist inward more than ever.  Then the bottom hand’s thumb would indeed close on the bat as the load’s backward roll leveled off into a forward attack; and the top hand, just a split second later, would punch down through the pitch, its wrist straightening just at contact and its thumb closing tightly.  (There was a lot of debate in coaching literature of the time about whether the back arm is fully extended and the elbow locked upon contact.  Answer: no.  The wrist straightens into a punch, but the elbow is faintly bent until follow-through.)

A martial arts master, you know, throws his punches from bent wrists: he doesn’t begin them with straight wrists and locked fingers, as in the so-called roundhouse punch.  The Rizzo type of hitter (and I’ll pick on Anthony only because he’s about the best there is at the style) throws those rounded punches, not the straight karate shots that drive linearly through the point of contact.  Again, he doesn’t really have much of a choice.  He will have grown up, this contemporary slugger, using metal that wants to be yanked on rather than caressed; and if he graduates to professional ball, his wooden sticks will naturally preserve the dimensions of his metal ones as closely as the bat-maker can engineer.

In Metal Ropes, I recommend wrapping the handle in two layers of insulating tape, just to thicken it up.  An incidental benefit of that adjustment, though, is that you really don’t need gloves with so much padding beneath your fingers.  Your fingers can now be a little closer to the action.  I would add yet a third layer of wrap—not for thickness, because electrician’s tape is ultra-thin; but I would apply a coating of that slick black adhesive precisely so that the hands would not firmly grip the bat.  As I tried to indicate a couple of paragraphs back, the stick needs to rotate subtly and smoothly in the fingers as it’s taken through a complex circle striving to become a straight line.  Everything in our skeletal structure is built to produce pivotal motions.  If we’re to get our barrel directly to the ball, therefore, our marvelous joints have to make loops and curves on either side of the straight vector—and it all has to happen in a split second.  Landing dead-center on a pitch to produce a line drive is really a little work of art, suitable for framing (if only your shutter could capture the protracted instant).

Flexibility.  That’s why, in those Paleolithic days before the alloy bat, we kids would emulate big-leaguers by rubbing our handles with dirt.  I never saw anyone using pine tar when I was a kid.  I know it was around by then, but I still associate heavy tarring of the handle with the “metal swing”.  (I think some hitters probably wanted one hand to stay relatively secure in its grasp: power hitters might want to glue a firm top hand to the bat, while spray hitters might want to be sure their bottom hand’s fingers always had a good grip.)  Now, I distinctly remember that we kids always said we performed the dirt-rubbing ritual in order to grip the bat better (if Mom asked us why we had to play in the dirt).  That’s what we believed.  But the truth is that sweat, like pure water, will make wood refuse to glide smoothly under the fingers.  We were really trying to neutralize the effects of nervous sweat on our war club that would have denied our hands a chance to work into different positions.

Isn’t this why today’s sluggers, having stepped out of the box to readjust their batting gloves, proceed to deposit a load of spittle into them just before resuming their grip?  (I can still see David Ortiz: oh, the life of a batting glove!)  You’ve already rubbed the handle with pine tar; you’ve already clothed your hands in a substance that catches on the tar tightly.  So now… now you need to lubricate that substance lest it be too “catchy” and not allow your fingers any rotational ability at all.  I have to wonder if we couldn’t strip away a few layers of counter-measure here and there.

If you really wanted to develop a Rod Carew-style stroke—a batting champ’s manual flexibility—my advice would be that you sit on a stool and have a teammate toss you pitches in the cage.  Take your lower half out of the equation until you learn to use your hands.  The coach shouldn’t be sitting on a bucket while you’re pirouetting from head to toe: you should be sitting on the bucket, and your hands should be getting to know their handle.

baseball history, bat acceleration, footwork in the box, hand use in hitting, hitter reaction time, opposite-field hitting, weight transfer

More on the Kinetic Loop: Sheffield and Musial

Let’s begin in repeating the definition that I use in Metal Ropes:

Before any punctilious physicist jumps all over my abuse of the term [i.e., kinesis], let me stress that I’m not trying to pass Physics 101 (which I never attempted to do): my wish is simply to distinguish between fluid and stored motion; and, as a lover of Homer, Socrates, and Epictetus, I’m going to latch onto [the Greek word] “kinetic” to designate fluidity.  What I have in mind is the immensely important matter of how energy flow is cycled throughout the load prior to being unleashed upon the pitch.  I thought of using the word “balance”, but that implies poise or “standstill”: the very opposite of what we want.  We need to have a load where energy is held milling in the corral without being allowed to halt; because if it truly halted, we would have to go from 0 to 60 (or 90) in a split-second.  What we want, rather, is for our initiated flow (or our “kinetic energy”, if you’ll allow me) to travel through a subtle loop or loops as it awaits the instant to pour out of the chute.

Now, for all practical purposes, the loops of which I write are created a) by the hands and b) by the forward leg.  You could isolate your looping to just one of these two spots, but we seldom see that happening in a successful hitter: the legs, rather, are at least somewhat involved in feeding into manual preparation, or else the hands will be somewhat synchronized to very visible leg activity.

You know that a gyroscope simulates stasis (or perfect balance) by spinning.  The kinetic loop’s objective is analogous to that remarkable whirling top’s.  It aims at holding vigorous energy in suspense until the instant of attack arrives.  You might think of it as a delayed fall.  If your front foot rises during a forward weight shift, you’re going to fall forward; yet you can somewhat delay the precise moment of the fall by letting the leg carry farther to the rear, and also by letting the hands trail out or back.  The longer the delaying loops are, the less rushed will be your full commitment of energy into the pitch: in other words, the more finely you’ll be able to initiate your attack right on time.

I’m going to devote the rest of this post to two very different hitters who relied heavily for their success upon large kinetic loops.  The first of these two is Gary Sheffield.  Here’s how I would describe Shef’s stroke.  We all remember the lofty, really vigorous succession of hand pumps, of course, that sent the barrel swooshing back and forth over the hitter’s head.  Yet this most spectacular component of the Sheffield wind-up had relatively minor importance in creating a powerful loop.  I think its main purpose was just to concentrate the hitter’s awareness of his barrel into his wrists and fingers (as opposed to his shoulders) so that the significant final loop would anchor itself tightly in the torso (as opposed to lassoing the whole batter’s box sloppily from end to end).  Gary’s hands were initiating a kind of magic circle over the inner half of home plate, where his core muscles were most in control of the dynamics surrounding release.

The entry to the major loop came when the mighty hand pumps trickled almost to a halt.  This would occur when Sheffield saw that the pitcher was indeed about the deliver: everything previous was simply keeping the hands loose and alert until the ball was about to come home.  As the pitcher took his stride, Gary would answer, not immediately with renewed hand motion, but with a substantial lift of his own forward leg.  He was preparing to “throw down” into the pitch with an emphatic weight shift.  Yet hefty leg kicks of the sort can get you to the rendezvous too soon: the leg’s coil needed to be integrated into a broader loop that the hands—always the hitter’s instruments of fine tuning—could adjust.  This was when Gary’s hands made their final forward passage.  If he were a tad early, the hands could dip the barrel just a little farther forward as the leg drifted farther to the rear, keeping both mobile forces in a gyroscopic kind of balance.  If he found himself in danger of arriving late, Sheffield could instantly lower the barrel into the pitch without describing a complete rotation.

Most hitting analysts, I suppose, would argue that Sheffield sacrificed a higher average for greater power by throwing his body so “uncontrollably” into the pitch.  I would phrase it differently.  A power hitter deluxe Gary certainly was; but I would say that he enhanced both power and average by creating a generous kinetic loop where very lively leg activity was finely tuned by very clever hand activity.

Stan Musial’s stance was “admiringly derided” (if those words can be used together) by two generations of sports commentators.  Joe Garagiola used to say that, when he set up in the box and was waiting on the pitch, the Man looked like a street urchin peeking around the corner to see if the cops were following.  Closed to the plate and relatively far from it, Musial displayed no characteristic at this moment more distinctive than his lift of the bottom hand to a height almost equal to the top hand’s.  The result was that his barrel extended far to the rear and nearly parallel to the ground.  (Negro League star Wes Covington, who reached the Bigs a little late to make the sort of dent he could have, featured extremely similar swing dynamics.)  Stan’s weight was nestled decisively over his rear foot thanks to his having hugged the handle into his armpit in this fashion.  Though that wasn’t the primary end served by the odd hand positioning, it did make his rearward coil as he loaded much more easy and fluid.  His front knee bent more deeply than ever into the body as his forward foot glided back almost to touch the rear one (à la Babe Ruth).  This severe approximating of the feet was catalyzed by the hands flicking the barrel into an upright position.  The two were inseparable: bottom hand pressed down and back to raise the flag pole, and legs drew together simultaneously in that same vertical axis—though the spine remained distinctly bent throughout the operation, keeping all the power focused in the core muscles.

Today’s hitting instructors would say, “Don’t try this at home, kids!  Keep your legs in a spread, athletic position beneath you.”  Yes… and from that “athletic position” would emerge no potent kinetic loop—for the Musial coil, as described thus far, had just primed one of the most effective loops in the game’s history.

A front foot drawn very far to the rear has created a sliding spectrum of options about where to land when it goes forward.  It can plant almost at once on a fastball, especially a tight one, and “backleg” the pitch by forcing the weight shift to retreat up and back immediately; or it can travel virtually the whole length of the box in pursuit of a low/away pitch or a slow-freight breaking ball.  Again, Babe Ruth also displayed this huge range of length in his strides.  In Stan’s own day, we might point to Willie Mays and Roberto Clemente.

But it’s impossible to measure your stride’s length against an incoming pitch and still have any pop in your stroke—impossible, that is, if the stride’s variable loop itself is your only channel of energy.  The key to Stan’s explosive swing was, once more, in his hands, and specifically in the bottom one.  Having begun to press down on the handle in the “flagpole-raising” load, that hand continued to apply pressure in the same looping direction.  The motion of the hands to the rear somewhat counterpoised the forward motion of the stride: not perfectly counterpoised, because the energy ignited in the forward surge had to remain active.  But the bottom hand could press a little farther back if the pitch were taking its sweet time to reach the plate, giving the front leg more leisure to go out to the point of rendezvous; or if the pitch were coming in at an unexpectedly high velocity, then the bottom hand could instantly interrupt its drift to the rear and cut down into the ball (the top hand, of course, actually doing the heavy lifting by punching quickly off the chest).

This is a quick take on a splendid kinetic loop.  In the baseball card to the side, you have a particularly good illustration of the loop’s extreme adjustability.  The weight has already been caught entirely on the forward leg here, but the ball isn’t yet in the hitting zone.  The hands, therefore, are stretching their loop as far to the rear as it will go; and, thanks, to their counterpoising influence, the complete forward weight transfer hasn’t emptied the stroke’s power into thin air.  Contact is going to be right on time, and a bull’s eye.

Despite also having a full forward weight shift, Gary Sheffield (like Lou Gehrig) always hit off a lock-kneed, rear-inclined front leg.  He rushed his energy forward so that he could lift its vector: he was a dead-pull hitter.  In contrast, Musial would drive straight through the ball no matter where it was pitched.  By allowing his shift to continue as far forward as necessary, he was able to shoot his 725 doubles and 177 triples all over the park.  The kinetic loop set both of these warriors free to fight their chosen battle; but if Gary hadn’t insisted on rearing back so much when planting his foot, we might have seen something very, very rare and special.

baseball history, bat acceleration, coaches and trust, footwork in the box, hand use in hitting, low line drives, Uncategorized, weight transfer

Beware of Where You Begin: It Determines All That Follows

swing1

As the summer—a long, hot summer—finally settles into fall, I look back with considerable satisfaction on Metal Ropes, the book I’ve just published through Amazon that imports Deadball Era lessons to our age of alloy bats.  Writing the book (like writing anything on any subject) was itself educational: I mean, I learned a lot just by setting down what I had learned.  One of my most painful lessons was realizing that the first thing I had my son do in a batter’s box when he was a little tyke was wrong.  I had him spread his feet wide.  I reasoned… well, I’m no longer sure just what I reasoned.  The tactic was vintage Charley Lau, so I could blame it on my great mentor, author of The Art or Hitting .300.  The widespread stance must have seemed sensible for a short kid, at any rate, because it emphasized a firm base that would allow the hands to go straight at the ball.  A contact hitter: that’s what we wanted.

But there are two erroneous assumptions in this theory.  One is that minimizing lower-body movement and focusing on the hands will make the attack quicker.  It won’t.  It actually slows the attack down.  The hands are quickest to the ball when they tap into energy that has already been generated in the lower body.  Reduce or remove that energy… and you have nothing but hands, all on their own: that translates into a slow swing.

The second error is that widespread feet create a level stroke that keeps the barrel in the hitting zone for a long time.  Intuitively, you would want to approve this connection.  If someone asked you to take a yardstick and describe as flat and broad a plane as you could in thin air, you’d spread your legs to stabilize and then rake the stick from side to side.  But no one is asking you to accelerate the stick at this moment; and once you try to add speed to the equation, the feet (as noted in the previous paragraph) have to get involved.  The most obvious and, I suppose, natural way for them to do so is for the front knee to coil in the load and the front hip to flip back open as the attack begins.  Now, however, your beautiful plane has scattered to the winds.  As the knee coils, the hands load up and back… and as the hip opens, the shoulders rotate out and up.  In other words, you’re leading the bat into a pronounced dip.  You’re likely to cut under the bull’s eye and pop the pitch up if the dip is still descending; or, if you catch the ball as the barrel begins to rise, you’ll topspin or “roll over” the pitch.

Of course, starting with the feet close together can create an even more extreme—much more extreme—undercut/uppercut dynamic.  (Look at Cody Bellinger: he may well be this year’s MVP, but he has cooled off, and he’s not 5”7’ tall. His pop-ups and roll-overs assume his own epic proportions.)  A relatively long, easy stride into the pitch can also produce the most level of swings, though.  Yesteryear’s great stickers knew this.  They knew, to be precise, that if they 1) didn’t load their hands far up and back, and 2) followed the striding foot very closely with those hands down into the pitch, the barrel would hold a straight, slightly descending line into the ball’s center all the way to the front of the batter’s box.  Then the bat would come up over the forward shoulder in a tight parabola with the head still pointing directly at the mound.  You can find that very finish in thousands of photos from before the Fifties (though in very few after then, thanks to the Age of the Uppercut).

A full forward weight shift, in short (also known as front-foot hitting), is the key to keeping a quick, linear stroke on target into the pitch and producing a line drive.  Aaron did it.  Clemente did it.  A lot of the players who entered the MLB through the Negro Leagues brought the Old School technique right along with them, though many were subsequently destroyed as hitters when “instructors” insisted that they lean back and hack.

I don’t want to rewrite Metal Ropes in this spot.  Just beware of what you’re telling your child—understand that the thigh bone’s connected to the hip bone.  When you have a boy assume a certain position in the box, that is to say, you’re already confining him to a narrow sequence of moves that can work fluidly with that position.  Think it all through.  Don’t start at a point that just happens to be what everyone else is doing… and therefore must be right.  Make every element of the swing contribute to the effect you want.

In my case, I wanted my son to hit low line drives—and I sabotaged my endeavor right out of the gate.  I wish I could take back those initial mistakes, but instead, I’ll have to live with them.  One way I’ve made my peace is to create SmallBallSuccess.com.