baseball history, Deadball Era, fathers and sons, footwork in the box, hand use in hitting, mental approach, opposite-field hitting, pitching, umpires, Uncategorized

Four Random Comments About Lower-Echelon and Old-School Baseball

“push-hitting” a pitch (Red Schoendienst)

Tom Seaver, Bob Gibson, Whitey Ford, Joe Morgan… so many unforgettable ballplayers have lately been called up to the highest league of all that commenting upon their loss–upon our loss of them–is simply beyond me. I’ve decided, instead, to go with a few stray ideas that have been swirling in my head for weeks. I think, just maybe, they would have preferred it this way.

I’ll get this one off my chest first.  Are you a dad of a relief pitcher who throws junk—“unbarrelable” junk that hitters put into play as bloopers and twelve-hoppers?  Then you know the anguish of watching your boy trying to shine in high school, on a summer travel team, or even in college.

I thought about this a lot during the years of torture when I’d watch my son’s successes at inducing weak contact be undermined, over and over, by shoddy fielding.  Relief pitchers tend to enter the game with runners on base.  One of these runners may well be on second.  Young shortstops have been coached since their first pair of cleats to bird-dog the runner on second as he takes his lead.  Owen was a righty, most hitters are righties, and most of my son’s wipe-out sliders were therefore going to be pulled to the left side… just where the shortstop is supposed to be playing.  But Studs Superstar is too busy yoyoing around the second sack to play his position… so bowling balls keep rolling to the outfield grass.

This is the coach’s fault.  It’s the fault of coaches even at college-level.  My son had a great inside pick-off move and, over the years, had compiled a formidable list of scalps when runners wandered too far from second.  He was so good at catching them off guard that the coach should actually have wanted them to get a big lead, as a spider wants a fly to check out its bright, shiny silk.  Instead… instead, Owen’s ERA would painfully inflate on a series of bleeders that reflected the very type of contact he was called in to induce.

Then, too, you have the inevitable but regrettable obsession of adolescents with offense.  Hitting becomes such a fixation that Jason over there at second is still brooding about his strikeout when an easy grounder comes his way, and Daz over at third is still replaying his homer in slo-mo as a ground ball almost chews off his shoelaces.  Of course, such butchery isn’t deficited to the pitcher’s ERA… but a loss or a blown save still shows up on his account if the miscues of others prove fatal; and, more importantly, the coach comes to feel that letting him pitch is a risk, though not due to the boy’s own ineptitude.

Over time, I believe this largely subconscious prejudice of coaches infects even the professional game.  Why do we have so many flamethrowers in the MLB who can’t put away a pivotal hitter in the inning?  Because, from Little League on up, gas was always the ticket.  Even in Double A, the change-up was something Mr. Potential could work on—but the heater was what got him that far up the ladder.  Junk-ballers whose fast one can’t break out of the mid-80’s won’t get a serious look.  All they do is get people out… but then, as I argued above, they are not perceived as getting outs “reliably” in the lower echelons.  In my humble opinion, this is one reason for the immensely boring quality of today’s Major League game.  Walks and strikeouts abound: the excitement of balls put in play thanks to hurlers who pitch to contact is a rarity.

Now, if you shun the junkster to favor the fireballer, you’re going to get a bunch of Mighty Caseys on the other side of the ball.  My next two comments have to do with how much the slugger mentality has contributed to making The Show a bore-fest.  The other night, I heard Buck Showalter and Jim Kaat (of all people… don’t they know better?) subscribing to the proposition that radical shifts be outlawed.  I have another idea.  How about we teach hitters how to hit?  During my recent stints of reviewing old ballgames as I sit in the sauna, I’ve made the following mental list of middle-of-the-order guys who dropped bunts during World Series play: in chronological order, Walker Cooper, Hank Greenberg, Ted Williams, and Steve Garvey.  All four were successful in some measure with their bunts.  Cooper got his sacrifice down, as did Hank (I think one of these was thrown away by panicky defenders); Teddy—those who have ears, let them hear!—was bunting against the shift for a hit, which he easily accomplished; and Steve actually misunderstood manager Dick Williams’ instructions, laying down a perfect sacrifice rather than bunting for a safety up the vacated third-base line.  What’s radiantly clear is that all of these bruisers were practiced, competent bunters.  So… geez, if Hank Greenberg can do it, guys, why can’t you?  You think your offensive contribution with the all-out swing is of a higher quality than Hank Greenberg’s?  Really?

Now, there’s more than one way to beat a shift or advance base-runners.  Stroking a line drive to the opposite field works, too… but when is the last time you saw somebody do that today?  I’m talking about a drive that the runners can read quickly, so that they proceed to take an extra base with confidence: these are not bloopers squirreled off the end of the bat in lunging contact.  Time after time, relatively pedestrian players of over half a century ago would go the other way when a Bob Feller, a Spuds Chandler, or a Robin Roberts had shut them down earlier in the afternoon.  They processed failure and found a formula for success.  They learned: they adjusted.  Marty Marion, Alvin Dark, Jimmy Outlaw, Earl Torgeson, George McQuinn, Billy Cox… these fellows knew how to play the game.  Yes, they had longer bats.  I guess you have to be able to reach the outside corner before you can drive a pitch the other way from down there.  But don’t leave out the footwork.  Tommy Holmes would actually set up on top of the plate, stride open, and trail his barrel so as to make late contact: the opposite field seems to have been his preferred target for pitches in all quadrants.  And I’d swear that I saw Dark shuffle his feet as the delivery was in progress so as to angle his barrel the off-field.

Footwork: where do you see that now?  Guys spread out in the box and hardly take a stride… or else they heave up the front foot and then slam it down, not so much orienting the body to the pitch as starting a loop of energy for a fiercely descending barrel to follow.  I love to watch Nolan Arenado’s busy, jittery feet; but most of those widespread pairs of legs are doing nothing to extend the bat path farther into the pitch (also known as front-foot hitting).  Their feet are, as my cousin the Royal Navy commander once told me in defining a ship, a “platform for guns”.

A last stray observation that I must squeeze in: umpires.  Would you believe that the arbiters of 70 or 80 years ago just about never got riled?  I saw one runner get called out at second, jump up, and bump the umpire with his chest (no, I don’t have any names: note-taking isn’t easy in a sauna).  The man-in-blue’s response was… to pat the guy on the shoulder and calm him down.  Another irate competitor turned toward the umpire after a called third strike and beat his bat upon the ground within three feet of the man’s shoes.  Response: nothing.  Just look at him and watch him skulk back to the dugout.  And there were numerous scenes where a first- or third-baseman became very animated after a close play.  Even from cameras lodged several rows up in the stands, you could see neck muscles and veins working through the skin.  Cover the children’s ears!  But never was any of these human firecrackers tossed from the game.

Umpires, too, were different in the old days.  They knew that nobody had bought a ticket to see them, they knew they weren’t perfect, they knew the young men before them were at the highest pitch of competitive ardor, and they knew… well, a war had just ended.  Maybe they knew that it was good to be home playing ball again.  Call it perspective.  As one great referee of the period said when challenged, “Yeah, I probably missed the call.  So what do you want me to do?”

The show can go on after a bad call—but it can’t go on when no calls are firm and final.  Wow… when did we forget that in the broader context of life?  Is there any chance that we may soon rediscover its truth?

arm health, baseball history, coaches and trust, Deadball Era, low arm angle, pitchers of short stature, pitching, pitching velocity, submarine pitching

More on Yesteryear’s Pitching: The Lower Arm Angle

At the moment, I can neither throw a ball nor swing a bat a full speed without risking re-aggravation of strained ligaments.  It’s frustrating, because I have a lot of experimental craft on the runway that I’d like to give a trial flight.  My problems began when I hit the weights too hard after returning from five weeks of very successful cancer therapy.  That pulled something in my right arm.  I wanted to do a pitching video, so… well, I decided simply to throw lefty and thereby put my ideas to a even better test (since natural coordination wouldn’t be able to come to the aid of bad theory).  The only trouble there was that the test involved throwing the stride-leg powerfully open while having the lead arm trail it a bit: the “stretch the rubber band” dynamic.  I appear to have stretched a rubber band high up in my right thigh rather too vigorously.

Some of you will recall reading about Dizzy Dean’s ill-advised effort to return too soon after the 1937 All Star Game where Earl Averill smacked his toe with a line drive.  Through favoring the sore foot, Diz placed inordinate strain on his throwing shoulder… and one of the great pitching careers of the pre-war generation came to an abrupt end.  We should all be mindful of that cautionary tale.  It happens over and over in the baseball world.  Injuries just pile up like cars in a train wreck because of trying to work around the initial tweak.

It’s probably just as well that I discuss pitching indoors now when I make videos.  My demonstrations on the subject aren’t particularly dazzling, anyway.  I did an indoor shoot this past weekend (well, it was actually filmed out in my driveway) which pursued further the topic of the low overhand angle.  As I try to apply to pitching the techniques I used in earlier years to research hitting (digging up old newsreels, isolating clues in old photos, etc.), I find myself more and more convinced that, before World War II, throwing from a low angle—almost sidearm—was the norm.  Commentators of yesteryear often don’t remark upon the degree of that angle.  Overhand is overhand.  Because the almost-sidearm slot was so common, in any case, I doubt that many who observed it would have considered it worthy of note.

Excuse me if the rest of this column repeats in places my comments of two weeks ago. The repetition isn’t intentional. I think I’m going a little loony in my confined-to-quarters state (which compounds our whole nation’s confined-to-quarters state, of course). I believe a good bit of new also nestles in the old. Eventually, I’d like to work this research into a book.

Here are some names you didn’t see before: Robin Roberts, Johnny Sain, Preacher Roe, Eddie, Lopat, Max Lanier… those are a few exemplars of the style whom I’ve identified from film footage taken after the war.  Even in still shots, such as those taken for baseball cards, I can amass reasonably reliable evidence by keying on four giveaways corresponding to the pitcher’s four limbs: 1) his front leg strides out to the side rather than straight toward home plate; 2) his trailing front arm also flops out to the side rather than folding into its driving shoulder; 3) his throwing arm obviously comes through at a low angle; and 4) his rear foot may be left dangling in the air and somewhat to the side rather than dragging the mound’s dirt, this because so much momentum is carrying him off to the opposite side.

Now, Items 1 and 2 above get almost universally flagged by today’s pitching coaches as bad form.  I agree, by the way, that stepping to the side can be bad news.  It can cause the pitcher to arch his back and follow through with over-emphasis on his throwing shoulder (and, yes, I discussed that extensively in the earlier post).  You might say that, in siphoning his thrust away from the plate, the hurler has to make up for that lost energy from the back side.  Eventually, this can lead to career-ending damage of the rotator cuff.  No, not good.

But… but if the front arm trails the striding leg in a low, broad sweep (i.e., what I was trying to do from the left side when I strained a ligament somewhere in my thigh), it keeps the head down.  With that arm extended and low, the back cannot arch; and with that arm continuing sidewise in a sweep, the energy flow is held in a channel that runs somewhat skewed to the rubber-to-plate line.  Everything is working together now: all movement is traveling roughly in the same plane.  You’re not drawing and quartering yourself as this leg goes here and that arm goes there.

I’m pretty sure I wrote all that two weeks ago, as well. What I didn’t add is that my infamous “lefty” video is a negative proof of the “dynamic front arm” theory. My left arm, in attempting to throw from a low angle, never got down nearly far enough: my limbs didn’t reach the same plane.  From one perspective, this could account for my injury. I believe the right arm—the front one—was straining both to resist the opening leg for a split second and to pull the pitching arm down into its path. The rubber band probably would have worked fine if I’d stretched it along a true line… but I wrapped its middle around a nail and then had the far end straining upward as well as backward. Ouch! That hurts just to put into words!

Granted, you would tap more energy if you pointed your plane of movement directly at the plate.  This is what our speed-adoring contemporary coaches emphasize to their pupils.  Yet what if your body type just doesn’t have the slender, svelte, supple cut that allows it to “drive through a tunnel” at the target?  What if you’re wide in the hips and shoulders, as a lot of shorter people are?  Might your maximum of energy not be tapped in a more sidewise motion that utilizes your powerful core muscles?  Even if the straight-to-the-plate delivery shows up on the drawing board as more dynamic, another delivery may best harness the horses that happen to be in your personal stable.  Those horses can pull you to pieces, yes, if you ignore physics… but your own physical profile profile needs to be a factor in the formula.

Ah, but then there’s the question of accuracy, protests today’s coach.  It’s much harder to hit a target falling off to the side than striding straight toward the bull’s eye.  I’ve heard this explained as a physical certainty: i.e., that a sidestepping delivery cannot possibly steer balls through the strike zone with consistency.  Yet I find it no less improbable, considered abstractly, that a human arm—which is built to rotate at the shoulder’s side rather than directly over it—should be able to guide the ball exactly where the foot steps.  Face it: hitting the target from any angle requires practice.

And the low-overhand or sidearm angle has this benefit not to be found in “high noon” deliveries: its pitches show prominent east/west as well as north-south motion.  That’s precisely why accuracy can be a problem—but lively movement along two axes can also be a huge advantage.  It’s something more for the hitter to worry about.  I wouldn’t hesitate to say (and I say this from my much broader experience as a hitter) that, if a little velocity has to be traded for livelier movement, then the trade is well worthwhile.  Good hitters will eventually time the best fastball in the world, and sooner rather than later.  It’s the pitch that darts around in two planes which gives them fits.

I know I mentioned before that, because of my personal body type, I was always a natural sidewinder.  So was my son. By the way (warning: “proud papa” moment)… you can see this diminutive submarine slinger finishing off a D-2 rival here if you run the clock up to about 3:30 (that is, three hours and thirty minutes).  The bases are loaded with only one out.  I have a hard time imagining that a flame-throwing reliever could have handled the two bruisers at the plate as well in that situation.  They’re so cranked up to attack the next pitch that they’ve practically unbuttoned their jerseys.  Do you really want to try to beat those fellows with your best fastball as the game teeters on the line… or would you rather let them get themselves out trying to swat a moth?

I would add to this example of practical success the comment that, in a decade of throwing from down under, Owen never had significant arm trouble.  Neither have I, as a sexagenarian messing around with low angles.  Muscle tears, yes, and even ligament damage from the left side… but never in the arm.  As often as people ask me, “But doesn’t that hurt your arm?”, I can only answer, “Not if you do it right.  If you get your whole body in sync, it’s probably much safer than throwing high-overhand.”

When you take stock of how many guys used to pile up innings from the nine-thirty angle and then look at how many elite pitchers are breaking down today, you have to wonder if the lower angle isn’t actually more healthy.  Once again, apologies for recycling the point… but let me add a brilliant example I didn’t use before. Robin Roberts was often given just two or three days rest and almost never relieved: he logged over 300 innings from 1951 through 1955, leading his league in that category every year.  Eventually, later in the decade, something popped in his shoulder (as he reveals in his autobiography), and he had to learn how to retire hitters with pure control and guile.  What sabotaged his arm’s health, however, was the idiotic abuse of his talents so prevalent among managers of the time, and not the angle of his delivery.

As I stress in my videos on this subject, not all of yesteryear’s low-angle pitchers were short… far from it.  Roberts was a six-footer. Even in the Teens of the previous century, a pitcher under six feet in height was fairly rare.  But if you’re short by today’s standards yet are determined to pitch, a lower angle may be your ticket to making the team.  Tall, lanky guys like to drop down, too (look no farther than Randy Johnson).  That’s why I’d suggest the opening of the front leg, which can transfer stress to places where you’re built to bear it—in your broad, powerful core—if you you do it right.  I’m not talking about slinging pitches over your body from the on-deck circle with your Kraken-like reach: I’m talking about being compact and synchronized.  Learn to harmonize everything, and you will both pick hitters apart at the plate and keep your health for decades to come.