baseball history, coaches and trust, Deadball Era, footwork in the box, hand use in hitting, low line drives, mental approach, opposite-field hitting, Uncategorized, weight transfer

Three Examples of the Old Hitting Paradigm’s Collapse

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There are a lot of good reasons why you shouldn’t lose your mind, but—alas—far fewer ways to keep it from actually happening in the young year of 2020.  They’ve even taken baseball from us!  Well… yes and no.  We can always dig into the video library, and serious players-in-becoming should certainly use these days of lull to refine their game.  As the old Stoic teacher Epictetus said, “No one is free who who cannot rule himself.”  Forget about circumstances: take control of your own life.

My personal library of ancient baseball videos is pretty substantial.  The trouble is that many are altogether too ancient: they feature a single camera sitting in one spot among the fans along the right-field line, and the “sound technicians” crack a wooden ball-on-a-string with a stick to simulate explosive contact.  Can’t tell a whole lot from that!

Worst of all, in those seventy-year-old edits, the creators of newsreels apparently judged that the hitter’s load as the pitcher started pumping would be a matter of utter uninterest… and so the cut was almost always made as the swing started forward, leaving students of the swing like me to make blind guesses about what went before.  Annoying.

Last week, I lurched in the opposite temporal direction.  I decided to view some of the games I didn’t have time to catch during Fall 2019.  The American League Wild Card Game, featuring Tampa Bay at Oakland, was a gem.  I’ll lay all of my cards on the table right now.  I intend to argue in this brief space, on the basis of what I saw in one playoff game, that the rather rigid coaching doctrine of the past three decades is loosening up.  Younger guys who are still very active in baseball have suggested as much to me lately.  Paul Reddick has also been busily peddling Mike Ryan’s revolutionary hitting videos online over the past month; and Coach Ryan appears to endorse such drills as the Dominican practice of hacking away at pitches that are bounced a couple of times up to the plate.  I suppose it’s all about tracking the ball while being aggressive.

(A sidebar here: may I point out that hitting a ball on a hop is routine in cricket, and that many Caribbean products like Josh Bell actually took their first cuts in that game rather than in baseball?  This already forges a link, not just to the Deadball Era, but all the way back to nineteenth-century baseball, when awareness of cricket in New England was fairly strong.  One of the Rays hitters I’m going to mention below reminds me more than a little of something from the panel of an 1880’s tobacco card when he sets up in the box.  The shuffle-step load that we like so much at SmallBallSuccess.com also has analogues in the history of cricket.  Charley Lau found the subtle skip being used very effectively when he visited Australian little leagues—a location where, of course, cricket is again the acknowledged older brother of baseball.)

Anyway… back to the playoff game.  The first hitter I’ll highlight was the first hitter of the contest: Yandy Diaz, who led off with an opposite-field, line-drive homer on an outside pitch delivered by lefty Sean Manaea.  This is right in our wheelhouse.  In fact, my previous post on this site was dedicated to right-handers who take pitches the other way.  Commentator Jessica Mendoza observed that the Rays had invested in Diaz because they believed they could teach him to elevate the ball… and this may be true.  It sounds, indeed, like that thirty-year-old hitting pedagogy that won’t relinquish its hold.  I thought Jessica was more on the mark earlier, however, when she voiced her personal opinion that Yandy had approached the at-bat intent upon driving the ball the other way.  She noted that he set up far away from the plate (in the fashion that we identified last week as belonging to Lajoie, Wagner, and Hornsby) and then hunted something outside.  His “circuit clout” actually didn’t get very elevated: it barely cleared the barrier.  It was a low liner that he struck by driving late into a high/outside pitch from a fairly level, slightly downward plane… and he did this by letting his weight shift decisively forward.

Now, I don’t know that anyone was teaching Diaz to do this.  Most hitters with a strong forward transfer do it naturally and in spite of what their coaches tell them.  Look at the photo opening this post.  Diaz is hitting off the stiff front leg that makes coaches swoon.  Beautiful, isn’t it?  But that stiff, rearward-inclined leg also induces shifting weight to channel up and back, so that the barrel sweeps under the pitch’s center rather than cutting straight through its heart.  That slight dip produces elevating backspin, all right—too much backspin, unless you’re a lot taller than Yandy and can expect your big flies to carry.  So how did Diaz stay on the outside pitch so well (and he hit the same pitch to the same destination his second time up) without bending his forward knee?

Two things.  It’s possible to shift fully onto the front leg and, paradoxically, be leaning back on it as you make contact.  That calls for pretty violent activity around the hips, and I would worry about how well the hitter could maintain a steady view of the ball… but some guys manage it. I first noticed a full forward transfer onto a severely backward-inclined leg in Lou Gehrig’s swing, and I have noticed it since in Bryce Harper’s.  Those are two really big, muscular guys!  I have to wonder if Yandy really wants to join the club… or if, instead, his natural shift is competing with the “stay back” dictum that coaches tried to pound into their young Negro League stars who had graduated to the Bigs back in the Fifties.  Budding superstars like George Altman were ruined by the “uppercut gospel”.

Perhaps Diaz (and this is my second point) has struck a truce with the contradiction by releasing the handle early with his top hand.  Lajoie always did this, by the way, as he chased pitches.  Honus Wagner appears to have done it on outside offerings while preserving a two-handed follow-through on inside pitches—and that’s the Diaz strategy, I believe, based upon the dozens of images I’ve studied on Google.  (The photo above has to be displaying his cut at an inner-half pitch.) The straight front leg forces the top hand to pull up short and start its backward transit… but the top hand can beat the rap and keep the barrel headed straight into the ball if it simply relinquishes its hold.

Yandy was able to muster enough backspin on a Jesus Luzardo slider during his final AB to drop an offering into center field that had mystified previous Rays hitters.  Contact was off the end of the bat, which was likely cracked—but the stick died a good death.  Heading down into the pitch rather than pulling out of its dive early, the heroic barrel produced our lead-off man’s third hit of the night.

Mike Brosseau is a second Rays batsman who intrigues me.  He’s the one I find vaguely reminiscent of an 1888 tobacco card, with his low hands in waiting that then follow the forward leg’s pump immediately into the pitch.  Hitting coaches will probably tell Mike to “get that foot down early”… and then we’ll hear no more of him, because he’ll be rocking back instead of staying down through the pitch, and everything will be ineffectually topped.  He’s extremely quick with his coordinated foot-and-hands descent into the ball—quite quick enough to stand back from the plate more than he does now, use another inch or two of wood in his stick, and take an up-the-middle approach.  I recall seeing him crack one offering very soundly… and I think it rocketed right into the glove of the left fielder.  A guy who pulls that naturally doesn’t need to have pulling on his mind.  He’s not going to get beat very often by anyone’s fastball.

Finally, a brief shout-out to Matt Olson, who is no longer a secret in the game.  I love his hand position.  Of course, he loads up and to the rear from a Carew-like starting point—but the top hand preserves the curl in its wrist, and this allows him a very level and protracted descent into the pitch as that hand straightens out its punch.  Locking thumbs tightly around the handle, as most contemporary hitters do, removes such flexibility from the wrists.  It forces that excessively steep descent into the pitch that sweeps under it and produces clean misses, pop-ups, roll-overs (if the swing is early), and—oh, yes—soaring home runs.  But seldom enough of the last to compensate for an abundance of the other three.

Aren’t we being sent a message by the number of rising stars who don’t follow rigid hitting orthodoxy?  Shouldn’t it be telling us something that kids who grow up in the Dominican or Curaçao playing the game with a broom handle are today’s most dynamic offensive performers?

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

Opposite-Field Doubles: The Reliable Generator of Offense

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Between constant sloppy weather and a nagging health problem, I haven’t had the leisure to create videos at last fall’s pace.  I greedily seized upon an occasion early last week, then, to make a record of the surprising success I was having right-handed with the rather complicated load I had mastered from the left side.  Though I’m a righty by nature (I throw and scribble manu dextra), I’ve been a much better hitter from the left box since early childhood.  When I call my Old School load “complicated”, therefore, I think it’s mostly so because, from the right box, I can’t readily get my feet and hands in sync.  My forward leg has to be very smooth in taking a little shuffle into the pitch (and, in fact, that forward leg is the right one from my smoother side).

Maybe I can make an indoor video (with the promise of another rainy week ahead) about the vital importance of coordinated foot and hand movement.  I don’t notice much discussion of that critical link.  The shuffling load, by the way, is a motion that we know to have been routine in Tris Speaker’s stroke—and I have seen filmed proof that it was used sometimes by Hall of Famers as diverse as Edd Roush and Babe Ruth.  It creates and channels momentum in a way that’s ideal for leading the hands on the straight, slightly downward attack into the ball that we promote everywhere on SmallBallSuccess.com as the essence of the line-drive swing.  To this day, it’s also not uncommon in cricket, a sport with which a nineteenth-century striker would have been far more familiar than are current sluggers.

Anyway… in smoothing out my right-side stroke more than I would have thought possible, I was obtaining so many sharp liners to the opposite field that I decided to start the camera rolling.  I captured a pretty good sequence.  The trouble was that I hadn’t quite thought out the theme of the video.  Me hitting right-handed?  Gee, what a thrill!  In my narration, I ended up stressing the importance of sticking with your repetitions in seeking to refine your game… and then, toward the end, I happened to babble for some reason that Napoleon Lajoie, Honus Wagner, and (a half-generation later) Rogers Hornsby all piled up huge tallies of doubles by doing what I’d just done.  (The first two immortals are #8 and #10 on the all-time list.)  That is, if you stand far from the plate as a righty and then shift emphatically forward into the pitch, so that you typically drive it on a low line up the middle or to the opposite field, you stand a good chance of placing a hit where the buffalo roam; not only that, but since your footwork sets you moving immediately toward first base, you get a headstart on rounding the bags and possibly going for third.  Wagner was also a triples machine, ranking Number Three all-time.  Even the not-so-speedy Hornsby and Lumbering Larry come in at #25 and #33 on the triples list.

I had stumbled upon a significant insight: righties who hit “oppo” tend to rack up lots of extra-base hits, though not necessarily home runs.  In fact, home-run hitters of the post-Deadball period typically do not add mountains of doubles and triples to their resume.  Mickey Mantle’s highest single-season total in doubles was an impressive 37, during his sophomore season; but his second-highest was 28—and this from a fellow who was among the game’s fleetest players in his early years.  Even Willie Mays, who admittedly sits among high royalty in career total bases, had one banner doubles year when he cracked the 40-ceiling (with 43, to be exact); otherwise, he reached 36 once and had four more tallies in the low thirties.  No, not bad… yet less than I’d expected.  Far less than the two-bagging success of Musial and Aaron, who weren’t as fast as Willie but perhaps used the whole park a little better.  (Musial logged nine seasons of over forty doubles; Henry’s career achievement in this regard owed something to his extreme longevity in the game.)

Ernie Banks topped thirty twice (34 and 32).  Home-run dynamo Rocky Colavito logged two seasons of 30 doubles and one of 31.  Roger Maris followed up his “61 in ’61” season with a career-high 34 two-baggers in 1962; except for that outing, he never surpassed 21.

What this says to me is that long-ball hitters, with their propensity to pull, are waving aside other extra-base hits to some extent and putting all their chips on Number Four.  Historically, the men who lead their league in doubles seldom have whopping totals in four-baggers; and indeed (to return to my main point), they tend to go with the pitch rather than pull it.  Wade Boggs and Tony Gwynn leap to mind from fairly recent campaigns.  Back in Deadball days, diminutive Sam Rice had ten straight seasons of more than thirty doubles—and I certainly can’t swear that he hit to the opposite field, but he was no powerhouse.

Speaking of “wallbangers”, Harvey Kuenn brings us back to the right side, and I do happen to know that he was considered a front-foot hitter who took pitches to all fields.  Harvey tallied over thirty doubles in six of his first seven full seasons, leading his league three of those times.  (It remains a mystery to me why such a stellar career suddenly went into such a steep plunge; anyone would have tagged Kuenn for Cooperstown after his first six or seven campaigns.)

On a whim, I looked up Julio Franco’s totals in this department.  At 407, he ties Ernie Banks—a surprising result, in that Ernie’s power was so superior to Franco’s.  And yet, I’m not surprised at all in the light of the foregoing discussion.  Banks was schooled in pull-hitting (by Ralph Kiner, among others) as soon as he arrived at Wrigley Field.  Julio was inevitably an oppo-hitter, with the bat cranked up far over his head like a scorpion’s tail (not the style, let me note, that we recommend at SmallBallSuccess).  I’ll always remember an All Star game when Tim McCarver, reacting in horror to Franco’s posture, remarked disparagingly that nobody could possibly get around on a fastball from such a starting line—and within seconds, as if on cue, Julio bounces a double off the right-field wall!  It never occurred to Tim that some hitters might want to be late.

Doubles win games.  They often clear bases, at least if the runner on first gets a good read and the hit is a genuine liner rather than a dying quail that leaves three fielders staring at each other.  Of course, they also put an additional runner in scoring position.  Superior to home runs?  Well, obviously not, from a purely arithmetic point of view.  But homers are generally pulled, good pitchers generally get the better of pull-hitters, and smaller players generally begin at a disadvantage in the long-ball game of hard pulling.  The oppo-hitter can wait on the ball, thus acquiring a better chance of putting good wood on it, and can also steer it deep into an alley where two fielders have to sort out handling it.  In contrast, the hard-pulled shot is likely to career off a near wall and straight to an eager throwing arm.  How many Mighty Caseys have we lately seen hanging out at first after their rocket careens straight to a corner outfielder off the 315” mark?

And don’t forget: the good oppo-hitter also has a headstart out of the box.  A lefty like Boggs (or our shuffling friend Speaker, the all-time doubles leader and also sixth in triples) plainly gets that jump-start; but it’s a rare thing from the right-side box, and those few who learned how to do it elevated their percentages quite a bit for making second… or third.

My video is posted here: Oppo-Hitting From the Right Side.  I listed it under “approach” in the video archive because, ultimately, that seems to me to be the most important lesson of the exercise: i.e., step into the box thinking “other way”.  I wish my thoughts before the camera had been just a little more orderly; but as the classic old baseball movie It Happens Every Spring conveys, you can make terrific discoveries from a messy soup in the laboratory.

baseball history, bat acceleration, footwork in the box, hand use in hitting, mental approach, metal bat use, Uncategorized, weight transfer

The Hitch: Something Great Hitters Never Do (Except for the Really Great Ones)

The following paragraphs are excerpting from my forthcoming book, Metal Ropes, which is still very much a work in progress.

I’ll admit that my affection for the shuffle step wavers whenever I try to hit right-handed. With my stronger hand on top, I appear much more inclined to drive from the back side than to throw down (with uncoiling leg and levering hand) from the front side—and this, after all, makes perfect sense. It’s surely part of the reason why classic “stickers” who shifted around more in the box and sprayed pitches to all fields were often natural righties batting left. Such a profile fits Tris Speaker as well as Ty Cobb, in a strict sense; for Speaker threw left only because his right arm was badly broken during his boyhood years of learning the game. Fred Clarke belongs to the same fraternity: so do Eddie Collins, Jake Daubert, Elmer Flick, and Joe Sewell. Except perhaps for Daubert, everyone on that list may be identified in photos, furthermore, with hands spread—and Jake choked up rather fiercely. A lot of batting titles found a home among the era’s left-hitting righties.

With the stronger hand on top, the “levering” action essential to hand spreading presents more of a challenge. The bottom hand may not be “smart” enough to do its job well. At least in my own experience, the top hand becomes something of a tyrant, and the bottom hand just tries to stay out of the way. Certainly Honus Wagner spread his hands on occasion—but less often than the left-hitting righties and with less of a gap. Napoleon Lajoie was more typical of top-hand-dominant hitters in that, while he indeed choked up, his hands remained together. (The “Emperor” briefly tried to market a bat that possessed two knobs: an ordinary one and a higher one for choking!) To be sure, Lajoie and Wagner won a truckload of batting titles in their own right. In them, however, we see the rare phenomenon of the power-hitter who likes to drive the ball the opposite way: someone who has to be played deep and who crosses up defenders. Add Rogers Hornsby to this pair, a man who hit .400 for three out of four years in a decade when fairy-tale averages had started to pass out of style.

So why am I pursuing this discussion of top-hand versus bottom-hand dominance in a section dedicated to hitching? For a couple of reasons. The more obvious is that batsmen generally hitch when their stronger hand is on top. This was true of all the worthies named previously: Ruth, Gibson, Foxx, Greenberg, and Mel Ott. (If the right-throwing Joe Jackson were the hitcher that Ruth implied him to be, then he breaks the mold… but Shoeless Joe never learned to write, so right-dominance quite possibly never developed in him as it would have in others.) The top hand is the “punch” hand, and we know that you load for a powerful move by relaxing your limb (hand or foot) in the reverse direction; so if the top hand wants to drive hard from above into the pitch, it’s tempted to prepare for that drive by pumping downward. The rear leg also has to balance the hitter’s weight for a rather long time in a hitch—and most of us balance better on our strong-side leg. (I don’t… but my scrambled brain has some very peculiar left/right preferences.)

Did those right/right immortals, Lajoie and Wagner and Hornsby, exhibit a hitch? I can’t see much evidence that the first of them did; but I believe Hans and the Rajah may very well have pumped their hands deeply. Let’s get the set-up in the box out of the way by citing these two as an example. When I wrote earlier of how the nineteenth-century stickers might have pumped as their front foot pointed toward the pitcher, I was guessing. By the time we get to Wagner and, still later, Hornsby, we’re looking at two hitters whose initial position is much more familiar to us. Their feet were much more squared to the plate, and their hands were basically resting on the rear shoulder. The emphasis, in other words, has shifted to the rear. That’s where we would expect it to be in a hitch—because, again, a hitch is very popular with hitters whose stronger side is the back one.

Now, here’s a second point that makes me suspect Wagner and Hornsby of hitching—and it’s also a quality of their stroke that we want to emulate. Both set up well off the plate. They could hit even the inside pitch to right field, apparently, because they stood so far back. Yet they could also cover the outside corner, and even go a bit beyond that corner. How did they do that? They must certainly have possessed the ability to surge outside after the pitch if they needed to; and I don’t see how they could have created the energy necessary to produce such a surge (since they didn’t shuffle-step) unless they fired out of a hand-pump and a crouch. Ted Williams’ swiveling hips won’t get you there: Ted usually wouldn’t even offer at outside pitches. The Dutchman and the Texan cleaned up on them.

That’s the kind of hitch I would like to replicate: the kind that can either drive us powerfully forward or carry us all the way to the outside corner, in a pinch. If Wagner and Hornsby had the kind of load that I believe they did, this opposite-field capacity would have distinguished them from Ruth, Gibson, Foxx, et al., who were ferocious pull-hitters. They were also big, strong men for their day, these later sluggers—taller than average, to be sure, but also incredibly muscled-up. This book is dedicated to the player of smaller body type, and such a body type usually doesn’t lend itself to the dead-pull power-hitter mold.