baseball history, bat acceleration, bat design, footwork in the box, hand use in hitting, hitter reaction time, metal bat use, opposite-field hitting, strike zone, Uncategorized

Oppo-Hitting Is Hard Because We’ve Made It So

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In the Year of the Lockdown, I’ve enjoyed watching whatever games I can find featuring the Tampa Bay Rays. More than any other team I’ve seen lately, their line-up features a variety of hitting techniques, not nine guys who could have fallen out of a cookie cutter or who, at any rate, are all trying to do the same thing (i.e., hit home runs). Lowe keeps his hands below the shoulder and close to the torso, like most hitters a couple of generations ago. Brosseau and Díaz drive their barrel down almost in one motion with their lead foot—something that you’d see in abundance only if you set your time machine to travel back before World War II. It’s really fun to watch an offense that features so much diversity of attack.

I find it ironic, then, that the Rays broadcasters were the pair I heard remarking on the difficulty of hitting against the shift. The exact words were something like, “A lot of fans wonder why players don’t beat the shift by taking the ball the other way. Most people don’t realize how hard it is to go opposite-field.” Well… yes. That’s certainly so in my case, anyway: I don’t realize why it should be so hard to hit the other way. For one thing, you’re deliberately trying to be late, and being late should be much easier than being early. You have more time to react, to look at the pitch and decide if you wish to offer. Why is it hard to be given more time?

Naturally, if you’re all dug in and your swing is so grooved that you can’t adjust your footwork to the situation in any manner, no matter how minute, then being late with your hands is pretty much all you have going for you. But why would a professional ballplayer be incapable of a little flexibility in his lower body? Here’s what Willie Mays had to say about Yankee singles-hitter deluxe Bobby Richardson:

It’s a pleasure to watch a professional like Bobby Richardson, the former Yankee second baseman, when he’s about to move the runner on first base around to third. Bobby hit behind the runner better than anybody else, for my money…. The batter, as the pitch is delivered, shifts his weight slightly and steps back with the rear foot a couple of inches [if he bats right, like Richardson]. Then, swinging a fraction of a second late, he just meets the ball with a short, sharp “punch” and bangs it to the right side of the playing field.   (My Secrets of Playing Baseball, 1970, p. 70)

Now, I consider Bobby a very interesting subject in his own right.  Richardson was no Pete Runnels or Dick Groat: he wasn’t going to compete for a batting crown.  But he did manage to become the only Yankee to top .300 in 1959, and he did muster a league-leading 209 hits in 1962 (when the number of games on the schedule had but lately increased by eight).  He had progressed from a smooth-field, no-hit prospect to a respectable component of a potent Yankee line-up.  Many have faulted him for not drawing walks from the lead-off position, to which he was admittedly not well suited.  I have to assume that an aggressive approach was part of what allowed him to hang around the .270 mark for years.  Okay, he might have pushed that to .290 if he’d been more selective.

Maybe part of the reason Bobby wasn’t more persnickety at the plate was his huge bat.  I vaguely recall marveling at that stick as a boy of seven or eight, when I’d get to watch my beloved Mickey on our black-and-white screen every Saturday and would wonder, “Who’s this little guy with the biggest bat on the team?”  Oh, Bobby would choke up a bit… but he still had to hurl the barrel down into the pitch in a manner that required early commitment—and probably allowed for being late.  Not that a child’s memory is a reliable witness… but it seems to me that most Richardson base-knocks went right up the middle.  His knees were distinctly bent as he assumed his stance, and on them he would glide into the pitch.  Think of a Scotsman hurling a caber: it all starts from the feet, and especially the knees.

It was Bill Dickey, then a Yankee coach, who advised Bobby to use the larger bat (as Richardson reveals in The Bobby Richardson Story, 1965). This Hall-of-Fame mentor was obviously a product of the Old School; there weren’t a whole lot of active players (with Rizzuto having just retired) who would have possessed such arcane knowledge.  At any rate, Richardson’s success at the plate took off when the big bludgeon was placed in his hands.  No, he didn’t have much bat speed.  His entire twelve-year career—for three consecutive years of which he led the league in at-bats (that’s what can happen when you never draw walks)—produced only 34 home runs.  But with the likes of Mantle, Maris, Skowron, Berra, and Howard batting behind him, homering wasn’t really a priority.  (Honesty compels me to observe that, despite such firepower at his back, Bobby never quite managed to score 100 runs.)

So what has all of this to do with oppo-hitting?  I think it’s the bat.  The reason Dewayne Staats and Brian Anderson (two of my favorite announcers, by the way) may have deemed off-field hitting “harder than you think” is because today’s bats are mere conveyances for a tiny, explosive sweet spot.  They make no allowance for misjudgment: they work extremely well only when everything in the swing is right on time.  If you try to reach for an outside pitch and push it (perhaps one-handed) to the infield’s far side), you encounter two problems: 1) your bat may be too short by a couple of inches; and 2) the balance in that bat is so top-heavy that you’ll probably foul off or pop up the pitch by dipping under it, if you contact it at all.

And that’s if you can get an outside pitch, or if you adjust your position to the far corner by recoiling with a Richardson-like move (for who doesn’t crowd the plate these days?).  What if the pitcher insists on pounding you inside, as more and more of the good ones dare to do?  Then is when you really need some bulk in the handle.  With the old-school lumber in your hands, you might have fought off the tight pitch to the off-field grass by inside-outing (in the fashion described in Ted Williams’ Science of Hitting, of all places: I wonder if Ted ever used the technique once in his life?).  Armed with today’s club, however, you’ll be picking splinters out of your face; or if you have the advantage of a metal bat, your chances of a weak infield pop-up are still very high just because of the handle’s tiny diameter.

So, yes: upon consideration, I suppose opposite-field hitting these days is indeed harder than I think—with emphasis on “these days”.  Even the resourceful Tampa Bay Rays can’t seem to do much about the hardware they take to the plate.  How about at least giving an audition to shifting your feet in the box, though, guys?  Devote a little practice to it and see if you don’t get good results.  Please?  A touch of small ball from yesteryear’s handbook would make today’s game so much more interesting!

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?