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.

baseball history, bat acceleration, bat design, Deadball Era, footwork in the box, hand use in hitting, low line drives, mental approach, opposite-field hitting, weight transfer

Excavating Treasures From Forgotten Techniques: Hitting

Billy Herman

As I noted in my opening words last time, hitting is both the preferred subject of the casual fan and the specific subject that drew me into examining disused baseball practices all the way back to the Deadball Era.  I think I’ve made genuine progress.  Lately I have had occasion every afternoon to review black-and-white footage on DVD’s chronicling yesteryear’s game. I crank up the show before going to languish for twenty minutes in a far-infrared sauna. (It’s called “hyperthermic therapy”: cancer cells loathe heat!)  Discoveries which I had already added to my treasure box are constantly being confirmed.  Take the controversial matter of what I call the “shuffle step” (controversial only because nobody today has the guts to break the mold and judge by actual results).  I had read years ago that Tris Speaker somewhat “ran” himself into the pitch—or, more accurately (in my conjecture), we may say that Spoke took a forward step with his back foot before the front foot strode.  I subsequently observed Edd Roush doing something of the sort in batting practice before the 1919 World Series… as well as Babe Ruth, of all people, cheating forward with such a shuffle to anticipate Wee Willy Sherdel’s curveball in the 1928 Series.

To that distinguished list, thanks to my sessions in the sauna, I can now add Hall-of-Famer Billy Herman for certain.  Billy’s shuffling was probably intended to orient him better for taking an oppo shot to right field.  Less obvious was Joe Cronin’s slight resettling of the rear foot in conjunction with his raise of the barrel.  I was irresistibly reminded of Nolan Arenado.

Now, my faithful readers (also known as “gluttons for punishment”) know how much I love hitting to the opposite field… but the advantages of the shuffle step extend far beyond turning the cannon aft, and indeed may be observed in dead-pull hitting, as well.  The shuffle fights against rotation in the swing.  If you keep your weight back upon a dug-in foot, or if you shift it emphatically rearward again after a stride forward, you force your barrel to circle a stable axis that descends more or less precisely down the middle of your body.  Color commentators on TV love to use their telestrators in showing the inherent beauty of such a swing—and, yes, it can be as graceful as a Kristi Yamaguchi pirouette.

But in our sport, you don’t get points for grace.  What the shuffle does is mobilize this stable axis so that it slides forward into the pitch.  The barrel is allowed to descend straight into the ball over a much longer span.  The term “front-foot hitting” has been flung about over the years to designate the movement (though, as my examination of old photos and videos and my own experiments repeatedly demonstrate, a full forward weight shift doesn’t necessarily send you straight up-and-down over the front foot: indeed, it rarely does, as illustrated in the photo of Billy Herman above).  A line bisecting the ball’s heart is a more dynamic kind of baseball engineering than a curve that tops the ball, and the forward weight shift assists enormously in constructing that line; because when the barrel cuts through the ball in a slightly descending line, the result is a hard line drive—a shot that travels a long way in a short time.  That’s Old School hitting, à la Joe Cronin.

Meanwhile, the beautifully pirouetting “lean back and hack” hitter (my personal term) is forced by his stable axis to lift his barrel immediately after plunging it down into the pitch.  This swing (usually associated with its glorious advocate, Ted Williams—though Teddy actually leaked forward a lot more than he realized) has virtually no chance of cutting a straight line into the ball’s center.  Positive outcomes are few: 1) the barrel may well miss the ball entirely as it swoops into and out of the pitch’s plane; 2) it may backspin the ball during the descent to produce a harmless pop-up; 3) it may top the ball as it pulls out of its nosedive to generate a “rollover” grounder; or 4) it may happen to smack the ball’s center if the swing-hyperbola intersects the pitch-plane at just the right point.  Of course, #4 is what our contemporary sluggers are betting on, with all their chips.  Sometimes, in certain small ballparks, they get #2 to carry over a fence in fair territory; and #3 can produce true line drives… but these are usually neutralized by the radical shift, since today’s defenders have learned inductively that the stable hitting axis makes pull-hitting inevitable (of course, neither they nor their coaches would put the formula in those words).

With a longer, heavier bat, by the way, a Fifties pull-hitter like Eddie Mathews or Duke Snider might have kept the barrel on its descending line in spite of the uncooperative axis—for a barrel extending three or four inches farther from the hands wouldn’t yield to a quick rise after a steep descent.  This is why you see finishes from sixty years ago featuring a low wrap around the front shoulder (classic Ted Williams) rather than today’s typical high, one-handed flourish.  During my afternoon DVD tutorials, I heard no less an immortal than Jimmie Foxx explain on a newsreel that the power hitter’s objective was to throw the barrel’s weight into the pitch, not to swish the bat through the zone with maximum effort from start to finish.  The longer bat rewarded such thinking: nowadays those dynamics don’t work so well.

It should also be noted that sluggers got higher pitches in 1960.  That meant that the ascending barrel might just backspin a fastball even though the swing-hyperbola had already bottomed out.  Today’s boppers, in contrast, are constantly fed low pitches (since umpires don’t call anything at the letters).  As a result, their barrel is descending very steeply and pulling back up almost as steeply: a happy split-second rendezvous with the pitch has become more improbable than ever.

Back to the shuffle (and I’m going to write a book if I don’t get back there immediately): it greatly assists in delivering the barrel straight into the pitch, though Foxx himself didn’t employ it.  It throws the weight directly forward rather than channeling weight into a circle.  Okay… basta: I’ve said all that before.  Now here’s something new.  I’m currently working on the theory that the action of the hands during this shuffle can determine whether the line-drive is pulled or “pushed”.  In other words, if my theory is correct, it may be possible for the hitter to step into the box with the intent of stroking a liner to left or to right and then executing that intent with a high degree of success.  In an age of radical shifts, harmless pop-ups, and anemic rollovers, wouldn’t that be something?

If the hands rise close to the body and the forward leg doesn’t cock or coil, the barrel can fall straight into the pitch in what feels almost like the swing of an axe.  We particularly want the bottom hand to take an extra “micro-load” just before the attack, pushing the handle so far up that the barrel droops slightly toward the ground.  (I shared this discovery in a somewhat off-the-cuff video a few weeks ago: “Tweaking Yesteryear’s Line-Drive Swing”.)   The barrel’s line into the ball becomes so straight with this technique that weak pop-ups and rollovers are highly unlikely; and because the front leg is doing little more than lifting and then descending, with minimal rotation of any kind, contact will be rushed into the pitch and the hit will streak up the middle or to the pull side.  Everything in this technique aims to meet the ball in front of the plate.  The hands, rather than loading far back, stay forward.  They hurl down into the pitch: they do not whirl toward it in a tornadic motion that may or may not enter the pitch-plane at just the right instant.

And oppo hitting?  Simple: just change two of the parameters above.  Give the forward knee a cock as you load: the slight coil will close the front shoulder and prepare you to enter the pitch late and from the side.  With the same objective in mind, thrust the bottom hand out from the body, keep it lower than if you were pulling, and allow it to stray just a bit farther to the rear.  (The leg’s coil almost requires this complementary motion: the two movements are joined at the hip, we might say.)  By contacting the pitch more laterally, just before it pops the catcher’s mitt, you’re guaranteed a hit that isn’t pulled if it lands fair.  Even the inside pitch has a chance of being “pushed” over the opposite-side infield in a bloop safety as long as your bat has a little meat above the trademark.

These days. of course, few bats do.  Oh, those bats!

I don’t know why somebody wouldn’t want to have the talents of the legendary place-hitter on tap in our day’s game, when radical shifts are deflating averages by fifty points.  The table-setting guys in the line-up, at least, should want to be able to spread out the defenders and multiply chances of getting a hit through the net.  So why isn’t anyone doing what’s suggested here?  Why isn’t anyone even trying it?

baseball history, Deadball Era, Hall of Fame, mental approach, opposite-field hitting, Uncategorized

And the Greatest Ballplayer Ever Is…

raw

I enjoyed Allan Barra’s Yogi Berra: The Eternal Yankee so much when I happened upon it recently that I looked around for other books by the same author. I was amazed to discover that one of these had long been sitting on my bookshelf: Brushbacks and Knockdowns, a collection of essays. Then, as I started browsing, it all came back. I really didn’t fancy the essays because so many of them… well, they address subjects that the typical sports fan would bite on, but they just don’t draw me in. The discussion of “the greatest ballplayer of all time” is one of these. Odd, isn’t it? Why does that kind of debate irritate me so much?

It isn’t the barrages of stats that get heaved back and forth, or not just those. I could say—and I do say—of McGwire and Sosa and Bonds that their surpassing Roger Maris’s 61 home runs is a phenomenon of the steroids era and has little value after adjustment for cheating. That’s my opinion; others have another. So we argue back and forth about just what percentage of homer output steroid usage might have accounted for as the millennium turned over; and we also bandy about that Roger played in Ruth’s Yankee Stadium of the friendly right-field porch, and that pitchers weren’t throwing that hard in the Sixties or that well in the expansion year of 1961. Back and forth, back and forth… a never-ending dispute, and also one which really doesn’t get at what needles me.

This might get us closer. McGwire, Sosa, and Bonds were all represented as superheroes in the popular media to a degree that Maris—or even Mays or Mantle—couldn’t approach. The sluggers of our time have agents, advisors, brokers… and probably personal trainers and private chefs. They harvest fabulously lucrative contracts and are veritable commodities: nobody would dare undermine their health as they go about courting “immortality”. Maris lived at time when owners could ship a fielder who made one hapless play in a World Series to deepest, darkest Kansas (as happened to Norm Siebern), when obtaining a good salary required putting your entire career on the line, when endorsements amounted to a few hundred bucks for slapping Aqua Velva on your face, and when pressure could drive a man almost to suicide without the public’s ever catching a hint of it.

The late Nineties were not the early Sixties: no, not in terms of pitching prowess and field design… but also not socially or culturally. The sabermetricians may be able to adjust for the former—but how does anyone adjust for the latter? How do you compare an era when a man’s wife might take the kids and leave him if he gets traded one more time to an era when the gossip columns celebrate how many girls a guy has on the sidelines? How do you adjust for psychological impact when society at one stage considers the journeyman shortstop a ne’er-do-well husband and at another considers the wife who skips as deserting the ideal provider? How would you factor in stress related to racial prejudice in the Fifties? How about the Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder that must have messed with many a World War II veteran (e.g., the chain-smoking Gil Hodges), but which hadn’t even been given a name in the Forties?

Okay, so forget about the “mental”… though you can’t and shouldn’t, but say that you could. Say (as many have said to me) that the greatest player ever simply has to be drawn from our era, because our guys are in so much better shape physically. But doesn’t that just beg the question? Is a Pujols or a Trout the greatest player because he’s the best fed and best conditioned? What kind of player would either have been in an era of poorer diet and no science of weight training whatever? If distance to the home park’s pull-side porch calls for an adjustment, then why doesn’t the “unfair” advantage of superior dietary and kinesiological guidance call for one?

How good would Cody Bellinger or Max Scherzer be if he had to ride a train all night to reach the next series? How would such supermen make out if they had to sleep in a downtown hotel with paper-thin walls and no air conditioning?

At some point, you’re simply left with what you see on the field. You have to start and end there when adjustments and corrections always open the door to more adjustments and corrections. And if the “eye test” is the ultimate test… well, how do we apply it to performers we’ve never seen and can now never see? Those who saw him in the midst of all his peers claimed that Oscar Charleston was the greatest thing ever to emerge from the Negro Leagues. How can we say here and now that he wasn’t the greatest ballplayer ever?

As I begin the home stretch of this ramble, I wish take it in still another direction. Since we’ve been reduced to such subjectivity in our judgments, then… well, why not admit that I personally may admire a kind of play that you value less? Maybe my “great” isn’t yours. I risk sacrilege when I write that Mike Trout impresses me primarily as a really, really big human being. I don’t particularly like his hitting style, which seems to me to leave a couple of holes almost as huge as he is—yet which doesn’t hurt him because, as Tom Verducci (without detectable irony) observed shortly before another Trout homer in Arlington a few days ago, umpires won’t call high-inside strikes on him. So we’re left with a Titan carrying a kid’s bat who has his own little zone around the knees….

More sacrilege: I’m not even a devoted adorer of Ted Williams. Any hitter whose reaction to being radically shifted is to drive the ball through or over the shift doesn’t seem to me to be using all the resources that a Ty Cobb or an Eddie Collins deployed. So the WAR geeks prove that Teddy’s bat won more ballgames than Ty’s… yeah, okay. I won’t cycle back to the “attendant circumstances” species of argument which could explain so much of that (the Pesky Pole, the absence of sharp pitching after World War II, etc). Indeed, I could just double down on my Mike Trout response; for Williams (so the anecdotes run) seems to have been conceded a shrunken strike zone by many veteran umpires.

And Babe Ruth, probably much the most popular candidate in the “best ever” sweepstakes? Why, he was the greatest home-run hitter for generations and a superior left-handed pitcher! Okay… but he wasn’t both at once: he didn’t pitch and slug concurrently throughout his career. Maybe Ichiro would have been a star closer as well as a batting champ if he’d been allowed to indulge his mound ambitions as Shohei Ohtani has been. Mickey Mantle, we hear from those who warmed up with him, had a killer knuckleball.

And the Bambino’s mighty blasts? It’s been said that Cy Williams (another, and an earlier, Williams who was radically shifted) could have equaled them if he had flourished in the days on the lively ball. Cobb hit three homers in a single game one afternoon just to show that he could.

I guess where I’m going with this is here: the best ballplayers ever to me are those who play the brand of baseball I most admire. Yes, that’s subjective—but what have I been demonstrating about other measures if not that their objectivity is illusory? Why cannot our answer to “greatest ballplayer ever” be the best who played what we happen to consider great ball? I’ve already betrayed my preference for a guy who can hit to all fields—and I’d like him to concentrate on doing this all the time, winning every battle that he possibly can against every pitcher in any situation. He’s always bearing down, even when his team is suffering an eight-run deficit. I once read a remark of Henry Aaron’s where the Hammer admitted to guessing—to guessing all afternoon, perhaps: looking at two called third strikes before finally getting his pitch halfway through the game. That remark disappointed me. Why would you be hunting a certain pitch with two strikes? I know it’s Hank Aaron, but… but why wouldn’t you just be making contact? That’s what my kind of player would be doing: Ty Cobb, Tris Speaker… Roberto Clemente, Tony Oliva… Tim Raines, Tony Gwynn. Speaker had the advantage over Cobb of having revolutionized his defensive position: he would even creep in from his shallow center-field spot and pick runners off second base on occasion. Clemente likewise staked his claim to being one of the greatest right fielders ever. And Tim Raines on the base paths… well, you could make it Rickey Henderson and I wouldn’t object, but I had a special fondness for Timmy because he was a switch hitter.

Maybe, in fact, I bear a grudge against the Hendersons and the Bondses and the Harpers for being showboats. I want my all-time best player to hate losing, to be in the game at every moment… but also to hate vainglorious or humiliating displays. That may very well be why I have to dig into baseball’s past for my superman. The showboating in today’s game repels me.

So… the greatest player ever? Don’t know, don’t care: not if you expect an “objective” answer out of me. My favorite players are my nominees for best player. I love them because of all they brought to the field, and not what they bring to a spread-sheet.

As for Willie and Mickey, Mr. Barra—no, I didn’t forget about them. I scarcely felt the need to mention their names. I was trying to be a bit original. But yes, definitely Willie and Mickey. And Yogi, too. All of them were the best.

baseball history, Deadball Era, footwork in the box, hand use in hitting, hitter reaction time, Uncategorized

How to Bat .400: Keep an Open Mind!

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Ty Cobb vs. an inside pitch

Since I got a new lease on life thanks to the Immunity Therapy Center in Tijuana, I’ve had no more pleasurable moments during the course of a week than those when I plug in my Personal Pitcher and try to make contact with some golf-sized Wiffle Balls. I’ve explained before why this amusement can also be educational, but maybe it’s about time to do so again. For one thing, no matter how slow your machine fires, by setting up very close to it you can reduce your reaction time to approximate that of very competitive pitching. For another, Wiffle Balls, as we know, don’t always travel very straight. Since I tend to keep mine in use even after they’ve become cracked, I can thereby add to the challenge of slender reaction time a variety of crazy wobbles and drops in the deliveries. For a third thing, measuring about half the diameter of a baseball, my plastic golf balls give better feedback on how well I’m contacting each pitch. If I were just a little bit on top of a baseball, I’d be badly topspinning a Wiffle Ball.

It’s quite annoying that my machine gives me no warning prior to releasing a ball other than a green light that’s supposed to flash one second in advance. In my mind, I have to graft the flash onto an image of a pitcher breaking his hands and starting toward the plate. I’d rather be able to see a real body’s progress: the light often tempts me into “selling out”, and I transfer my weight too early. But at least no one can credibly accuse me of arranging a practice where I have an unrealistically leisurely period to get loaded up. On the contrary, because the flash can be almost a distraction, the time I have to get from a relaxed pose into “attack mode” is truly about as brief as a top-tier professional pitcher would give to his opponents.

I’ve also found that I have to shift my eyes slightly from the green light to the hole through which the ball will exit as soon as I can. Though the hole sits just beneath the light, failing to pick it up and rivet upon it definitely produces poorer contact. The application to real-life pitching is clear: you have to stop fixating on the pitcher’s hands as soon as they spring into motion and, instead, start hunting traces of that white orb half-hidden in one of them.

Add certain practical considerations, such as that I simply can’t find a kid who throws reasonably hard and true to pitch to me in a cage. Furthermore, even if I were to have such a helper, he’d be giving me more reaction time than does my machine–or else I wouldn’t step in against him! I’m too old to risk life and limb by standing in against someone who’s trying to rocket balls over the plate from about thirty feet.

Put it all together, I repeat, and you have an hour not only filled with fun but also bristling with potential lessons. I’m sure that the practice I mined from my hundreds of hours in front of Personal Pitcher which readers view with the most suspicion has to be my shuffle-step as I load up.

I know it’s hard to accept this mobile load as feasible, let alone desirable, at first glance.  Just remember that Tris Speaker employed some version of it routinely—and that batsmen like Edd Roush used it just as routinely, by some accounts.  That’s 5,890 hits, between these two.  Is it so unreasonable to suppose that the skip-step was actually helping rather than hurting their offensive game somehow?

I had actually seen Roush shuffle into the pitch in a rare video.  Just the other day, I read this confirmation in a book originally published shortly after World War II.  The author volunteered it in the midst of a list of unorthodox things done by Edd:

Students of the game will tell you that although a batter can assume a stance in any given place in the batter’s box, a firm stand in one place is absolutely imperative.  Roush always shifted about in the box, moving both feet, and often changed his stance after the pitcher delivered the ball.  He led the league in hitting three times.

Lee Allen, The Cincinnati Reds, p. 194 (Kent State UP: 2006–first published in 1948)

I made a video a couple of weeks ago (“Bottom-Hand IQ”) illustrating the importance of leading the swing with the hands: a.k.a. staying inside the ball.  (I mentioned online coach Joe Brockoff’s happy metaphor of shining the knob’s flashlight on the pitch.)  I demonstrated the technique in three types of swing, two of them using a stationary rear foot.  The one that left me feeling the most flexibility in my drive through the pitch was my third example, with the mobile rear foot shuffling into a load.  I also achieved the best results that way.  My sometimes unpredictable Personal Pitcher (which has been known to chew on balls a bit even after the green light’s second of warning has elapsed) and its arsenal of variously cracked projectiles couldn’t get a lot past me, once my lower body had already channeled energy up toward the hands.  I’m not making this up.  The shuffle-step works.

More lately, just this past week, I edited and posted a video (“Pull-Hitting the Deadball Way”) about how I think yesteryear’s stickers may have been able to step where they saw the pitch coming—a seemingly outrageous claim made not just by Ty Cobb, but by Honus Wagner, Fred Clarke, and several others.  Were they all lying… or was pitching of the day just that slow?  Neither, I think.  My current theory is the following, as I demonstrate in the video.  I believe the batsman would plan to take the same step in the same direction on pretty much every pitch: for instance, toward the plate from deep in the box, and angled at least 45 degrees toward the mound, as well.  If he saw the pitch coming sharply in on him, the master-hitter would simply cut his stride short.  He’d plant his front foot as quickly as ever he could, immediately following it down with his hands.  This might create an image of a hitter leaning back as he makes contact, despite having shifted his weight fully forward (for all of these chaps were front-foot hitters).  The torso would be falling backward over the rear leg even though that leg might be airborne! You see one of those images at the top of this page. You can find a great many others featuring Cobb’s contemporaries.

The interrupted stride can actually be executed against rapid pitching.  No, you’re not exactly stepping to where you observe the ball coming, in the sense that you step toward third base on this pitch and toward first on the next.  But you are indeed adjusting your stride in response to the ball’s flight path.  Cut the stride short, draw in the hands… and voilà!  You find yourself pulling inside pitches hard, or at least shooting them up the middle.

So… is this research done with the help of my Personal Pitcher (I’ll call him Satchel, on account of his devastating hesitations) valid at any level?  All I can say is that I don’t see anyone else trying anything better.  Far from it: when I read a Gen X commentator who puzzles over how the oldtimers did so-and-so a century ago and then builds a theory out of present-day practices, without even getting up from behind his laptop, I’m not very impressed.  You have to get your hands dirty… yes, literally.  Ditch the batting gloves!

I love life in “the lab”.  Maybe I’m wrong, but at least I’m experimenting rather than speculating.  Where else have you read about either the shuffle-load or the adjustable stride?  Who else is saying anything more than, “Nah!  They couldn’t really have been doing that!” Oh yes, they could have.  And they did.