arm health, baseball history, general health, hand use in hitting, low arm angle, off-season preparation, pitchers of short stature, pitching, pitching velocity, strike zone, Uncategorized

Throwing Lefty: Not As Hard As You May Think

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One thing’s for sure: we all have a lot of time on our hands right now.  I need to keep a tight rein on myself beyond this point.  I have another blog where I vent my frustration with the Nanny State and with our day’s saturation in unresearched factoids and malicious propaganda.  Part of the reason I flee to baseball is so that the acid of those reflections doesn’t dissolve what’s left of my sanity.

So… here’s a thought.  If you want to pitch but are of short stature or otherwise limited by unpromising parameters, why not throw left?  I know, I know: it’s not like you can just go out and become a southpaw the way you can learn to pick a guitar in a few months of practice… or is it?  Are we so very sure it’s not?

I’ve often found that the learning curve involved in preparation for a seemingly impossible undertaking is very steep only on the initial slope.  Unlike climbing Everest, which gets steeper as one moves higher, the roughest spots confront the first few steps.  Mountain-climbing is itself a good example.  Overcoming a fear of heights, learning to keep one’s balance, resisting the natural sense of panic or rush… these are all tasks that might crush the novice.  If only he can get past them, then subsequent stages of achievement fit together much more speedily, like a jigsaw puzzle already half-assembled.

I think the heftiest obstacle to throwing left-handed is just the “I can’t do this” feeling which greets your first tries.  Be analytical.  Why can’t you do this?  Why can you do it right-handed: what are you doing one way that you’re not doing the other?  Break it all down.  What’s your first move from your good side?  Are you replicating that move from the other side?  Follow Phase One with Phase Two.  Where does the train jump the track?  Be hyper-aware of how all parts are connected.  If your left hand seems to come up and rotate back much earlier than your right, that’s probably because your back is arching—which, in turn, is probably because your head is falling off to the side rather than driving forward, a movement itself caused by the front shoulder’s flopping open immediately rather than mapping out a powerful, fluid path toward the objective.  Very, very often in pitiable weak-side endeavors, the hidden culprit is the strong side.  When it doesn’t get to take the lead, it wants to pack up its marbles and go home rather than assume a supporting role.

At the very least, acquiring a little dexterity (literally, “right-handedness”) on your weak side will make you better informed about your strong side.  I really like the low overhand angle—almost sidearm—that I call “9:30” or “10 o’clock” (with 9 being full sidearm).  I throw that way from the right side with very little effort or discomfort, whereas a more overhand delivery puts a strain on my physique (since my frame is quite broad for my height).  As a matter of fact, I just posted a video summarizing my current “best advice” about delivering from this arm angle: see “Update of the Low Overhand Motion”.

I would likely never have known the importance of keeping my throwing hand from rising too soon if I hadn’t encountered a little pain when making that error left-handed.  Now I know, consciously and objectively, that I want to keep my hand from reaching full cock until my chin breaks away from my front shoulder… and by that point, I’m already far from the up-and-down on the rubber, and am indeed about to leave that perch behind entirely.  In the future, if my right-hand mechanics were to get fouled up, I’d have those items on my checklist.  In other words, through having made my strong-side successes explicit by trying to repeat them on the weak side, I know pretty much exactly what’s happening when things are going well.

Naturally, this all applies equally to hitting.  But switch-hitters, rare as they are, seem a thousand times more abundant than switch-pitchers.  Or since switching is in itself a very labor-intensive skill, even if you have good coordination from either side, let’s look at it from a less fanciful angle.  Guys who bat with their stronger hand on the bottom aren’t all that rare (George Brett, Wade Boggs, Freddie Freeman… and even the much rarer lefty-batting-right isn’t unheard-of, as in the case of Rickey Henderson or of my hometown hero, Carl Warwick); yet guys who reach for doorknobs with their right while throwing left are one in a million.  I can think only of Tris Speaker and Billy Wagner, both of whom became southpaws because of injury to their right wing.

So the insight seems to be this: pitching from your weaker side is a heck of a lot harder than hitting from that side.  There are actually several advantages to having the stronger hand down on the bat’s knob; there are none to having the stronger arm driving toward the plate with a glove on.

Why bother learning to pitch left-handed, then, since it’s sure to be extremely challenging?  Like the Everest-climber, you could say, “Because it’s there”… but ballplayers have better things to do than accept idle challenges just to prove their character.  The game demands exhausting practice even of the most natural skills.  No, the basic reason is precisely because so few pitchers throw left-handed.  As a result, right-side hitters (about ninety percent of the typical line-up) don’t quite know what to do with offerings that come veering into them.  They’re used to crowding the plate in order to rake an evasive slider and be quick on a sneaky inside fastball.  When a pitch, especially from the 10 o’clock angle, comes looping under their barrel, they roll over the outside offering and completely whiff on the inside one—or else pull it far foul or smack it off their toe.  Our lefty has to keep that inside one low, to be sure: he has to exploit the physical fact that the bat lifts into the hands at a severe angle when it’s trained through the low/inside quadrant.  The high pitch is better off staying outside (or else chin-high… or both).

I speak here in the assumption that Lefty is a natural right-hander who (unlike Billy Wagner) has never learned to throw very hard from his weaker side.  As long as he has mastered control, he doesn’t really need velocity—or not nearly so much as the right-hander.  He’s better off trying to be Whitey Ford than Randy Johnson.  Attempting to rush it up there when Mother Nature isn’t sending him a lot of immediate bio-feedback is a good way to become a permanent righty, whether he wants to be or not.

But there’s the dilemma: consistent accuracy from your weaker side poses a tremendous challenge.  Well, that’s where practice comes in—that’s why you shouldn’t try this unless you’re willing to grind it out, any more than you should aspire to play flamenco guitar in two weeks.  Nevertheless, I think accuracy is a much more desirable target than velocity.  Not only will it get more hitters out: it will expose your arm to less risk, since your mind will be better focused on specific movements and less inclined to override your body’s incidental warnings.

Start small—start tiny.  Throw indoors, without actually throwing: just rehearse the motion, over and over.  When you do throw baseballs at a screen, stand close.  Don’t tempt your mind to chase after velocity in the early stages.  As long as you’re a mere fifteen or twenty feet from the target, the devil in you won’t be whispering, “Let’s see if we can get this one to pop!”

Well, that’s my crazy idea for today’s crazy times.  If you want to see a video that I made just a few days ago on this very subject, click here.

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, coaches and trust, hand use in hitting, low arm angle, low line drives, metal bat use, pitching, submarine pitching, Uncategorized, weight transfer

High Strikes: Nothing New Under the Sun

I was both delighted and dismayed to hear Jessica Mendoza remark on Sunday Night Baseball that pitching up in the strike zone—even with a mediocre fastball—has suddenly become the go-to strategy in the game’s upper echelons.  I was delighted because we’ve essentially been preaching this gospel from the reverse angle on SmallBallSuccess.com for years.  In fact, I personally was preaching it long before I had any idea of founding the site.  The metal bat, with its massive barrel and skinny handle, invites the hitter to hurl down on the ball, cocking the rear elbow and then unloading so steeply that the top hand slips off immediately upon contact.  The hefty leg kick and the “foot down early” imperatives (how often I’ve heard Jessica praise that dogma!) are part of the same stroke.

But none of it belongs to yesteryear’s game—and the reason is pretty obvious.  The bat path is too “dippy”.  If a tall guy collides with the pitch just as it passes over the plate (i.e., as his divebombing barrel is beginning to pull back on the joystick), then he may well impart so much backspin in the process that the resultant buzzard-beater carries over a fence.  Yet not only do smaller body types not have the equipment needed to accelerate the barrel sufficiently for this result: they, along with the big guys, risk a complete miss or a pitiful roll-over.  The barrel, that is, spends too much time on its long transit being nowhere near the plane of the ball’s flight.  It’s likely to descend too late or come up too early.  For big fellows, the frequent K’s and ground-outs are considered an acceptable trade-off for a homer every third game.  For smaller guys, useless pop-ups and dribblers are terminal.

And the high strike, of course, is the pitcher’s best option for exploiting this stroke’s big holes.  A barrel starting from well above the shoulder simply cannot come at a letter-high fastball productively.  (It does stand a good chance of clobbering a lazy hanger as it sweeps back upward: then the only question is… will the drive stay fair?)  Since the strike zone was particularly high in the Deadball Era and even well after World War II, hitters knew better than to take that steep hack and then, immediately, roll back with lifting, opening shoulders.  They kept their cut straight through the ball for as long as they could, usually finishing with their weight mostly or completely on the front foot.  I have a feeling that the Fifties were the pivotal period of change, as the home run once again captivated the public and the uppercut swing (your grandad’s version of Launch Angle) was all that hitting instructors talked about.

I tried to get my son, who was a dandy little submarine pitcher, to shoot some of his 0-2 and 1-2 pitches way up in the zone.  Even with his very modest velocity, I don’t think the chesty boppers that squared off against him in high school could have done him much harm there, especially since the pitch would literally be gaining altitude (the only pitch that truly does so).  No, they would have chased it all the way to the roots of their hair! But his coach absolutely nixed the idea.  Stay low, always low.  Never change the incoming vertical angle.  And today Ms. Mendoza is crowing, “Wow!  We hadn’t thought that this could work! Now it’s the very latest thing.”

“Late” is right.  Too late to help my son or to hit Coach Donkey between the ears.  And that, naturally, is the source of my dismay.  It’s flattering to be voted right, for a change, by the professional establishment… but it came too late to help my son—and, of course, none of the establishment is remotely aware of having given this independently publishing dad a thumbs-up.  The game will move right along at its standard glacial pace, its elite patting themselves on the back every time they figure out something that others of us knew a decade or two earlier.  (The uppercut swing, by the way, would eventually lead to the Year of the Pitcher and the lowering of the mound after the coaching brain trust had thoroughly ruined a generation of hitters with it.)  Well, you know… so it is in all human affairs.  There’s nothing new under the sun.

But the good news, if you have a teachable youngster, is that you don’t have to wait for baseball’s magnetosphere to reverse its polarities.  Get your boy (or girl) swinging like Cobb and Speaker—and Oscar Charleston, and Martin Dihigo—right now!  The coaches may want to jump right out of their cleats and shout, “What in… blazes are you doing?”  But when they see one line drive after another after another rolling to the fence, that shout is likely to catch in their throat.