baseball ethics, baseball history, Deadball Era, footwork in the box, Performance-Enhancing Drugs, pitching, umpires

Cheating: Creativity vs. Laziness

I believe I’ve already used in my blogging space the photo spread across two pages (62-63) of Donald Honig’s Shadows of Summer.  This incredible gymnastic on the part of Ty Cobb received a pretty extensive commentary in my second edition of Metal Ropes (now complete except for a new cover).  I won’t rehash the whole discussion.  I’ll simply draw your attention to the troublesome fact—ignored by Mr. Honig, who’s more spellbound by catcher Ed Sweeney’s distance from the play—that Cobb will be far outside the batter’s box if he makes contact.  His rear foot is already even with the plate’s front edge.  Whatever in the world he’s trying to do here, he has given himself about a yard’s headstart up the first-base line.

Cheating?  Well, yes… and every ballplayer would do it if he could get away with it.  Policing such things as staying in the batter’s box and running in the baseline is the umpire’s responsibility.  Now, when baserunners were cutting across the infield grass and missing second base by twenty feet because the one umpire on duty was following a Texas-leaguer into the outfield, the infractions became mockeries of the game.  They threatened its very survival.  That’s why multiple umpires were put on the field in the 1880s.  Likewise, tripping a runner as he rounded second or third—perhaps even tackling him, as John McGraw was known to have done in his playing days with Baltimore—was about as subtle as corralling a high drive in a ten-foot butterfly net.  The game has always addressed trespasses that so derided basic protocol as to make disgusted fans decide to keep their ticket money.

How might we define the difference between what Cobb did in the photo above and what would-be linebackers like McGraw were doing?  It isn’t that “admissible rule-stretching” jeopardizes no second party.  Tyrus had also perfected a kind of slide which would kick up so much dust that a baseman trying to grab a peg and tag him would go blind for crucial instants.  This actually isn’t illegal at all, to this day (as far as I know—though it’s a good way to start a brawl).  Some fouls are allowed to strain the rules along the edges… and then, there are some that trample the rule book and exit the game’s bounds in both letter and spirit.  The distinction isn’t personal risk: it’s the words of the rules themselves—whether they have any stretch in them, whether the fog of war handled in them is left deliberately foggy in places.

The balk rule is an excellent example familiar to any casual baseball fan.  Coaches teach young pitchers that a good move is so close to a balk move that you’re bound to get called once in a while.  The dividing line is thoroughly scuffed.  In certain eras of the game, the rule might as well not have existed, so over-stretched was the flexible boundary.  I happened lately to be watching Bill “Spaceman” Lee pitch the second game of the 1974 World Series against the Reds.  Lee balked at least ninety percent of the time when runners were on base.  There was simply no detectible pause whatever in his delivery.  Not many years down the road, the umpires put their heads together and decided that enough was enough.  (Now, why Louie Tiant was called for a balk in Game 1 of the same series is a puzzler to me.  Apparently, a National League ump ruled that El Tiante did not step off the rubber before he pivoted.  Replay did not vindicate the verdict)

Were the Astros way out of line for transmitting the catcher’s signals to the hitter via electronic technology?  Judging from the reaction of fans and players alike (e.g., the typically taciturn Nick Markakis), I’d have to answer “yes”.  Yet this case, too, somewhat puzzles me.  I recall Paul Reddick writing when the scandal first exploded that, first and foremost, the Astros had simply acted dumb.  According to Paul, every pitcher at every level tips his pitches, and every coach at the big-league level should know how to crack the code.  Now, I believe that Reddick was marketing a video at the time which claimed to teach the dark art of predicting the next pitch… but the point seems well taken, all the same.  Hitters are reared on The Guess: they’re guessing even before they take their first shave.  After a few years of refinement, a good hitter, you’d have to think, would have gotten pretty adept at anticipating pitches just on the basis of the situation and the particular hurler involved.  Add to that a touch of finesse in reading body language… and you’ve dispensed with any need for complex cipher and semaphore.

I’m not belittling the distinct villainy of what the Houston malefactors did: I’m just concurring with Reddick that the crime seems weakly motivated.  Are hitters just lazy these days?  But then, the New York Giants were also being tipped to pitches throughout an elaborate binoculars-and-telegraph system when they reeled off their miraculous win streak leading to the 1951 pennant.  (Bobby Thomson always swore, however, that he wasn’t tipped to Ralph Branca’s pitch.  Who knows?)  A very similar racket seems to have been run in the Deadball Era, though I can’t retrieve the details at the moment.  An electrical line, I believe, run under the third-base coaching box buzzed in the dope from a remote observation post.

For my money, none of these incidents, dastardly though they are, equals the turpitude of “Blowergate” in the Metrodome.  I don’t see how Kirby Puckett’s soaring fly off Charlie Leibrandt would have cleared the partition in Game 6 of the 1991 World Series if the home team hadn’t enjoyed the extra thrust of the stadium’s blowers.  I’m reminded of how the host teams on my son’s “away” games in high school would always wait to turn on the lights until after we’d completed a half-inning at the plate in heavy shadow.  Whatever technological conveniences are available for a given game should be extended to both sides.  If there are industrial-fan units on hand for games on sweltering afternoons, then one such fan should be rigged up in either dugout.

If there’s any moral to this ramble, maybe we should look for a distinction between “zealous cheating”—creative, ingenious, energetic, pushing-the-envelope strain against the wording of the rules in search of a victorious advantage—and “lazy cheating”.  Perhaps the most obvious and repellent quality of high-tech cheating is its shortcutting across clever forethought and vigorous execution.  The lazy cheater has a gizmo to deploy his advantage for him; or even if he donates a degree of bodily exertion to the enterprise, he does so passively, almost stupidly.  He treats his body as a cog in an impersonal machine.  It seems to me that when José Canseco tried to mount a defense of steroid use in Juiced, he produced an argument that would justify the eventual introduction of artificial intelligence into the game.  If a fake human generates more and longer home runs, then give us more fake humans on the field.  That’s what the fans want!

I won’t moralize about cheating beyond the game—not today.  Some of you were already incensed, apparently, at my having taken a step or two off the reservation last week.  I’m too old to care, my friends… but I do agree that a baseball blog should stay focused on baseball (just as I do not agree that the MLB should be emblazoning bases with “BLM”).  Keeping entirely within the foul lines, therefore, I close with these questions.  Why do so many professional ballplayers want a rule requiring two infielders on either side of second base before each pitch is delivered… yet none of them ever gives a thought to shifting position in the box as the pitcher winds up?  Why are most of them comfortable with a baserunner’s wearing an “oven mitt” that may extend his reach to a base by almost half a foot… yet they gripe when a pitcher launches into an accelerated delivery, or else throws an delaying kink or two into his pump?

My questions are not intended to express sympathy with pitchers or defenses rather than with hitters or offenses.  I’m an offense-friendly guy.  I just wonder if our human intelligence, in this game and elsewhere, is backsliding into a mechanistic mode that resents having to go off the blueprint and be spontaneous or creative.  Cheating used to cover mostly those who, perhaps, grew a little too inventive.  Isn’t it now, as a category, coming more and more to feel out a distinction between good and bad kinds of mechanization?  When fielders have little pads on their wrists or in their caps (give it another year or two) which integrate the very latest data on Freddie Freeman’s contact with back-foot sliders, that’ll be just fine.  Everybody will be doing it.  And when another pad worn behind the elbow guard tells the hitter what the probabilities are that Gerret Cole will change speeds in this count… oh, that’ll be unbelievably cool!  But bugging your opponent’s locker room will remain reinlich verboten.

Machines, you know, have their codes, too.  But where has the purely human joy—and the distinctly athletic joy—gone of pressing one’s skills and genius to the thin edge of a rigid box?

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

And the Greatest Ballplayer Ever Is…


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!

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.

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

Ty Cobb, Hitting Instructor (Part Two)

File:1900 Fred Clarke.jpeg - Wikimedia Commons

If I hadn’t already committed myself to the title above by calling last week’s blog “Part One”, I’d definitely rechristen this piece. The subject I want to explore now isn’t so much Cobb’s hitting advice to the world as the world’s confusion over certain aspects of his hitting. If only he had left us a little more direction in the matter of his hand-spreading, the controversy would evaporate.

But instead… well, let me get more specific by sharing a passage that I lately blundered upon in F.C. Lane’s 1925 classic, Batting—a wide-ranging series of reflections on baseball topics enlightened by Lane’s dozens (perhaps hundreds) of interviews with the game’s greats. As well as I recall, by the way, the book is available as a Kindle download for practically nothing. Anyway, the chapter that snapped me to attention was “Pulling the Unexpected”, and the particular passage was the following paragraph:

That this alert, original attitude may be an important factor in a batter’s success is indicated by Urban Shocker. He said, “The secret of Ty Cobb’s success as a batter was the fact that he always established a mental hazard. He was always on the offensive and you never knew exactly how to guard against him. Sometimes he would choke up on the bat and punch a hit through the infield. Sometimes he would swing from the handle and slug. Sometimes he would bunt. The only thing you could depend upon in his case was the fact that he would give you something that you weren’t expecting.”

Now, Shocker doesn’t say that Cobb would only take a full swing after making one of the two manual adjustments mentioned: i.e., sliding the bottom hand up to meet the top so as to “punch” or sliding the top hand down on the bottom one so as to “slug”. Yet this is precisely what Charles Leehrsen claims in his superior book, Cobb: A Terrible Beauty. I’ve tried to contact Mr. Leehrsen and learn the source of his claim, since he doesn’t document it. Not having ever received a reply, I’m inclined to conclude that the paragraph I just cited is that source, and that Leehrsen excessively generalized its contents. Shocker’s point is that you never knew what the Georgia Peach might try next: bunting, shooting his hands up and slapping at the pitch, slipping both hands down and hacking away, etc., etc. But Mr. Leehrsen, I believe, takes this invaluable eye-witness testimony out of context by ignoring the unstated “et cetera”. To him, if Ty were not bunting but taking a full cut, then either one hand would slide up or the other would slide down. Cobb supposedly would never make contact with his distinctively spread hands preserving their distance apart.

I don’t really know why observers of yesteryear’s game—of what relics it has left behind—find hand-spacing so hard to accept as a straightforward advantage.  When I was a small boy, Leon Wagner was spreading his hands almost as wide as Cobb (having learned his ball in the Negro Leagues, where Deadball was still alive in the Fifties). Daddy Wags clearly wasn’t spreading his large mitts to fake out the infield.  I recall being fascinated by his special grip as I thumbed through my baseball cards.  Leon logged 173 home runs (if my quick math isn’t off) from the 1961 through the 1966 seasons.  Spreading the hands need not create a power deficit if you do it right: on the contrary!

The photo at this article’s masthead isn’t actually of Cobb, but of his Hall of Fame forerunner, Fred Clarke (who coached that other Wagner early in the twentieth century and taught him, among other things, hand-spreading).  If you look very closely, you can tell that too much of Fred’s bottom hand is visible for the top hand to be clamped down hard on top of it.  Even though the bat’s head is nearly pointing into the camera, the bottom hand’s knuckles remain suspiciously clear.  This signals us that the top paw would finish pressed against the bottom one in batters who used the technique because the follow-through would bring the two together.

How on earth, for that matter, would you suddenly slam top hand on bottom just before you swing, as Leehrsen pictures Cobb doing?  Would you do this just before beginning your attack on the ball?  Wouldn’t it disrupt timing and concentration to be messing around with grip at the critical moment?  Or if you made the adjustment sooner, then… then there would be no point in doing it.  You would have tipped off the infield sufficiently to give them a headstart moving to your pull side (since anyone who “slugs” from down on the knob is trying to pull).  If the essence of Cobb’s strategies was trickery, then this trick would have neutralized itself.  The rabbit’s tail would be showing before the magician could get his hat off.

Last week I created two videos that attempt to explain what I think might have been happening.  (They were going to be a single video, but the material kept mushrooming on me.)  In the second video—the actual demonstration—I try to show how Ty’s top hand would inevitably have ended up snugged against his bottom one if he were putting a full swing on the pitch so as to pull it.  The first video explains my objectives pretty much as I’ve laid them out here, complete with a reading of the Shocker paragraph from Lane.

To tell the truth, I find replication of Cobb’s contorted, awkward stroke quite a challenge.  I produced better results in a follow-up sequence where I shuffle off the back foot toward the plate in my load, then fly open.  And Cobb, by the way, may have done this, too!  We know from testimony as solid as Shocker’s (some of it appearing elsewhere in Lane’s book) that Tyrus would occasionally skip around in the box during his load, like Tris Speaker.  You have to believe that versatility carried to such degree would have driven corner infielders crazy.

As for the second piece of this two-part puzzle—the slipping of the bottom hand up to the top—I had little success demonstrating it either from a stationary set-up or a more mobile load.  Yet I feel confident that the intent here would have been to go the other way (for why would you want to hit the ball lightly to your pull side?).  The problem of giving away that intent too early may evaporate if we consider that a slide of the bottom hand up the barrel as the pitcher winds up would telegraph a bunt, bringing the third baseman (in Ty’s case) charging in… and to follow up that feint by pushing the barrel into the ball with both hands might well shove a scratch hit to the outfield grass.  Today we’d call it a “slap bunt”.

Ty Cobb didn’t exactly clarion his masterful use of deceptive techniques while he was an active player, and one can understand why.  In later years, however, he dispensed plenty of advice to those who would lend an ear (it could be argued, for instance, that he prepared Charlie Gehringer for a Hall of Fame career).  It’s a shame—no, it’s an outrage—that this generous side of Cobb’s character has been not just ignored, but erased by the slanders in Al Stumpf’s phony scribbles and purveyed far and wide by elite media types (looking at you, Ken Burns) who needed a “white Southern racist” to play Satan beside their cherubic Babe Ruth.

The real obstacle to unearthing instruction from Cobb’s legacy isn’t that he tried to bury his nuggets ten feet underground.  I think, rather, it’s simply that the game has changed too much for us to grasp certain principles that he would have assumed as givens.  Why explain the virtues of hand-spreading when approximately half the game’s hitters had been doing it since the mid-nineteenth century?  For that matter, why make a big noise about Tris Speaker’s skipping around in the box when, as Willie Mays tells us, Bobby Richardson had inherited enough of this wisdom to fade back from the plate suddenly if he wanted to advance a runner with a grounder to the right side?  In 1925, wouldn’t you suppose that everybody knew such things?  Jeez… do you have to tell a young driver where the ignition is?  Do you have to tell him to open the door before trying to sit down?

In Donald Rumsfeld’s immortal words, we don’t know what we don’t know.  My video’s very limited success at replication certainly taught me humility.  You can’t just pick up a bat and start doing what Cobb or Speaker did.  They must have put hundreds, perhaps thousands of reps into their signature moves.  Few of us can comprehend how those moves worked because, among other things, we can’t convince ourselves that spending time to master them would be a good investment.