baseball history, bunting, Deadball Era, hand use in hitting, Uncategorized

Butcher Boys, Bunts, and Bingles: Sorting Through Antiques in the Attic

I’ve almost completed a lightning-quick video series on bunting.  (The one subject I have yet to cover is drag- and push-bunting, which may be two subjects and two videos: not sure yet.)  Perhaps I feel a bit guilty about rushing through the project so quickly.  I certainly didn’t mean to imply any contempt for it.  I think the bunting game can become a very real and effective dimension of play, I think it’s exciting when executed well, and I think current play at all levels miserably neglects it.

But since I have nothing more than a Personal Pitcher that spits out golf-sized Wiffle balls to assist me in my experiments, I feel that there’s only so much I can learn and pass along.  Unlike routine hitting, which can be adequately simulated whenever you have an object in lateral motion to swing at, the bunt can be refined into so many distinct kinds of non- or semi-swing that a real pitcher throwing real baseballs on a regulation-sized field would be required to reach confident conclusions.  My series, then, is just intended to draw attention to this important subject and to offer aspiring “stick artists” a few ideas.  I believe the videos work if viewed in that context.

The one I completed yesterday and posted just today—“The Baltimore Chop, a.k.a. “Butcher Boy”—put me into such uncomfortable contortions that I actually ended up on camera advising against its use.  We know that Deadball hitters did precisely this sort of thing, beating the pitch so directly into the dirt around home plate that it leapt high in the air and allowed the crafty batsman time to leg out a bingle.  (I don’t know why they called them “bingles”… but that’s not a typo.)  It’s well worth retrieving some of the history of our game, but perhaps not all of what we dig up is still usable.

One question that took me by surprise in filming the series was this: what exactly is a bunt?  The official rule book offers the following terse definition:

Rule 2.00
A BUNT is a batted ball not swung at, but intentionally met with the bat and tapped slowly within the infield.

Okay.  Well, it’s obvious that if you attempt to drag or push a bunt with two strikes and it rolls foul, you’re out on strike three.  The ball was “not swung at”.  But what about what I called in my third video the Fake-and-Throw-Down?  This is something very like a slap bunt (I suppose you could say it’s a species of slap bunt)—and the slap is a swing; so if that one goes foul, you’re still alive.  But what, then, about the maneuver which I gave no name in the fourth video, but which might be called a Trail-the-Barrel?  This differs from a push bunt in that both hands slide to the extreme end of the bat, with the bottom one indeed clutching the knob… yet a very weak swing is also going on.  You’re not so much pushing the pitch toward third (from a lefty’s perspective) as you are raking it anemically toward short.  As long as you get the ball past pitcher and third baseman, you’re likely to reach first safely.  Ty Cobb did this sort of thing a lot.  So did Ichiro.

That’s not a bunt, is it?  The swing is faint… but the barrel does cross the plate and move toward the pitcher, even though you want your body to be exiting the box before it finishes its sweep.  So a foul ball with two strikes would be… just a foul ball.

As far as I can tell, yesteryear’s hitters had so many tricks like these in their bag that they probably strained the boundaries of many official definitions.  More than anything about them, I admire that willingness to experiment with new approaches—to take the defense wholly by surprise.  In an era when computer printouts are telling defenders exactly where to stand and where one hard-hit ball after another goes right to a glove, you’d think that our cleverest performers might be willing to recover some of these neglected tactics.

bunting, coaches and trust, Deadball Era, footwork in the box, hand use in hitting, umpires, Uncategorized

More on the Bunt: Practice Can Be Painful!

Thanks to a pair of sore heels that Father Time keeps stepping on, I find that I can’t rehearse certain experimental procedures as much as I would like before cutting a video.  A measure of proficiency is always desirable… but I reach the point of diminishing returns when my rising skill and my stiffening feet pass each other going in opposite directions.

This proved especially true over the weekend as I tried to master a very difficult type of bunt—a fake bunt, really, that involves dropping down as if to sacrifice and then launching toward first base while lowering the barrel into the pitch so as to loop it (hopefully) over a charging third baseman.  When I finally produced a demonstration video that I thought satisfactory, I had already worked through seven or eight takes.  In the process, I discovered that I was forcing the barrel into the pitch too hard—that I really shouldn’t be trying to drive a three-quarters swing through it, as with the conventional slap-bunt.  (Not that slap-bunts are part of any team’s conventions any longer.)  Somewhere in all these do-overs, I also realized that the beginning of a break toward first base would help me trail the barrel and hence direct the pitch more toward third.  Practice makes perfect… but perfection was in no danger of being captured by my practices over the past few days.

As I say in the video that I finally allowed to pass muster, I’m not trying to impress anyone with my skill: I’m only trying to give you things to think about.  I’ve already reached the conclusion that really proficient bunting (including bunt-fakes) would require far more rehearsal than standard swing-away hitting.  I guess it’s no wonder, then, that professionals have grown so very weak in bunting skills.  So much of the contemporary game depends upon power, and so much of the “small” game would demand hundreds and hundreds of reps, that the numbers just don’t balance out.  Honestly, I get it.  I still believe that small ball wins close games, and I know as a fan that games played with such a high degree of skill in the fine arts are the most exciting to watch… but today, with such narrow windows of time and such whopping dollar amounts involved, the Big Club wants its products to come out of the package already nine-tenths assembled.

That’s all the more reason, though, why you need to assemble yourself if you’re not built like a superhuman machine.  Your coaches probably aren’t going to teach you many of those “fine arts”, even in high school—and you certainly won’t learn them during the few practices that your travel or summer-ball team schedules.  Take some of the ideas that you can find on this and other sites, and get to work on your own.

To wrap up this brief update: one of the things that disturbs me about the Fake-and-Throw-Down (as I call it) is that, even though it’s a bid for a hit built upon a bluffed sacrifice, the ump will probably consider a fouled attempt Strike Three.  You can argue till you’re blue in the face with Blue: he’s most likely to notice that you didn’t take a full swing, and to base his decision on that observation.

The next type of bunt I plan to explore has the same liability: the attempt to ground the pitch weakly toward shortstop so that the pitcher can’t reach it and 6 arrives too late to make a play.  I suspect Cobb and Collins did this sort of thing all the time, and did it to almost to perfection.  Their strikeouts were minimal, and the fouled bunt with two strikes was already being logged as a K in 1909.  If the top hand doesn’t slide up the handle on this one (as I suspect it doesn’t—that’s going to be my initial assumption), will the Supreme Arbiter still think that it looks like a bunt attempt when he sees a stationary barrel run up on the ball rather than a swing?

That’s a consideration worth bearing in mind.  Maybe most of these techniques should be tried early in the count unless you’re really confident in your ability.

baseball history, bunting, Deadball Era, hand use in hitting, mental approach, Uncategorized

The Fine (and Lost?) Art of Bunting

As I was browsing through the pages of our latest book publication, Metal Ropes, I happened upon the very brief section about bunting.  And then it struck me: why has SmallBallSuccess never made a bunting video?  Anybody would naturally suppose that the “stickers” of yesteryear would be masters of putting that “dead ball” down.  They were considered the ultimate “place hitters” (i.e., artists capable of placing the ball in whatever part of the field they desired).  I should really look into this….

Yet when you pause to weigh the issue, Deadball bunting isn’t really very easy to research.  Besides the usual problems of having virtually no video and no live shots taken at lightning shutter-speed (which didn’t exist), we have to confront the fact that yesteryear’s batsmen didn’t really use the sacrifice as we do.  There wasn’t even a category for “sac bunt” or “sac fly”.  The assumption in both of those cases was always that the batter was attempting to reach base and “productively failed”, creating an out that happily managed to move the runner up.  It’s hardly a twisted way of thinking: ours today may well be more so.  We don’t have a “sacrifice grounder”, do we?  Yet Roger Maris once told Mike Shannon that he could collect fifteen or twenty RBI’s a season by deliberately rolling over on a pitch and grounding to the right side with a runner on third.  A lot of sabermetricians among us don’t even consider the RBI a legitimate achievement—pretty much the same guys who consider all of Roger’s RBI’s to have been accidents and the man himself to have represented mediocrity that caught fire for one season.  (We’ll never know what Maris could have done if the Yankee front office hadn’t suckered him into playing with a broken hamate bone in 1966 that never healed properly thereafter.)

Anyway, my original point (I can never resist defending Roger Maris) was that there’s no clear reason why you should ever give yourself up completely in dropping a bunt: I feel that the oldtimers had that right.  Even in Major League games, I see guys square up literally five seconds—or more—before the pitch is ever delivered, and nobody in the stadium has any illusions about their drawing the bat back at the last instant.  Then, if they somehow manage to dribble an effective sacrifice, they lope down the line, veering already toward the dugout: never a thought in their satisfied head about putting additional pressure on the defense.  No, I don’t know exactly how Willie Keeler, Eddie Collins, or Elmer Flick would have done it… but I know they wouldn’t have done it that way!

I’m actually going to have to devote quite a bit of experimentation to some of the subject’s subtler aspects.  I have a few ideas, based upon what I’ve read: that Ty Cobb, for instance, was not averse to faking a bunt and then slapping the ball rather more vigorously—but still not full force—through some vacated quadrant of the infield.  This is very fertile territory for a new video series, and I think many older baseball enthusiasts would like to see a return to such play at all levels.  It’s no secret that scrappy players who make contact and bat .343 at Double A are less interesting to the Bigs than lumbering Goliaths who get a jack every third game and bat .241… but that may be changing, even among Major League brain trusts.  Just look at the success of the Tampa Bay Rays this year!

I’ve already posted (rushed? I hope not) two introductory videos to YouTube.  The first is a mere review of the issues, and particularly a contrast of the way bunting is practiced today versus a more Old School approach.  The second is my best stab at instruction in sacrifice bunting (yes, the kind that Deadball hitters didn’t admit existed).  I have no particular historical record to draw upon, as I’ve said—and I certainly have no personal résumé of achievement on the diamond to establish my authority.  The most interesting and promising suggestion I float, I would say, is that players who are struggling at the plate and ready to try anything should consider batting left-handed.  At the very least, if you’re equally bad mechanically from the left and right sides, you’ll be closer to first base from the former and thus bound to beat out a few more scratch hits.  Maury Wills was going nowhere in the Minors before he tried switch-hitting: a few years later, he broke Ty Cobb’s stolen base record.  I’m not even recommending a switcher approach.  If you’re fast, just bat left exclusively.  Learn to put the ball in play on the left side, where throws to first are longer, and exploit that good break out of the box.  This was essentially Ichiro’s game in his best years.

We’ll try to promote various ways of getting the pitch into play on that side in forthcoming videos: the straight bunt isn’t the only tactic, by any means.  Some alternatives range between a bunt and a full swing—and these were precisely what Collins, Cobb, et al. had honed to perfection, in my opinion.  At any rate, I’m pretty sure that you’ll break into any line-up hitting .400, even if 90 percent of your safeties are singles—and even if 50 percent of those are infield hits!

baseball history, hand use in hitting, hitter reaction time, Uncategorized, weight transfer

Today’s Elite Hitters Could Profit From Some of Yesterday’s Lessons

Thanks to poor Internet, a busy schedule, and—okay, I’ll admit it—a rather shallow degree of interest, I haven’t really kept track of the deluge of play-off activity.  It’s all a bit too much for me, even though I understand that it’s more dollars in the coffers of the MLB.  Jeez… why not just create a tournament and let every team in?

But the little I’ve been able to see has left me more confident than ever of two lessons we teach in Metal Ropes.  I particularly noticed them being illustrated by their absence in the potent Dodger offense—potent until it faced the superior pitching of the Nationals.  Bellinger, Muncy, Lux… the big lefty guns in the middle of LA’s order seem intent on pulling.  Cody actually tends to stride open: if he can, he’ll rake anything he reaches to right field.  Now, if I were to label this a characteristic of “modern decadence”, I’d have to carry modernity back to Johnny Mize and Duke Snyder: the dead-pull hitter was very much a feature of the Fifties (when, except in the case of Ted Williams, there was no radical shift to contend with).  Nevertheless, I think the Dodgers would do well to research how certain guys not named Babe Ruth—say, Napoleon Lajoie, Honus Wagner, and Rogers Hornsby (to name three right-side oppo-hitters) went about their business.  It looked to me as though the Rays managed to breeze past the much-favored Athletics by hitting the other way in that do-or-die match.

Now, as we argue in my latest book, hitting the other way puts several things in your favor.  Most importantly, it gives you more time.  If you’re facing a Scherzer fastball, it allows you a split second more to get barrel to ball—for you’re trying to let the pitch get very deep.  If what Ernie Johnson, Jr., called Anibal Sanchez’s “dipsy-doodle” is making you look like a fool, then thinking oppo gives you time to track the pitch: to see, specifically, if it’s going to break into your wheelhouse or plunge out of the strike zone. And, yes, if you do barrel it up, you’ll probably pull that one in spite of yourself… but waiting on it has allowed you to get the barrel on it.  Pulling “by accident” is okay, you know.  Guys like Mike Schmidt used to hit a lot of home runs that way.

I won’t linger over the other advantages of hitting to the opposite field.  Let’s just say that, for lefties, forcing the far side of the infield to make a long throw works strongly in your favor.  Of course, with these extreme shifts we see, it’s unlikely that anyone on that side of the diamond can ever keep your hit from reaching the outfield!

The other thing that kept hammering away at me was how often the modest forward transfer of weight keeps the barrel off the ball.  We visit this subject in Metal Ropes again and again.  Most of yesteryear’s great batsmen were front-foot hitters.  If you see photos of them making contact as they lean back, it’s because they were fighting off a good, tight fastball and were unable to get forward as far as they typically would have.  That’s actually one of the assets of the strong forward transfer: you can instantly adjust to a blazing fastball and lean your hands into the pitch even as your weight is still trying to get off the back leg.

When, however, you are always rolling back in a bid to pull the ball from your all-important “launch angle”, a less-than-perfectly timed pitch will soon end your at-bat unproductively.  If the fastball slightly beats you, then your wood will sweep under it just as it passes over the plate.  (Thanks to all the high-tech slo-mo of today’s cameras, it’s very easy to study replayed instances of such failure.)  If, on the other hand, Sanchez has you a little out in front, the dip in your swing is already carrying the barrel over the ball as the two pass somewhere in front of the plate.  I see a great many weak roll-overs in the 2019 hitting game, and not just in these play-offs.  They have grown to be a very familiar outcome.  (Gotta say it: Trea Turner’s double to open Game 2 was a roll-over that Justin Turner misplayed at third.  If you looked closely, you could see Justin give a nod to Kershaw afterward signaling, “That one was on me.”)

By shifting your weight decisively forward, you postpone the point when the bat has to pull out of its mildly descending line into the ball.  You make solid contact, even after slight mistiming, much more probable.  Justin Turner has had a very good series at the plate; and, although I’m not a big fan of the high leg pump, he uses it well to achieve a strong forward weight transfer (without any of that “get your foot down early” folderol that fouls up the front-foot hitter’s dynamics).  The reference I made earlier to Deadball Era hitters who were sometimes photographed falling back—and Ty Cobb’s name would have appeared prominently if I’d offered a list—already had their bat going straight at (and slightly downward into) the pitch when they got fisted.  Even though their shift wasn’t completed, they had entered into it early enough to get their wood traveling a productive path.

Well… back to the grind.  Enjoy the rest of whatever series you’re following.  Personally, I’m trying to ignore the Braves.  They always seem to get my hopes up—and then dash them at the very end!

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.