baseball history, bat acceleration, footwork in the box, hand use in hitting, hitter reaction time, opposite-field hitting, weight transfer

More on the Kinetic Loop: Sheffield and Musial

Let’s begin in repeating the definition that I use in Metal Ropes:

Before any punctilious physicist jumps all over my abuse of the term [i.e., kinesis], let me stress that I’m not trying to pass Physics 101 (which I never attempted to do): my wish is simply to distinguish between fluid and stored motion; and, as a lover of Homer, Socrates, and Epictetus, I’m going to latch onto [the Greek word] “kinetic” to designate fluidity.  What I have in mind is the immensely important matter of how energy flow is cycled throughout the load prior to being unleashed upon the pitch.  I thought of using the word “balance”, but that implies poise or “standstill”: the very opposite of what we want.  We need to have a load where energy is held milling in the corral without being allowed to halt; because if it truly halted, we would have to go from 0 to 60 (or 90) in a split-second.  What we want, rather, is for our initiated flow (or our “kinetic energy”, if you’ll allow me) to travel through a subtle loop or loops as it awaits the instant to pour out of the chute.

Now, for all practical purposes, the loops of which I write are created a) by the hands and b) by the forward leg.  You could isolate your looping to just one of these two spots, but we seldom see that happening in a successful hitter: the legs, rather, are at least somewhat involved in feeding into manual preparation, or else the hands will be somewhat synchronized to very visible leg activity.

You know that a gyroscope simulates stasis (or perfect balance) by spinning.  The kinetic loop’s objective is analogous to that remarkable whirling top’s.  It aims at holding vigorous energy in suspense until the instant of attack arrives.  You might think of it as a delayed fall.  If your front foot rises during a forward weight shift, you’re going to fall forward; yet you can somewhat delay the precise moment of the fall by letting the leg carry farther to the rear, and also by letting the hands trail out or back.  The longer the delaying loops are, the less rushed will be your full commitment of energy into the pitch: in other words, the more finely you’ll be able to initiate your attack right on time.

I’m going to devote the rest of this post to two very different hitters who relied heavily for their success upon large kinetic loops.  The first of these two is Gary Sheffield.  Here’s how I would describe Shef’s stroke.  We all remember the lofty, really vigorous succession of hand pumps, of course, that sent the barrel swooshing back and forth over the hitter’s head.  Yet this most spectacular component of the Sheffield wind-up had relatively minor importance in creating a powerful loop.  I think its main purpose was just to concentrate the hitter’s awareness of his barrel into his wrists and fingers (as opposed to his shoulders) so that the significant final loop would anchor itself tightly in the torso (as opposed to lassoing the whole batter’s box sloppily from end to end).  Gary’s hands were initiating a kind of magic circle over the inner half of home plate, where his core muscles were most in control of the dynamics surrounding release.

The entry to the major loop came when the mighty hand pumps trickled almost to a halt.  This would occur when Sheffield saw that the pitcher was indeed about the deliver: everything previous was simply keeping the hands loose and alert until the ball was about to come home.  As the pitcher took his stride, Gary would answer, not immediately with renewed hand motion, but with a substantial lift of his own forward leg.  He was preparing to “throw down” into the pitch with an emphatic weight shift.  Yet hefty leg kicks of the sort can get you to the rendezvous too soon: the leg’s coil needed to be integrated into a broader loop that the hands—always the hitter’s instruments of fine tuning—could adjust.  This was when Gary’s hands made their final forward passage.  If he were a tad early, the hands could dip the barrel just a little farther forward as the leg drifted farther to the rear, keeping both mobile forces in a gyroscopic kind of balance.  If he found himself in danger of arriving late, Sheffield could instantly lower the barrel into the pitch without describing a complete rotation.

Most hitting analysts, I suppose, would argue that Sheffield sacrificed a higher average for greater power by throwing his body so “uncontrollably” into the pitch.  I would phrase it differently.  A power hitter deluxe Gary certainly was; but I would say that he enhanced both power and average by creating a generous kinetic loop where very lively leg activity was finely tuned by very clever hand activity.

Stan Musial’s stance was “admiringly derided” (if those words can be used together) by two generations of sports commentators.  Joe Garagiola used to say that, when he set up in the box and was waiting on the pitch, the Man looked like a street urchin peeking around the corner to see if the cops were following.  Closed to the plate and relatively far from it, Musial displayed no characteristic at this moment more distinctive than his lift of the bottom hand to a height almost equal to the top hand’s.  The result was that his barrel extended far to the rear and nearly parallel to the ground.  (Negro League star Wes Covington, who reached the Bigs a little late to make the sort of dent he could have, featured extremely similar swing dynamics.)  Stan’s weight was nestled decisively over his rear foot thanks to his having hugged the handle into his armpit in this fashion.  Though that wasn’t the primary end served by the odd hand positioning, it did make his rearward coil as he loaded much more easy and fluid.  His front knee bent more deeply than ever into the body as his forward foot glided back almost to touch the rear one (à la Babe Ruth).  This severe approximating of the feet was catalyzed by the hands flicking the barrel into an upright position.  The two were inseparable: bottom hand pressed down and back to raise the flag pole, and legs drew together simultaneously in that same vertical axis—though the spine remained distinctly bent throughout the operation, keeping all the power focused in the core muscles.

Today’s hitting instructors would say, “Don’t try this at home, kids!  Keep your legs in a spread, athletic position beneath you.”  Yes… and from that “athletic position” would emerge no potent kinetic loop—for the Musial coil, as described thus far, had just primed one of the most effective loops in the game’s history.

A front foot drawn very far to the rear has created a sliding spectrum of options about where to land when it goes forward.  It can plant almost at once on a fastball, especially a tight one, and “backleg” the pitch by forcing the weight shift to retreat up and back immediately; or it can travel virtually the whole length of the box in pursuit of a low/away pitch or a slow-freight breaking ball.  Again, Babe Ruth also displayed this huge range of length in his strides.  In Stan’s own day, we might point to Willie Mays and Roberto Clemente.

But it’s impossible to measure your stride’s length against an incoming pitch and still have any pop in your stroke—impossible, that is, if the stride’s variable loop itself is your only channel of energy.  The key to Stan’s explosive swing was, once more, in his hands, and specifically in the bottom one.  Having begun to press down on the handle in the “flagpole-raising” load, that hand continued to apply pressure in the same looping direction.  The motion of the hands to the rear somewhat counterpoised the forward motion of the stride: not perfectly counterpoised, because the energy ignited in the forward surge had to remain active.  But the bottom hand could press a little farther back if the pitch were taking its sweet time to reach the plate, giving the front leg more leisure to go out to the point of rendezvous; or if the pitch were coming in at an unexpectedly high velocity, then the bottom hand could instantly interrupt its drift to the rear and cut down into the ball (the top hand, of course, actually doing the heavy lifting by punching quickly off the chest).

This is a quick take on a splendid kinetic loop.  In the baseball card to the side, you have a particularly good illustration of the loop’s extreme adjustability.  The weight has already been caught entirely on the forward leg here, but the ball isn’t yet in the hitting zone.  The hands, therefore, are stretching their loop as far to the rear as it will go; and, thanks, to their counterpoising influence, the complete forward weight transfer hasn’t emptied the stroke’s power into thin air.  Contact is going to be right on time, and a bull’s eye.

Despite also having a full forward weight shift, Gary Sheffield (like Lou Gehrig) always hit off a lock-kneed, rear-inclined front leg.  He rushed his energy forward so that he could lift its vector: he was a dead-pull hitter.  In contrast, Musial would drive straight through the ball no matter where it was pitched.  By allowing his shift to continue as far forward as necessary, he was able to shoot his 725 doubles and 177 triples all over the park.  The kinetic loop set both of these warriors free to fight their chosen battle; but if Gary hadn’t insisted on rearing back so much when planting his foot, we might have seen something very, very rare and special.

baseball history, coaches and trust, Deadball Era, footwork in the box, hand use in hitting, hand-spreading, low line drives, Uncategorized, weight transfer

My Favorite Deadball Swing

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At the bottom right of every page on SmallBallSuccess.com now sits a link to My Favorite Deadball Swing.  I put this discussion’s elements together while being physically incapacitated by a problem that may need a simple surgery (if surgery is ever simple).  The greatest distress I’ve had since emerging from the ER has been thanks to the medication I was prescribed.  The complaint is very manageable, if only I survive the cure!

Anyway, being sidelined is a good thing when it forces you to complete several neglected tasks.  Now that the site is drawing quite a bit of attention, I really do need to spruce it up… and this page condensing my decade of research into a very usable stroke was the obvious place to begin.  I don’t mind admitting that I’m quite proud of the composite picture I’ve put together.

Yet I should issue a warning that I didn’t squeeze into the page’s discussion.  I’m not sure that such a small warning label fully “on topic”, or that my readers will even need it: what follows is more of a comment about human nature than about the mechanics of the swing.

Whatever they say politically, most people are very conservative when it comes to their foundational notions about life, or about their special corner of life.  In that regard, Marxist revolutionaries are conservative.  They don’t like to talk things over: their way is the right way—admit it or hit the road!  Any ballplayer will recognize the attitude at work here.  In fact, when I began collecting material about twenty years ago for a book titled Key to a Cold City, I noticed early and often that young black players breaking into the big leagues soon after Jackie Robinson encountered an almost belligerent degree of “correctional coaching”.  Were the Establishment’s white coaches trying to set up their young pupils for failure—was it all a covert racist plot?  But, you know, that made no sense, for at least a couple of reasons.  One was that no-name, dimly promising Caucasian recruits were being forced into the same cookie-cutter.  The other was that coaches don’t keep their jobs by producing disciples who fail.  You’d have to be one heck-of-a rabid racist to sacrifice a big-league gig just for the satisfaction of fouling up a few dark-skinned kids!

I’m not just rambling here from the hallucinatory effects of Flavoxate.  It so happens that the style of hitting commonly practiced in the Negro Leagues after World War II was as close as you could come to time-machine transport back to the Deadball Era.  (No surprise there: strapped for cash, the Negro Leagues would use baseballs until the seams split open, just as was done in the MLB half a century earlier.)  This put young black players on a collision course with the new orthodoxy; for if Fifties hitting instruction was about anything, it was about jacking long balls out of the park.  An analogy with our present “launch angle” romance would be very apt.  I call the standard technique of that decade “lean back and hack”.  Hitters were to stay back on a bent thigh, swivel their forward hip, and send the barrel immediately through an upward loop.  Ted Williams writes as though he invented the system in The Science of Hitting, but… no, he was just preaching to the choir by that point.  If anything, ironically, the Splendid Splinter’s stroke was far more level and forward-shifting than Duke Snider’s or Eddie Mathews’.

Young black players who ascended through the Giants organization seemed to get a heavy dose of this pedagogy.  Monte Irvin and Hank Thompson show its more positive results.  A kid named Willie Kirkland didn’t pan out so well; his impressive home run totals didn’t compensate for his dismal batting averages (or not until he was able to straighten himself out in Japan).  Other Negro League graduates like Bob Boyd and Sam Jethroe, who could have contended for big-league batting titles, were never really given much of an audition.  They refused to pull and elevate, logging mere singles at a .300+ clip.  And if there were real bigotry in Major League front offices, it was here: a black kid had better club homers like Mays and Banks if he wanted to stick around—any puny white kid could be turned into a hunt-and-peck hitter.

Well, I’m afraid that the kid who walks on to a try-out field and unveils my recommended techniques will get a similar reception today.  At least one of these techniques has been explicitly derided by the coaching brain trust for generations: hand-spreading.  At least one other—the shuffle step in the load—will be something that none of the batting-cage Merlins has ever seen before, and that most will say they never want to see again.  The only way to combat such derision and contempt is through instant success.  The wizened veteran of many a Little League or high school campaign will keep that cry of indignation in his throat if your shuffle into the pitch and heavy forward weight-transfer are followed by a cracking line drive into the power alley.  And then you send another up the middle, and another.  By the end of your session, he’ll be muttering to his confederates, “I don’t know how the hell he hits that way… but it seems to work for him.”  He’ll keep his hands off of you, because coaches love—above all else—success.  Wins.  V’s.

They left Stan Musial alone, too, although radio and TV announcers hatched many a jibe at his expense.  Wes Covington, who was the Negro League version of the Musial contortion, might have become a household name if his knees hadn’t given out.  They left Wes’s teammate Henry Aaron alone for the most part, after convincing him to uncross his wrists in semi-professional ball.  The Hammer remained a front-foot hitter until relatively late in his career, when he decided to go all out for the Ruth record rather than for 4,000 hits.

The photo of Cool Papa Bell at the top of this post doesn’t show anything radically different from what I recommend in my composite of Deadball techniques.  I might almost have called the whole bundle “Negro League secrets”… but it’s too easy to step on a PC land mine when you venture into such territory these days.  Just remember that, if you dare to use these methods because the big-boy, Home Run Derby style isn’t working for you, you’re actually honoring some of the game’s most reverend traditions—forgotten traditions, true, but traditions that produced unforgettable players.

And remember, too, that you’ll need to get really good at this style before you put it on public display.  You need to prepare a nice, fat cork that will keep the coach’s contempt bottled up in his throat.