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, bat acceleration, bat design, footwork in the box, hand use in hitting, hitter reaction time, metal bat use, opposite-field hitting, strike zone, Uncategorized

Oppo-Hitting Is Hard Because We’ve Made It So

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In the Year of the Lockdown, I’ve enjoyed watching whatever games I can find featuring the Tampa Bay Rays. More than any other team I’ve seen lately, their line-up features a variety of hitting techniques, not nine guys who could have fallen out of a cookie cutter or who, at any rate, are all trying to do the same thing (i.e., hit home runs). Lowe keeps his hands below the shoulder and close to the torso, like most hitters a couple of generations ago. Brosseau and Díaz drive their barrel down almost in one motion with their lead foot—something that you’d see in abundance only if you set your time machine to travel back before World War II. It’s really fun to watch an offense that features so much diversity of attack.

I find it ironic, then, that the Rays broadcasters were the pair I heard remarking on the difficulty of hitting against the shift. The exact words were something like, “A lot of fans wonder why players don’t beat the shift by taking the ball the other way. Most people don’t realize how hard it is to go opposite-field.” Well… yes. That’s certainly so in my case, anyway: I don’t realize why it should be so hard to hit the other way. For one thing, you’re deliberately trying to be late, and being late should be much easier than being early. You have more time to react, to look at the pitch and decide if you wish to offer. Why is it hard to be given more time?

Naturally, if you’re all dug in and your swing is so grooved that you can’t adjust your footwork to the situation in any manner, no matter how minute, then being late with your hands is pretty much all you have going for you. But why would a professional ballplayer be incapable of a little flexibility in his lower body? Here’s what Willie Mays had to say about Yankee singles-hitter deluxe Bobby Richardson:

It’s a pleasure to watch a professional like Bobby Richardson, the former Yankee second baseman, when he’s about to move the runner on first base around to third. Bobby hit behind the runner better than anybody else, for my money…. The batter, as the pitch is delivered, shifts his weight slightly and steps back with the rear foot a couple of inches [if he bats right, like Richardson]. Then, swinging a fraction of a second late, he just meets the ball with a short, sharp “punch” and bangs it to the right side of the playing field.   (My Secrets of Playing Baseball, 1970, p. 70)

Now, I consider Bobby a very interesting subject in his own right.  Richardson was no Pete Runnels or Dick Groat: he wasn’t going to compete for a batting crown.  But he did manage to become the only Yankee to top .300 in 1959, and he did muster a league-leading 209 hits in 1962 (when the number of games on the schedule had but lately increased by eight).  He had progressed from a smooth-field, no-hit prospect to a respectable component of a potent Yankee line-up.  Many have faulted him for not drawing walks from the lead-off position, to which he was admittedly not well suited.  I have to assume that an aggressive approach was part of what allowed him to hang around the .270 mark for years.  Okay, he might have pushed that to .290 if he’d been more selective.

Maybe part of the reason Bobby wasn’t more persnickety at the plate was his huge bat.  I vaguely recall marveling at that stick as a boy of seven or eight, when I’d get to watch my beloved Mickey on our black-and-white screen every Saturday and would wonder, “Who’s this little guy with the biggest bat on the team?”  Oh, Bobby would choke up a bit… but he still had to hurl the barrel down into the pitch in a manner that required early commitment—and probably allowed for being late.  Not that a child’s memory is a reliable witness… but it seems to me that most Richardson base-knocks went right up the middle.  His knees were distinctly bent as he assumed his stance, and on them he would glide into the pitch.  Think of a Scotsman hurling a caber: it all starts from the feet, and especially the knees.

It was Bill Dickey, then a Yankee coach, who advised Bobby to use the larger bat (as Richardson reveals in The Bobby Richardson Story, 1965). This Hall-of-Fame mentor was obviously a product of the Old School; there weren’t a whole lot of active players (with Rizzuto having just retired) who would have possessed such arcane knowledge.  At any rate, Richardson’s success at the plate took off when the big bludgeon was placed in his hands.  No, he didn’t have much bat speed.  His entire twelve-year career—for three consecutive years of which he led the league in at-bats (that’s what can happen when you never draw walks)—produced only 34 home runs.  But with the likes of Mantle, Maris, Skowron, Berra, and Howard batting behind him, homering wasn’t really a priority.  (Honesty compels me to observe that, despite such firepower at his back, Bobby never quite managed to score 100 runs.)

So what has all of this to do with oppo-hitting?  I think it’s the bat.  The reason Dewayne Staats and Brian Anderson (two of my favorite announcers, by the way) may have deemed off-field hitting “harder than you think” is because today’s bats are mere conveyances for a tiny, explosive sweet spot.  They make no allowance for misjudgment: they work extremely well only when everything in the swing is right on time.  If you try to reach for an outside pitch and push it (perhaps one-handed) to the infield’s far side), you encounter two problems: 1) your bat may be too short by a couple of inches; and 2) the balance in that bat is so top-heavy that you’ll probably foul off or pop up the pitch by dipping under it, if you contact it at all.

And that’s if you can get an outside pitch, or if you adjust your position to the far corner by recoiling with a Richardson-like move (for who doesn’t crowd the plate these days?).  What if the pitcher insists on pounding you inside, as more and more of the good ones dare to do?  Then is when you really need some bulk in the handle.  With the old-school lumber in your hands, you might have fought off the tight pitch to the off-field grass by inside-outing (in the fashion described in Ted Williams’ Science of Hitting, of all places: I wonder if Ted ever used the technique once in his life?).  Armed with today’s club, however, you’ll be picking splinters out of your face; or if you have the advantage of a metal bat, your chances of a weak infield pop-up are still very high just because of the handle’s tiny diameter.

So, yes: upon consideration, I suppose opposite-field hitting these days is indeed harder than I think—with emphasis on “these days”.  Even the resourceful Tampa Bay Rays can’t seem to do much about the hardware they take to the plate.  How about at least giving an audition to shifting your feet in the box, though, guys?  Devote a little practice to it and see if you don’t get good results.  Please?  A touch of small ball from yesteryear’s handbook would make today’s game so much more interesting!