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Saturday, April 23, 2005

Batting Styles and the Burgess Shale

This is a very interesting article posted to the SABR listserv by Gene Newman. It came from the October 2, 1888 daily paper in Birmingham Alabama.

Positions of well known players at the bat Pete Browning Has a Fatal Defect But He Gets There- Dave Orr Bats By Contraries-

How Anson Cured Kelly of a Flaw in His Batting.

Is there any fixed rule, any one position for a batter that can be looked upon as absolutely correct? The best way, one would think, could be learned by observing the mode adopted by the best batters. But there are almost as many different positions as there are great batters. In nothing do they more show their individuality.

The instructions which are generally given to a player by the managers and captains are to stand on a line with the center of the plate with the feet a short distance apart, the right one advanced several inches toward the pitcher. It is conceded by most authorities that a better swing can be obtained for the bat in this way.

Very few of the really hard hitters stand in this position, says The New York Sun, except Stovet, of the Athletics. Pete Browning, who headed the list of Association batters two years, and has been among the first for ten seasons, stands on a line with the center of the plate, but his feet are not in the position laid down by rule, or at least he does not keep them that way when he starts to strike at a ball. Instead of stepping forward with the right foot to meet the ball, he steps back with the left. This is considered a fatal defect, and not another successful batter in either league or association does it.

The reason is, it is argued, that by stepping back the player gets away from the ball and cannot hit an out curve, or, if he does, he is apt to knock down the first base foul line. Browning avoids this by striking very quickly, so quick, in fact, that he rarely allows it to get in a line with him. This accounts for the fact that he almost invariably bats to left field, or directly toward third base.

Browning says he can hit the ball harder that way than any other, although his aim is probably not as correct as if he were in a different position. He has a horror of striking out, and when two strikes are called on him he usually draws his feet close together, leans his body forward and hits at the ball very easily, so as to get a good sight on it. Even if he does hit it in that position, he is not likely to knock it out of the diamond. This explains why "The Gladiator" makes but few hits after two strikes have been called.

Tip O'Neill, the St. Louis slugger, copies Browning's position at the plate very nearly. When he strikes at the ball there is a material difference. Instead of stepping back with the right foot, he moves the left back and swings his body around so as to face third base. In this way he gives his bat a terrific momentum, and, as fielders say, sets the ball on fire, it goes so fast when hit.

Big Dave Orr has a position which seems utterly at variance with all the rules of batting. Instead of standing in the center of the plate he takes his place at the extreme edge furthest from the pitcher and almost behind it, in fact. His feet are placed in a most peculiar way. The toes of the right foot point almost toward second base, and the heel is placed in the hollow of the left. He swings his body forward, moving his feet but a few inches, all the swing he gives the bat seeming to come from the upper part of his body. A peculiar thing about his hitting is that he frequently knocks the ball between first and second base, and is by many called a right field hitter.

Denny Lyon, of the Athletics places his feet in the correct position, but he stands well up toward the front of the plate nearest the pitcher and steps back with the right foot when in the act of swinging. Larkin, of the Athletics, stands almost as far back as Orr, but he holds his feet apart and steps up to the ball.

Anson assumes much the same position as Larkin, and also steps forward with the left foot. The scientific manner in which he swings his bat is the chief beauty about his hitting.

Mike Kelly gets on a line with the center of the plate, his body being turned directly toward first base and his head twisted around so that he faces the pitcher. He bends his body slightly forward and steps out with his right foot when striking. Several years ago he seemed to be afraid of a swiftly thrown ball, and he would often step out of the box to avoid an incurve going directly over the plate. This was a fatal defect in his batting. The pitchers knew his weakness, and would "wrap the ball around his neck," to use a baseball phrase. Anson, however hit upon a plan to remedy this.

He made Kelly stand almost completely behind the plate, with his face and chest turned directly toward the pitcher. Then he told him to hold his bat out so that it pointed at second base. When he went to strike he was thus compelled to swing his body back to the bat and then around to the former position again, so that it was almost impossible for him to step out of the way before the ball reached him. This position is by some highly recommended, but it makes the batter exceedingly liable to be hit by the ball. Anson's idea seemed to be that to make Kelly proof against fear he must familiarize him with danger.

Dan Brouthers stands almost at the corner of the box closest to the catcher, and, being lefthanded, his left foot is placed ahead of the right one. He steps back when he strikes at the ball, moving the foot closest to the pitcher. Bobby Caruthers takes the same position. Ryan of the Chicagos, stands at the end of the box nearest the pitcher and holds his feet almost on a line. When he swings his bat he steps forward with the left foot.

Hecker, Collins and Stratton seem to have the best positions. Stratton, in fact, is said by some to have the best position for hitting the ball of any player in the Association. He gets exactly in the center of the batter's box, on the left hand side, and places the toes of the left foot close against the front line of the box, the right foot being back several inches. When he strikes he steps squarely forward and swings his entire body toward the pitchers. The veteran Charley Snyder, when he first saw Stratton bat, said: "That boy may not be a good batter yet, but any player who meets the ball that way is bound to succeed." At bat he is the exact counterpart of Fred Lewis, who at one time was undoubtedly the greatest natural batter that ever lived. Lewis could but seldom be kept sober, however, and now he couldn't play good ball with an amateur club.

Hecker stands back in the box toward the catcher, with his right toes pointed toward first and his left to third base. He moves his feet only a few inches when he strikes, and then directly toward the pitcher. Collins stands in the center of the box, with his left foot forward, and steps up to meet the ball.

There is more art in the manner of swinging the bat, good judges say, than in the position of the feet and body. Most heavy batters, Mike Kelly excepted, grasp the bat close to the end with both hands and swing it around from the shoulders. The sacrifice hitters and the ones who rarely strike out hold one hand close to the bat and the other several inches farther up on the stick. The force thus given is not so great as when held the other way, but a better aim can be taken as the stick is held steadier. They aim to swing the bat on a horizontal line all the way around and not to strike down or up at the ball. It is not necessary to call the full strength into requisition, since the speed at which the pitcher sends the ball causes a slight tap to give it great momentum. Comiskey's instructions to a batter, especially when there is a runner on third, are: "Just meet the ball and it will go far enough. Don't hit as if you were trying to knock it out of the lot."

Overall, the interesting aspect of this article is that it illustrates the general point Stephen Jay Gould made in his essay on the disappearance of the .400 hitter - namely, that as a system stabilizes we should expect to see reduced variation. Gould applied his argument to .400 hitting by postulating that .400 hitters in the early 1900s were not really any better than today's hitters but since the spread of ability at the major league level was flatter (think of a flattened bell shaped curve), those few players were able to take advantage of those on the left side of the curve and pad their averages. Over time the curve has become reduced at the ends and therefore outlier performances are more rare. Gould coupled this argument with the view that through better training techniques and nutrition the entire curve has moved right towards the limit of human athletic ability. This also decreases the amount of room on the right side of the curve in which the best players perform. I've written about Gould's general conclusion before and some refinements of his method.

Gould of course, then used this point in the context of evolution, most famously in his book Wonderful Life using the famous Burgess Shale deposits where he argues that in the early days of evolution (before the Cambrian period) a greater number of body plans were extant because life as a system had not stabilized into the few body plans we know today.

As I read this article I thought about how hitting styles have changed just in the last 20 years. It's obvious from watching ESPN Classic that a majority of hitters in the 1970s and 80s hit with a closed stance - some, like George Hendrick and Jack Clark extremely closed. It is not unlikely today to watch a game and not see a single batter with a closed stance. Modern hitters tend to favor the open stance (Brian Downing was one of the first I remember adopting this style) as a means of focusing both eyes on the pitcher and increasing depth perception as the ball approaches. And some hitters, like Sammy Sosa, who began his career in a closed stance have opened up a bit over time. It'll be interesting to see how hitting styles evolve in the future.

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