Hitting Secrets From Baseball’s Graveyard: A Crash Course in Old-School Batsmanship
The “Samurai” Hitting System
You may proceed now or go later to “Hitting Secrets from Baseball’s Graveyard”, an overview that further explains many of the conclusions reached on this page by digging deep into baseball history. Follow this link.
Who should give this system a try?
1) Parents of very young children who want them to learn a relatively simple, natural hitting style with a high probability of success;
2) Young ballplayers whose hitting is so dismal that they’re ready to give up the game, and hence have nothing to lose by wiping the slate clean and starting over;
3) Young ballplayers whose hitting is average/okay, but who realize that they will never make it at a higher level if they don’t take risks to discover a path to extraordinary performance;
4) Older enthusiasts of the game who play a little for pleasure and have a keen interest in history.
Who should avoid putting these lessons into practice?
1) Ballplayers whose hitting is already exceptional—don’t mess with success;
2) Dabblers and window-shoppers who try a little of this technique, a little of that one, without ever putting in the work necessary to give any experiment enough time to show valid results.
Baseball is a great game. It’s still the best sport ever created for getting children outdoors and involved in a healthy activity that offers many opportunities of expression to a variety of talents. Football can produce severe injury. Soccer and basketball favor the person with speed (in one case) or height (in another) accompanied by a certain narrow skill set. In baseball, the small and speedy, the tall and lanky, the short and stocky, the lefty, the quick-handed, the quick-witted, the hard-throwing, the far-throwing—the slap hitter, the chop hitter, the heavy hitter—all can find their proper place.
But a lot of kids give up on the game almost at once. The reason? Primarily, it’s because they can’t hit. A clumsy kid who somehow manages to drive balls over fences always finds a place in the starting line-up; but a boy or girl who leaves runners on base at key moments is avoided or mocked by teammates, overlooked by coaches, greeted with groans from stands and dugout at every new at-bat, and very quickly relegated to a place at the far end of the bench. Kids have delicate, evolving egos and do not respond well to such extreme humiliation. Why keep playing a game that dishes it out in heaps?
This page offers a rock-bottom fundamental course in how to succeed at the plate. Its information is based on historical research, physics, and anatomy. The latter two have become familiar to our writers in a pragmatic way; we are not trained physicists or kinesiologists, that is to say, but we have observed “what works” in dozens (and perhaps hundreds) of experimental situations. As professional historians, on the other hand, we have been able to plow through old newspaper accounts, ancient instruction manuals, first-person reminiscences, grainy century-old photos, scraps of almost-lost newsreels, and the like to formulate hypotheses about how young men once played the game when most learned it on sandlots swinging with cast-off broom handles. Mother Nature was their teacher, and Improvisation was their equipment-manager.
The “history” link to this page goes into far more depth about just which great players of yesteryear we analyzed and what deductions we drew from their example. (Many of the link’s passages are condensed from John Harris’s e-book for Smashwords, Hitting Secrets From Baseball’s Graveyard.) Directly below is a brief introduction and then a straightforward presentation of our recommended system.
Introduction: Why a Samurai?
The samurai swordsman is legendary for being able to impart swift, powerful, accurate blows with his weapon. Most Westerners, however, believe that he gripped and swung his blade like a Highlander wielding a claymore or a medieval knight attacking with his broadsword. This isn’t so. The preferred cut was a lightning-swift, razor-straight slash made at a downward angle, not a sweeping lateral lunge. Samurai warfare usually involved fighting at much closer quarters than the burly Scotsman encountered when protecting his chieftain with his massive two-edged hacking instrument. Strokes were therefore delivered almost entirely with the action of the hands. The dominant hand held the long hilt close to its finger-guard and provided straight downward power. The bottom hand, while producing less raw force, had to be somewhat more clever. Separated from the top hand by perhaps several inches and wrapped around or just above the hilt’s ball, it would pull in toward the body as its mate pushed out from the body. The two reverse motions collaborated ingeniously in accelerating the blade to great speeds over a very short space. The bottom hand would probably also move out from the torso just a split second before pulling in, because this is a natural and frequent combination-move in explosive physical acts. A foot draws back before going forward to kick a ball, and a hand draws back before going forward with a racket.
The champion swordsman in this photo is modeling much of what has just been described. What will surprise the typical American baseball fan is how the hitting pose of a champion nineteenth-century batsman resembles the samurai’s.
The figure on the left is Sam Thompson, who hit more home runs than any other ballplayer of the nineteenth century. Dan Brouthers (middle) was not far behind, and led his league at one time or other in every major offensive category. Michael “King” Kelly (right) was considered by many the best all-round player of his era.
“Okay,” says the contemporary wag. “We all know that pitchers didn’t throw hard back then and that hitters just punched at the ball, almost as if they were bunting. The game’s different now. There’s nothing to learn from that ridiculous pose.”
It’s true that yesteryear’s heavy hitters put a premium on making contact. Of the three above, only Kelly ever struck out as many as forty times in a season (which he did twice; the other two barely reached thirty on one occasion). Also true is that Thompson’s record-setting tally of career homers was a mere 126, with Brouthers coming in at 106: not impressive numbers, by today’s standards. The ball was “dead”, however. Fouled balls were expected to be put back in play, and one dirty, squishy orb frequently did a tour of duty lasting several games. Even in these circumstances, Sam and Big Dan both logged a career slugging percentage of over .500. If they were just “Punch and Judy” hitters, then some of their punches scored knock-outs.
How could they have hit with any power from such a position? The samurai artist shows us how this was possible. A straight, slightly downward cut into the ball’s center will give it just the right kind of backspin to hop off the bat and travel in a low line for some distance. The physics behind this aerodynamic response is explained more fully on the “history” link to the present page: enough to say here that the basic principle is as sound as that which allows an airplane to rise on its wings. A backward-spinning ball creates lift, and a downward stroke will impart backspin to it. The matched photos below of nineteenth-century stars Harry Stovey and Mike Griffin show an especially dynamic pose, as if the two were trying to model a swing in motion for the camera; and you can see that their intent is clearly to cut downward, as if their sticks were indeed slashing swords.
Hitters have known about the helpful effects of backspin for a long time, too (probably a lot longer than the seventy years ago when Hank Greenberg told Ralph Kiner to swing down on the ball). Yet anything remotely akin to the samurai stroke has disappeared from contemporary American baseball, and mostly for two reasons. Both have to do with advanced technology.
First is the metal bat. College programs started using this innovation about forty years ago to save money, since wooden bats shattered often and had to be continually replaced. It soon grew clear that the bat’s “sweet spot” could be expanded in size without increasing overall weight by thinning out the unbreakable metal handle—something no one would have attempted with the old wooden bats. Shortening the club’s length allowed even more concentration of mass in the hitting zone. Now bats were not only too short to permit much choking up or spreading of the hands: they had also lost the even balance that allowed lowered hands to deliver a short, straight slash. Instead, the beefed-up barrel was hurled down on the pitch from far over the read shoulder, often resulting in severe backspin that shot the ball way up into the sky (but not necessarily very far afield), or else in a weak ground ball if the swing was slightly mistimed and the swooping barrel had already begun re-ascent upon contact.
The college players who learned to hit with this state-of-the-art bludgeon naturally wanted wooden models designed as near to metal specs as possible. Their bats broke left and right… but now they were in the pros, and the cost of lumber was not a concern.
The other major high-tech influence was the pitching machine. Most kids today spend far more time hitting off a gizmo that spits out balls at unpredictable moments than they do facing live human hurlers. As a result, the most rewarded hitting strategy is one where you throw your bat down on a white blur that suddenly appears before you. The lower body’s contribution to the swing is minimized, since footwork requires anticipation and predicting the release of most machines is impossible. Much of hitting had conventionally been a matter of learning how to load up torque in your hips and keep it there until just the right instant. Now, however, young players do not associate the pitcher’s coming set or his first move home with the spot where their front foot needs to be, since machines don’t have human appendages. They learn to hit off the machine and carry that skill onto the game-day field rather than using the machine to hone specific skills developed on the practice field.
True enough, we’ve already said that the samurai’s stroke was mostly hands, as well. The big difference between what our swordsman is doing and what Buck Ewing would have done is that Buck had to wait on the ball to make his move. We cannot tell from nineteenth-century still photography how such a batsman would have gathered back his weight and held it poised; but if hitters like Buck had swatted the ball only with their hands, without any lower-body movement to lead them into their cut, then their stats really would have comprised just a bunch of singles punched through the infield. A few, like Wee Willie Keeler, did exactly this: many did something more, as well.
Below is a brief, practical guide of how to apply the samurai’s lessons to the kind of high-contact power-hitting that every young person wants to achieve. The technique is direct and fluid. It doesn’t involve a lot of complicated do’s and don’t’s such a kids usually hear from coaches. (“Keep your head down! Don’t pull your shoulder out!”) The movements are so natural that the hips, the hands, the shoulders, the head—all of the body’s rebellious members—fall right into line and work together. The one great challenge posed by this technique is balance, which every young player can learn to achieve in his or her own way by playing against live pitchers.
The Technique in Four Stages
First hold the bat low and in front of you, its barrel perhaps almost touching the ground and pointing at the pitcher. Close your fingers around its handle in this position. Ted Williams helpfully equates the proper grip to that used in picking up an axe.
Do just one thing that Ted advises against and claims he never did (although we have photos to show that he wasn’t quite truthful): spread your hands. In other words, put an inch or two between them. For this you’ll probably need to find a longer bat than most coaches recommend. If you’re already a teenager, you may want to go straight to a 34” bat, which is the longest model commercially made in metal today. A 35” or 36” stick would be even better for a full-grown physique… but they do not exist.
Ty Cobb illustrates his classic grip here. A lot of would-be baseball historians purvey the myth that Cobb alone used hand-spacing. This is absurd, though the amount of space between his hands was probably greater than most hitters used in the early twentieth century. A decade or two earlier, it would have seemed very modest, as the poses of Dave Orr and William Hamilton remind us.
You can wait with the barrel still low and pointing forward until the pitcher gets his sign and comes set. Then you need to “shadow” his motion and get set yourself. Lift the bat smoothly, without letting your fingers rotate out of position, until your hands are about even with—and more or less in front of—your collarbone. Most of what is recommended in that previous sentence will draw howls from professional hitting instructors. They want your bat up high and far back, with your elbow cocked upward. This not only utterly disrupts the finger arrangement that you want to keep, with wrists bent inward and thumbs very loose rather than locked around the handle; it forces you into a “dippy” swing that will likely either undercut the ball severely or top it as the barrel comes quickly out of its steep dive. The samurai’s straight downward cut is hopelessly lost if you let your hands go too high or too far back.
We like to recommend simply letting the bat rest on the back shoulder or lie comfortably close to it, as Bob Veach and Ed Konetchy demonstrate in these “Old Judge” tobacco cards of 1915. The farther you hold your hands back, the more you will have to come around your body to get at the pitch. This is not an obstacle in a circular swing that throws the front hip outward and follows it with the shoulders; but the old-school linear attack straight down into the ball is not favored by having to come from far behind the rear shoulder.
One other thing: notice that the hitter to the right has already lifted his foot off the ground. It’s important not to be completely flat-footed at this point, for things are about to happen very, very quickly. Yet standing on one foot for more than a second or two is hard for most people. It’s okay to touch the ground with a toe or to “toe-tap” while you’re in this position. A crafty pitcher may even hold the ball for a few second just to see if he can throw you off your balance.
A tip: if you rock or flip the barrel up to your shoulder—not violently, but briskly—its momentum may help you shift your weight back without requiring any push-off from your front foot. This will allow your head to remain more still and your eyes to study the pitcher uninterrupted by any jolt.
Our research indicates that a shifting of the weight completely to the rear foot was an essential part of yesteryear’s swing. If you wish to learn this swing, you have to master the one-legged balance. (And again, pitching machines can be horribly frustrating if you’re trying to develop that skill, for a lot depends on being able to match your movements to the pitcher’s.)
The load has basically two elements, both of which are mobile and hence impossible to represent in a still photo. They involve going back to come forward: the front leg and the front hand are both engaged in doing this.
The leg should go first. Actually, it may have been drifting steadily backward or back-and-up even during the “lift” phase. (This would help you to preserve your balance.) As the pitcher parts his hands, closes his hip, and then launches forward at the plate, you want your lower body again to be shadowing him. You can close your hip by giving a little backward or outward kick; especially if your leg was coiled or toe-tapping in the “lift” phase, you need now to “get the kinks out” and straighten that leg, which the kick will accomplish. Once the leg straightens, keep it straight as you step forward, coming down quick and hard on it. Try to touch down with your front foot right after the pitcher does so with his. Don’t stride far out at all—just get the foot down. “Hard down” is a very much better way of imagining the step than “quick out”, for you’re chopping into the ball, not lunging at it.
Be clear about this, too—especially since your coaches will tell you that it’s all wrong. Don’t move the top hand throughout this phase, or no more than you absolutely have to. Try to immobilize it just where it settled during the “lift” phase.
The bottom hand should be the only one involved in the critical backward-forward motion. Actually, your whole body will go forward as soon as your front leg begins its step; so what you really want to do is have the bottom hand “stay home”. This can create a tremendous amount of torque, especially with spread hands. The forward side of the body is “leaving behind” the bottom hand, which eventually snaps forward after the lead foot (like a released rubber band or a loosed drawstring on a bow)… but the snap takes us into the final phase. Just remember to let the stepping forward leg leave behind the bottom hand, and you will end up dealing with a much reduced complexity of moving parts.
If the lead leg does not straighten itself vigorously as it heads toward the ground, then you will get a lunge at the ball instead of the samurai’s straight slash. Try to come down heavily on that leg (even imagining, perhaps, that you’re crushing a poisonous wasp on the ground), and trust that good things will happen. You want your hands to be following right after that step, forward and down, if you choose to go through with a swing. If your step is not confident, you may instead end up crumpling over the back leg and rotating outward in the fashion that kids have been taught for three or four generations now.
Even the klutz in the blurry picture to the left is able to look remarkably like Shoeless Joe Jackson as he executes Stage Three. Everyone who saw Jackson play (including Ty Cobb) said that he had the sweetest swing in the game. Of course, the stiffened front leg is gliding smoothly toward the ball; but note the hands, especially. The top hand is so loose on the bat before its final punch that the thumb is almost wide open. The busy bottom hand, in contrast, is pushing back on the handle as if it were a lever, and that hand’s wrist is bent nearly ninety degrees as it gathers energy for the following downward slash.
Finally, here’s an interesting alternative to the classic load-up. One of our test-pilots likes to open up his bottom hand completely in the “load” stage—and even a little before, as soon as the lifted bat rests on the rear shoulder. Then he snaps that hand closed at the same instant as he takes his “hard down” step. (Of course, he’s committed to a full swing as soon as the hand clenches, since the clench is part of a brisk downward pull.) He claims that this maneuver supplies the same energy as keeping the top hand back so that it can pull explosively forward; and he likes the fact that he can be ultra-aggressive in this move without pulling off the pitch. The “snatch” of the bottom hand is such a confined and concentrated movement that it doesn’t risk carrying the rest of the body off-target.
Whatever works for you… don’t be afraid to innovate within the basic parameters.
The end of the previous section has already carried us into the fun part, at last: the attack! Yet despite the final tip about opening and then explosively closing the bottom hand, beware of attacking with too much gusto. Even experienced hitters can get into trouble (and this happens with any kind of swing) when they become wildly aggressive. Let the energy you’ve collected run through the channel you’ve provided. Flow smoothly onto the front foot (“No! Stay back!” cries today’s coach again), and follow its touchdown as closely as possible with the samurai stroke. Pull the knob straight and slightly downward into the pitch with your bottom hand, and punch the barrel along the same straight line with your top hand. Remember not to step out too far and not to crumple on your back knee instead of completing your step: both have the same effect of making your stroke dip like the standard rotational swing, and you betray everything you’ve been trying to do.
These are not really “don’t’s” that you need to fret about, however. A more positive way of expressing such warnings is that you simply need to trust your swing. It allows your hands to be much quicker than you ever thought they were. An outside pitch that would be hopelessly by you if you used the standard stroke can be smacked down the opposite foul line without curving into the stands: something today’s hitters absolutely cannot do. A breaking pitch that plunges in the final instant can also be driven hard if you just stay upright instead of lunging. Your bat is longer than you think. The drop may carry the ball right into your sweet spot if you allow the barrel to go get it rather than trying to rush your hands out there.
And since the samurai stroke is a straight downward slash rather than a steep dip followed by an equally steep rise, you can be fooled by an off-speed pitch, release the bat with the top hand, and find that the barrel continues with unimpeded momentum right through the ball, resulting in a powerful line drive.
Naturally, things like getting a feel for your bat’s length require lots and lots of practice. You should rehearse the elements of the stroke hundreds of times before taking them to the practice field and facing live pitching; for if you have to think about two moves while trying to hit, it’s definitely one too many (and probably two). As we said above, the load phase (Stage Three) is entirely mobile and heavily dependent on the pitcher’s motions, so it will need the most fine-tuning. If you do have to hit off a machine thanks to a dearth of volunteers to throw BP, don’t let this stage frustrate you—and positively do not mutilate it in order to adapt to the machine. Instead, try to imagine human limbs on that glorified coffee-maker and mentally associate one of its moving parts with a pitcher’s leg or arm.
Things Preached by Today’s Hitting Gurus That This Method Contradicts
“Keep your hands raised so that you can hit the high pitch!”
You don’t hit the ball with your hands: you hit it with the barrel. A samurai’s blade could land neck-high even though his hands were just above his waist. Now, if you’re swinging in a circle instead of a line, you probably do need your hands up; but since your state-of-the-art bat has a very heavy barrel and a toothpick-thin handle, you still can’t really lift it enough to cover the strike zone’s upper half—or if you do, you get sawed off.
“Stay back! Don’t end up on your front foot!”
Again, if you’re throwing a short stick with a heavy barrel down on a pitch, you pretty much have to stay back. Even hitters like Bryce Harper whose forward weight transfer is so complete that their back foot goes airborne still must keep the front leg at a steep angle to the ground. But when you’re delivering the samurai stroke with both hands to the incoming pitch, you want to get to the ball and get over it. Aaron and Clemente knew that; Harper, as great as he is, hasn’t yet qualified for their league.
“Get your foot down early!”
Yes… if you’re going to lower the boom from over your shoulder on the pitch as it crosses the plate. The samurai stroke has the hands following the foot so closely that the foot’s touchdown occurs almost at the same instant as contact with the ball: the energy from footfall and driving hands is all channeled along the same line and in virtually the same motion. (Some old-time hitters even claimed that they could step to where they saw the pitch coming.) The early touchdown of today’s standard swing, in contrast, actually throws energy backward rather than forward (even in Bryce Harper’s swing) to feed into the circle of the bat’s descent. It initiates a kind of backward fall—and also disrupts the straight line of transfer into the pitch.
Advantages of the Samurai Stroke
You can’t pull off the ball.
In the standard rotational swing, spinning open and turning your head from the pitch is always a potential problem, and solutions to it little more than temporary fixes. The samurai stroke, in contrast, channels your stride, your hands, and even your follow-through into a funnel that heads right for the pitch.
Ordinary contact goes up the middle.
The more spread-out the fielders are, the better chance a low line drive has of finding grass and rolling to the wall. Fielders are most spread-out up the middle of the diamond, and this is just where most hits go with the samurai stroke. Since the pitch is delivered from the diamond’s very center and since the stroke goes straight into the pitch, the “default” hit lands in center field. If bat reaches ball early, a hit may come down in fair territory on the “pull” side and roll a long time; while if the hitter is late, contact resulting in an opposite-field hit may happily occur rather than the dead-pull hitter’s complete whiff.
Balls can be driven to the opposite field with power.
This is one of the swing’s most remarkable features. The standard swing can send low-away pitches to the opposite field only in a high, lazy arc, since the barrel is reaching down and severely undercutting the ball (often spinning it foul). The samurai stroke cuts a straight, slightly downward line at all angles. The balls it shoots the other way hence tend to stay low and to fly true without veering foul.
A top-hand release can be a very productive adjustment.
Opposite-field liners of the sort just described probably will not be executed with a two-hand follow-through by the samurai stroke—not if the original pitch was low and away. The top hand slides off readily and naturally to make such adjustments, with little loss of momentum since the barrel continues moving in a line. If the troublesome pitch is a good change-up rather than a low-away fastball, the top hand may likewise slip off and allow the barrel extra reach, often resulting in an effectively pulled hit. Today’s standard technique typically has hitters releasing the handle with the top hand very early on every pitch. Since the top hand’s function is to drive steeply down from over the shoulder, it has nothing else to do after the barrel has “bottomed out” and might as well let go. This release is not a productive adjustment to change-ups or outside pitches, because the barrel is aimed to collide with the pitch only in a very small window of opportunity over the plate. There is no continuous line that the barrel can travel if the desired intersection is surpassed.
The longer bat allows a degree of helpful slippage if you choke up.
This advantage is related to the one just above: it will most likely come into play when the hitter is fooled by a good off-speed pitch or breaking ball and has to reach. If you should be lucky enough to have found a longer bat and can choke up a bit as well as spreading your hands (see the Cobb photo above), the handle will be able to slide through your bottom hand’s fingers an inch or two before the knob stops it, and you will have extended your reach by exactly this much. It works—doesn’t produce home runs, but reduces strike-outs and authors many a bloop hit.
An interrupted forward shift can also be an effective adjustment.
This one is surprising, but true. Sometimes a fastball comes boring in on the hitter quicker than he can handle it. Few big-leaguers have any defense against a good high-and-in pitch; for not only can they not get the barrel on it fast enough, but their barrel-dropping stroke that starts far above the rear shoulder has virtually no chance of putting even the thin handle on the ball. The samurai stroke rests the barrel just above the strike zone and then thrusts it straight into the ball. This means that solid barrel-contact is still possible even if the hitter hasn’t had time to complete his forward weight shift and gets caught on his back foot. At the very least, such a killer pitch can be fouled off with two strikes and keep the at-bat alive; but better than that, an amazing number of “jam jobs” can end up clearing the infielders and landing safely in the opposite field.
Left-handed hitting is a natural adaptation to the samurai stroke.
We wrote much earlier that the bottom hand, while not supplying as much power as the top hand in this swing, needs to be more clever. That’s a good reason to put your dominant hand on the bottom: your less dominant hand can still supply all the power needed. Hitting lefty is an advantage in several ways. The hitter is closer to first base, he has a wider opening to shoot for if a runner is being held on, and—because most pitchers are righties—the ball is usually breaking toward rather than away from him. In contrast, today’s standard swing doesn’t have much for the bottom hand to do other than catch the bat after the top hand has hurled it downward into the zone.
Not getting hit by pitches can become somewhat easier.
There seems to be a tacit agreement in the coaching community that you don’t even talk about getting hit, as if it never happens to good hitters—or as if letting yourself think about it will ruin your concentration… but let’s think about it. Certainly coming down late and hard onto your front leg would appear to put you in a poor position to defend yourself. Today’s “stay back” rotational hitter just spins away to give his front shoulder to the ball when he realizes that it’s heading straight for him. Could you do that while trying to shift everything forward? No, and you shouldn’t try. What you can do, and very easily, is hit the deck: just flop onto your back. Rotational hitters, who strive to have their weight pretty equally distributed on both feet, can’t get a good backward push off of either one if they try to bail out, and they risk getting struck right between the eyes; but a hitter who is coming decisively forward can shove off from the front foot and throw a kind of “slide into home plate”, clearing his upper body immediately from the wild pitch’s path.
That’s our hope, anyway. Certainly, if you take to hitting left-handed, you’ll be less vulnerable to getting plunked by righties (who represent a huge majority of the pitching fraternity at most levels). The samurai method also allows you to stand back from the plate farther, since you can let the ball get much deeper and still hit it effectively. Yet the hard truth is that you really need to practice hitting the dirt—or whatever “escape strategy” you plan to use; and you should do so in live batting practice. Get pitchers actually to throw a few at you once in a while! That’s better than coming up with some impromptu contortion as a heater bears down upon you in a game. Yesteryear’s players went to the dirt all the time: hence the phrase “dust-off pitch” to describe a deliberate brush-back of the hitter. Willie Mays, whose incredible forward weight shift sent him literally from one end of the batter’s box to the other, got hit 44 times in 12, 496 plate appearances—and he batted right-handed (and also played in an era when young black stars would frequently “get a shave” from white pitchers). He was a master at hitting the deck. It’s a skill that you can develop.
Though we have explicitly addressed baseball on this page, all comments are readily adaptable to softball. Since so many softball hitters land heavily on their front foot, anyway, it would be nice to see them keep the front leg straight and stroke the ball with lowered, forward-shifted hands. The percentage of really solid hits in the typical D-I softball game is much lower than it could be.
To see this discussion continued in greater historical detail, please follow this link.