In the final tranquil hour before the game commences, as
groundskeepers tend to their landscaping and happy music fills
the ballpark, an offensive force has gathered in the bowels of
the stadium. This is the time when the business of the major
league hitter most resembles the Nixonian view of Communism: It
"isn't sleeping. It is, as always, plotting, scheming, working,
fighting." Never before, though, has the hitter's weaponry and
intelligence been so vast.
In that last hour before all hell and 9.6 runs per game break
loose, Seattle Mariners designated hitter Edgar Martinez bunts
tennis balls blasted from a machine at 150 mph and then
completes his twice-daily eye exercises. Texas Rangers shortstop
Alex Rodriguez completes his fifth batting practice session. New
York Yankees first baseman Jason Giambi pumps iron with his
personal trainer, an exercise he will repeat after the game.
Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter uses his team's $350,000 video
system to catalog, analyze and, if he desires, burn a CD of
every first pitch ever thrown to him by the game's starting
pitcher (or every second pitch, or every curveball, or whatever
subset he chooses). Cleveland Indians first baseman Jim Thome
bats against a $150,000 pitching machine that duplicates the
speed, spin and break of the curveball of the opponent's
starting pitcher, firing the cloned pitches so they appear to
come from the hand of a computer-generated pitcher on a video
screen. Colorado Rockies first baseman Todd Helton hits off a
$9,000 computerized pitching machine that throws pinpoint
fastballs, curves and changeups at random.
Make no mistake, comrades, this force is battle ready. Hitters,
many powered by nutritional supplements such as creatine or
andro--or, as many in the game suspect, steroids and human
growth hormone--take precisely honed swings that generate lift
(strikeouts be damned), using thin-handled, big-barreled bats
made from rock-hard materials that used to be more commonly
associated with kitchen remodeling than hitting: maple and
triple-dipped lacquer (page 86). Poor pitchers. They're getting
more than just an ash-kicking now.
"Almost all the recent developments in the game have favored the
hitters," says former American League batting champion Don
Mattingly, now a part-time Yankees coach. "I think the great
hitters would be great in any era. What's happening now is, all
hitters have access to more things to make them better."
March 25, 2002
The evolution of hitting and the modern emphasis on power have
created the greatest extended run of slugging the game has
known, an era that not coincidentally dates to 1993, the year
baseball expanded from 26 teams to 28, before adding two more
teams five years later. The American League slugging percentage
has been better than .400 for nine straight years, and the
National League has cracked that plateau eight years running,
both record streaks.
Indeed, it seems as if every Tom, Dick and Bubba belts 25
dingers these days. San Diego Padres outfielder Bubba Trammell
did so last year. "Let's face it," says Toronto Blue Jays first
baseman Carlos Delgado, "balls are better, bats are better, guys
are bigger and stronger, and there's more technology. It's not
hard for guys to figure out: If you hit 30 home runs, you can
make $5 million even if you strike out 200 times." (Delgado, who
blasted 39 homers and struck out 136 times last year, will earn
$17.2 million in 2002.)
Standing out in the crowd of modern sluggers isn't easy. Take
shortstop Rich Aurilia, which the San Francisco Giants did to no
fanfare in a trade with Texas after the 1994 season. Aurilia hit
.324 last year with 37 home runs--stats that would have won him
a batting title or a home run title in nine of the 12 full
seasons before 1993. Last season, however, he didn't even crack
the Top 10 in either category.
Still, 10 hitters--Giambi (then with the Oakland A's), Helton,
Rodriguez, Giants leftfielder Barry Bonds, Mariners second
baseman Bret Boone, Indians rightfielder Juan Gonzalez (now with
Texas), Arizona Diamondbacks leftfielder Luis Gonzalez (page
72), Atlanta Braves third baseman Chipper Jones (who'll play
leftfield in 2002), Chicago Cubs rightfielder Sammy Sosa and
Rockies rightfielder Larry Walker--did make both Top 10 lists in
their respective leagues, a time-tested measure of premier
hitters. "When you do that," says Delgado, who finished fourth
in hitting (.344) and tied for fourth in homers (41) in 2000,
"you're talking superstar, the best of the best."
You're also talking about the Blended Hitter, who often combines
the clout of Thome and the bat wizardry of Mariners rightfielder
Ichiro Suzuki. Thome, once a minor league batting champion with
moderate power, has evolved into a massive, big-swinging
slugger. He takes a huge stride into pitches and swings on an
upward plane toward the ball, which makes him prone to strike
out and hit fly balls. Thome whiffed 185 times last year (just
four short of the major league record) and hit more flies (128)
than ground balls (124). He also walloped a career-high 49
homers while batting .291. Suzuki, the 2001 American League
batting champion with a .350 average, was the toughest player in
the league to strike out (53 times in 738 plate appearances). He
hit 379 grounders and 144 flies--and eight home runs. He slashes
at the ball with very quick hands as his body drifts forward;
his dash to first base seemingly begins even before he makes
Not since 1966, when a record-tying 11 players made both Top 10
lists, did so many hitters turn the trick as last year's crop.
Five of those '66 hitters became Hall of Famers, including Al
Kaline, who hit just .288 (third in the league) with only 29
homers (seventh). With six more National League teams and four
more American League teams than in 1966, today's hitters face
much fiercer competition for the Top 10 spots.
A Don Mincher (1967) or Dave May (1973) may sneak into double
Top 10 territory once in a while, but a repeated presence there
is a sure sign of greatness. Eighteen players have finished in
the Top 10 in homers and batting average six times or more in
their careers. Every one of them is in the Hall of Fame except
one, and he's still playing: first baseman-DH Frank Thomas of
the Chicago White Sox, the active leader with six such seasons.
Stan Musial (12) leads the alltime list (chart, page 69). Six of
the times Musial appeared on both lists, he did so with no more
than 29 home runs, a total that would have placed him 26th in
the National League last season. So how is a guy supposed to
match Musial in this era of stat inflation? The ones who rise
above the masses find an edge any way they can, especially with
the following building blocks.
The Modern Swing
From Babe Ruth to Paul Waner to Joe DiMaggio to Mickey Mantle to
Mike Schmidt to Cal Ripken Jr., most hitters have finished their
swing with two hands on the bat as it nearly wrapped around
their back. Now look at most hitters today: At the end of the
swing, the bat is held high, sometimes above the head, with one
hand. The hitter extends his hands after contact so far forward
and up that it's impossible to keep two hands on the bat. That's
why Mark McGwire, the master of extension, seemed to be holding
his bat like a torch at the end of his swing.
"The biggest change in recent years is the high follow-through,"
says Detroit Tigers hitting coach Merv Rettenmund. "It's a way
for guys to add lift to the ball. When you hit the ball hard
with the high follow-through, it's going to go out. A guy like
[Braves outfielder] Gary Sheffield is one of the best hitters in
the game and has great power"--Sheffield's season high is 43
homers, set as a Los Angeles Dodger in 2000--"but he has a
little bit of a flat finish. It's scary to think how many home
runs he'd hit if he had a higher finish."
Hitting guru Charley Lau promoted the high, one-handed
follow-through in the 1970s, but he also advocated an extreme
weight shift from the back leg to a stiff front leg that
emphasized contact over power. That is the hitting style of
Thomas, though at 275 pounds Thomas is strong enough to hit the
ball out with his back foot off the ground. "I was born to hit,"
Thomas said. "I knew with my size and enough games, I'd hit home
Rodriguez used to hit the same way, but he retooled his swing
last year on the advice of Texas hitting coach Rudy Jaramillo.
He now has the classic modern swing: a more balanced turn into
the ball--"squishing the [imaginary] bug with my back foot,"
Rodriguez says--while keeping his high, one-handed
follow-through. Rodriguez set a major league record for
shortstops last year with 52 home runs. "If I was 90-10 before,"
he says, referring to the percentage of weight on his back foot
at the beginning and at the end of his swing, "now I'm thinking
in terms of 60-40. I hit the ball more consistently last year
than ever in my career. That's because I was able to let the
ball get deeper, instead of getting out front, and that allows
me more time to recognize the pitch."
If there's one mantra that describes the modern swing, it would
be this, from Yankees hitting coach Rick Down: "Short to, long
through." Down's players take soft toss--a drill in which the
coach squats or sits almost right next to a hitter and flips
balls into his hitting zone--while swinging a short bat with
only their bottom hand. The drill reinforces the aim of pulling
the hand quickly to the ball in a sharp, downward motion and
then continuing after contact toward the pitcher.
"The greatest difference I see today is just about everybody has
gone to the short swing," Mattingly says. "No more Dave
When the A's signed Giambi, a second-round draft pick, in 1992,
most scouts thought he'd hit between 15 and 20 homers a year.
"But you could see that Jason was quick to the ball, stayed
through it and drove the ball from gap to gap," says Toronto
general manager J.P. Ricciardi, who was a scout in the Oakland
system then. "When you see someone with that kind of swing, you
see the potential for power." Giambi hit 38 home runs last year
with one of the most devastating swings in the game. His hands
are quick, and he has a majestic, high finish. "I never saw Ted
Williams," Rodriguez says, "but I've seen a lot of Jason Giambi.
He's the greatest lefthanded hitter I've ever seen."
In 1998 Delgado and his then Toronto teammate Shawn Green worked
in batting practice every day on hitting the ball just south of
its imaginary equator. Their aim was to impart backspin. Green's
home runs jumped from 16 to 35; Delgado's from 30 to 38. Last
year, as the Dodgers' rightfielder, Green hit 49.
Backspin imparts lift to a baseball. The faster the
spin--assuming the ball is struck at the same launch angle--the
more lift and thus the more carry. In their 1990 book, Keep Your
Eye on the Ball, engineers Robert G. Watts (of Tulane) and A.
Terry Bahill (of the University of Arizona) wrote, "Clearly, the
best strategy is to obtain a high backspin rate on the ball at a
low launch angle.... The effect of increasing the backspin rate
is large. A modest backspin rate of 2,000 rpm produces an
increase in range of about 50 feet (when hit at an optimum
launch angle) over that of a nonspinning ball." Says Delgado,
"At times when I'm going good, I can see the bottom half of the
ball on its way to the plate. That's where I want to hit it."
Bonds is so quick with his hands that he can wait longer than
most hitters to take a cut at the ball. He's also known for his
ability to recognize the type of pitch that's coming as the ball
leaves the pitcher's hand. Those two skills allow him more time
to take the measure of a pitch--type, location, speed,
break--than probably any hitter in baseball.
Jeter is another hitter with extraordinary vision. He's often
able to see in that blur of the pitcher's arm moving forward
whether what's coming at him is the bottom of the pitcher's
wrist (indicating a fastball) or the side of the wrist
(indicating a breaking ball). "I've tried, but I can't see it,"
Yankees catcher Jorge Posada says. "I don't know how he does it."
Rodriguez trains his eyes to focus quickly. While in the on-deck
circle, he holds his bat a few inches from his face, the
trademark facing him. He focuses on the trademark, then quickly
shifts his focus to the face of the centerfielder. "The first
time it takes your eyes about three seconds to adjust, but as
they warm up it gets quicker," he says. Once in the batter's box
he focuses on the emblem of the pitcher's cap as the pitcher
begins his delivery and then slides his focus to a spot on the
pitcher's throwing side, roughly the same height off the ground
as the cap, whence the ball is released. This is where he begins
to read the spin of the ball. "When you're locked in, the ball
seems to be coming at you in slow motion and you see it so
clearly," Rodriguez says.
Better still, some hitters know what's coming before the pitcher
throws. Martinez is a master decoder. He has discovered that
some pitchers keep the back of their glove hand facing directly
toward the plate for a fastball but rotate it outward a bit for
a breaking ball. "I batted in front of Edgar a lot in Seattle my
last year there," Rodriguez says. "I remember this happened so
many times: We'd be in the on-deck circle together, and Edgar
would tell me exactly what the pitcher was doing. Then I'd get
up there, and I'd look at the first pitch go by, and it would be
exactly what Edgar said. Then I'd step out and I'd look at Edgar
and wink, like, O.K., I've got him now."
"You want to know what the best hitters can do?" says Mariners
manager Lou Piniella. "They can hit deep in the count. That's
the one thing that separates the great hitters from the good
hitters. Edgar is just as comfortable hitting with two strikes
as he is on any other count. Giambi is the same way. He won a
game last year with a home run off [Yankees lefty reliever] Mike
Stanton on a 3-and-2 curveball. Only great hitters can do that."
Giambi hit .271 with two strikes last year to tie Boone for the
fourth-highest such average in baseball, trailing Rockies
centerfielder Juan Pierre (.325), Diamondbacks first baseman
Mark Grace (.294) and Helton (.273). "Here's my theory," says
Giambi. "In my mind the pitcher's going to throw one mistake to
me. When I get it, I want to punish it."
In preparing Jacobs Field for its 1994 opening, then general
manager John Hart made sure it included four indoor batting
cages near the home team's dugout and a state-of-the-art video
system. (When Yankees owner George Steinbrenner heard about
Cleveland's video system, he ordered an even more expensive and
elaborate one for Yankee Stadium.) Indians could take swings or
watch game video in between at bats if they wished.
"Players hit much more now than ever before," Piniella says.
"When I was the batting coach with the Yankees in the 1980s, the
work started whenever I showed up. Now these guys want to make
appointments with you: 'I'd like some extra work at 2:15
tomorrow.' They hit constantly. The hitting coach is like the
swing coach in golf now."
Rodriguez, for instance, hits five times a day: He hits off a
tee, off a coach's soft toss, on the field during team batting
practice, off a pitching machine in an indoor cage that throws
nothing but curves and then does another round of soft toss. "I
call it taking my vitamins," he says.
Giambi has added 30 pounds, to 235, in the past six years. Bonds
has put on 43 pounds since he came to the majors as a
185-pounder in 1986. The 5'10" Boone, listed at 190 pounds,
appeared to add so much bulk after the 2000 season that his
former San Diego teammates had trouble recognizing him last year
during spring training. The additional heft "won't help you
center the ball on the bat," Giambi says, "but it will keep you
Three of the 10 players who made the home run and batting
average Top 10 lists last year--Sosa, Boone and Luis
Gonzalez--were traded as young players after having shown only
moderate power. "Mistakes have always happened," says long-time
executive Roland Hemond, now an adviser to the general manager
of the White Sox. "The only difference now is the stakes are
higher. A guy like Mattingly hit more home runs than people
thought he would, but it was in the 30s. Now guys will burn you
by hitting 50 or 60 home runs."
If batting is an evolving science, then Martinez represents its
most advanced stage of evolution. He's the specialist, a
designated hitter not bothered with the distraction of defense
except during a few interleague games. Martinez, 39, takes
creatine, glutamine (an amino acid that aids in muscle
recovery), fish oil, vitamin E and antioxidants. He has tried
andro. ("It didn't do anything for me," he says.) At 5'11" and
210 pounds, he is an avid weightlifter.
He performs eye exercises twice a day, for 45 minutes in the
morning and then for five to 10 minutes about 30 minutes before
game time. Martinez keeps a worn card, slightly larger than an
index card, that has a green circle to the left and a red circle
on the right. Inside the perimeter of both circles are the words
THESE LETTERS, though the R is missing from the green circle and
the first T in LETTERS is missing from the red. When he stares
at a spot between the two circles, because of a process optics
experts call binocular fusion, a brown circle appears with all
the letters of These Letters. This exercise strengthens his eye
muscles. The card also includes a box of assorted letters in
fine print. Attempting to improve his depth perception, Martinez
will shift his focus from one of those letters to a spot on a
distant wall with the same grid of letters, only larger, and
then back again.
Martinez also bunts against those high-velocity tennis balls.
(Other times, after slowing their speed, he tries to read the
number on them as they whiz by.) "After tracking a smaller ball
going 150 miles an hour," Martinez says, "a baseball going 90
doesn't seem so fast."
Martinez has been in the major leagues since 1987, and he'd like
to play for at least one more year after this. So he'll keep
looking for another edge. "The condition of the body determines
your ability to play the game," he says, "and I want to be in
the best condition possible." Right up to and including his
The man is a hitter. He is, as always, plotting and scheming.
Power + Average = The Man
Here are the batters--all Hall of Famers--who most often have
finished in the Top 10 in both batting average and home runs
during the same season.
Stan Musial (right) 12
Hank Aaron 11
Ted Williams 11
Lou Gehrig 10
Rogers Hornsby 10
Babe Ruth 10
Al Simmons 10
Willie Mays 9
Frank Robinson 9
Jimmie Foxx 8
Harry Heilmann 8
Mickey Mantle 8
Here are the active players (with current teams) who most often
have finished in the Top 10 in batting average and home runs
during the same season.
Frank Thomas, White Sox 6
Mike Piazza, Mets 5
Barry Bonds, Giants 3
Juan Gonzalez, Rangers 3
Gary Sheffield, Braves 3
Mo Vaughn, Mets 3
Larry Walker, Rockies 3
SOURCE: ELIAS SPORTS BUREAU
"The biggest change in recent years is the high follow-through,"
says Detroit's Rettenmund. "It's a way to add lift."
"When I'm going good, I can see the bottom half of the ball on
its way to the plate," says Delgado.
"Guys today hit constantly," says Piniella. "The hitting coach
is like the swing coach in golf now."