June 25, 2006
New breed of hitters returns to basics of ABC's
By ALAN SCHWARZ The New York Times
Retired ballplayers tend to consider their modern descendants about as fundamentally sound as the Nasdaq. This is not new.
"They only hit for their amusement and pleasure for the home run," one old-timer, Ty Cobb, said in 1952.
But Cobb would feel downright peachy today if he could hear some of baseball's most talented young hitters wax about their approach.
Prince Fielder, the power-packed, 260-pound slugger for the Milwaukee Brewers, describes himself as a Tony Gwynn or a Wade Boggs type of batter who savors line drives into the gaps.
The Philadelphia Phillies' Ryan Howard — Barry Bonds' successor as the NL's most feared left-handed slugger — speaks earnestly about hitting the ball to the opposite field.
And Minnesota Twins catcher Joe Mauer, who entered Saturday's games leading the majors with a .370 batting average, prefers to inside-out the ball rather than pull, particularly with two strikes.
Fielder said, "If I think home run, I'm all over the place."
And Howard said with a grin, "Less is more."
Are these players, who all bat left-handed, heralding a new era of intelligent, back-to-basics hitters? Can they finally appease the ghosts of generations past? The Indians veteran Aaron Boone doesn't buy it.
"Go around this clubhouse and ask, 'Are you a pull hitter?' You'll get zero," he said. "That's what everybody says."
Boone's skepticism is understandable, given that players spray cliches at least as well as flares to left. Pull hitters can seem somewhat Neanderthal, and to espouse fundamental hitting is akin to a hockey goon donning spectacles.
Yet modern baseball's redeeming qualities not only include enticing left-handed hitters like Fielder, Howard and Mauer, but also include the data-gathering techniques to prove that these hitters really do focus on the opposite field.
Several statistics companies record the position of every batted ball. The method used by Stats LLC divides the 90 degrees of outfield space (in addition to some foul territory down the lines) into 26 sectors labeled A through Z. Letters up through M are to the left of dead center, while N through Z arc across right. From these measurements, one can derive the angle at which balls travel.
Mauer has been the most adept at going the other way. The balls he has slapped to the outfield since the beginning of last season have averaged a "J" angle, which translates to 30.7 degrees away from the left-field line, or roughly dead left-center field.
Howard has slammed 18 of his 25 homers this season to the opposite field — many of them well over 400 feet. He has an average angle of just under 39 degrees, or the letter L.
A rookie batting .298 with 14 home runs, Fielder appears to be more of a pull hitter than either of the other two, clocking in at 43 degrees, or M.
By comparison, more traditional veterans like Adam Dunn of the Reds and Jason Giambi of the Yankees pull far more to right. They come out at 51.7 and 54 degrees, hence the drastic (and often successful) defensive shifts against them. The young threesome is much more difficult to defend.
Howard, a large man at 6 feet 4 inches and 252 pounds, says he hits better when he swings less forcefully. The method is certainly working. Last season's NL rookie of the year, he is hitting .295 with 46 homers and 128 runs batted in since last July 1.
"The more relaxed you are, the more loose you are and the easier, the faster, the quicker your swing is," Howard said. "The more tense you are, if you're trying to swing the bat hard, the slower your bat becomes."
Mauer, with far less pure power than Howard or Fielder despite standing 6-6, brings other fundamentals to his game. He already has four bunt hits this season, half the Twins' total, and he stays more comfortable with two strikes than most pesky leadoff men.
Mauer should develop more slugging ability as he grows into his body, just as John Olerud and Shawn Green did. But Mauer wants neither his approach nor the angles of his hits to deviate in the future. "I'm not going to try to do too much," he said. "That's when I get in trouble, when I try to use my body to catch up with the pitcher."
Scouts are raving about the swings of Howard, Fielder and Mauer, all left-handed hitters. Lefties often have more aesthetically renowned strokes, like those of Olerud and Stan Musial. Right-handers with great swings, like Albert Pujols and Paul Molitor, are usually praised more for their economy and balance rather than for the pure beauty of their form.
According to the Stats data, lefties spray the ball more often than right-handers, too. (The average lefty hit goes just to the left of dead center field, while right-handers on average pull the ball.) This probably has something to do with left-handers facing pitchers of the opposite hand more often, allowing them to take more outside pitches the opposite way.
Few accomplished hitters do it more than Mauer, Howard and Fielder, who clearly practice the ABC's of hitting. Or at least the JLM's.