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For Fans Who Should Know Better

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Mudville: September 18, 2021 11:55 am PDT
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One of the most overused words in the world today is organic. It’s everywhere in the food world, of course. This is organic or that’s organic. Everything’s organic. It’s everywhere in conversations, too.

It’s kind of … you guessed it, organic.

Having said that, when an organic hitting conversation pops up, I’m all in, especially when a Hall of Famer like Mike Piazza gets involved.

One of the biggest problems today in Major League Baseball is the lack of true hitting. Now, there is certainly home run hitting. That’s everywhere. There also are more pop ups and fly outs than I can ever remember. Not as many line outs. And there is good reason for that.

Today’s hitters are in love with the upper cut or as they call it, Launch Angle, much more than hitters in the past. Pitchers have caught on. Jacob deGrom was one of the first to catch on because I remember having an organic hitting conversation with him in the Mets clubhouse years ago about how he was going to attack hitters using their Launch Angle against them.

“The more they swing with an upper cut,’’ deGrom said, “the more I am going to throw high fastballs.’’

It was a conversation we would have multiple times and deGrom’s answer was always pretty much the same and he put his words to the test, winning two Cy Young Awards, getting the hitters out at their own game and really did it best when runners were in scoring position, knowing how desperate hitters were to drive in runs against him.

“Too many hitters are swinging from their ASS at shitty pitches with runners on instead of focusing on hitting the ball back through the box, keeping hands close to body and making solid contact.’’ – Mike Piazza

The bigger the uppercut in the swing, the harder they fall.

All this brings me to a fascinating hitting conversation that took place on Twitter this week on my timeline: @AMBS_Kernan.

Mike Piazza and I have had a good relationship for years, so it was not surprising to see that Piazza weighed in on my Twitter feed about hitting with some hitting gems when the conversation shifted to what is going on in the major leagues today.

And we all know what’s going on, lots of strikeouts.

Only four teams, the Astros, Blue Jays, Red Sox and Angels have more hits than strikeouts and two of those teams, the Red Sox and Angels only have four more hits than strikeouts, so they could very easily go to the other side.

Launch Angle is over-played. Batting average is downplayed by the Nerds. A mistake, of course. The Astros lead the way with 976 hits and 804 Ks. The Astros lead baseball with a .267 average. In all, 23 teams are under .250 and 11 teams are under .235. It’s ugly out there and now baseball, in an attempt to help hitters, is moving the mound back a foot in the Atlantic League as an experiment. That’s dumb and former major leaguer Jeff Frye is all over that move on his Facebook and Twitter accounts, with a host of former players joining in on the fun.

What needs to be done is bringing back more of a level swing so the barrel of the bat is in the hitting zone for a longer period of time. That will improve hitting. Also using the entire field, that will improve hitting instead of trying to pull everything.

I would venture to say those are organic hitting improvements, not moving the mound back a foot like what has been done in this baseball Dr. Frankenstein experiment in the Atlantic League. The mound has been in the same place, 60 feet and six inches away from home plate since 1893 – but Rob Manfred & Company need to change that now, 128 years of success at 60 feet six inches be damned.

Mike Piazza hits a home run in the first game after Sept. 11 as the Mets beat the Braves on Sept. 21, 2001, at Shea Stadium. (Photo: Getty Images / Matt Campbell)

Again, Piazza and I talked hitting in the clubhouse and around the batting cage often. Just as in my years in San Diego when I would talk hitting with another future Hall of Famer in Tony Gwynn. Two different styles of hitters, but here is the key: both men were great hitters. They were not Launch Anglers, there were hitters and their hitting prowess took them both to Cooperstown and the National Baseball Hall of Fame & Museum – and I was lucky enough to have even more hitting conversations with both of them up in Cooperstown.

Tony Gwynn went into the HOF in 2007 with Cal Ripken Jr. That was a treat. Mike Piazza went into Cooperstown with Ken Griffey Jr. in 2016. That was another treat. The year Gwynn went in he mentioned how his father Charles, who passed away in 1994, the year of the strike, the year Tony Gwynn might have hit .400 if it were a full season, he said his father “was a person who saw a lot of success for me before I could see it.’’

Tony Gwynn would pass away 10 years later in 2004 at the age of 54.

I bring this all up because Piazza made some excellent points about hitting today – and what’s wrong with the art of hitting – and then talked about Tony Gwynn and what was right about the art of hitting.

Before getting to Gwynn though, Piazza mentioned another Hall of Famer, the one and only Ted Williams, the last man to hit .400 in the majors, a man Piazza met as a youngster to talk hitting with. Ted hit .406 in 1941 and .344 over his career.

Piazza tweeted: “Ted Williams’ three keys to hitting: 1. Get a good pitch to hit, ie, a Strike. 2. A compact quick swing. 3. Proper thinking (hitting according to the situation).’’

That is a wonderful breakdown of hitting and something that is not going on in today’s game.

Piazza also pointed out that “quick and compact isn’t necessary small.’’

He would know. Piazza blasted 427 home runs over his career. Here is the biggest problem in hitting today, as Piazza noted, and he gets a Gold Star for this answer: “Too many hitters are swinging from their ASS at shitty pitches with runners on instead of focusing on hitting the ball back through the box, keeping hands close to body and making solid contact.’’

Ted Williams in 1950. (Photo by Diamond Images / Getty)

For all those parents taking their kids to hitting gurus, and spending big bucks on big launch angle swings, please focus on what Piazza just said there. That is the key.

Again, I have heard Mike say this many times and this comes directly from his father Vince. How do I know this? I remember driving around with Vince in Pennsylvania visiting different sites where Mike grew up and played baseball at Phoenixville High School and I asked Vince, what was your central hitting philosophy you passed along to your son about hitting?

Vince did not hold back. “Knock the bleeping pitcher’s head off,’’ he told me. “Hit a line drive right through the box.’’

Here we are decades later and Mike Piazza is explaining to hitters to focus on hitting the ball back through the box here at Baseball or Bust. Some hitting lessons are so organic they stand the test of time.

In many ways that is what Gwynn did and he had a special Wiffle ball drill that would help him do just that. Gwynn would set the tee up in his driveway and have a hitting net in front of him. He would smoothly come through his swing with the idea hitting the Wiffle ball to create perfect spin where the ball would hit the net and directly roll back to the tee.

Again, a simple drill that Gwynn used often. Nothing fancy. Some Wiffle balls, a tee and a net and he was on his way to another .300 season. Gwynn produced eight NL hitting titles along the way to 15 All-Star selections.

Later in the Twitter conversation Piazza noted the importance of batting average to success, stating: “See Tony Gwynn.’’

What does Piazza see when he watches today’s game with all the shifts, and remember he still thinks like a hitter, Piazza wrote, “Just don’t get it. Plenty of hits all over the field. Mindless pulling of the ball in all situations is counterproductive. Hopefully it gets better.’’

Yep. Hopefully it does.

There is just too much green out there for it not to get better, but the hitters are thinking about something else green – money – and only home runs because of the way the game is played today and the money paid out for home runs.

The one and only Tony Gwynn. (Photo: Focus on Sport/Getty Images)

Here is what Tony Gwynn’s Hall of Fame plaque says: “An artisan with the bat whose daily pursuit of excellence produced a .338 lifetime batting average, 3,141 hits and a National League record-tying eight batting titles. Consistency was his hallmark, hitting above .300 in 19 of his 20 major league seasons, including .394 in 1994. Renown for ability to hit to all fields frequently collecting opposite-field base hits between third base and shortstop. Struck out just once every 21 at-bats. A 15-time All-Star and five-time Gold Glove Award winner. He hit .371 in two World Series – 1984 and 1998.’’

Gwynn struck out once every 21 at-bats, imagine that.

Piazza added this about Gwynn on Twitter, “Don’t know anyone in their right mind that would say Gwynn wouldn’t hit today. I would say he would be better. Watch his YouTube highlights, I was a witness. Turn around anybody’s gas.’’

I was a witness too, and I remember being at Yankee Stadium for the 1998 World Series and Gwynn turning around a David Wells inside fastball and hitting it off the facing of the upper deck. That ball got out of there in a hurry. Gwynn told me he could hit a lot more home runs if he decided that was best for his career, but his average would have dipped around 30 points.

And here is Mike Piazza’s Hall of Fame plaque: “A durable and prolific power-hitting catcher who belted 427 home runs, including a record 396 at the position. Caught at least 100 games 11 times, leading N.L. in putouts on four occasions. The 1993 N.L. Rookie of the Year and a 12-time All-Star, named game MVP in 1996. Led Mets to the Subway Series, and helped rally a nation one year later with his dramatic home run in the first Mets game in New York following the 9/11 attacks.’’

That pretty much says it all, but let’s organically point out that Piazza knows hitting, so much so that in 1997 he became the first player to record 200 hits in a season while appearing in at least 100 games as a catcher.

Ted Williams had much to say about hitting and yes, he swung with a little bit of an upper cut – but back then pitchers were pitching much lower in the zone. If Twitter were around in the Splendid Splinter’s day, this quote of his would be a fine tweet: “Hitting is the most important part of the game,’’ Williams said. “It is where the big money is, where much of the status is, and the fan interest.’’

Williams had that right.

In 2016 when Piazza was inducted into the Hall of Fame, he told me a most revealing comment.

“My career and my life is a miracle,’’ he said. “I always want to give thanks and appreciate what I feel has been a blessing for me.’’

Piazza was a 62nd round draft pick in 1988, the 1,390th player chosen. That’s 42 rounds later than the draft goes today so you can make the argument that Piazza never would have made it into MLB today. And to be coached that one day in his backyard by Ted Williams was a dream come true.

Williams was doing a nearby card show in Valley Forge, Pa. Vince was introduced to him by longtime Dodgers scout Ed Libatore and the men were talking hitting, the scout said Vince’s son was a good hitter and Ted offered to stop by the house in King of Prussia, about 15 minutes away, the next day. He was immediately impressed when Piazza hit in the backyard cage and was also impressed when Piazza ran upstairs and got his copy of Williams’ book: The Science of Hitting.

Ted wrote the following words in the book. “Mike, don’t forget me when you make it to the major leagues.’’

“Ted Williams is the real-life John Wayne,’’ Piazza told me a few years ago. “Not only for everything that he accomplished but for his aura, his legendary size in the game, his commitment not only to our country to our game.’’

Commitment to the game is evident in Piazza’s comments about where hitting is today in Major League Baseball. And evidenced by his Twitter comments this week, Mike Piazza never forgot what Ted Williams meant to his career, when he made it to the major leagues and to the Hall of Fame.

In the right hands, hitting is magic and organic.

45+ years, columnist at NY Post for the last 23 years prior to joining BallNine. Elected to the NY Baseball Hall of Fame. Former SportsTalk Host (KFMB), ESPN’s First Take and Cold Pizza contributor. Frequent guest on radio shows and podcasts nationwide. Author of seven books. Seen in episode 10 of ESPN’s “The Last Dance” (the one with Dennis Rodman). First baseball interview he conducted was with Thurman Munson. Now you know why he is America’s Most Beloved Sportswriter.

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