Taking A Stance

Baseball has been, and always will be, a game of numbers. Every imaginable, possible statistic has been tracked, recorded, and compared at one time or another for future generations to compare, discuss, and debate. There is no argument that these numbers enhance the game and make it so rich and traditional. There are other numbers (just as impressive, if not more) in baseball that are not statistically oriented.

For instance:

• It only takes the ball 5/10ths of a second to travel from the pitcher’s hand to the batter

• In turn, the batter has only 2/10ths of a second to move his bat from his shoulder into “the zone” or hitting area

• This will leave the batter only 3/10ths of a second to do all of the following:
• Visually pick up the ball,
• Determine what kind of pitch it is by its rotation
Breaking balls spin forward, fast balls spin backwards
• Decide if the pitch is a ball or strike, and finally,
• Decide whether he is going to swing or take (not swing at) at the pitch.

“The secret of hitting is the stance at the plate…”
-Ty Cobb

Timing is critical. The faster a batters’ bat speed, the better chance he has of making contact with the ball. Bat speed (which is now becoming a measurable, tracking statistic) is defined as the time it takes a batter to get his bat into the hitting zone. Just as important, is his batting stance. Overt or hidden, somewhere within the batters’ stance is a timing mechanism. Timing mechanisms help the batter time a pitch, and in turn, increase his chances of making contact with the ball.

There are three basic stances: open, closed and even (also referred to as the square stance). The type of hitter a player tends to be usually dictates which stance he will use. For example, most power hitters pull the ball, and hit from an open stance.
Each stance can be defined by the positioning of the batters’ feet in the batters box. From there, the batter will modify, tinker, and play with their stance, until they find what feels “right” and “comfortable” for them. To better understand the definition of each stance, one must know the difference between a batter’s front and back foot.

Front Foot: Foot closest to the pitcher. For the left-handed batter it’s his right foot, for the right-handed batter it’s his left foot.

Back Foot: Foot farthest from the pitcher. For the left-handed batter it’s his left foot, for the right-handed batter it’s his right foot.

The Stances

Open: The front foot is away from home plate, back foot is closer to
home plate

Closed: The front foot is closer to home plate, the back foot is away
from home plate

Even/Square: Both feet are equal distance from the plate

Boston Red Sox infielder Bill Cunningham made this remark on a Red Sox rookie. “ I don’t like the way he stands at the plate. He bends his front knee inward and moves his foot just before he takes a swing…I don’t believe this kid will ever hit.” –Jonathan Fraser Light (The Cultural Encyclopedia of Baseball)

So, who was this Red Sox rookie with the awkward stance? The one and only, Hall of Fame hitting guru, Ted Williams, the man who would go on to refine the science and art of hitting.

Here are some other batters, past and present whose stance at the plate, make fans take notice.

With his feet spread wide apart, Jeff Bagwell of the Houston Astros hits from a very wide, square stance. Bagwell also squats down, giving the illusion that he is sitting on some imaginary chair in the batters box.

With his back square to the catcher, he looks the pitcher straight in the eye. This open stance could have easily described old-timer Mike ‘King’ Kelly, or, more recently, current free agent third baseman Tony Batista of the former Montreal Expos.

Without a doubt, the most unusual looking of all stances ever conceived to date, both Kelly and Batista have found comfort within this highly unorthodox stance. It’s not until the pitcher releases the ball does Tony (as did Mike) move his front foot forward and come to a square stance.

Manny Ramirez of the Boston Red Sox could easily be considered the right-handed Mel Ott. Like his predecessor, Ramirez lifts his front foot several inches off the ground as he strides towards the pitch.

Newly acquired Giants shortstop and switch hitter, Omar Vizquel is textbook square stance from the left side (which is also Omar’s stronger side and the side he hits with more power and authority from).

Eyes forward and focused. Bat barrel aimed straight at the pitcher. Jim Thome of the Philadelphia Phillies holds his ground. Relenting only once the pitcher gets set, does Thome retract his bat back. Claiming “no malicious intent” that it is strictly a way to “relax all his hitting muscles” and a “timing mechanism,” Thome’s intimidating ‘death stare’ of a stance can’t help but make an opposing pitcher feel uneasy.

Retired Baltimore Oriole Cal Ripken Jr. is noteworthy not because of his batting stance, but because of his batting stances. In the history of the game, perhaps no other player has ever toyed, tinkered, or changed his stance more than Ripken. Chances are good that somewhere, someone has recorded how many stances Ripken has had over the years.

In no other sport is there, or could there be, as much individuality as one’s batting stance. In his book, Heart of the Order, Thomas Boswell wrote; “For a ballplayer, the search for a batting stance is a kind of search for athletic identity. Is there anything in sports so undeniably a signature as The Stance?”

On the other hand, imitation is said to be the sincerest form of flattery. As we have just seen, several of today’s players owe some of their success at the plate (not to mention their stance at the plate) to the players that played before them.

Which is correct? Are batting stances highly individualistic statements, or something that will continue to be imitated by children in sandlots and little league fields across the country?

I guess that is another non-number argument best left to be discussed in the stands.

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