Out to Launch

2019-01-18 rogermarishankaaron

Roger Maris and Hank Aaron–both broke ruthsrecords; neither cared how the ball left the yard as long as it did leave the yard.

One of the more scurrilous arguments I can remember from the 1961 hunt to break ruthsrecord (so help me, that’s how they pronounced it then) involved Roger Maris’s “legitimacy.” Not just over whether a “true Yankee” should be “allowed” to break the single-season home run record (like the import from the Red Sox who set it in the first place) but whether Maris was a “legitimate” power hitter.

The big beef was over Maris’s kind of power hitting. He looked like a muscular ex-Marine, but he hit booming line drives into the seats instead of the parabolic punts for which Babe Ruth and, in due course, Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays were renowned in his time, and for which sluggers to come (Harmon Killebrew, Frank Howard, Dick Allen, Dave Kingman, Mike Schmidt, Darryl Strawberry, and company) would be held in awe likewise.

Joe DiMaggio once said hitting the other way wasn’t real hitting. The power argument is somewhat similar, and just as foolish. There were even those who thought Hank Aaron was an illegitimate successor to Ruth on the all-time home run list because a) he never put up a Huge Season; and, b) Aaron, more or less like Maris, hit the high line drive far more often than he hit the big, jaw-dropping, neighbourhood-threatening, ICBM-like launch.

The man’s lifetime averages per 162 games show that just about every season Aaron played was a Big Season. He averaged 37 home runs, 113 runs batted in, 185 hits, 31 doubles, 107 runs scored, and a mere 68 strikeouts per 162 games. (That, by the way, folks, is eighteen less than the Babe.) In other words, Hank Aaron’s average season was anyone else’s career year.

Maris wasn’t that kind of great except for the three Yankee seasons in which it looked like he was coming into his own on his own terms, including the year he broke ruthsrecord. (Whatever else you’ve heard or read, the real reason for Maris’s post-1962 decline was injuries.) But he had that one thing in common with Aaron, and people were actually foolish enough to hold it against him, too. As if it mattered more how the ball flew over the fence than that it flew there at all.

They used to accuse Maris of taking advantage of Yankee Stadium’s fabled short right field porch. As if they expected a lefthanded hitter with any kind of power not to. As if they forgot (assuming they knew) that Yankee Stadium was designed and built specifically to accommodate Ruth’s own lefthanded power. The stadium argument recessed occasionally during the more frequent argument over the Marisian liner versus the Mantlesque punt.

Which would be, today, the so-called launch angle argument. The passel of hitters checking in at the plate looking for something at which to swing on an uppercut before looking for something to hit at all. The passel of hitters that includes plenty with power enough who seem to think, without being able to say it that way, that they’re supposed to be Mantle and not Maris. Mays, not Aaron.

In today’s game Roger Maris and especially Hank Aaron would be the poster children for arguing against the launch angle, and they’d have the statistical evidence to back it up. Even passing Ruth on the all-time home run list, Aaron didn’t swing with a swooping uppercut, and the ball didn’t fly as if aiming for the Delta Quadrant.

And, as put by Chili Davis, former outfielder, former Cubs hitting coach, hired for the same job by the Mets practically before he’d had time to chill after the Cubs executed him, “certain players . . . are going to have to make some adjustments because the game has changed and pitchers are pitching them differently. They’re not pitching to launch angles and fly balls and all that anymore. They’re pitching away from that.”

Whatever you thought about Bryce Harper’s peculiar walk year, when he spent most of the first half looking completely unable to hit though ironically producing big enough when he did hit one, the real key to the turnaround that began shortly before the All-Star break was Harper returning to the batting style that first established him. He forgot about launch angles, with which he became pre-occupied coming out of spring training, and remembered about making contact, any kind of contact.

Harper’s first half slash line was .214/.365/.468. His second half: .300/.434/.538. His first half batting average on balls in play: .226. His second half: .378. He hit eleven home runs in the second half compared to 23 in the first half, but it’s probably very fair to suggest that if he hadn’t become a little enamoured of launch angles coming out of spring training he might well have hit the same number of home runs on the season (34) but he’d have been a lot more comfortable and productive all around at the plate.

Davis comes up again because of John Harper’s report that his execution as the Cubs’ hitting coach may have been instigated by the team’s two top stars, first baseman Anthony Rizzo and third baseman Kris Bryant. Harper says Cubs president Theo Epstein had no intention of pinking Davis until Rizzo and Bryant put the squeeze on. “He caved,” one unidentified source said of Epstein. “He’s not happy about it. He thinks it’s BS that the players complained about Chili, but he wasn’t going to stick with his hitting coach just to make a point.”

Davis admitted he had a tough time connecting with some of the younger Cub hitters, including Rizzo and Bryant, without mentioning them by name. And the Cubs’ bats went quiet enough in the second half to force them into a 163rd game just to make the wild card game, and to show nothing in those two games but two runs scored in 22 innings in their own hitter-Friendly Confines.

Rizzo is known to be his own hitting coach regardless of who actually has the job, a near fanatic about refining his plate approach on his own. Bryant, however, is known to be obsessed with launch angling, something instilled in him early by the private hitting instructor who also happens to be his father. Rizzo started 2018 moderately before finding a groove around May; Bryant battled against a combination of shoulder trouble and pitchers figuring out he was so locked into launch angling that he was meat against rising pitches, likely to either strike out or hit catchable flies.

Davis wasn’t the only hitting coach who couldn’t get it into his charges’ thick skulls that launch angling doesn’t work for everyone swinging a bat. Dave Magadan—former sweet-swinging infielder turned hitting coach—has a new job because of it. The Diamondbacks, like many teams who can’t figure out why the bats turned to papier mache, made Magadan a 2018 scapegoat. The Rockies snapped him up post haste.

“I never want guys hitting the ball on the ground, especially to the pull side,” Magadan tells Harper. “I want them driving the ball into the gaps. But to just want to hit the ball in the air … if you’re not [Aaron] Judge or [Giancarlo] Stanton or J.D. Martinez, you’re just going to fly out a lot to the big part of the ballpark when pitchers with velocity and high spin rates are pitching up in the zone. I had a guy last year who tried to be J.D. Martinez, and we finally had to have an intervention with him. It wasn’t until he was sent back to Triple-A that he realized it didn’t work for him, and he got back to hitting line drives.”

Bryce Harper didn’t have to go to Triple-A to fix himself last year, but Magadan’s point is taken well. And Magadan respects Davis, with whom he worked in the Red Sox organisation when Epstein still ran their show. “We’ve talked a lot about hitting,” the former Met infielder says. “He knows the swing and he knows the psychology of players, so I was surprised to hear about some of the stuff in Chicago, but sometimes you just don’t connect with players. I see him doing great things in New York.”

There will always be hitters who can send satellites into orbit at the plate. There will always be hitters who don’t have to launch satellites to leave the yard. (There’s also at least one Mike Trout, who does it both ways; some of his home runs cruise into the seats on a high line, and some blast off as if it’s destination Milky Way.) Things probably haven’t been helped when you turn on the television to watch a game and the broadcast graphics people start hanging up the launch angles of every ball hit over the fence.

When Maris was put through the psychological wringer chasing Ruth’s single-season home run record, the criticism that seems to have stung the least was how he cleared the fences. It may have bothered him that Joe and Jane Fan considered him an interloper. (Yankee fans and otherwise; stories abounded about fan abuse Maris incurred on the road that season, too.) It may have haunted him that he had reason to suspect his own team would have preferred Mantle and not himself chase and break ruthsrecord.

But he knew in his heart of hearts that he didn’t have to hit the ball into earth orbit to hit for power. He had 133 home runs in three seasons, including the record-breaking 61 in ’61, to prove it. He respected and admired Mantle without thinking he had to do what he couldn’t do. Aaron surely had his baseball models, too, but he, too, never seemed to care how the ball flew out as long as it flew out at all.

Imagine Maris and Aaron in today’s game with Davis or Magadan as their hitting coaches. (The late Marvin Miller once asked rhetorically if a visitor could imagine Sandy Koufax as a free agent. Now, imagine Maris [before the injury bug] or Aaron likewise.) Imagine Davis or Magadan showing the rest of the team’s hitters Maris or Aaron and saying, “These guys don’t give a damn about launch angles, and they’re hitting damn well while still hitting home runs like it’s going out of style. What does that tell you?”

Now, imagine today’s hitters looking at Davis or Magadan after that exhibition, by the two men who broke ruthsrecords, and saying, as the phrases went once upon a time, “Who are these fools and what planet were they exiled from?” But where will those fools  turn when they exile themselves so deep into the tank they’ll need an elevator to return?

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