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The new conventional wisdom

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If you look at film from those days, you'll often see players just stuffing their gloves into their back pockets, something that would be impossible nowadays when gloves are really more like baskets than anything else.


Old habits die hard. But, like most everything else, they eventually die.

So it is with the age-old tradition of teaching young baseball players how to hit. Conventional wisdom has always -- at least until recently -- been that they were coached to "swing down on the ball." Common sense would tell us that, since the ball is being pitched from a mound and is therefore coming toward the hitter in a downward trajectory, to swing down on it would only increase the likelihood that it would be hit on the ground, thereby greatly reducing the chances of its being a hit.

Coaches, even those who are old and grizzled -- which includes those who are twenty years or more younger than your humble correspondent -- would hear none of that argument. Swinging down on the ball, they would say, is an absolute rule of hitting, as incontrovertible as the law of gravity. Even the newer coaches would agree because, well, that's what they had been taught by the old, grizzled guys, who, in turn, were taught by the old grizzled guys who came before them. If you trace the theory of swinging down all the way back to the olden days, it's because that's the way Ty Cobb used to do it more than a century ago. It wasn't just Cobb, it was everyone. That's the way they all did it way back then.

But that was then; it was the dead-ball era, when it was well-nigh impossible to hit a ball over an outfielder's head, much less over a fence that was far, far away from home plate. Home runs, when they did come, were usually the result of gappers, drives hit between outfielders and, like Old Man River, they just kept rolling along. Furthermore, ground balls had a much better chance of surviving as hits back then. Players' gloves were simple things, used merely to provide padding from the impact of the ball; gloves were all but devoid of webbing. If you look at film from those days, you'll often see players just stuffing their gloves into their back pockets, something that would be impossible nowadays when gloves are really more like baskets than anything else. Add to that the fact that infields were not finely manicured the way they are now; they were pockmarked with ruts and stones that made every ground ball an adventure. Cobb and his compatriots were right to "swing down on the ball" -- back in their time.

Times change, though. A hundred years ago, in 1920, Babe Ruth had his breakout year with the Yankees and changed baseball forever. Ruth tried to hit the ball as far as he could, and he didn't do it by hitting down on it. The fans loved it and some younger players tried emulating the Bambino. The home run became king. But the old-timers persisted in their swing down theories. Leave those uppercut swings to the big boppers, the muscle men, they said, everyone else should hit down on the ball.

Fifty years ago, Ted Williams, considered by most to be the greatest of all hitters, wrote a book, "The Science of Hitting" with writer John Underwood, in which he argued that it just made sense to meet the downward plane of a pitched ball with a corresponding upward plane of a swung bat. And still, the old-school baseball men, who were by now the grandsons and great grandsons of the original old schoolers, stuck to their guns, as outmoded as those guns might be. Williams, for all his success, they reasoned, was simply the exception that proved the rule.

But then, virtually unnoticed at the time, some baseball junkies, totally independent of one another, began using computers and state-of-art video equipment to examine swing technique. Their motivations for doing so were varied. Some were coaches of high school teams; others were gathering information to teach their own little league-age children to hit; still, others were trying to unlock the mysteries of why they hadn't done well as hitters themselves. The diehards with the laptops and videocams had two things in common: first, they all loved baseball; and second, none of them belonged to the baseball establishment.

Their stories are told within the pages of a fascinating book, "Swing Kings," by Jared Diamond, who is the national baseball writer for the Wall Street Journal.

Through social media, they became aware of one another. Alliances were established and rivalries were born. Gradually, the best of them developed a following of others who were searching the internet, trying to uncover the secret of how best to hit a baseball. Some of those new disciples were major-league players themselves.

Players like J. D. Martinez, Josh Donaldson, and Justin Turner -- even Aaron Judge -- became believers and saw their careers revived. Finally, the independent outliers started to win acceptance. Now they, and their new fangled ideas, are becoming part of the establishment.

The old school guys were finding that it's hard to argue with success. And it's even harder to win that argument.

"Launch angle" has become the new baseball buzzword. Swinging down on the ball will always have its believers and practitioners but it's no longer the "in" thing.

Baseball, more than any other sport, is tradition-bound. It worships at the altar of its history. It resists change, but changes happen to all things, even the old ball game -- and even when it takes a century or more to make them happen.

Hitting a baseball with authority is complicated, whether it be a science, as Ted Williams advocated, or an art, as many of those who watched him do it believed. It encompasses elements like the position of the hands, shift of the weight, and rotation of the hips, to name a few. Those independent baseball outliers didn't -- and don't -- necessarily agree on the particulars of any of those things. But they all agree on one thing: swinging down on the ball is a mistake.

It took more than a hundred years to get here, but it's the new conventional wisdom.

- Dick Flavin is a New York Times bestselling author; the Boston Red Sox "Poet Laureate" and The Pilot's recently minted Sports' columnist.

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