Members Blog – SPECIAL POST – Common Language of Hitting

Normally our Members Blogs are of the visual variety, but this week it is a written one by Justin. Its a special one, check it out……..

Spring Training affords a lot of new opportunity.  That goes for coaches as well.  The Cubs have always had asked former organization “greats” to come to Spring Training to pass along their experiences and knowledge to players.  However, the dynamic can be awkward.  Often times players are intimidated to ask a question to a “legend.”  At the same time, former players respect the current process, and often times won’t insert themselves, which they think might be viewed as over-stepping their boundries. 

I had one of those situations on a cool desert morning, at 7:30, with the sun just coming up.  A half a dozen big league guys were making their way into the cage for the start of a new day in a new season.  Standing idly, arms behind his back, slightly swaying from side to side, was Hall of Famer Ryne Sandberg.

I grew up a Cardinal fan, and Sandberg was a Cardinal killer throughout my childhood.  I could more than recite the stats on the back of his 1989 Topps baseball card.   I’ve seen Ryne many times, but have never introduced myself – I was intimidated – after all, he’s a legend.   But I could sense Ryne was in the cage for a reason on this brisk morning – he wanted to talk hitting.  So I walked by and again, didn’t introduce myself, when it dawned on me – “he wants to talk shop.”   I pivoted about face, turned around, stuck my hand out, “Hey Ryne, I’m Justin Stone, the new Director of Hitting…” 

The following were the notes I ran back to my office and took following our conversation:

Ryne started like he was already mid-conversation with himself, “I don’t know when it started, when guys thought about hitting homers?  I never thought about hitting homers, I just thought about hitting a hard line drive and homers happened.”  That came unsolicited, and I started peppering him with questions about his own process, which Ryne was more than willing to share. 

Sandberg’s thought process at the plate was to look out over the plate and react to the inside pitch.   There were times, when he did want to take a shot and he’d actually move closer to the plate to take a pull side shot in a “one-pitch” mentality. 

The last maturation for a lot of hitters is learning how to get to the inside heater without cheating to it.  Ryne learned this in his 1984 breakout year.   He did so by learning to create space and freedom in his lower half by having coaches flip balls right at his front hip and he would pull them almost sideways into the cage net. 

I asked him why so many players in his era started in closed stances and he commented, at that same time, in 84, he actually opened his stance up slightly where he was once, neutral, or “toe to toe.”

All of the sudden, pull side home runs just began to “happen.”  To keep himself honest in his oppo-gap approach, Ryne preferred a two-tee drill.  One tee, high in the zone on the outside corner, with the other low in the zone, and further out in front of the plate on the inside corner.  He would get into his load-stride process and have a coach call out “IN” or “OUT” as he started his stride.  Ryne would have to react without “cheating” to pitches.

The conversation redirected abruptly back to, “I don’t understand why hitters today don’t value ‘getting their hits’ or ‘taking what the pitcher or defense gives you’ like they do the home run?”   His goal was the same every year – to “…hit .300 and score 100 runs” from his 2-hole spot in the order.   

He stated that almost all hitters of the era had the goal of hitting .300, and wishes more players did today.  Because, in his opinion, having that goal, “can make a .240 hitter into a .265 hitter…” to take his hits, keep the line moving and making the “power” hit more impactful.

He mentioned “power” being a better measurement than “home runs” because if a guy has two on and hits a ground ball double down the line that clears the bases, that’s still a “power” hit and a favorable result only because the guys before the double “took their hits” and put the offense in a scoring opportunity. 

I asked Ryne about how he prepared himself for opposing pitchers, knowing they didn’t have as much advanced metrics, analytics and technology as we do today.  He said, “…some notes, but mostly recall.  You have to remember there were only two divisions then and no interleague so we played each other much more often.  But the pitcher would remember those encounters too.  So you had to think ahead of the pitcher on what he was thinking of doing to you.  That was the game within the game.”

He doesn’t think hitters think “the game within the game” as well today.  Relief pitchers were fewer then, and today power arms from the bullpen mean you are going to get really tough pitches at crucial moments of the game.  Thinking that the pitcher is going to lay a fat one on the inner half when the crowd is on their feet and screaming, just isn’t going to happen.  While the hitter, is getting caught up in the moment, the pitcher is trying to capitalize on that mindset of the hitter.  Ryne thinks hitters today need to be more aware of thinking with the pitcher. 

About 30 minutes into my one-on-one interview with a Hall of Famer, I didn’t want to monopolize all of Ryne’s time or “wear him out,” so I thanked him for conversation, and basically ran to my office to start dictating as much of it as I could on a yellow legal pad. 

I was a Robinson Little League All-Star in Ryne’s MVP season of 1989.  Two different ends of the baseball spectrum.  For baseball guys though, there is always the common language of hitting.