More Answers for Eric: The Batting Stance Article

Byrnes1_4This is the article on Eric Byrnes’ batting stance that I have been promising/threatening for some time now.  It isn’t anywhere near as long as the first article on the mental aspects of solving the batting problems he experienced in the 2005 season, so I am leaving it as one post. The illustrative photos were taken at Camden Yards by Daryl of Daryl’s Place.

As I said in the other articles: If you don’t like Eric Byrnes, now is definitely the time to leave. In fact, if you don’t like Eric Byrnes, you’ve wandered into the wrong blog.

If you know Eric Byrnes, please tell him this is here. And if you ARE Eric Byrnes, hello, thanks for stopping by, please read this, keep an open mind, and give the suggestions a try. Something(s) might work. You don’t come across as the type of person who would sit in front of a computer or anything else for long, so read it in bits and come back a bunch of times. Peace on earth might be a pipe dream, but your batting .300 is not.

Time for a Change

As I chose photos for this article, I had a golf show on in the background. They were talking about how Tiger Woods, the best golfer in the world, got a new instructor and changed his swing to make it more reliable. It took about a year and a half for the new swing to really take hold, but it really started showing results for him in 2005.

Think about that. Tiger Woods is the best golfer in the world. If he retired now, he would have one of the best careers that sport has ever seen. Yet he is still making changes to improve! And he finds the prospect of improving exciting.

Eric Byrnes will never go down in baseball history as one of the best to ever play the game, the way Tiger Woods will go down in golf history. But Eric has that same heart to improve. That’s part of what makes him an exciting and endearing baseball player, especially in this era of what "My Friend, The Yankees Fan" calls "overpaid pu$$ies."

Tiger Woods, and other golfers, have an advantage over Eric Byrnes, and other baseball players, in making changes to improve. Though golfers have certain qualifications they must meet to make their respective tours, as players of an individual sport, they can work on skill improvement without worrying that a team will bench or discard them while they are working on the changes because they no longer fit into a GM or team owner’s business plan.

The person who commented on my article, "Eric Byrnes – Making Sense of 2005", said, "I hate to see the game give up on him before he has the chance to show that he can make the adjustments needed to continue playing sucessfully for many more years to come. " I, too, can only hope that Byrnesie gets the time he needs to make the changes that can bring him the results I know he is capable of producing: 200 hits, of which at least 30 are homers, 50 are doubles and 10 are triples; 35+ stolen bases, 100+ runs scored, 90+ RBI, and 2 BBs for every K, over at least 150 games as a reliable, even feared, No. 2 hitter. 

About that pitch low and away…

Most of the pitches thrown to Byrnes are low and away. (Pitchers who get that outside strike up a bit to Byrnes—say upper thigh to just above the belt—often find that they need a new baseball). Away to a right-handed hitter is the natural direction for a right-handed pitcher’s delivery, so it’s relatively easy for them to do this. Righties are the vast majority of pitchers, as they are the vast majority of everyone else in the world. They do what comes naturally to them; Byrnes has had trouble with it. Thus has come the propaganda that he can’t hit righties. But, as I mentioned in the article “Some Answers for Eric,” his hitting 7 of 20 homers off lefties in 2004 means that he hit 13 of 20 homers off right-handed pitchers.  So let’s just ditch the propaganda that he can’t hit righties. It is the location of the pitch, not the handedness of the pitcher that is the difficulty. Once he learns to handle the low and away pitch, regardless of whether a righty or the southpaw is throwing it–and left-handers can throw in that quadrant of the strike zone, too—pitchers are going to have to start varying their locations more to him. That will cause fits for pitchers not named Mariano Rivera–and maybe Rivera, too, on one of those rare days when he’s not automatic– because mistakes will be made. Pitchers who throw mistakes to Eric Byrnes will then need a new baseball.

Lvlswng_1From what I can see, Byrnes’ biggest batting problem is that he is lunging after pitches low and away. Lunging creates weak swings that either miss or don’t get the ball out of the infield. Lunging also leaves him prone to a back injury. In the photo at left, Byrneslooks like he’s lunging. What I do like about it are the bent knees and the level follow-through of the bat. But he’s splayed all over the batter’s box.

Here’s some good news: Byrnes is developing a sharper batter’s eye. In the second half of 2005, he swung less frequently at low and away balls, i.e. the worm-killers that were heading toward the on-deck circle.  But some low and away pitches are strikes, or close enough to the plate that the umpire might call them strikes, and, especially with a two-strike count, Byrnes has to either protect the plate or attempt to hit safely. He can better accomplish these goals by changing his batting stance to eliminate the tendency to lunge.

Extreme Makeover — Stance Edition

"There are admirable potentialities in every human being. Believe in your strength and your youth. Learn to repeat endlessly to yourself, ‘It all depends on me.’" Andre Gide (1869 – 1951)

To hit the low and away strike well, Byrnes needs to make sure he is standing close enough to the plate to cover the outer part of the plate sufficiently.  This way he’s closer to that outside strike, and thus, less likely to lunge. Moving a little closer in will change his perception of inside pitches a little bit. But Byrnes has shown a good batter’s eye for the inside ball. I trust him to not swing at very many of those.

Closeenuf Daryl’s photos, such as the one on the left, suggest that Byrnes is OK vis-à-vis distance from the outer part of the plate. But I have seen him a number of times on MLB.TV standing apparently too far away.  This is why I wrote the article “Don’t the Coaches Notice These Things?”  Why does Byrnes seem to be a little too far away from the outer part of the plate to me sometimes? Maybe it’s the camera angle. Maybe it’s an inconsistency in his stance for which he has to watch out. Baseball is a game of inches. A difference of an inch or two closer to the plate, if needed, can help eliminate the lunging and can thus make the difference between safe or out.

Byrnes needs to step into the away strike more. I think this is the most important part of his being able to hit the low and away strike. He tends to step straight out, or turned slightly to his left.

Img_5122_2For a pitch that’s middle-in, this is fine. But it’s the opposite direction from where the away pitches are going and results in a weaker swing than he should have.

Another way of expressing this concept is to “go with the pitch.” This is especially important when swinging at that strike low and away. No need to try to pull everything. It takes a lot of extra energy to pull a pitch that’s low and away…energy better spent hitting it hard to the opposite field.  There are hits to be had for Byrnes on the right side of the diamond. I have seen him hit safely to right.  The question is whether this is an accident or bit of luck or whether it’s deliberate.  Opposite-field hitting needs to be a deliberate part of Byrnes’ game plan. It will make him less predictable to fielders–as Wee Willie Keeler used to say, “Hit ‘em where they ain’t”—and pitchers, who, right now, figure the low and away pitch to be the easy way to get Byrnes out. (And they’re usually correct).

In order to step into a pitch the proper way, Byrnes needs to keep his back foot placed solidly on the ground, so as to give his front foot the opportunity to step in at an angle that is toward an away strike or straight ahead or slightly left to pull a strike that’s middle-in.

Buckled If the back foot commits early, i.e. before the front foot, he ends up wrong-footed and off-balance. Notice in the photo at the left how Eric’s back leg is buckled, with the back foot starting to turn over on the edge. The front foot looks more solidly planted than the back foot. Not Good. (This photo is also an example of the hips turned out slightly to the left, not a good position for pitches coming in low and away).

The Oakland announcers noticed the wrongfooting on August 15, 2005, when he first came back home to the Bay Area as a member of the Orioles. I was there, watching as well as listening, and I can tell you the announcers were right. Of course, other O’s were stuck in similar positions for a while, as Barry Zito was throwing some knee-buckling curveballs. But Byrnesie especially was looking pretty bad that night.

Closing up his stance a bit would help. The object of the game of swinging is an effective transfer of weight, and thus, energy, from back leg to front leg. By effective, I mean that the strength of the legs is transferred into the swing, giving the swing more power than it would have if it depended on just the strength of the upper body alone. The wider the stance to begin with, the harder it is to make the energy transfer, which occurs via the motion of stepping into the pitch; if you’re too wide to begin with, there isn’t much room to create the motion that accomplishes the energy transfer. Actually, you’ve seen the too-wide stance in some of the earlier photos. But so many of Daryl’s photos illustrate this too-wide stance so well that I’ve added a couple more here:

Wide_1_1 Wide_2

I would suggest that Byrnes start practicing with his feet no further apart than the width of his shoulders. That may not be the optimal position for him, but if it is not, he can find the optimal position from there.

Eric, do not swing out of your shoes. “Swing out of your shoes” is my description of those times when he ends up on the sides of his feet. Some folks call it “corkscrewing.”

Ebankles_1Now that I have seen it up close in the photos, I find it downright scary. Byrnes has been very, very lucky not to twist or break an ankle the way he’s ended up on the sides of his feet.  When he is swinging out of his shoes, he is trying too hard. In other words, he shouldn’t try to swing for the fence. He’s strong; if he makes solid contact, he’ll get his share of jacks, more so if he can put his whole body, especially the legs, into the swing without ending up on the sides of his feet in the process.

Speaking of home runs, Byrnes needs to stop trying to loft the ball. He is a natural line drive hitter. He needs to stay that way. There be doubles and triples in line drives up the gaps and down the lines, and more than a few of those liners can go over the fence. Line drive homers count just as much as fly ball homers do. And a line-drive single is always better than a flyout or a popup.

PopupIn the abysmal, aberrant 2005, I saw him swing under a lot of pitches and have too much uppercut in his follow-through. Yeah, he launched a few over the fence that way, but the number of fly balls over the wall wasn’t worth the trade-off in pop-ups and weak flyouts. All that twisting the back and high follow-through is more golf than baseball. Like everyone else, Byrnes will hit fly balls on occasion; the pitch has something to do with that. It’s the effort to loft the ball that is problematic. Going with the pitch AND not trying to loft it is the difference between a single to right or right center and an infield popup.

Some additional strategies:

Deliberately fouling off pitches would be helpful.  I don’t know to what extent Byrnes can do that, or if he has even considered adding that skill to his toolbox. Ted Williams, who knew a thing or two about hitting, found it useful. He wanted to hit his pitch, but he knew he couldn’t stand at home plate with the bat on his shoulder just waiting for pitchers to serve it up. So he tried to foul off the strikes he did not like and tried to outwait the pitcher. Byrnes should try to do likewise.

Do not enlarge the strike zone! This is another Ted Williams skill that Byrnes and all hitters should cultivate. I notice that when Byrnes gets anxious to hit safely, he enlarges the strike zone. This means he swings (and often misses) at balls. This is especially true of high fastballs. Byrnes has learned to not swing at very many of those low and away balls that were the bane of his existence in the first half of 2005, but then pitchers started getting him out with high stuff. The way to make them throw you a pitch you can hit is to force them to throw you strikes. Real strikes.

Developing a reputation for not enlarging the strike zone is also a great way to get the umpires on your side when it comes to checked swings and taking borderline pitches. We all know how it is with umpires and borderline pitches: Umps tend to make the call in favor of the veteran over the rookie, the star over the average player, and the guy who has established more certainty over location on a given night than the guy who is just hoping for a good call.

I remember a time late last season when I saw Byrnes take Ball 4, only the ump called it Strike 3. Byrnes was stunned, as was I, and the guys in the Orioles dugout, led by Mgr. Sam Perlozzo, were righteously most displeased. It was the kind of call that I don’t think would have been made if Byrnes had developed the rep of not enlarging the strike zone.

Byrnes needs to value walking more. My Eric Byrnes Pitch Count Reports show that he doesn’t do well overall in plate appearances of 6 pitches or longer. Pitchers seem to have him where they want him when he’s got three balls, normally a hitter’s count. They can throw him something off the plate, or down the middle, but high, and he’ll go for it. He needs more patience. Sometimes I can just see how anxious he is to get a hit. If I can see it, surely the pitcher can. Yet a walk can advance a baserunner from first. It can drive in a run if the bases are loaded. (Byrnes has done that). Walking is expected of a 2 hitter and helps the OBP. And you can’t steal second until you’ve gotten to first. Not to mention that walks really mess with a pitcher’s head (and his ERA), especially when the batter who is walked is leading off an inning.

Cut the K-rations, Byrnesie! Byrnes strikes out about twice as often as he walks. And here’s what I thought was in interesting stat: In 2004, his best year in the majors to date, he had a combined total of 108 extra-base hits and walks. He had 111 Ks. In 2005, which may have been his worst year since T-ball, Byrnes had a combined total of 69 extra-base hits and walks, and 71 Ks. That’s a kind of consistency I wish he didn’t have. Avoiding the lunge, deliberately fouling off pitches, and being willing to walk more should lower the strikeout totals.

Kéllia Ramares
Oakand, CA

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