(Listen to KPFA.org or, in Northern and Central California, 94.1 FM on Friday, Dec. 30th at 6:30 pm Pacfic Tme for a special program by Kéllia Ramares on nuclear weapons).
[In light of MLBlogs.com highlighting this space for its holiday posts, and in light of my realization that of all the articles I have written about Eric Byrnes, there are three that matter most: "Some Answers for Eric," "Eric Byrnes – Making Sense of 2005," and "More Answers for Eric," I am doing some reorganization of this blog to put these articles closer to the top for easier reading. Then I am going back to editing my nuclear weapons radio program. Yeah, peace on earth and all that good stuff!]
A Happy Winter Solstice to my Pagan cohorts at mlblogs.com and to those who see the lengthening of the days as meaning spring training cannot be far behind.
I am one of the KPFA News Department utility players who helps keep the place running this time of year. So you likely won’t be hearing much from me from now until just after New Year. My neighborhood has also been suffering blackouts; I was writing to Red Sox Chick about Johnny Damon last night when it happened again and my comment went poof. So over the next few weeks, I’ll write my baseball stuff offline and put it all up after the New Year. Perhaps the electrical problems will be fixed by then. (‘Til Peak Oil grabs us all by the throat, that is!)
Winter Solstice is the longest night of the year and indeed that is the way it will feel today for me. I awoke to the news I had been dreading for days; that Eric Byrnes was non-tendered by the Orioles.
Intellectually, I am not surprised. If you look at the way things have been going this offseason, you know that all teams are jettisoning players who struggled. And 2005 was Byrnes’ abysmal, aberrant year.
But emotionally, I’m devastated. I am finding it hard to type and hard to breathe. I am only grateful to have first gotten the news from Daryl of Daryl’s Place. This Orioles season ticket holder has provided me the photos with which I have illustrated my articles on answers for Byrnes’ hitting woes.
And while I am here, thanks again to Red Sox Chick for her photos of Byrnesie, one of which I used in my To Eric Byrnes article. Hers are in the field rather than at the plate, which is why I haven’t used a lot of them. But they are great, too.
Anyway, I digress.
I think the worst of it for me was that Daryl said Eric was the only one of the Orioles last group of arbitration-eligible players who was non-tendered. They even signed the weak-hitting David Newhan to a one year deal on the 19th, in lieu of arbitration. Newhan fell from an even loftier 2004 batting average (.311 to Byrnes’ .283) to an even more dismal low (.202 to Byrnes’ .226). (Well, I guess some guys who struggle do get contracts). The Orioles gave up on Eric, and rather quickly; he joined them on July 30th; I think they wrote him off in early September.
Mind you, I don’t begrudge Newhan his contract. He was a reliable glove and I certainly commiserated with the struggle he had last year. But in light of signing Newhan, I can’t see why they non-tendered Byrnesie, who had better numbers. Newhan and Byrnes should have either been both signed or both let go. But the Orioles gave Newhan a one-year deal and have signed Jeff Conine; manager Sam Perlozzo says he will play some first base, DH and left field. (It looks like Javy Lopez is history, doesn’t it?)
Somebody, please take Eric Byrnes! You won’t regret it. The hitting issues are fixable! Surely I cannot be the only one to see that!
Byrnesie, don’t give up! I know that, publicly, you will be stoic. You will acknowledge the reality of the bad year and talk about how baseball is a business. But it’s got to hurt, deeply. Still, don’t give up. That would be the easy thing to do now because you have other choices. You are articulate. You could walk away from this and land a job in radio or TV tomorrow. You probably have money to spare and could disappear for a year doing whatever you please. But I am begging you not to do that. Bounce back, even if it means a trip back to the minors, or a year in another country. Bounce back, not just for fans like me, but for yourself most of all. You love to play baseball. You are in great shape and you still have years left. Don’t let it end this way.
I know that earlier this offseason, you were expecting to be tendered. It has to be a shock to be the only one of the remaining group not to be. Another move must feel like the last thing you need. But as David Ortiz and others know, sometimes these things work out well for the player. May it be that way for you. It may be only fortune cookie wisdom, but what I once saw on a fortune cookie rings true: The greatest pleasure is in doing something others say you cannot do. Show those who have given up on you what a mistake they’ve made!
I feel short of breath; I’m fighting back tears and my hands are trembling. This is indeed the longest night of the year. The way I feel right now, we might as well have another blackout in the Adams Point neighborhood of Oakland today. It’s been raining for days and it’s very cloudy now. How appropriate, given how I feel at the moment. But as we Pagans know, Winter Solstice means the light is coming back.
I still believe in Eric Byrnes.
This is the fourth part of a long article, segmented for online reading convenience, on Eric Byrnes’ batting difficulties, and the mental aspect of solving these problems. This one and the 5th part are the heart of what I was trying to say when I first wrote the article, so I have moved them to the top of the blog. What I say here about Byrnes would also work for other players and can be translated into other walks of life. So please read on:
Some Answers for Eric — The Mental Game
All physical activity begins on a mental level. Therefore, Byrnes should first examine his mental approach to batting.
What does Byrnes think about when he’s at the plate? Any thoughts like, "I hope I get a hit," or "I’ve gotta get a hit" are a waste of mental energy. At the plate, there need be only mindfulness of any instructions the third base coach is relaying, the hitting situation and what kind of stuff the pitcher has that day. It is critical to be in the moment, not trying to prove anything to anyone, not even to oneself.
Johnny Damon made a good point in 2004. One has to be an "idiot" out there, not over-thinking, but rather letting the brain make the necessary split-second calculations and letting the body execute the brain’s decision, trusting the years of physical training and game-playing experience that have honed the skills to the major-league level. Byrnes does this routinely in the field, whether it’s an ordinary catch or one of those spectacular dives into the gap. The same process has to be applied to hitting.
But away from the game itself, there should be time to think and to ask questions: What are the root causes of the inconsistency? Do they stem from personality traits or physical execution, or both? What can be done to achieve more consistent high performance?
During the last series at 2005 at Fenway between Baltimore and Boston, Jerry "Remdawg" Remy, announcer for the Red Sox, came up with a stat that showed Byrnes had THE LOWEST batting average in the American League for away games. (And then Byrnes struck out). The thought of Eric Byrnes being the league’s worst at anything he does in baseball is simply mind-boggling to me. Byrnes needs to ask himself: Why was away so different from home? While he’s at it, he should ask himself: Why is there a significant disparity between batting averages against right-handed pitchers and left-handed pitchers? The disparities are especially frustrating when, as we can see from stats in the next paragraph, he can hit righties for power.
Sometimes, the way stats are interpreted is more important than the stats themselves. Byrnes needs to ignore the propaganda about what he cannot do.
How many times have we heard that Byrnes cannot hit right-handed pitchers? He can, and he does. But the way his stats are interpreted, and the repetition and publicity given to that interpretation, give a false impression that can ruin Byrnes’ approach to hitting, if he has internalized this propaganda even unconsciously. Here’s an example from the 2004 edition of his MLB web page:
[H]is career high batting average was aided by a .344 (54 for 157) mark against left handed pitching, the third best mark against southpaws in the American League… hit seven of his 20 home runs against left handed pitching and 16 of his 38 career home runs have come against southpaws…
Do the math. If seven of his 20 home runs in 2004 came against southpaws, then Byrnes hit 13 homers off righties. If 16 of his (‘til that point) 38 career homers came against southpaws, then Byrnes hit 22 homers off righties. While it’s true that he hits left-handers significantly better for average than he hits right-handers, part of that goes with the percentages; Byrnes is a right-handed hitter. But even in abysmal, aberrant 2005, when he hit .189 in his 15 games with the Rockies, 8 of the 10 hits he got during that time were off right-handers!
This is what I mean by saying he’s got the tools. Ninety-nine and 44/100s percent of the guys reading this could not do what Byrnes has already done. But when someone keeps hearing "You can’t," some rather negative tendencies develop: subtle changes in mental approach or mechanics that validate the negative judgment, or over-effort to prove the negative judgment wrong that backfires. Byrnes can hit right-handed pitchers. He has hit right-handed pitchers. He just hasn’t done it with the consistency he, his organization, and his fans would like to see. So he needs to focus on achieving consistency in doing what he can and has already done! Which means, first of all, remembering that he has already done it.
Byrnes needs to learn that relaxing does not mean he’s giving less than his all.
Byrnes always give 100% and we all know that. But with that being the case, more effort does not solve his difficulties because it is impossible to give more than 100%. When Byrnes tries to amp up his effort even more, he runs into the law of diminishing returns. His frustration level increases, which leads to bad decisions, such as enlarging the strike zone to swing at balls. (More on that in the "More Answers for Eric" article).
I was watching a game in which one of the Orioles announcers said Byrnes looked like he was trying to squeeze sawdust out of the bat handle. Not good. The announcers also talked about him being wound up real tight. Not good. Byrnes needs to relax more at the plate; he needs to discern what his 100% effort is and not seek to go beyond that. If his 100% effort is not yielding positive results, the answer is a different approach, not an attempt to redouble his effort at what is not working.
Byrnes needs to learn the limits of effort as a practice tool.
"I’m working, that’s the only thing I really can do at this point. Obviously it hasn’t been the type of year I expected to have. To this point it’s been pretty much a disappointment. At the same time it’s not from lack of effort or lack of working because I come out here to prepare myself every day." –Eric Byrnes
As I watched Byrnesie slog through 2005, I kept seeing the same stance, which meant the same approach to hitting. We all know the saying "If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. " But if you try, try again, and you still don’t succeed, you need a different approach. Time and effort are not enough. Pitchers have found his weaknesses and have learned to exploit them. He has to adjust to that, not just try harder at the same ol’ thing that is no longer working well. Or to put in the way an opera workshop director I studied with 10 years ago put it, "Practice does not make perfect; practice makes permanent."
Eric, don’t let your wonderful work ethic end up grooving your weaknesses. Use practice as an opportunity to experiment. There is a line between "If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again!" and "If you keep doing the same thing but expect a different result, you’re insane." Byrnesie, I know you are not insane.
Byrnes should develop an identity as a certain type of hitter.
I have seen Byrnes bat all over the lineup except 3rd. That has to create confusion as to hitting approach and what to practice, especially for a guy like Byrnes who can and has done everything from bunt for a single to hit home runs. Knowing that he belongs in a particular hole in the lineup will help because each hole has a certain archetype that creates a focus for practice.
Having a hitting identity does not throw the idea of situational hitting out the window. Certain situations require adjustments, e.g., say it’s the 9th inning, and the team is down by 2 runs. The guy leading off the 9th is the powerful clean-up batter who is one of the top homer hitters in the league. But in that situation, a solo shot won’t help. Slugger would do better for his team in that situation to get on base as the archetypal lead-off hitter is expected to do.
But even though adjustments have to be made during some situations, there are certain archetypes attached to each lineup hole. I think Lee Mazilli had the right instincts about Byrnes being a 2 hitter. His speed confers the makings of a great 2 hitter, who can play hit and run, leg out infield hits and steal bases. He also has some power, which comes in handy if the guys in the bottom third of the order start a rally. It’s a matter now of becoming a high average hitter, like 2’s should be. Again the issue is consistency. Being sure of who he is as a hitter will help direct his practice.
Byrnes needs to develop and maintain certainty.
This is the hardest thing for a hitter to do because the very best of them fail over 60% of the time. The 2005 season has recently ended. The last time a batter finished a season above .400 was in 1941, when Ted Williams hit .406. Baseball is full of .500 pitchers and .500 ball clubs; they are the definition of mediocrity. Baseball has never had someone hit .500 for a season. The utterly worst won-loss record in the majors in 2005, the Royals’ .346, is a splendid average for a hitter. Yet the best hitters have to go to the plate each time with the certainty that they can and will hit safely, that they know what to do to hit safely, even if they were out the last time, the last three times, or the last 30 times. It’s part of how hitters break slumps. It’s part of how they come through in the clutch, like St. Louis’ Albert Pujols did in Game 5 of the 2005 NLCS.
The key to certainty is to have the mentality of Pujols’ great opponent in that moment, the fearsome Astros closer Brad Lidge. When a great closer blows a save, he puts it behind him; tomorrow is another day. The Dodgers’ Eric Gagne saved 84 straight. Blowing No. 85 didn’t send him into a tailspin. The Yankees’ Mariano Rivera blew the save in the clinching game of the 2001 World Series. The Diamondbacks won the game and the championship. But we still know Rivera’s a great closer, one of the best there ever was; he’s put that defeat behind him and saved many other games since then.
A great hitter needs that great closer’s mental toughness. Yet a hitter has a more difficult job maintaining certainty because being out over 60% of the time is the norm for the best of them and each failure can chip away at certainty. And rather than one failure a day, e.g. a blown save, there is a failure per unsuccessful plate appearance in a game.
But sometimes the certainty is there, even in the midst of struggle. Certainty is part of what is called "peak performance" or "being in The Zone." And Byrnes has been there. He should look at film of himself on Aug. 31, 2005, when he went 2-4 with 2 RBI, 2 R including a homer off a curve ball thrown by a right-handed pitcher in an away game. The stats say that breaking stuff, right-handers and away games are all trouble spots for Byrnes But not that AB. He had had good days at the plate before. In fact, he went 3-5 with a homer on July 31st. But I saw something special on August 31st. I knew every time Byrnes was going to swing. His eyes just lit up. The outs were well hit. That day I saw the certainty of Eric Byrnes, major league hitter. And I left for work after that game in a great mood, sure that his slump was over. But he got a single the next day and then it was downhill again. There were times in September when I felt as if he would not get a hit for the rest of the season, and as I looked at his face, I wondered if he felt that way, too. The certainty was gone. Where did it go? What does he have to do to get it back to stay?
This is the last part of a long article, segmented for online reading convenience, on Eric Byrnes’ batting difficulties, and the mental aspect of solving these problems. This is one of the two most important ones in this series, so I am moving it up front. The others are "Getting Eric Byrnes Back on Track" "Stats: The Ups and Downs of Eric Byrnes" and "Why Does Eric Byrnes Matter?" (And I should have clarified earlier that this last one is NOT an article about why Eric Byrnes matters to me, though there are probably a few elements in there that would fit such an article. I occasionally get a "Why Eric Byrnes?" question from someone. My favorite response is "Why NOT Eric Byrnes?" But maybe I’ll elaborate in a "Why Eric Byrnes matters to me" type article later, if there is nothing better to do. And I’m in trouble if there is nothing better to do.
Making Sense of 2005
With the "abysmal, aberrant year" in the past, one can look at it as a history lesson. We all know that philosopher George Santayana said something about those who could not remember the past being condemned to repeat it. (Though if you Google his name you’ll get all sorts of variations on the quote). Byrnes has to learn from 2005 to avoid repeating it.
The trick here is for him to learn from the past while simultaneously letting go of the pain it caused. I trust Byrnes to be able to do this because he has a basically optimistic personality.
"…Three teams and four managers when I’ve played with the same team my whole career. The thing is, though, is I will never use that as an excuse. If anything, the most difficult time for me to play probably should have been Oakland because I expected to be an everyday guy, and then right off the bat I was platooning." -–Eric Byrnes
Byrnes needs to understand the difference between an explanation and an excuse.
An explanation is a description of a reality one must confront. An excuse is an attempt to escape confronting the reality. Byrnes’ comment suggests he seems to be afraid of looking at all that happened to him this year because he do not want to appear to be seeking excuses for his uncharacteristically dismal performance. Is fear of being seen as an excuse-maker preventing him from learning how to better handle the difficulties he faced in 2005?
Byrnes should recognize that so much happened to him and around him in 2005 that it HAD to affect his performance.
We all like to assume that professionals of any sort will not let negative circumstances affect their performance. We certainly would not want to have a surgeon distracted by family problems to operate on us, or a lawyer consumed by law firm politics to represent us in a trial. But the truth of the matter is that we are all human, and that means that our performance is at times affected by our circumstances.
Consider a well-known example in golf for a moment. Many people could not understand Phil Mickelson’s rough 2003. Then we heard that his wife, Amy, had had a very difficult childbirth and that she and the baby had been in trouble for months afterward. When Amy and the baby got well, Lefty’s golf improved and he became the 2004 Master’s Champion.
Eric Byrnes would not be making excuses to acknowledge that negative things happened to him and around him to a degree unlike any other time in his professional career if he also observes what effects these negative things had on his play, and looks for ways to mitigate the effects of negative circumstances on his ability to accomplish his goals. He doesn’t even have to say anything to anyone as he goes about this. He can just do this for himself. Silence will avoid accusations of excuse-making.
Byrnes needs to be honest with himself about his feelings concerning each of the many events, whether they were matters that concerned him directly, or they were problems teammates were having. He should ask himself how each event, or combination of events, affected his performance. From there he should be able to work out ways to deal with those issues should they arise again. Indeed, problems such as trade talk, fired managers, and troubled teammates are all conditions that are common to the game so he might see them again. (Though I hope not all in one season, as he saw them in 2005). He will be better able to handle them next time if he looks squarely at what happened in 2005 without fear of being accused of making excuses. One cannot solve a problem before acknowledging it exists.
Being able to not let negative circumstances affect performance is like consistency. Some people seem to come by the trait naturally, but it is also a honed skill. To again draw on a golf example, Tiger Woods learned mental toughness from his parents.
Above all, Eric Byrnes must never feel ashamed of having been affected by so much negativity. It just shows he’s human. Now he needs to learn how to not let such matters affect him so much.
OK, That’s all I have to say on the mental game. Gee, I like to "go long" so much, you would think that I should be a bigger football fan than baseball fan!
If all goes to schedule, my thoughts on the physical aspects of Eric Byrnes’ quest to become the reliable hitter and, therefore, the everyday player he wants to be, should be along in about a week.
This 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.
From 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.
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.
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.
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:
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.”
Now 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.
In 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.
Exactly a year ago today, Dec. 7, 2004, Eric Byrnes gave CBS a phone interview from which he was quoted the next day in a CBS News story about steroids in baseball. I just found the remarks. They are worth repeating.
Byrnes said, "The biggest thing is that the public knows it’s not as prominent as media and some outside sources are making it out to be.
"Do I think it’s right? No, absolutely not. In every walk of life, in every profession for hundreds of years, people have been looking to get an advantage. The kids, who are the most important part of this thing, need to know that this isn’t OK."
Thanks, Byrnesie. Thanks to you and all players who do not take steroids.
Comments to come soon on hot stove doings, salaries and Eric Byrnes’ batting stance. Some time next week, I hope. I’ve had some schedule disruptions that I will explain as relevant in later posts.
I will be on the mezzanine at the KPFA Crafts and Music Fair at 8th and Brannan in San Francisco on Sat. and Sun. Dec. 10 & 11. So if you are in the city that day, stop by and say hello. I’ll be wearing a shirt that says: "Down the Left Field Line: Life, Baseball & Eric Byrnes."
You’ll find great holiday shopping, music, information and food there. And there’s a Katrina relief project in which you can participate while you are at the Fair. Details on how to get there and what the project is about are at this link.
(Photo of Byrnes by Daryl of Daryl’s Place).
OK, for weeks I have been promising (or threatening, as you consider the case to be) to post a big article on Eric Byrnes’ batting stance. Well, it’s morphed into something a whole lot bigger than big. As my colleagues in Radioland know, short is not my long suit.
I’ve been giving a lot of thought to what was ailing Eric Byrnes at the plate in 2005. This is the first part (of five) of the first of two articles, segmented for online reading convenience, on Eric Byrnes’ batting difficulties. This article deals with the mental aspect of solving these problems. I will address the actual batting stance issues in the second article. This article and the one to come are based on my observations of Byrnes, especially in the second half of the 2005 season. That’s when he joined the Baltimore Orioles and I got a subscription to MLB.TV.
WARNING: If you don’t like offense, in which case you should probably be a soccer fan, or if you get bored reading about the minutiae of improving a hitter’s chances, or you’re just plain against armchair psychology, please skip all this. If you really like pitching, I’ve got a nice (and much shorter) piece on A’s closer and 2005 AL Rookie of the Year Huston Street that you might find interesting. Check the November archives.
FURTHER WARNING: 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 in 2006 is not. (Assuming we have a 2006 baseball season, but that’s a whole ‘nuther article altogether, about things like bird flu, Peak Oil and such that I wouldn’t publish on the Byrnesblog).
A technical note: I am uploading these segments so that the most recent entry is actually this one. You can just read down as you would a book. Otherwise, you would end up reading it backwards, which messes up the sequence.
First, the obvious question: What makes me think I have any answers for Byrnes when experienced baseball professionals like Orioles hitting instructor Terry Crowley couldn’t get him turned around last year?
Well, I started going to baseball games and reading about baseball long before Byrnes was even born, so I do know a thing or two about the game. I have also personally experienced competitive sports and stage performance, so I understand something about the mental pressures of performance, even though I have never done anything remotely as impressive as being in the AL playoffs, which Byrnes has done.
But the idea that a fat, 50-year-old female journalist, whose ball field experience is mostly limited to a very small, barely-remembered amount of intramural grade school softball in the 60s, has anything to say that would help a major league hitter goes back to the mid-80’s when I lived briefly in Indianapolis and worked as a paralegal for a Social Security Disability attorney. One day, one of his clients, an older man who had already won his disability benefits, brought in his three brothers. He was hoping the attorney could win benefits for them as well. The youngest of them was 42. All had multiple chronic medical problems from years of brutal physical labor. They had worked this way because they were all very poorly educated. They could be termed functionally illiterate, i.e. able to sign their names, read basic road signs, such as "stop" and "yield" when they drove, but not much else. I did client intake, and in hearing their stories, I discovered that they were all dyslexic.
Unfortunately, in rural Indiana when these men were growing up, no one understood what dyslexia was or how to compensate for it. These guys were simply written off as stupid, and so that’s what they themselves came to believe they were. They were left to do brute physical labor in terrible conditions, and it had ruined their health. But by the mid-80’s, dyslexia was talked about more, and people like me read about it and knew the tell-tale signs.
I told the attorney what I had discovered, and showed him the simple written test I had conducted with one of the brothers (simply copying the words and numbers on his cigarette pack, just as he saw them). I was disturbed that a paralegal had seen in two hours what doctors and social workers had been missing in years of appointments. The attorney told me that sometimes lawyers and paralegals are in a position to spot something that doctors or social workers miss. That experience has always stayed with me. Being a paralegal and later a journalist means that the powers of observation are my stock-in-trade.
Thanks to the Internet, I have been able to turn those powers of observation on Eric Byrnes. I sat at my desk in Oakland, or at my workstation at KPFA-FM in Berkeley, watching him on my computer, with no other agenda but that I was rooting for him to succeed and asking myself why he was having so much trouble in 2005, after a career year offensively in 2004. I watched him like a hawk every chance I got, listened to what the announcers were saying, and kept notes on my Eric Byrnes Pitch Count Reports, which quickly developed into something much more detailed than the title would suggest.
And I had certain advantages in studying him. I was not in a situation where I was required to compare him to others, or decide whether or not he fit in. I’d already decided that Eric Byrnes is my player no matter what his batting average is; the challenge was to see whether I could spot whatever it was that was keeping him from having the season he and his organization wanted him to have. I was not charged with watching the others on the team for signs of trouble, even though others had also slumped. In other words, my baseball-watching attention was not, perforce, divided. So I thought that, perhaps, I could see what the experts and what Byrnes himself, caught in this frustrating quandary, could not. Some people, especially the ones who don’t really think much of Eric Byrnes—and I have encountered some of those–may think me a fool for trying to point out solutions to his difficulties at the plate. I don’t care what they think. All I know that I do not think Eric Byrnes should be written off as those guys in Indiana were written off by people who could not or would not see the root of their troubles.
This is the second part of a long article, segmented for online reading convenience, on Eric Byrnes’ batting difficulties, and the mental aspect of solving these problems. WARNING: 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.
Here are some stats with which to lay the foundation for my theses. They will be especially helpful to you Eric Byrnes novices:
Eric Byrnes made his major league debut on August 22, 2000, with the Oakland A’s. He made the A’s Opening Day roster in 2003. Here are some stats for 2003-2005 from ESPN.com:
G AB Avg HR RBI H R
2003 121 414 .263 12 51 109 64
2004 143 569 .283 20 73 161 91
2005 126 412 .226 10 40 93 49
In 2005, Byrnes played 59 games with Oakland, 15 with Colorado and 52 with Baltimore. (He actually batted in only 47 of the 52 Orioles games).
As I have said repeatedly in other posts, 2005 was Byrnes’ "abysmal, aberrant year." It is not unusual for professional athletes to have a season that they would love to just excise from the record books. Typically, it’s the dreaded "sophomore jinx" or it’s a year near the end of the career that signals a diminution of skills brought on by the cumulative effects of age and injuries sustained over the course of the career. Sometimes, it’s a year ruined by a major injury requiring significant DL time and possibnly surgery. Byrnes’ second year was the best of the three full seasons he’s had in the majors so far. He doesn’t turn 30 until February 16, 2006. One look at him will tell you that he is in great shape.
In fact, here’s the photo of him, taken by Daryl of Daryl’s Place, that I keep as wallpaper on my home computer.
Fortunately, Byrnes has not ended up on the DL from all the banging into walls and diving on the ground he’s done to make all the spectacular catches he’s made to rob opponents of extra-base hits.
(Holy ankle-sprains, Batman!)
Here’s the big problem: Eric Byrnes is a model of inconsistency.
All batters have hot spells and slumps, but Byrnesie, as we call him in the S.F. Bay Area, has always been notoriously streaky. Here are some descriptions from his official MLB web page for 2003:
…replaced [Jermaine] Dye in the fifth inning on April 24 against Detroit after [Dye] tore cartilage in his right knee fielding a Dean Palmer double…had his first multiple hit game of the season that day and moved into the starting line-up on April 25…had seven consecutive games with an extra base hit from May 8 to 15 (four doubles, three triples, one homer)…that began a career-high 22 game hitting streak from May 8 to June 1, during which he hit .376 (32 for 85) with 10 doubles, three triples, four home runs and 20 RBI… went 0 for 9 in his next two games before putting together a 10-game hitting streak from June 5 to 15 (15 for 40, .375)…had the hitting streak snapped on June 17 and then put together a 13-game hitting streak from June 18 to 30 (21 for 59, .356)…had a career high four RBI on May 15 at Detroit…homered in all three games of the Montreal series, June 13-15, the first time he had homered in three straight games in his career…tied an Oakland record with a career high five hits on June 29 at San Francisco when he hit for the cycle… at the end of June, he had hit safely in 23 of his last 24 games and 45 of his last 48 and was batting .335 overall…that was the fifth best average in the A.L., his highest ranking of the season…then hit .095 (7 for 74) in 20 games in July…snapped a career long 0 for 17 slump on July 20…appeared in just 12 of the A’s 28 game from July 22 to August 20 before ending his 9 for 95 slump with a two-hit game at Boston on August 21…the slump had dropped his average 66 points to .270 but he went 7 for 17 (.412) over a nine-game stretch from August 21 to September 8…replaced the injured Chris Singleton in center field on September 9 and started 16 of the A’s final 18 games (8 for 49, .163)…snapped a 39-game, 121-at bat homerless streak on September 11 against Anaheim.
Of course, pitchers have a say in these matters. Have a series against a team with a stellar pitching staff and you can be 0-17 in a hurry. But 2005 included longer dry spells, such as a very depressing 0-37 streak broken by a double off Boomer Wells in the last week of the season. After hitting safely in his first 11 games as an Oriole, Byrnes struggled at the plate for the rest of the season at an unprecedented level, even given his characteristic streakiness. The Orioles announcers were hoping Byrnes could get a broken bat single to get him started. But his broken bat contacts ended up being outs, like this one Daryl got the last Sunday the A’s played in Baltimore:
Broken bat AND treacherous ankle positions! <shudder> Sometimes, if you don’t have bad luck, you wouldn’t have any luck at all.
This is the third part of a long article, segmented for online reading convenience, on Eric Byrnes’ batting difficulties, and the mental aspect of solving these problems. You’re still here? Then you must be an Eric Byrnes fan. Great! The more the merrier!
Why does Eric Byrnes matter? It’s not like I’m getting paid to analyze his hitting.
I’ll let Audrey Hepburn provide the answer. She said it better than I ever could.
more than things, have to be restored, renewed, revived, reclaimed, and
redeemed; never throw out anyone,
Byrnesie is at a critical time in his career. He will be 30 in 2006 and thus deemed to be in the middle of his prime years as a ballplayer. 2005 was anything but prime. Thirty seems to be the defining year. You’re expected to have fulfilled your potential as a player by then. Oh, you may still have a career year in the offing, but in general, how good you are ever going to be is decided by then, by whomever decides these things. When a player is 30, there are many other younger players willing to do the job for less pay. It seems like every other day, if not more frequently, we hear the sentence, "Baseball is a business." We even hear it uttered stoically by guys like Byrnes himself.
And just what does that mean? There’s a baseball exhibit from Cooperstown that has taken up residence at the Oakland Museum for the next few months. It’s called BASEBALL AS AMERICA. At some point I am going to see it and I will write you a review. I will look for an aspect of the exhibit that has to do with baseball economics.
In the United States, the culture demands that everyone earn a living, (or be supported by someone who does) in an economic system that does not need everyone to participate in order to function. In fact, having some people not participating, even though they want to, creates a pool of workers to use against the wage demands of those who are participating. I know the effects of that personally.
People, in all fields of endeavor, are routinely thrown away in America, even after functioning quite well. We are told to strive for those promotions and those raises, and then are thrown away for becoming too expensive. In baseball, perhaps there was no greater example of this than the Florida Marlins after they won the World Series in 1997. Remember the fire sale? Do any publishing companies have editors who will develop promising writers anymore? Such editors were probably the first group of workers thrown out of the publishing industry when it retrenched in the face of desktop publishing. Remember when the minor leagues had more classes than they do now? Today, colleges are expected to do the development work that the lower classes of the minors once did. It’s like that everywhere these days; let some other organization develop the worker you want to eventually have. One of the compliments paid to Theo Epstein as he decided to leave the Red Sox was that he revitalized Boston’s farm system. So what does that say about what it was like before? What was behind the thinking that put the Red Sox farm system in a condition to need revitalization?
And how many displaced workers find jobs that pay what they formerly made? In the ‘80s, as corporate raiders broke up even profitable companies because sale of the assets made more money in the short term than running the acquisition, the millions of workers displaced in that phenomenon where told to retrain. But older workers found they were not wanted or had to take much lower paying jobs. And the courts found ways to decimate the age discrimination laws. How many anti-union companies do a merger with, or buyout of, a unionized firm, fire all the workers and invite them all to re-apply for their old jobs? How many times do we hear of a team that cuts a player but hopes to re-sign that same person at a much lower salary? BASEBALL AS AMERICA, indeed!
I put up the Audrey Hepburn quote, which is part of a poem she wrote that was sent to me recently, because I am convinced that 2005 was an aberration, and that to throw out Eric Byrnes: to relegate him to the bench, or to give up on him entirely, is a huge mistake. And it’s a mistake not just on the moral grounds of which Ms. Hepburn was probably thinking when she wrote her words; it’s a mistake on baseball grounds.
Re-read Byrnes’ stats, focusing not on the "ofers," but on what he’s accomplished, and you will see that Eric Byrnes is a guy with major league tools. In fact, he’s got that rare combination of power and speed that gives him 30-30 potential. (Not that the Moneyball A’s really like stolen bases, which is one of the reasons Byrnes is better off out of Oakland, even though a bunch of us didn’t like the idea, or how it was done). He also has the desire and the work ethic to do well. The issue is consistency. Some guys, like the 2005 AL Rookie of the year, Huston Street, seem to be born with it. But I think it is also teachable; I think it is a skill that can be honed. I wouldn’t be spending all the time I do thinking and writing about Eric Byrnes if I thought consistency was solely an inborn trait that he apparently wasn’t born with.
From his 2003 MLB web page:
Replaced the injured Jermaine Dye on April 24 and for the next nine weeks of the season, he was one of the hottest players in baseball…beginning on April 24, he hit .352 (83 for 236) with 11 home runs and 41 RBI over a 59-game stretch that culminated on June 29 when he hit for the cycle at San Francisco …at the end of June, he had hit safely in 23 of his last 24 games and 45 of his last 48 and was batting .335 overall…that was the fifth best average in the A.L.
And from 2004:
…was named AL Player of the Week for the week of July 26 to August 1 after going 11 for 25 (.440) with seven runs, two doubles, three home runs and nine RBI…it was his first career Player of the Week award…drove in at least one run in six consecutive games from July 23 to 28 (12 total)…finished July with eight home runs and 24 RBI in 24 games…the home runs and RBI were his most ever in a month…
Imagine Byrnesie hitting .335 for an entire season. What was it about this 59-game stretch that made .335 possible? Imagine more AL Player of the Week awards. What was it about that week that made performance at such a level possible? If he’s done it before, he can do it again. How can Byrnes perform this well consistently?
Yes, we already have had firings and free agent filings in October, and announcements of awards for last season’s accomplishments are still to come. But it’s November 1, and November is the first month we will have had no major league baseball games since the exhibitions of March. So this is New Year’s Day for baseball fans, a time to focus our collective baseball minds on 2006.
As I figured I would do, when I wrote my entry "To Eric Byrnes" on October 2nd, yesterday I printed up a calendar of the 2005 baseball season, made some notations on it in black ink with my calligraphy pen, including the phrase "Eric Byrnes’ abysmal, aberrant year," and tore it up and burned it.
This wasn’t a ritual for Eric. He has to come up with his own way of closing out the 2005 season. And for all I know, which is nothing, maybe he did already. The calendar-burning was my way of releasing the pain and frustration I felt watching my favorite player struggle at a level unprecedented for him. And I gotta tell you that this morning I feel a whole lot better. Like I lost 20 pounds, even though the scale told me today that I haven’t lost anything lately. Or like when Eric Byrnes singles off a right-handed pitcher.
There is now only one thing left to do. For fire safety, I allowed the ashes of the 2005 baseball season to cool overnight. Today they go where they belong: into the garbage, which I will throw out later this afternoon.
For me, the 2005 season is firmly in the past! A matter of historical record, inquiry and study, but no longer a cause of pain or a reason to shudder.
Of course, I understand that fans of the World Champion Chicago White Sox, and if they’re smart, the fans of the National League pennant-winning Houston Astros, may want to stay with 2005 a bit longer…at least until the formal end of the civil year. But for the rest of us whose seasons, for whatever reason, did not turn out as we had hoped, Happy New Year!