When you first learn to swing a baseball bat, coaches provide all manner of helpful tips. Keep your hands back. Maintain a strong, upward plane, so the ball hits the sweet spot. Choke up with two strikes. Go with the pitch.
What they don’t tell you is how to stand. What’s the point? Everybody marches into the batter’s box to the beat of their own drum.
Over nearly 150 years of Major League Baseball, fans have witnessed a few reruns. Guys have put up identical stat lines for an entire season. Players like Randy Johnson, Brian Anderson and Pedro Martinez all shared the same name as another player during their tenure in the bigs. Heck, I remember one game where two dudes named Ken Griffey, both playing for the Mariners, homered off the same pitcher.
But batting stances are entirely unique to their owners. They are like snowflakes or fingerprints — no two are identical. Even the Minnesota Twins don’t double up.
Sure, some look alike. But they’re not cut-and-paste repeats. Peer close enough, and you’re sure to spot subtle differences — the angle of the bat, the bend of the knees (or lack thereof), the wiggle of the wrists, the jiggle of the, ahem, moneymaker.
Like Skittles, batting stances come in every flavor imaginable. Some are open, others closed, some hitters prefer to stand at attention, straight and tall like a flagpole, and then there are batsmen who are guaranteed to get their uniforms dirty every game because they’re just that well-grounded.
Some stances you couldn’t duplicate without ending up in traction. Probably the weirdest arrangement in baseball history belonged to Alex Bucilli, a former outfielder at Coastal Carolina. A human fidget spinner, Bucilli would bend into an extreme crouch, with his front leg touching the back of the batter’s box and his trail leg hugging the front line. He held his hands high above his helmet, while tilting the bat downward as if it were a back-scratcher. Somehow, despite this pretzel-like alignment that is keeping Bucilli’s current chiropractor in a luxury vehicle, Bucilli managed to hit .354 over his four years of college, which ended in 2013.
But peculiar posture between those lines has never precluded smashing results. Julio Franco pinched (his knees) and pointed (the head of his bat), and yet still managed to punish the ball on his way to 173 career home runs in a 23-year major-league career. Tony Batista once smacked 41 longballs over the course of a season, despite starting each at-bat in a genuine, high-noon faceoff with the pitcher. Maybe Tony wanted to play umpire, I don’t know.
Jeff Bagwell – my favorite all-time slugger – will be minted as a Hall of Famer on July 30, and yet he didn’t spawn a generation of Little Leaguers trying to mimic his stance. That’s because Bags took the crouch to a new level, squatting so low and so wide that he seemed as though he were riding the world’s shortest elephant. Either that or grabbing a seat on a tree stump.
Kevin Youkilis adopted the Julio Franco pose – pointing his lumber at his proposed victim – and made it his own. Youkilis would inch to the very back edge of the box (almost as if trying to escape) and caress the middle of his bat with his back hand before releasing to whip the bat around. He was known as the Greek God of Walks for a reason, and it wasn’t his swing.
Other dudes, though, prompt plenty of copycats. They ooze cool. Griffey (Junior, not Pops), for instance. He had the classic, slightly pigeon-toed approach, his bat quiet and still behind his ear before unleashing an upper cut knockout blow. Every 1990s kid tried to look like Junior.
Nowadays, Aaron Judge certainly inspires his own legion of tribute bands. Judge bends only slightly, making the most of his gargantuan 6-foot-7 frame. His strike zone may be bigger than most, but so are his tape-measure moon shots.
But this isn’t just about “Stance-ing with the Stars.” I watched one of our local Little League teams a couple of weeks ago, and noticed that peer pressure was nonexistent. When it came time to step up to the plate, each kid did his own thing. One might shimmy and shake, while the next stood perfectly still. Conformity was dashed, in favor of comfort.
That’s a stance I can support.