“He was like the Colossus of Rhodes,” Thorn said, “with ships sailing between his legs.”
Ted Williams, in his seminal 1971 book, “The Science of Hitting,” wrote that “feet and hand position vary more than anything else from player to player because, unlike golf, the baseball swing is not a grooved swing.”
But Williams also offered pointers. He said he spread his legs exactly 27 inches apart, his hands just below shoulder level, his lead foot slightly opened, but his stance generally closed. He believed in a compact setup, with the hands no more than eight inches from the body, which he considered a “stronger” position. He kept his bat vertical, which he said helped increase the “loop” in his swing, enabling him to put the ball in the air.
Williams was ahead of his time. Today’s hitters seem to be following the clinical approach that he laid out. “Everybody wants to get that Point A to Point B,” Frazier said. “A, foot down, to B, hands through.”
Compelled to Tinker
Sean Casey remembers being in spring training with the Cincinnati Reds in 2003 when a familiar voice called from the opposing dugout.
“I’ve been in the game 54 years and I’ve seen a lot of stuff,” yelled Don Zimmer, then the Yankees’ bench coach, “but I ain’t never seen this.”
Zimmer was so mesmerized by Casey’s stance that he grabbed the Yankees’ manager, Joe Torre, so he could take a look. Somewhat baffled, they watched Casey, a left-handed hitter, methodically lift the leg farthest from the pitcher rather than the one that strides toward him.
It was not a timing mechanism, Casey, now an analyst for MLB Network, revealed recently. Rather, Casey’s hips used to tighten up. So he raised his left leg up and down in the batter’s box to release his hips, and the motion stuck.
Naturally, even fans picked up on Casey’s odd stomp. During a game in Milwaukee, he heard people in the crowd counting in unison how many times he raised his leg.
“It totally got me off my game,” Casey said. “When I didn’t do it my next at-bat, people started booing me.”
Actually, a lot of distinct batting stances were born from necessity, guided by feel, hardened by superstition. Sheffield’s aggressive yo-yoing of the bat stemmed from a desire to feel the barrel in his hands. Rod Carew crouched so he would not be overpowered by fastballs up in the zone. Jeff Bagwell widened his legs to keep his head level.
Ripken tinkered incessantly with his stance, even when things were going well. In the batting cage, if he felt he was pulling off the ball, he would close up. If his swing felt too long, he would flick his hands to keep them from wrapping around his head.
“Normal adjustments you would make are if you couldn’t control your body movements,” Ripken said. “Like if you’re getting out in front and getting fooled, you’d spread your stance wider.”
In 1996, before the Orioles were to play the Cleveland Indians in an American League division series, Ripken was so excited to hit that he knew he was going to have trouble staying back on the ball.
“I decided, as a bold move, I was just going to spread out and put my bat on my shoulder,” Ripken said. “I got antsy and I started sliding my bat on my shoulder as I waited.”
He hit .444 that series. The so-called “violin” stance was born.
Cliff Floyd used to hold his hands near his cheek before abruptly dropping them toward his torso as the pitcher delivered. Opponents, he said, would often try quick-pitching him before his hands sank into place. But he learned to thrive with it.
“It got me in a good rhythm every time,” said Floyd, who, like Casey, is now an analyst for MLB Network.
Floyd would marvel at teammates whose stances he could hardly comprehend. Alou, whom he played with in Miami, seemed immobile in his crouch, yet always appeared among the league’s leaders in average. Todd Zeile stood perfectly upright with his bat resting against his collarbone in a pose that Floyd used to describe as “la-di-da.”
And Zeile said he had adopted the look of his stance from the former first baseman Steve Garvey.
“I started with that in youth baseball, and it developed pretty much into the stance I used all my life,” said Zeile, who now works for the SNY network.
Franco, with that bat extended over his head, always seemed the most outrageous of all.
“I used to say to him, ‘If you can hit like that, anybody can hit,’” said Floyd, who played with Franco with the Mets.
And yet, Floyd emphasized, the stance, no matter how unusual, does not really matter in terms of success and failure.
“All I care about is when you get ready to hit, the bat head needs to be in a position to stay flat through the zone,” he said.
His point was echoed by Alex Buccilli, who was an outfielder for Coastal Carolina University from 2011 to 2013 and who earned internet fame for what some considered the weirdest stance in baseball history — an open-legged, backward-leaning, crouching, arms-raised position that looked as uncomfortable as it did unconventional.
Now a hitting instructor in Myrtle Beach, S.C., Buccilli pointed out that his crazy stance was just a starting point, one that enabled his body to move into a consistent hitting position every time.
“A stance is personal,” Buccilli said, adding, “You can stand on your head for all I care, as long as you get to the same position after that.”
‘Not By Feel’
Gar Ryness has fashioned a career out of imitating famous hitters. If anybody has a vested interest in the future of batting stances, it would be Ryness, the Batting Stance Guy, YouTube phenomenon, author, speaker, entertainer and faithful practitioner of what he calls “the least marketable skill in America”: imitating batting stances.
Ryness argues that there are absolutely bizarre stances still alive in today’s game, though he acknowledged that they might be harder to find. He cited Brad Miller, the starting shortstop for the Tampa Bay Rays, who stands at the plate with one hand gripping the bat while the other hangs limp at his side until the pitch approaches.
“He does the craziest thing I have seen in a batter’s box in 30 years,” Ryness said. “He stands there like Pete Gray,” a one-armed St. Louis Browns player from the 1940s.
There are others: John Jaso, a Pittsburgh infielder, stands with both feet treading the back line of the box; San Francisco’s Denard Span curls his front toe back toward the catcher; Cleveland’s Jason Kipnis points his barrel at the umpire; the Cubs’ Ben Zobrist pulsates his hands as if shaking the stubborn last drops from a ketchup bottle.
But because the megawatt sluggers of the current era — like Mike Trout, Bryce Harper, Giancarlo Stanton or Nolan Arenado — all use relatively straightforward stances, the others tend to get overlooked.
Thorn compared the waning of unique stances to what he sees on the pitcher’s mound, as windups and deliveries get simplified and more efficient, though that is most likely the result of an effort to reduce arm injuries.