THE OLD-SCHOOL STYLE OF BATTING HAS BEEN TURNED ON ITS HEAD
From the title, “Swing Kings,” readers might think Jared Diamond is writing about Duke Ellington and Benny Goodman. But while there’s music to be found in his subject, he’s actually addressing the basso profundo revolution in baseball: the batter’s swing.
Swinging a bat that actually connects to the ball is considered the toughest skill in all of sports, and “Swing Kings” tells the story of renegades who have rolled over conventional coaching to hit home runs and, in the process, revolutionized Major League Baseball.
The sport has continually changed from the dead-ball era (1899-1920) to the live-ball era (1920 2020). One of the more dramatic changes was illustrated in 2003 by Michael Lewis’s “Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game.” In the years since that book was published, followed by the 2011 movie starring Brad Pitt, the front offices of MLB have been filled with executives who evaluate players using the statistical-analytics approach called sabermetrics (from the acronym for the Society for American Baseball Research). They have become known as the Moneyball Generation.
Now comes a new generation of “swing kings,” homering into history by throwing away the old traditions of staying back on the ball and hitting to the ground. Instead, serious hitters are switching up their stance, redirecting the bat path and aiming for the sky, all anathema to old-school teaching. Diamond documents this revolution in detail (punishing detail for non-obsessives), and his book arrives at a most propitious time — in the midst of a global pandemic.
Normally, being published during a national lockdown would be an author’s worst nightmare — no book tour, no signings, no buzz. Add to that, for a Wall Street Journal sportswriter like Diamond, the calamity of no baseball. But there might be a silver lining: his audience is avid. Forced into their bunkers, fans didn’t see opening day until July 23, and then only on television.
Gallup’s most recent poll shows that more than 60 percent of Americans are sports fans, so Diamond’s publisher is banking on their need to read something beyond baseballanalysts.com, baseballdebate.proboards.com, batspeed.com, setpro.com and thehittingvault.com.
Since 2017, home runs have dominated the sport. That’s because some players finally stopped listening to hidebound batting coaches who continue, as Diamond writes, to teach batters to “stay back, swing down, bring your knob on a straight line to the ball, be short and quick, and ‘squish the bug’ — the oft-cited cue to a hitter to rotate his back foot upon swinging, as if he were smooshing an ant.”
Diamond acknowledges the rapture of home runs, an attraction in baseball from its beginning. “The ability to drive the ball far, to send it soaring high into the sky, was sexy. It was exciting. It was a sign of immense strength and power, of great masculinity and virility.” Then, just as he was rounding the bases with home run prose, he stubs his sexist toe: “Even back then, chicks dug the long ball.”
In the 2000s, desperate players who needed to up or resurrect their game started making secret pilgrimages to the California batting cage of Craig Wallenbrock, the “Oracle of Santa Clarita.” Wallenbrock preached a radical gospel of “lag position” in swinging, which Diamond chronicles pitch by pitch and player by player.
As one example, after two years with the Oracle, the Houston Astros’ J. D. Martinez learned to swing in a way that defied all conventional wisdom and raised him from baseball’s reject bin to the Boston Red Sox, signing a five-year contract worth $110 million, guaranteed.
Wallenbrock worked with Doug Latta in the Ball Yard, a training facility Latta owned in Chatsworth, California, that became a mecca for serious hitters eager to explore new ideas. Together, Wallenbrock and Latta became to baseball what Jobs and Wozniak were to technology: game changers who busted the baseball brotherhood to produce unorthodox home run hitters. But like all who challenge the establishment, they were treated like porcupines at a picnic. Now, 20 years later, they’re finally being celebrated as geniuses. The takeaway here for anyone: Follow your passion, challenge convention, be counterintuitive, welcome diversity and embrace innovation.
Diamond (not the author and UCLA professor with the same name) had a dual goal in writing “Swing Kings,” his first book: to report on the home run revolution within Major League Baseball and to apply the new swinging principles to his own game. He wanted to wow his colleagues in 2019 when he played in an annual two-game showdown for New York and Boston sportswriters — one game at Yankee Stadium and the other at Fenway Park.
As a result, he inserts himself off and on in the narrative, cutting from first person to third, which unfortunately makes for a herky-jerky read. But he lays out his report in serviceable style with no prose thrills, leaving the poetry of baseball to Roger Angell. And, by his own admission, Diamond is a sportswriter who covers baseball better than he plays it.
Georgetown resident Kitty Kelley has written several number-one New York Times best-sellers, including “The Family: The Real Story Behind the Bush Dynasty.” Her most recent books include “Capturing Camelot: Stanley Tretick’s Iconic Images of the Kennedys” and “Let Freedom Ring: Stanley Tretick’s Iconic Images of the March on Washington.” She serves on the board of Reading Is Fundamental, the nation’s largest children’s literacy nonprofit.