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April 25, 2012

The Lineup Card

12 Favorite Batting Stances

by Baseball Prospectus


1. Willie Aikens
For one highly forgettable Little League season, I used a righty-version of the corkscrew batting stance used by the Royals' Willie Mays Aikens. The only pictures I could find online don't do it justice. He held his hands high and his elbow even higher, sort of like Joe Morgan in that regard. However, his lower body was all coiled up, with his right knee kind of bowed in the wrong direction. The result was a long, unwinding kind of swing that generated a lot of power—he hit 77 homers during his four full seasons with Kansas City, which is a very respectable total for Royals Stadium in that era. I wish I could say that the stance also generated a lot of power for me. I did not. I seem to remember cueballing a lot of pitches off the end of the bat. —Bradford Doolittle

2. Tony Batista
Most batting stances, however varied, begin with a hitter's legs more or less parallel to the line between the mound and the plate. Somewhere along the way to his peculiar brand of slugging stardom, Tony Batista took a look at this centuries-old tradition and decided that everyone else was doing it totally wrong. Batista began his at-bats with his feet more or less perpendicular to the pitcher, his bat held high in front of his face as though he were wielding a samurai sword. As the incredulous pitcher peered in for the sign, muttered, "What the hell?" and delivered, Batista would swing his left leg forward, his foot still essentially "in the bucket" the way your Little League coach horsewhipped you into avoiding. Then he would hack away. The results weren't pretty, but they weren't entirely ineffective. In his 11-year-career, Batista bopped 221 homers, with a high of 41 for the Blue Jays in 2000, part of a six-year stretch from 1999-2004 in which he averaged 31 per year. His unorthodox swing didn't help his plate discipline any; he hit a lopsided .251/.299/.453 for his career, for a substandard .253 True Average. —Jay Jaffe

3. Rod Carew
To say that Rod Carew looked relaxed at the plate would understate matters. Even under general anesthetic, I have never looked as relaxed as Carew did when he took his position in the batter's box. Hunched over, bat just off his back shoulder and parallel to the ground, Carew would stand up there and flick at pitches like the annoying little pests they were. This approach yielded great results: AL Rookie of the Year in 1967, 18 consecutive All-Star Game appearances, AL MVP in 1977 (when he hit a ridiculous .388/.449/.570), and Hall of Fame induction in 1991 (first ballot). Carew's stance wouldn't have worked for everyone, but it suited him to a batting tee... not to mention seven batting titles. —Geoff Young

4. Jose Cruz Sr. 
If you were a kid in the late '70s or early '80s in the Houston area, you were likely twirling the bat above your head while you waited for your friend to throw you the next pitch. The only reason you were doing that is because Jose Cruz did it, and he was arguably the most popular offensive player on the team between 1975 to 1987. It was not the easiest swing to mimic as a child, but I can't recall a friend of mine that wasn't trying to do that with their bat when we got together to play sandlot games . We all didn't wear our hats too loose so it would come flying off each time we chased a fly ball, but if we were hitting, we were twirling! —Jason Collette

5. Jay Buhner
Buhner made the All-Star team in 1996 and finished in the top 20 in MVP voting while launching over 40 homers a year from 1995 to 1997; he was a consistently above-average right fielder for the Mariners during their run in the late '90s. His batting stance always seemed like a rapid transformation to me. Waiting patiently in the back corner of the box to start his swing, hands jostling on the bat, Buhner always seemed relaxed. He timed his swing trigger off the pitcher's motion, and the fan-favorite known as "Bone" would transform from upright spectator to a powerful spring waiting to uncoil. This video of him hitting for the cycle has several shots of him putting a charge on the ball, including a rare triple in the old Kingdome. —Ben Murphy

6. Phil Plantier
Picking Phil Plantier for favorite batting stance is sort of like picking sea urchin as your favorite sushi: people suspect you’re just doing it to be weird. I was always amazed by Plantier’s stance because it didn’t seem like he should have been able to hit the ball at all from a crouch so low it looked like he may have developed it while traveling in Southeast Asia. He could hit it, in fact, but with a pronounced uppercut. I was surprised to be reminded that Plantier put up some good numbers from 1991-1993, racking up 5.1 WARP (which the remaining five years of his career managed to leave completely intact—that’s his cumulative total). More surprising is that Plantier is now the hitting coach for the San Diego Padres. (“He doesn’t coach guys to hit like he did,” says Padres’ GM Josh Byrnes.)  I’m particularly fond of Plantier’s maxim, “You’re only as good as the pitches you swing at.” That’s true no matter your stance.—Adam Sobsey

7. Mel Hall
I was 11 when the Yankees signed Mel Hall, and you didn’t have to be a scout to see something was not quite right with his batting stance. It was different. How did it work? How could it work? I had to try. He immediately became my favorite Yankee (I could easily overlook Don Mattingly because I was in no way a Yankees fan). 

I’d spend hours in my front yard, tossing a tennis ball up in the air, getting into Hall’s batting stance, and then swinging toward the road. To be safe, I gave myself a few acres of space, but I never needed it. To get my back leg at the right angle, to straighten my front leg and get it off to the side, and to raise the bat high enough, I needed a lot of time after I tossed the ball up in the air, which was plenty of time, it turns out, to screw it up. An inch too far to the left out of my hand and the trajectory error multiplied by the time the ball dropped back so that it was now outside the strike zone. But was I going to waste the time it took me to even get into that batting stance? Why, no. I'm swinging anyway. Front Yard Mel Hall went 0-4 with 4 Ks a lot. I should also mention that I’m not left-handed.

But I learned to be, partly because I was pretty committed to pretending I was Mel Hall. Yard Mel Hall's strike zone eventually expanded. Yard Mel Hall might have matched Real Mel Hall’s .295 OBP that year. Yard Mel Hall never did hit a ball to the road, but on a few occasions it crossed the stream, though perhaps hill-assisted. This would become real skill: much later in life I was able to switch-hit in beer league softball games, with two completely different-looking stances. The older I got, though, the less likely it became that someone on the field would recognize the stance and say "Oh, Mel Hall? Yeah, I remember him!" Now he's remembered for very different reasons.

Memory's a funny thing, though, because I can't find a single image on the entire Internet that confirms my mental picture of Mel Hall's batting stance. I remember it as a back-leg crouch, front-leg almost completely straight, bat high in the air. Even Batting Stance Guy doesn't do Mel Hall the way I did Mel Hall. In reality, he seems to have stood much taller and didn't lean back as much, a stance that wouldn't have taken me very long to get into after tossing the ball to myself. So who taught me how to hit? —John Erhardt

8. Bobby Tolan
When I was 13 years old and playing PONY League baseball, I fell into the habit of dropping my hands as I began my swing. That led to a succession of popups and other weakly-hit balls. My coach suggested I take the Bobby Tolan approach to hitting and hold my hands high in my stance to where I almost looked like the Statue of Liberty. At the time, Tolan was a reserve outfielder with the Pirates who was near the end of his career. The Tolan stance really didn't help and I went back to my old stance soon enough. It was interesting to try it, though I never understood how Tolan amassed 1,121 major-league hits with that stance. —John Perrotto

9. Julio Franco
                         

As a kid growing up with little to no access to live baseball, my knowledge of the game and its players came mostly from baseball cards. It was always a sight coming across such an extreme oddity like Julio Franco's batting stance. I've seen enough crazy batting stances by now to know that Franco's batting stance was no more strange than, say, Craig Counsell's, but that didn't stop my imagination from running wild in 1989. How did he get that bat off the top of his head in time to hit a fastball? Franco's stance is still the one I think of first whenever someone mentions an off-the-wall stance, and probably will be forever. —Larry Granillo

10. Andre Dawson
When I was 11, Andre Dawson came to the Cubs. And I'd never seen anything like him. I mean, sure, he'd played and tortured my Cubs for years. (865 career OPS vs. the Chicago National League entrant). And like most everyone else, I wanted to emulate Dawson because he was my hero. But I couldn't. And really, no one can. How many Hall of Famers have hit from that closed a stance, with the front leg virtually stiff, all his weight seemingly on his balky right knee. His hands were so far away from his body and seemed to levitate over the inside corner of the plate. But then pitchers would dare to pitch him inside, and he'd lace a laser beam over the Tru-Link fence high above the left-field bleachers and on to Waveland Avenue. Nothing about Dawson's stance was pretty, but the results were sweet candy to my pre-teen eyes. —Mike Ferrin

11. Rickey Henderson
Rickey and I share the same rare genetic mutation, a condition not commonly known as “baseball platoon dyslexia.” Symptoms include a dual predisposition to left-handed throwing and right-handed batting. This unfortunate malady can be a death knell to baseball careers; the afflicted must overcome significant barriers in the field and at the plate, but Rickey was a model for success in the face of adversity, providing a template for my own development. I was mesmerized by his batting stance, with the low crouch that effectively shrunk Rickey's strike zone to Eddie Gaedel levels, and I mimicked the technique to the chagrin of opposing Little League pitchers. The knees were bent, the hands stayed back, the bat wrapped slightly behind the head, and the spine was hunched over like Quasimodo.  

Rickey retired with all-time records for steals (1406), runs (2295), and walks (2190), and though the latter mark would be cracked by Barry Bonds during the video game years, Rickey is still the all-time leader in unintentional free passes (with a 259 UIBB lead on Bonds). Rickey stalked walks like no other player of my generation, structuring not only his batting stance but also his plate approach toward the singular goal of seizing control of the basepaths.

Rickey was one of the most entertaining personalities that has ever graced the baseball landscape, teasing the crowds with his third-person monologues, conducting silent symphonies on his home run trots, and flashing snap-catches on routine fly balls. We can roll our eyes at his swagger, but that bravado was all part of Rickey's competitive approach. Rickey was the ultimate grinder despite his aloof reputation, with an unbridled passion for the game that is as rare as it is infectious. The man played in the majors through age 44 and continued to ply his trade in the independent leagues after major-league teams stopped inviting him to spring training. I will not be surprised if Rickey resurfaces at the age of 62, leading off for the St. Paul Saints in an attempt to harness his inner Minnie Minoso. —Doug Thorburn

‚Äč12. Paul O'Neill
Paul O’Neill’s stance was all about timing. The left-handed hitter stood at the plate with his 6’4” frame almost perfectly upright, lifting and lowering his hands from shoulder height in unison with the tapping toe of his front foot. As the pitch came in, he’d lift the hands and kick the foot higher than before, then bring them both down just before sending his bat through the zone. When those timing mechanisms were off, he’d commit too late or too early, but when the whole stance worked like clockwork, it produced plenty of power, as you can see in the video below. (Please pardon the excruciating soundtrack.)

O’Neill never seemed to stop thinking about his swing. Periodically, the cameras would catch him extending his arms and swinging an imaginary bat in the outfield between pitches.  As a pre-teen and tween, I played for my sad-sack Manhattan grammar school team against rival Manhattan grammar schools with just as little projectable talent. When I was on the field, I thought about O’Neill’s swing almost as often as he did, and I tried to model mine after it. This never worked out in a satisfactory way. Not only was I not much of a mimic, I wasn’t left-handed, and transposing the stance to the other side of the plate left a lot to be desired. In my head, I looked just like O’Neill. In the mirror, O’Neill was almost unrecognizable.

Years later, I read something that made me feel much better about my failure to emulate O'Neill. In an interview in the Denver Post, “Batting Stance Guy” Gary Ryness named O’Neill’s as the most difficult stance to mimic.

"I never felt like my Paul O'Neill is right," Ryness said. "I should probably go look in a mirror for a while. Luckily, I can throw my bat down and pretend to completely lose it, and that catches the essence of O'Neill." —Ben Lindbergh

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