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‘Swing Kings’ goes deep on the home run explosion

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Anyone who has been paying attention to baseball over the past half-decade is aware that the game has never seen this many home runs. Single-season records for homers has been broken and broken again, both by individual teams and by the league as a whole. More than ever before, the long ball has become the central part of the game.

There are a number of factors that enter into this. Analytically-inclined executives have made their way into positions of power in front offices all across the sport. Changes to the ball itself have undoubtedly played a significant part. Strikeouts no longer carry the stigma that they once did.

And then, there is the evolution of the swing itself.

It’s that last notion that Jared Diamond, national baseball writer for The Wall Street Journal, addresses in-depth with his new book “Swing Kings: The Inside Story of Baseball’s Home Run Revolution” (William Morrow, $28.99). It’s a deep and broad exploration of those coaches on the fringes whose refusal to be bound by the status quo led to brand-new thinking about how we swing the bat, as well as the players who made (or remade) themselves into explosive hitters by accepting some unconventional wisdom and thinking outside the box.

Baseball is a game bound to its history. But to be bound to history is also to be beholden to it, which means that breaking free of the status quo can be tremendously difficult. Too often, the reason behind doing something a certain way is simply because it has always been done that way. This can result in a stagnation, an obstacle that stands in the way of progress.

So it always was with the swing. For generations, the conventional wisdom was to follow the same patterns in the batter’s box, to keep the hands back and push the knob of the bat forward and always always ALWAYS aim for the level swing. And that’s how the vast majority of coaches taught the game for over a century – it’s what every player, from the lowliest Little Leaguer to the legends of the game, was instructed to do.

Only it turns out that the players at the pinnacle – the best of the best – weren’t doing what they had been taught at all … even though they believed that they were. And as that truth became more fully understood, the other pieces of the revolution began to fall into place.

The godfather of this revolution was about as unlikely a swing guru as you could ever conceive. In 1971, Craig Wallenbrock was a surfing stoner, an honest-to-goodness hippie living in California. He had some success as a ballplayer in his earlier days, having made the squad at San Diego State (though he quit the team before playing a game). He was aimless, drifting, a typical 25-year-old societal dropout. But when his little brother asked for some coaching help, Wallenbrock would set off on a path that would lead to him developing a swing philosophy that blended pioneering video study, Eastern mysticism and assorted other disciplines.

Wallenbrock begat others: Doug Latta. Bobby Tewksbary. Richard Schenk. All of them, in their own unique and idiosyncratic ways, challenging the conventional wisdom. These men, guys whose playing careers were limited to the low minors or college ball, were reinventing what it meant to swing the bat.

And slowly, little by little, they began accumulating successes, turning already talented players into stars and superstars. Justin Turner, J.D. Martinez, Aaron Judge, Josh Donaldson – now-elite performers who had their careers turned around by working with one or more of these independent coaches.

Jared Diamond works his way through the fraught and checkered history of swinging the bat, exploring not just these outsiders and the insiders they helped, but also some of the prominent names of the old guard. Charlie Lau – long considered one of the best hitting coaches of his era – and his disciples get some attention; Diamond also spends plenty of time on the seminal Ted Williams book “The Science of Hitting,” a revolutionary document whose ahead-of-its-time advice served as a major foundation for some of the more out-there ideas being offered up years later.

Oh, and Diamond takes advantage for more self-serving reasons, as well – the annual New York/Boston media baseball game is coming and he sure would like to do something impressive at the plate. With so many swing guru brains to pick, you have to like his chances.

The 2019 season saw more home runs than ever before, thanks in large part to the swing changes that sprung from the groundbreaking and paradigm-shattering work being done by the Craig Wallenbrocks of the world. And thanks to Jared Diamond, we get an inside look at just how we got here … and where we might be heading next.

“Swing Kings” is a fantastic read, a wonderful look at the colorful and outright strange characters whose work on the fringes helped redefine the mainstream. These men sought to challenge one of the most “everybody knows” aspects of baseball, recognizing that what was being taught didn’t match the evidence of their own eyes. By pushing against the norm – and by finding players who were willing to push as well – they fundamentally changed the game.

Diamond paints vivid portraits of these men, some of whom spent years wandering in the baseball wilderness, each on his own Quixotic quest to prove wrong the status quo. He captures the passion they each carry for the game and finds ways to bring their respective processes to life. We get a sense of the diverse and disparate personalities involved; it takes a bold man to believe himself to be right in a world where everyone else thinks he is wrong.

The brief Plimpton-esque portions of the narrative are excellent as well, with Diamond showing great restraint in dropping himself into the story only upon occasion. It’s a chance to get a first-hand experiential account of how these coaches get someone to buy into fundamentally altering something that they have been doing a certain way their entire life.

“Swing Kings” is a wonderful, thoughtful work of baseball writing. It captures beautifully the foundational divide within the sport – inertia versus innovation. Old versus new. Any fan of the game will be well-served to check this book out; it shines a bright light on the rapidly changing game and offers up ideas about how and why we’ve arrived at this place.

Smart and narratively compelling with just the right amount of wonkiness, “Swing Kings” is – apologies for the cliché – an absolute home run. Diamond swings for the fences … and he connects.

Last modified on Monday, 06 April 2020 11:52

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