This weeks’ article is a bit of a departure from the norm and represents something I have wanted to write about for some time. I decided to run it in conjunction with the All Star game as this is a time when we look back on the greats of the game. Major League Baseball has not had a .400 hitter in some sixty-eight years and the last man to do probably knew more about hitting than anyone who ever stepped to the plate. That man was Ted Williams. Williams knew two things for sure; it was bat speed and not bat weight that produced hits, and to be a good hitter, you had to give yourself a chance to hit.
It is this second aspect of William’s on hitting that is central to what I want to get at, and that is why we may well have seen the last .400 hitter. A lot has changed about the game since the summer of 1941, but I don’t think anyone will suggest that the pitching at the major league level is all that much better than it was in Ted’s day. Of course we have night baseball and relief pitching, but I tend to think all of this may have something to do with the equipment used, not by the batter or the pitcher, but by the catcher. Here is where I can justify this column as it has to do with game used equipment.
When Ted Williams last hit .406, the man behind the plate was using a mitt without a break and not much of web at all. This all began to change by the early 1950s and by the late 1960s, the catchers mitt had become a very well padded fielding implement. (PLATE I)
The catcher’s mitt of the pre-1950s period necessitated that catchers use both hands and remain in a high crouch. His ability to snag an errant pitch required full body mobility as he could not simply swipe at the ball with one hand. In other words, the way he played his position was influenced by his equipment. (PLATE II)
If the catcher was forced to remain more upright, then the man behind him would likewise be forced to take a more elevated position. This would have a direct impact on the umpires field of vision and as such, likely to influence the called strike zone. If you’re a pitcher, you have to pitch to the zone being called. (PLATE III)
All of this brings us back to Ted Williams and his wonderful colored model of what he felt he would hit depending on the placement of the ball. Yes, I know some hitters are better high ball or low hitters, but if you look at this model it tends to reinforce something that can be heard on Little League Diamonds and Major League Fields….That being, nothing good can happen for a pitcher when he gets the ball up in the strike zone and Williams’s “ball chart” seems to reinforce this. (PLATE IV)
The theory I am offering is to suggest that the mitt used by catchers in the pre-1950s period required the pitcher to throw the ball higher in the strike zone in order to either get a batter to offer at it (in William’s terms, giving yourself a chance to hit) or to have it be called a strike by a more upright umpire. As the catchers mitt evolved and allowed catchers to move down in the strike zone, so did the umpires field of vision and the strike zone along with it. All of this, according to the William’s graphic, suggests that batting averages might go down along the way. (PLATE V)
As you watch the events of this weeks’ All Star Game, spend some time reflecting on the nature and rich history of the game as opposed to simply wondering when the uniforms and bats might come to auction or for sale. While I am not suggesting that it was the evolution of the catchers mitt alone that may be keeping us from a having a .400 hitter, it may be worth considering and talking about as opposed to who might be on the juice. Just something to think about.
As always, collect what you enjoy and enjoy what you collect.
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For questions or comments on this article, please feel free to drop me a line at DaveGrob1@aol.com.