JULIO & GARY
Growing up playing baseball in the '80s and '90s, the hitters I loved copying were Julio Franco and Gary Sheffield. Sure, they were both MLB all-stars, but the reason I copied them was solely because of how they held the bat. As pitchers would start their deliveries, Franco would hold the bat up over his head with the bat tip pointing out toward center field. As for Gary, well, he would wiggle his bat in the coolest way.
Gary Sheffield played 22 MLB seasons, hitting 509 home runs. I think Julio's MLB career started in the early 1950s and ended in 2007 when he became the oldest MLB player to hit a home run. While I may have erroneously added a few years to Julio's actual MLB tenure, it's very safe to say these two guys were solid players over a long time. However, my eleven-year-old mind mistakenly tied their success to the way they held and wiggled their bats, which in turn led to much frustration when I couldn't find success using their quirky pre-pitch moves. I copied two players that warranted copying, but I mimicked the wrong thing. I copied the flare while being ignorant of what truly made them good hitters.
Franco and Sheffield were both successful hitters in spite of their pre-pitch funkiness, and even if that wiggling and bat pointing had been the sole reason for their success, I still would've struggled because I didn't have the massive arm strength they had. There wasn't enough spinach in the world to get my eleven-year-old forearms strong enough to manipulate the bat like those Popeyes. The lesson I learned was that not all the things great players do are all that great, and moreover, not all the things professional hitters can do physically are things youth players can yet do.
CORRELATION DOES NOT EQUAL CAUSATION
Many years have passed since those little league days, and since then, I've learned exactly who, and more importantly, what to copy and what to ignore. Franco and Sheffield were the correct players to learn from; however, I copied the wrong part of their hitting process. They were really good hitters in spite of the pre-pitch flare. The correlation did not equal causation. The lesson here is to be slow to copy the random things the great players do and triple down on copying the techniques that all great players share.
Look for common actions, not the isolated glitz. In all likelihood, great players will be successful in spite of some of their unique ancillary movements. Fernando Valenzuela was probably not a good pitcher because he looked up to the sky during his delivery. Fernando was good in spite of the upward glance. My guess is he would have had a slightly lower ERA had he kept his eyes locked on the target and his head more stable during his delivery. The message here is twofold: first, identify the correct players to mirror, and then look to copy the commonalities.
THE 5 BILLION DOLLAR RECIPE
There is a well-known quote that says, "Success leaves clues." A very interesting Hollywood example of this is Will Smith's rise to acting success. The uber-successful actor didn't move west from Philly and randomly toss darts in the dark hoping to hit the blockbuster bullseye. Before Smith made the move from hip-hop to Hollywood, he and his manager dissected the highest-grossing films of all time in search of commonalities. Here's what Smith said, "I said to [manager James Lassiter], 'I want to be the biggest movie star in the world.' And he said, 'Okay. Well, let's figure out what that means.' And he went and got the top 10 movies of all time, the list of the top 10 films of all time at the box office — top 10 box office successes... What we found is at the center, there were always special effects...there were creatures, and there was always a love story. So we started looking for movies that had special effects, creatures, and a love story."
Smith and Lassiter could have listed out every single characteristic of every single successful movie, and then randomly chosen which aspects to use in their movies, but they didn't. They only copied the universal ingredients, and we can all learn from their path to success. We should all copy the way they copied.
Will Smith intelligently implemented the commonalities of the all-time greats, and coupled with a lot of hard work, he has now acted in 26 movies that have combined for adjusted gross revenue of over five billion dollars. Most importantly, Smith has made dozens of movies that people around the world have really enjoyed watching.
SUCCESS LEAVES CLUES
Similar to the movie industry, the sport of baseball has left many clues in plain sight for many years. The clues to success are not hidden behind security clearance or protected by intellectual property law. Just like the clues Smith and Lassiter used to create five-billion dollars worth of entertaining movies, the clues to better pitching mechanics, hitting mechanics, base-running, and fielding techniques are all right there for us to clearly see.
BACKTEST RATHER THAN WAIT
A certain method for finding the right players and their common techniques shares characteristics with a well-done research study. The longer the study, the larger the sample size, the fewer the variables, the more valid the results will likely be.
We want to look for the common traits from a large group of successful players, over a long time period. The good news is we don't have to wait for the conclusion of a twenty-year longitudinal examination to find the players and the techniques worth emulating.
Backtesting can be super-useful in baseball because the game has been played using similar rules, techniques, equipment, and field dimensions for well over one hundred years. A great example of successful backtesting within the baseball community is the quantitative revolution, aka Sabermetrics, that has taken hold of MLB front offices, which itself has been expedited through the use of statistical backtesting.
Sure, there have been small changes, but baseball is not as open to creativity as something like creating Pixar movies. Variations of success are limited in baseball due to the acutely defined rules, the laws of physics, and the same 60-90 field dimensions/angles that have been used for over 100 years. Therefore, backtesting a player's success can give us a valid group of qualified players, and from there, we can identify the commonalities.
By using great websites like baseballreference.com and Fangraphs.com, coaches and players can find the most statistically successful players, past and present. Our search should require all qualifiers to have a large number of at-bats, innings pitched, games played, etc.
Once the list of great players has been established, a thorough and close inspection of their techniques using video and photo analysis will give us a very good idea of their common technique traits. Obviously, this is much harder to do as we go back in time, as the video of Babe Ruth is of poor quality and very rare.
Now for a few points of caution as we look to learn from the best. Be wary of copying the genetic lottery winners as they will get away with mechanical and technical flaws that the other 99% of us will not. It is highly recommended to copy players that are of average size and average physique.
It is no secret that physical anomalies can get away with greater technical error. Pitchers throwing 100 mph can make many more mistakes than the pitcher that throws 90 mph, and similarly, the super-sized hitters should be cautiously copied.
Look to copy Greg Maddux before Aroldis Chapman, or Alex Bregman before Aaron Judge. I really like Chapman, and I really like Judge, but it is tough to separate how much of their success comes from top-notch mechanics and their outlying genetics. Greg Maddux and Alex Bregman are definitely not genetic outliers and would easily blend in at the local grocery store. Look first to copy the guys that would blend in at the mall. Look to copy super-successful, normal-sized, guys like Jose Altuve and Mookie Betts before you look to copy Bo Jackson or Giancarlo Stanton. Big guys can be great to learn from, but as a 6'7 245-pound guy myself, I know firsthand that genetics contribute to an athlete's success, and that contribution can be very hard to account for.
Genetically gifted players can still be copied when it comes to work ethic, or their mental approach, though when it comes to hitting technique, defensive technique, and pitching mechanics, I recommend first looking elsewhere.
COPY ACTIONS, NOT WORDS
Listen to what people do, not what they say. What the pros say made them great doesn't always jive with what really made them great.
For example, the other day I was listening to an all-time great pitcher Pedro Martinez discuss his pitching mechanics. Pedro is at the very top of my 'copy this guy's every move' list, and he was a brilliant first-ballot Hall-of-Fame pitcher. However, the great Pedro Martinez erroneously told the audience that his left foot landed at a 45-degree angle, which was about 35 degrees from the truth. The "45-degree" comment didn't sound correct, and after a quick image and video search, it was evident that Pedro's left foot landed at approximately 10 degrees, not 45. Now, if a coach or player heard what Martinez had said and without verifying it, went out and implemented his advice, they would likely find themselves struggling.
Our number one goal here at 8020BASEBALL is to save coaches and players the guesswork on the path to success. Thus, we've added our lists of the top pitchers, hitters, and defenders to the bottom of this article.
The lists were created using fangraphs.com wRC+ (Weighted Runs Created Plus) for hitters, FIP- (Adjusted Fielder Independent Pitching) for pitchers, and UZR/150 (Ultimate Zone Rating per 150 games) for measuring defenders. You can read all about those stats online, as we won't dive into them here.
The top ten list of starting pitchers was based on a minimum of 1,500 innings pitched to weed out the oft-injured pitchers that only had a few great years. We want to avoid copying pitchers that use unsustainable mechanics.
Our top 10 list of hitters was based on FanGraphs' 'qualifying' amount of at-bats to ensure that we analyzed hitters with continued success post-honeymoon stage.
When it came to identifying defensive players, we created a separate list for each position to account for each position's uniqueness.
Lastly, the lists have been limited to players that were active within the past 20 years to allow for a higher quantity of video to analyze.
We will not discuss the mechanical and technical commonalities in this article, but I will cover those aspects in other articles, videos, and podcasts. In any case, you now have a formula for finding the best players to copy as well as the pre-filtered bonus lists we've added for you, now go inspect their technique to see what commonalities you can identify.
(Note: Lists were originally created in 2019)
By: COACH BO
Photo: Coach Bo
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