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Will Clark and the “Modern Approach” to Hitting

Will Clark doesn’t like how today’s hitters approach their craft. Is it a problem that needs to be solved?

Atlanta Braves v San Francisco Giants Photo by Mitchell Layton/Getty Images

On KNBR’s Murph & Mac show this week, former San Francisco Giants first baseman and current special assistant to the club, Will Clark, got a little salty when asked about the “modern approach” to hitting.

Invoking the slap-hitter ghosts of old, Clark said, “To be perfectly honest, Rogers Hornsby and Ty Cobb would be rolling over in their grave right now if they knew what the hell was going on with hitters now.”

It’s easy to dismiss Clark’s comments as grouchy and cantankerous. They are wonderfully boomer-ish (especially coming from a current Giants employee) and yet, probably correct to a certain degree.

Ty Cobb and Rogers Hornsby would show no reticence in begrudging the current state of the game—they’d probably do it through the thick gauze of cigar smoke, between hacking coughs, sips of whiskey, and off-color comments about [insert any nominally progressive issue here].

Baseball in the early 20th century—even with Babe Ruth inventing the power hitter—was a game of speed and craft and grit and theft. Bases were stolen, hits were stolen, spikes were up in a game that would look more like a Wild West Show than a ball game to us fans now.

But baseball’s call to action, its undying thrill, will always be when the bat hits the ball. In the days of Hornsby and Cobb that happened a ton. The ball didn’t necessarily go far, nor fast, but the ball did go.

Will Clark’s beef is that this kind of hitting for contact and putting the ball in play— some would say “pure” hitting— is nearly extinct and going un-coached in professional ball today.

I do and don’t agree. I agree that hitting is different now and I agree that I miss some of the adaptability that was once more involved with hitting…but I don’t agree that the hitting approach now is “bullshit.”

We are in an era of information and data and there has never been so much at the fingertips of front offices, of coaches and of players. Statisticians have crunched the numbers, they know what works and what doesn’t for a batter logging 500 plus plate appearances to be successful in this era.

Teams understand more and more the value of putting the ball in the air, of staying in your zone and generating power. Joey Gallo will hit .200 and strike out 200 times in a season, but if he doesn’t chase too many bad pitches and occasionally runs one into the right field nosebleeds then he’ll continue to get paid no matter what Will Clark says.

The hitting approach now is the hitting approach now because it is the hitting approach professional baseball has valued and incentivized now.

Whether I like the aesthetic or not, I’m not going to rag on Joey Gallo for being the hitter he is. If I had to choose between keeping my job and making a lot of money or losing my job and making not-so-much money—I’d take the option where I get to swing for the fences, whiff rate be damned, and cash in.

You do not need anymore reminders during this lockout that Major League Baseball is a business. Though the business of baseball is in a “crisis”, the game of baseball is not.

Go down to your local little league field on a Saturday in spring. There are no labor negotiations, no lockouts. The fields are full. Burgers and kielbasa sizzle on the snack shack grill. When you watch a game, you’ll see 8 year olds batting more like Pete Rose than Joey Gallo. Choked up, tongue out, crouched down—who cares if they make weak-contact and pray a grounder through the four hole, they just hit the ball!

So I get the gripes of Will Clark. And frankly, whenever he talks about hitting, it’s probably wise to listen.

But I also hear someone like Freddie Freeman when he says it’s not as easy as it looks to slap a single away from the shift when he’s been trained his whole professional career to drive the ball in the air to his strong side. Not to mention, the number of Stuff-plus pitches from an infinite pool of arms that he needs to prepare for.

Conclusion: Hitting is hard!

It was hard 30 years ago with Will Clark batting against Nolan Ryan and it’s hard now with Freddie Freeman facing Jacob DeGrom.

I’m trying to straddle both sides of the see-saw here. Find the level.

I believe our sport seeks an equilibrium, but I understand that sometimes a finger needs to tip the scales. In 1920, the ball was livened up. Nearly a century later, it was deadened. In 1968, the strike zone was tightened and the mound lowered. In 1973, the American League instituted the designated hitter. All of these changes were done in order to alter the product on the field—an effort to level out the battle between man-who-throws vs man-who-hits while making it more entertaining to its fans.

But as MLB considers wacky experimental rule changes to increase balls in play, I think we need to remember baseball will inevitably reward smart hitting, thus smart hitting will inevitably rise to the top.

Eras transition, styles evolve and what skills we value change. Never forget Maury Wills’s 104 stolen bases once beat out Willie Mays 10.5 WAR for the MVP award.

This is a slow process and I’m leery of expediting it with rule implementations. We don’t need to push the mound back or ban defensive shifts, nor do we need to get away from the data-driven power hitting we have now and just try to flip dinky singles into left.

Finally, the denouement.

Tony Gwynn batting against Randy Johnson in the 1998 NLDS. Two Hall of Famers. One pure gas and intimidation pitcher vs. one pure contact and studious hitter. This kind of matchup has put butts in seats for a century.

Cherry on the top: Jon Miller and Joe Morgan on the call.

Obviously, this is not viewed as the best approach to hitting.

Tony Gwynn’s two strike swing is long, off-balance, all arms. His body is a Tetris block.

Left handed batters are told to spit on Johnson’s slider because they can’t do anything with it. No way to get their hips into it, no way to drive it. Best case scenario, they bounce a grounder to the shortstop for a routine out. That pitch was a joke in 1998 and it’s a joke now—and Gwynn somehow slapped it for a double.

9 times out of 10, Gwynn fishes for that pitch and whiffs. 9 times out of 10 if that ball is put in play, it bounds to the shortstop. But neither of those things happened. Gwynn drives it down the line. It’s a perfect example of adaptation, of intelligence, of practiced improvisation. Tony Gwynn is in the Hall of Fame because of hits like that.

“Modern” or not—be it Rogers Hornsby or Will Clark or Joey Gallo—any hitter can appreciate the value of an outcome like this. It’s unexpected. A shock (hear it Miller’s call). It’s not “true”—but it’s entertaining.

I wouldn’t mind seeing more of them sprinkled in among the dingers.