CHICAGO — Dig through a public library or the reference shelf of your neighborhood hitting coach, and you might find a relic. Decades before heat maps and swing paths became part of baseball’s vernacular and the value of getting on base was truly embraced, Ted Williams laid out many of the hitting philosophies that are in vogue today. He did so in a book titled “The Science of Hitting.”
Williams wrote the book in 1971, offering for public consumption a synthesis of observations by one of the sport’s greatest hitters and perhaps its most serious student.
Even if Williams, who died in 2002, becomes a little more lost to history with each passing year, his philosophies are alive and well in this year’s World Series.
That is because Kris Bryant, the Chicago Cubs’ standout third baseman, was raised on them.
Bryant’s father, Mike, grew up in Medford, Mass., and spent two years in the Boston Red Sox’ farm system. He had read “The Science of Hitting” when he was a teenager and had worked to absorb the book’s ideas, and in spring training, he had the opportunity to work with the actual Williams, who was there as a club instructor.Photo
Everything Mike Bryant learned from Williams — from the book, from his tutoring — has stayed with him.
“Ted was 60 years ahead of his time, 60 years ahead of his time,” said Mike Bryant, who for the last 15 years has been a private hitting coach in Las Vegas. “Nobody was teaching that. I have just made it my life’s mission to articulate his hitting philosophies and positions because I’m a hitting instructor.”
Heading into Game 5 against Cleveland on Sunday night at Wrigley Field, so many Cubs hitters were struggling in this year’s World Series, including Kris Bryant, that a dusting-off of Williams’s book might have been in order.
And who knows? Maybe Bryant did take a peek. His home run in the bottom of the fourth started the three-run rally that carried the Cubs to a 3-2 victory in Game 5 and kept the Series alive.Photo
Williams peppered his book with stories from his encyclopedic memory and extolled the virtues of using a light bat, letting the hips lead the way on a swing and doing homework on pitchers, whom he characterized as not lacking intelligence, just smarts.
“The first thing you looked at with the book was that in all its simplicity, with everything hand drawn, it was incredibly complex,” Mike Bryant said. “My first impression is, this is not just see it, hit it — monkey see, monkey do. It was very hard for me to understand because it was geometry and trigonometry and angles and all that stuff, and the way I was taught was very different.”
But what resonated with young hitters as much as any of Williams’s words or diagrams was the book’s cover, which showed Williams standing in the batter’s box with a strike zone filled with circles representing 77 baseballs — 11 up and seven across. Each had a three-digit number on it based on what Williams thought he would hit against that pitch.
It reinforced Williams’s first rule of hitting: Get a good ball to hit.
Against pitches that were belt-high and down the middle, Williams surmised that he hit .400. On a pitch that was low and on the outside corner, he estimated that he hit only .230.Photo
“It’s cool, isn’t it?” said Ty Van Burkleo, the Cleveland Indians’ hitting coach, who was given the book by his father as a teenager growing up in the Los Angeles area and still has a copy. “As a kid, you look at that and go, ‘O.K., Ted Williams didn’t hit every pitch perfectly, so I have to figure out where my zone is.’ I think it resonates as a kid. I love that book.”
In the 1970s and ’80s — a revised edition of the book was published in 1986 — others loved it, too. Jason Giambi, who spent 20 years in the major leagues and was known as an astute hitter, had a poster of Williams and that strike zone on his bedroom wall while growing up in Southern California. Cubs General Manager Jed Hoyer remembers going to the Hall of Fame when he was a young boy and seeing a display of Williams and his strike zone, which still remains in Cooperstown.
“In New England, Ted Williams was a deity,” said Hoyer, who attended Williams’s baseball camp when he was 9 and 10. “I think every kid read that book.”
What has stuck with so many was Williams’s belief that hitters like him, who could hit the ball out of the park, should have a slight uppercut to their swing — anathema in an era when the level swing was so often taught. His reasoning was that if a pitch was arriving at the plate on a downward angle, a slight uppercut would allow the bat to stay on the same plane as the ball for a longer period.
“When the ball is on the ground, it puts a greater burden on the fielders; things can happen,” Williams wrote. “But if you get the ball into the air with power, you have the gift to produce the most important hit in baseball — the home run. More important is that you hit consistently with authority.”
This belief has been backed up in recent years by pitch-track technology.
“Once people understood the study of the pitch, then they started to understand the path of the swing, and it became very clear maybe four or five years ago how to match up the plane of the bat with the plane of the pitch,” said John Mallee, the Cubs’ hitting coach. “Ted Williams was talking about that a long time ago, and nobody was listening.”
Kris Bryant remembers his father first showing him the Williams book when he was 10. It still sits on a table at the batting cage where his father teaches.
“I don’t really like to read,” Kris Bryant said. “My dad’s the one that does the reading for me and presents the research to me when I need it. It wasn’t a book that I read; it was more of a teaching tool that my dad used. Obviously, he’s read it a jillion times.”
That helps explain why Kris Bryant has such a prototypical modern-day swing and approach, which have allowed him to become an All-Star in his first two seasons in the big leagues and made him, at age 24, a leading candidate to win the National League’s Most Valuable Player Award for this season.
Bryant hit .292 with 39 home runs, 102 R.B.I. and a .939 on-base plus slugging percentage in the regular season. In the first two rounds of the postseason, he hit .333 with five doubles, a home run and six R.B.I.
But in the first four games of the World Series, he was just 1 for 14. Then again, he still had that secret weapon — a book written 45 years ago.