The joining of Giancarlo Stanton and Aaron Judge places arguably the two biggest, strongest players in major league history on the same team. It is a story so compelling, the New York Yankees will open the gates to spring training games three hours earlier so fans can watch these two, and others, take batting practice, which, on certain days, will be more entertaining than the game. Exit velocity, launch angles and home run distances will be even more celebrated in 2018, especially in the Bronx.
Baseball strength always has been one of the great, hidden components of the game, at least to some. The strength of the players, especially in their hands, wrists and forearms, goes largely unappreciated: I’ve never met a position player who wasn’t really strong in those areas, even dinky, little middle infielders. Indeed, after Michael Jordan’s one year in baseball in 1994, one of his many observations about the game was that virtually every player on his Double-A team was stronger than him from the tips of their fingers to their elbow.
“I noticed how really strong baseball players are when I joined the general population after retirement,” said John Baker, who caught in the big leagues from 2008 to 2014. “I started practicing jujitsu. From day one, when I grabbed the lapel, I could grab it longer and harder than anyone else. That comes from thousands and thousands of violent swings with a baseball bat. Swinging a bat makes your hands strong. Baseball players are so strong.”
The lineage of strength in modern baseball history can be traced to where most in baseball is first traced — to Babe Ruth, who played at 6-foot-2, 225 pounds in his prime in the 1920s, and hit home runs that even today would be considered tape-measure blasts. He soon was followed by Jimmie Foxx, whose nickname was “The Beast.” He gave way to others, including Mickey Mantle, who once hit a ball that reportedly traveled 565 feet at Washington’s Griffith Stadium. Former Reds first baseman Ted Kluszewski wore cutoff sleeves to show off his muscular arms. Former White Sox outfielder Dave Nicholson’s hands were so strong, he turned off all the showers after a loss, and no teammate was strong enough to turn them back on.
“No one hit the ball harder than Jimmie Foxx,” Ted Williams once told me. “Until I saw Frank Howard.”
Howard was listed at 6-7, 255 pounds but was actually closer to 300 pounds with the Senators in the mid-1960s.
“Frank Howard came to the plate [in a spring training game in 1959], he was the biggest person I had ever seen in my life,” Hall of Fame third baseman Ron Santo said years ago. “He hit a one-hopper that hit me in the stomach and knocked me out. When I woke up in the hospital, there he was again, standing over me. I said to myself, ‘Am I in heaven? Who is the giant?’ “
The stories about Howard sound Ruthian and apocryphal, but this one is also true: Former Senators catcher Jim French loved chiding Howard, who, one night, had had enough, so he dangled his teammate by the ankles off a hotel balcony that was several stories high. And this one is true, too: Ted Uhlaender, a former center fielder for the Indians and Twins, said Howard hit a line drive over his head, he turned to see where the ball would land, and when he turned, the ball hit him in the chest after ricocheting off the center-field fence.
Howard’s legend gave way in the mid-1980s to Bo Jackson, who, more than once, snapped a bat over his knee in frustration, and similarly, snapped a bat over the top of his helmet.
“Bo was a big bow hunter,” said catcher Mike Macfarlane, a former teammate. “He kept his bows in his locker. He would show us how to shoot, but for him, it was like plucking a harp. He just used two fingers to cock it. I stood on top of the bow and, using both hands, tried to cock it, and I couldn’t do it. And neither could anyone else on our team. I’m sure our front office wasn’t happy about this, we were all afraid of tearing a rotator cuff trying to cock a bow. Bo needed two fingers. Damnedest thing I’ve ever seen.”
More Bo: “When he signed, they sent him to Memphis [Triple-A] where I was,” Macfarlane said. “He hit a ball foul in the game, and broke his bat. It wasn’t broken in half, but it was clearly cracked. Typical Bo, he said, ‘Ah, Ah, Ah, Ah, screw it.’ He didn’t get a new bat, and hit the next pitch over the center-field fence. It was right then that we said, ‘OK, you are a freak.’ “
Many followed Bo Jackson. The Brewers’ Rob Deer, who hit 230 major league home runs but had trouble making contact, “once just picked me up, put me under his arm, and carried me around,” said former teammate Tom O’Malley, who was 6 feet, 180 pounds. “It was like I was a little kid.”
In the 1990 World Series, the Reds’ Glenn Braggs, whose physique was that of a body builder, broke a bat without hitting the ball: In the follow-through of a swing-and-miss, his bat snapped in half when it collided with his shoulder blade.
I had never seen that.
“Oh, I did that a dozen times this season,” he told me after the game.
I once saw Cal Ripken put a ball on a batting tee at home plate, and, using a fungo, hit a ball over the left-center-field fence, a blast of at least 380 feet. Ripken had incredible hand strength.
“I could lift more weight than him,” former teammate Brady Anderson said, “but once he got you in a bear hug, and he wrapped you up, there was no way to get free.”
Prince Fielder, 6 feet, 275 pounds, became the game’s strongest man, perhaps carrying the mantle from Mantle to Bo Jackson and others. “I really believe he could enter the World’s Strongest Man competition — you know, carrying logs on his back — and he would hold his own,” former teammate Ryan Braun said.
Phil Coke, a former teammate with the Tigers, said of Fielder, “He showed us a video of him wrestling a professional sumo wrestler. It was unbelievable. Prince just chucked the guy across the room.”
The players today are especially big and strong. The Mariners’ Nelson Cruz “will hit the longest home run in baseball history one day,” Orioles manager Buck Showalter said a decade ago. Cruz hit a ball so hard in spring training many years ago, then-Rockies left fielder Ryan Spilborghs said, “If I’d caught it, the momentum of the ball would have carried me through the left-field fence, leaving only an outline of my body like you see in the cartoons.”
And there there’s the Dodgers’ Yasiel Puig, who once, on a checked swing, missed the ball, and the bat snapped in two in his hands. “That was unbelievable,” former pitcher Orel Hershiser said. “I’ve only see that one other time in my life — by Bo Jackson.”
And now we have Judge and Stanton together.
Judge is, according to the Elias Sports Bureau, the biggest position player — 6-foot-7, 282 pounds — ever to play major league baseball. Last year, he routinely hit balls to places no one had ever gone before.
“I took BP for eight years at [the new] Yankee Stadium, and I never hit a ball to center field where he hits them all the time,” said Mark Teixeira, who hit 409 career homers. Ken Singleton, who has played or has broadcast major league games since 1969, said Judge “hits the ball harder than any player I’ve ever seen in my life.”
Stanton is 6-foot-6, 245 pounds. When he was with the Marlins, Baker said, “He had this tiny waist. And he had this incredible leg strength. He had a 40-inch vertical jump. That was the highest in the organization. He could hit a ball farther and harder than anyone, and jumped higher than anyone.”
When Stanton took batting practice in spring training as a 19-year-old, Hall of Famer Andre Dawson — an incredibly strong man — was watching. After one round of BP, Dawson said, “That’s the hardest I have ever seen anyone hit a baseball.”
Baker was there that day.
“He hit a home run in an exhibition game that went over the Cardinals’ clubhouse in right-center field,” Baker said. “It was ridiculous. No one had ever seen a ball hit that far. It was like Harry Potter’s wizardly, worldly power. When Stanton got to second base, he stopped running, he looked at the umpire and asked, ‘Was that a ground-rule double?’ He didn’t think he gotten all of it. The umpire looked at him with open palms, as if to say, ‘What are you doing?’ then told him to keep running. When he got back to the dugout, he had no idea what had happened. I said to him, ‘Dude, that ball went 200 feet over the fence!’ “
So strong. Get used to that this year with the Yankees.
Scouts, opposing pitchers on why the Cubs can’t hit
“Mind-boggling.” “A mystery.” “It’s hard to figure.”
Those are some of the words scouts and opposing pitchers used when asked about a Chicago Cubs offense that sits dead last in the majors in many categories, including a .192 team batting average that’s among the all-time worst through 15 games.
What’s most confusing is that the most foundational part of being a major league hitter has the Cubs turned upside down: simply handling a fastball.
“It’s almost mind-boggling,” one AL Central scout said. “There’s too much talent on that whole damn Cubs team. No one can figure it out. I’ve talked to a bunch of guys [other scouts].”
There was a time when throwing the Cubs a fastball was a bad idea. From 2016 to 2018, the combination of Javy Baez, Anthony Rizzo and Kris Bryant hit .307 with a .559 slugging percentage against fastballs. But the numbers have steadily dropped since then, culminating in a .235 batting average and just a .419 slugging percentage over their past 75 games (the shortened 2020 season and first 15 games of this year).
As a team the Cubs have an MLB-worst .230 batting average and are slugging just .414 off fastballs in that time frame. Against fastballs of 95 mph or more, they’re hitting a paltry .178 since the start of 2020 and just .105 this season.
“It’s not the lack of bat speed,” one NL East scout said. “These guys all have awesome bat speed. It’s mental.”
While theories differed among scouts, the consensus explanation is Cubs hitters have been caught “in between.” Perhaps they’re worried about chasing pitches with a lot of spin — a recent problem as well — so they aren’t reacting to fastballs like they used to.
“They should be able to catch up to fastballs, and for some reason they are not,” an NL East scout who saw them recently said. “Are they using analytic tendencies too much? So, in a game they expect one thing but the opposition is doing something else?”
Normally 15 games isn’t enough to glean much of anything in baseball, but the Cubs are no longer getting the benefit of the doubt — not from opposing pitchers, scouts or even many fans. Not after years of disappointment since former team executive Theo Epstein famously declared their offense “broken” back in 2018. For all of the movement elsewhere in the franchise, five of the eight primary position players still remain from the Cubs’ World Series victory now a half-decade ago.
“They’re trying to change their philosophy, but with this core group, they had one philosophy and all these guys bought into it,” one scout opined. “It’s turned into a one-dimensional offense. There’s something to be said about contact and putting the ball in play.”
Due to that one dangerous dimension — the ability to hit the ball out of the park — the opposition has consistently pitched the Cubs out of the strike zone. Since 2016, they’ve seen the lowest proportion of strikes, just 47.9%, of any team in the National League. For a while, they took advantage of it, ranking fourth best in chase percentage in 2016 while leading the majors in walks.
Perhaps those hitters became a little overconfident or the league simply figured them out, but they began to chase.
The Cubs went from fourth to 19th to 25th and then 23rd in chase percentage over the span of four seasons.
“The perfect example is Javy Baez,” one scout said. “I remember when he got to the big leagues and he had no clue what the strike zone was. Then he got better. Then I saw him last year and it was like the old Baez is back.”
Baez is an extreme example, but the sentiment held true for the offense as a group.
“Throw them up and in and then down and away,” one opposing pitcher said. “That’s what you do with any hitter, but especially the Cubs.”
And that’s where the Cubs are unique compared to other teams: The majority of their hitters can be pitched to in the same manner because their strengths and weaknesses are very much alike, according to those in the game.
“They’re down-ball hitters,” an opposing pitcher said. “All of them. Just don’t throw a mistake down there. Even David Bote who’s relatively new likes it there.”
This year alone Bote, Baez and Bryant have golfed balls into the stands for home runs. In last year’s postseason, the Miami Marlins shut the Cubs down by straying away from that hot zone.
“Don’t let them extend their arms,” another opposing pitcher said. “Everyone but Rizzo is the same. You can jam them. All the righties and even Jason Heyward from the left side.”
Perhaps the up-and-in approach is the reason the Cubs have been hit by more pitches than any other team. Most hit-by-pitches with the lowest team batting average is a tough way to go about an offense.
“Teams are throwing more up in the zone, from the games I saw,” said a scout who saw their first six games this season. “Guys are overswinging. Trying to do too much. Everyone is trying to get the whole team out of slump so they look like they’re pressing.”
With Jacob deGrom and Brandon Woodruff on the docket later this week, things aren’t going to get easier anytime soon. And that’s before the trade rumors that will come with Baez, Bryant, Rizzo, Joc Pederson and others all set to enter free agency at the end of the season have really started heating up.
“It’s got to be in the back of their minds, they’re going to break up the team,” one scout said. “Everyone knows it’s totally going to be different next year.”
Those in the game do agree on one thing about this season’s lineup: The parts are better than the sum. One opposing pitcher summed it up with a comparison of the Cubs of 2016, and the Cubs of now:
“They don’t grind you out the way they used to. It’s just an easier lineup to pitch to.”
Cleared to travel, Minnesota Twins prepare for Tuesday doubleheader with Oakland Athletics
OAKLAND, Calif. — The Minnesota Twins have been cleared to travel and are moving forward with plans for a doubleheader in Oakland on Tuesday after having their season interrupted by coronavirus concerns.
The Twins haven’t played since Friday to allow for virus testing and contact tracing as the club has had at least four positive coronavirus tests in the past week.
Kyle Garlick, another unnamed Twins player and a team staff member tested positive in the two days before the postponements against the Angels, manager Rocco Baldelli said this weekend. Shortstop Andrelton Simmons already hadn’t made the trip to Anaheim after testing positive early in the week.
Games between the Twins and the Los Angeles Angels in Anaheim were postponed Saturday and Sunday, and Monday’s series opener in Oakland was also postponed. That game will be made up as part of Tuesday’s doubleheader.
There have been six MLB games postponed this year because of the virus, including a season-opening, three-game series between the Nationals and Mets after Washington’s coronavirus concerns.
There were 45 regular-season games postponed for virus-related reasons last year, but only two _ between St. Louis and Detroit _ were not made up.
Short-handed Philadelphia Phillies place three players on injured list amid MLB’s COVID-19 protocols
PHILADELPHIA — The Phillies placed three players on the injured list due to COVID-19 protocols and two more coaches weren’t with the team for a game Monday against the San Francisco Giants.
A source told ESPN’s Jesse Rogers that one player tested positive and the others were placed on the list due to contact tracing.
Left-handed reliever Jose Alvarado, lefty starter Matt Moore and infielder Ronald Torreyes went on the injured list. First-base coach Paco Figueroa and assistant Bobby Meacham also entered COVID-19 protocols, joining hitting coach Joe Dillon, third-base coach Dusty Wathan and bullpen coach Dave Lundquist.
The team did not say if any of the players or coaches had tested positive for the coronavirus.
Infielder Nick Maton and left-handed pitchers Damon Jones and Cristopher Sanchez were recalled from Philadelphia’s alternate site.
Infield coach Juan Castro served as first-base coach Monday night against San Francisco and Triple-A manager Gary Jones came up coach third base.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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