One or Eight: Jeff Bagwell, Sadaharu Oh, and the Mystery of the Batting Stance

Ted Walker is…hey, that’s me!

When he was a rookie, Jeff Bagwell’s batting stance was not yet the iconic low crouch that he adopted so successfully later on, with its guy-wire tension. The younger Bagwell started higher, a bit more relaxed, and bent his knees deeply as he swung, lowering himself as though he’d taken a great weight on his shoulders at just that moment, then driving his hands into the pitch. (For low-quality footage of such, see this YouTube video.) With that late dip, Bagwell revealed a glimpse of the later stance. The Rookie of the Year had a tendency before it was an eccentricity.

Even early on, he was far from an Adam LaRoche-type, standing stock straight up at the plate. The Houston Chronicle noted in an article from 1992 that Bagwell hit from “a pronounced crouch.” By the time he became one of baseball’s best hitters, “pronounced crouch” would sound like an understatement.

Bagwell started his career out as hot as a pistol. In 1991, his rookie season, he was the fulcrum of the Houston Astros young lineup. He played more games than anyone on the team, and led the next best hitter in OPS by around 75 points. He won the 1991 NL Rookie of the Year Award going away, with 98 percent of first place votes.

In 1992, Bagwell slumped early in the season. The weight of the lineup he anchored began to drag him down. He had never struggled to hit at any level before 1992, and out of nowhere he found himself with a .217 average through 40 games. His batting eye slumped and his walk rate dropped.

Bagwell talked to the papers about the slump, asking questions in public. “I mean, here I am, hitting third,” he told the Chronicle. “I was Rookie of the Year last year. I belong here. But there’s times when there’s a two-on, one-out situation and I’m giving the pitcher too much credit. It should be that they’re worried about having to face Jeff Bagwell. I should have the advantage in that situation.

“It’s been awful. There were times in this slump that I’d go home and I’d be shaking, just wondering what the hell’s going on. The one thing I’ve always been able to do is hit. People would say, ‘Well, he might not be able to play defense, but he can hit.’”

***

sadaharu oh baseball cardBagwell’s troubles, and his youthful lost ramblings, reminded me of another legendary slugger who was forced to redefine himself after failing to meet expectations early on: Sadaharu Oh, the great Japanese first baseman.

Oh was a high school prodigy as a pitcher and a hitter. He was a natural, gifted and confident, and he enjoyed the attention he received as a baseball star. When he arrived at the major leagues with the vaunted Yomiuri Giants, Oh faced high expectations. When he didn’t meet them quickly, he floundered. The press questioned a coaching staff that was unable to focus the talents of the young man, and Oh reached for superficial corrections.

In his first year, while struggling mightily, Oh even attempted to crouch deeply at the plate, in imitation of Stan Musial who’d just visited Japan with the Cardinals. “I could not do it,” Oh wrote. “Instead of freeing me, crouching only seemed to make it hard for me to get my bat around.” The press interpreted the change in stances as confusion.

Oh wrote of his inner monologue as he flailed at pitches in a tone that is strikingly similar to Bagwell’s slump-time interview: “What is there that’s left? All that training, including Aikido. People are supposed to be rewarded for their efforts…Didn’t the saying go like that? Lies! All lies! Look at me. Hopeless. Stupid. Clumsy.”

Three years would pass as Oh searched for some solution. He strained to connect the promise of his physical ability to the potential of his tattered mental state. In the early 1960s, on Japanese baseball’s biggest stage, he asked himself the same questions in Tokyo that Jeff Bagwell did in his second year in Houston.

It was around that time that Oh met the new Giants batting coach, Mr. Hiroshi Arakawa, a student of Zen and a vibrant baseball mind willing to sniff down any trail that offered a scent. Arakawa compared hitting to Japanese practice of the Noh theatre, he encouraged a study of Zen philosophy and freeing oneself of desire, and, in the case of Oh, he prescribed the study of the martial art Aikido, which stressed harmony and unity.

Oh’s procession through these studies is a compelling read, and I encourage you to do so in the autobiography from which I’ve garnered Oh’s thoughts on his career, A Zen Way of Baseball. For this current purpose, let me summarize by saying that the training was difficult, that Arakawa’s instruction was often contradictory, capricious, and dense, and that Oh continued to struggle. Oh’s boat scraped bottom after he left Arakawa’s house one rainy night, wandering the streets alone, ignored by taxi cabs, destitute, lost.

The next day, however, a bright sun rose. The baseball field was soaked, so there was no time for batting practice. Arakawa, ever vigilant of a fearsome hitch in Oh’s swing, ordered him, as a last resort, to try a technique they’d toyed with years earlier. The coach forced the hitter to stand on one leg. Nothing if not obedient, Oh, without having practiced the technique for even a pitch, raised a foot in his first at bat, as the pitcher wound up and threw. He hit a single. The next time up, when he raised a leg amidst the jeers of the away crowd who were catching on to the odd practice of the fading young first baseman, he hit a home run.

Fierce training followed, to advance the flamingo style, and Oh retired with a world record 868 home runs to his name.

The flamingo gambit was a matter of “one or eight,” which in Japanese culture equated to “all or nothing.” By ordering Oh to add an element to his swing that was beyond his comprehension, Arakawa had absolved Oh of responsibility for his technique. “Stand on one leg” replaced “don’t hitch.” Oh’s career was in the balance, he was desperate, and he finally gave in to a force greater than the words in his own head.

“I had no choice to get up on one foot,” Oh wrote.

***

“Right now, it’s a mental thing more than anything,” Jeff Bagwell said of his troubling sophomore slump. “It’s getting to the point where I think about it so much that I just can’t see any hits when I get to the plate, and that’s crazy.” In his vernacular, Bagwell at his best could actually see the hits that he was about to produce. Now that is clarity. A slump, though, moved in like a fog, dulling his ability to see the future, and to visualize success. His brain churned out a new product: doubt. He questioned his own sense of himself. He wondered, like a young Sadaharu Oh, how to reconcile his body with his mind, struggling, as many young people do, to put to language his toil.

In the local press, Bagwell’s hitting coach, Rudy Jaramillo, who has since become a very well respected hitting instructor, suggested that he rise up in his batting stance. According to the Chronicle: “Hitting coach Rudy Jaramillo has been working with Bagwell, trying to correct some minor flaws he has seen in Bagwell’s stance. Though Bagwell hits from a pronounced crouch, he rises up to meet pitches. No problem with that, Jaramillo says — but Bagwell may need to start out a little higher to give himself more coverage of the plate.”

Jaramillo’s advice that Bagwell rise up was as logical as Arakawa’s advice that Sadaharu Oh raise a leg was illogical.

I don’t know what Jeff Bagwell did after the 40th game of the 1992 season, whether he took Jaramillo’s advice or if he rejected it. I’d like to think, and this is a guess, that he didn’t rise up. I’d like to think that, following some inner compass that is impossible to explain to outsiders, he acted against his teacher’s instruction, and lowered himself down. I’d like to think that, when faced with a logical solution to a problem, he chose instead to pursue the mysteries of the extreme. Some photo evidence (see left) suggests that the position of his feet in his 1992 stance inched farther from one another, each augmentation of the wider crouch palpably ratcheting up the tension contained therein like the tick of a monk’s tools as he places the next grain of sand in the mandala.

One or eight; all or nothing, When faced with failure, Sadaharu Oh chose the batting stance that embraced nothing. Bagwell’s stance incorporated all, every muscle fiber, every available point of tension. Perhaps on some subconscious level, Bagwell, realizing that there was no use in struggling against the pressure of external forces, projected that struggle inward, allowing the forces that would otherwise sink us to press against each other until they achieved a kind of balance.

Bagwell’s path to success was the inverse of Sadaharu Oh’s. Oh first eliminated a cocky hitch in his swing; Bagwell’s hitting improved as the monstrous hitch in his swing got hairier. While Oh eliminated tension from his swing and leveled it out, Bagwell wrenched himself up and swung with a fierce uppercut.

“Winning over yourself rather than the opponent,” said Oh’s teacher, Mr. Arakawa.

***

In 1993, speaking in late May after posting a 1.143 OPS for the month, a year removed from his sophomore slump (which was barely a slump by most mortal standards), Bagwell said, “I’ve told myself that if I stick with what got me to the big leagues, I’ll be OK. No more watching the late game on ESPN and coming back with a different stance every night. Jay Buhner one night. Tony Gwynn the next. No more of that. Hitting is something you can’t figure.”

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8 Responses to One or Eight: Jeff Bagwell, Sadaharu Oh, and the Mystery of the Batting Stance

  1. Brian K says:

    Great job, Ted. This was a fantastic read.

  2. Tom says:

    I enjoyed this quite a bit.

  3. Alex says:

    Thirded. Every time I hear Sadaharu Oh I can’t help but think of the Beastie Boys.

  4. patrick says:

    I love this so much.

  5. Let me add my praise as well: this was excellent, and it struck deep. I actually found a copy of Oh’s autobiography in a used bookshop a few months ago, and haven’t been able to get to it. This makes me want summer to get here that much sooner.

  6. Ted says:

    Thanks for the kind words, all. I can’t recommend the Oh autobiography any more strongly. It’s one of my all-time favorites, baseball or otherwise.

  7. Glenn Stout says:

    The Oh biography is one of my favorite books, too. Personally I always wondered how much Bagwell’s stance might have been influenced by former Sox outfielder Phil Plantier, whose batting stance, similar to Bagwell’s, mimicked a buck private squatting over an open trench latrine. And apart from Plantier’s 1993 season with San Diego, when he hit 34 home runs, the metaphor was appropriate.

  8. jojo says:

    NO one has mentioned the most unique thing about Bagwell;’s stance….something that would have been blasphemous to hitting instructors before him……Jeff actually strides BACKWARDS when he transfers his weight…..In other words, he starts with that way-too wide stance, but as the ball comes to him, his left foot actually comes BACK closer to his right foot by maybe six inches or so (maybe more)….I think this is a technique that could help a lot of players….it helps release the hips quicker…..his early stance, standing up like that reminds me a lot of the young Don Mattingly, who really squatted WAY down, as the pitch came in, until his shoulders were down to within a foot of his knees, then he would stand up, almost on his toes and flick those incredible wrists and hands at the ball….It was a HUGE hitch, but boy, could he hit!