Anyone who ever watched me play softball would have to wonder how I managed to get two home runs in my Humble Flies career. They’d know it wasn’t due to some hidden power that burst occasionally. I can’t remember either of them, but assume they must have involved right fielders falling down or breaking a leg as my ball skipped past them. I could occasionally hit the ball to the right-center gap or along the right field line in a such a way that I could make a double or triple out of good placement, but I never had any power,
As one of the youngest guys playing Ponce de Leon baseball, I really want to take advantage of my speed while I have it. My softball experience tells me that 20 years of playing will erode my speed in comparison to my peers. So, having occasionally hit the ball hard using my off-the-shelf Louisville Slugger, I thought I might try a different bat for better power.
Since that visit to Cooperstown didn’t finish with me carrying new lumber, I had to look elsewhere for a better bat. Phoenix Bats has a broad variety of bat designs to meet every preference. There are 20 distinct designs and you can make many customizations to those. I’ve been a contact hitter most of my life, but I always wanted to be a gap hitter. Wouldn’t you know it, Phoenix makes a bat for just those kind of hitters. The F110 is billed as the Contact-to-Gap hitter’s bat.
The F110 comes in a variety of lengths and typically has a -2.5 drop weight, which means 2.5 ounces less than the length in inches. My first bat was -3 drop weight, giving me a 31-ounce bat that was 34 inches long. Since my softball playing days were marked by punches to right field and my stance always had me deep in the box, I wanted to stick with a 34 inch bat. Of course, when I played softball, 34 inch bats could weight just about anything you wanted. I typically used a 28 ounce bat, to keep some bat speed while also having some pop. As noted above, my experience was that there was no pop at all. So, I kept the length, added weight and played last year with a 31-ounce, 34-inch bat. Feeling that my timing was suited to 31 ounces, I decided that I’d keep the weight and adjust the length. So, my F110 is 31 ounces and 33.5 inches. You can vary the length and the drop weight on your bat.
Another thing that distinguished the F110 from other bat is the handle diameter. Measuring 31/32nds of an inch, it’s more suited to bigger hands and more capable against the inside pitch. Hopefully, the durability cited holds true, since I’d like to use this bat for a long time. With that thicker handle, one expects it will be less prone to breakage. I like the feel of the thicker handle, but am wondering about the knob….
Of late, in reading about hitting, I probably understood for the first time that my grip was simply wrong. I never meant to, but somewhere along the way, I started gripping my bat with something akin to a death grip. That is, of course, the exact opposite of what you’re supposed to do. As Crash Davis tells Nuke Laloosh about the baseball when pitching, you should handle it like an egg. Tensing your arm and hand muscles to squeeze the bat is counter-productive. Holding the bat gently is key. Adam LaRoche is so good at this – and embraces the trend of ‘no-knob’ bats – that his bat can come right out of his hands on the follow through. My first time in the batting cage this year, I developed a blister on hand about a quarter of the way up the palm. I’m having some issues with excessive dryness and chapping on my left hand and little blood blisters formed right along the line of chapped skin. I had felt my skin ‘bunching’ with each batting practice swing and the heel pressed against the knob. It healed up after a few days, though. The F110 has a medium flared knob, while LaRoche’s bats have none.
So, I wonder about the knob.
The barrel of the F110 is 2.5 inches. My softball bats probably were never close to that broad. When you get into the power hitting bats from Phoenix Bats, you can select ones that are even broader, but 2.5 is a pretty good starting size. Those power hitter’s bats have to be even heavier than mine. Any increase is size, though it come with an attendant increase in weight, is also going to give you a bigger sweet spot. The bigger the sweet spot, the more forgiving your contact can be, and the more power you can impart with perfect contact.
They also offer your choice of three types of wood: Rock Maple, Yellow Birch and Northern White Ash. Maple is the strongest, with Ash having the most flexibility. Maple will give you the most pop and the best protection inside. Ash has a bigger sweet spot and is more forgiving off the end of the bat. Birch is somewhere in the middle, giving better action on mishits all over, but not as much pop anywhere. I chose Maple, since I was tortured inside last year and want some pop.
Now, you have to wondering, how did all this play out in the game?
In my first at-bat, the pitcher had been wild, with pitches sailing over heads and going wide. So, I stood like a stone wall and watched the first pitch. Best pitch he’d thrown in a long time. He threw the next over my head, then followed with one I thought missed the inside corner. So, with two strikes, I flailed wildly at strike three, a little high near the top of the strike zone. I could have been holding a broomstick for all the difference it made.
Of note, Andrew Cline has been showing his prowess with the glove. In the fall, he played in the outfield with me a lot. He is far faster than I am, so his Willie Mays act won accolades and made everyone look forward to the spring. Fred chose Andrew to start in center for the first two games. He’s been batting atop the lineup, but not seeing pitches he can hit. With our team, you can pretty much play any position after the first inning. People flow in and out, with no one sitting the bench two consecutive innings.
So, he took third one inning and a line drive destined for left field shot in between him and the line about knee height. He dove to snag it and threw the shocked runner from second out – while Andrew was nearly on his back. That would have been our ‘web gem’, except he took shortstop later in the game.
The bases were loaded and our lead had dwindled to two runs. The ball was popped into shallow left field. It was one of those perfect Texas Leaguers – moreso because in Ponce, there are nearly no quick fielders – but Andrew didn’t know he wasn’t supposed to have a play on the ball. Racing back, he caught the ball over his shoulder – more Willie Mays than he’d ever needed in the fall – recording the third out and saving two runs.
The rookie has more than proven his worth.
Last year, as I noted, I was nervous at bat for half the season. Chris Valtin, who helped me get onto the team, said to me, “It’s all in the mental approach. Get your head in the right place and everything else flows from there.” Since that advice was mirrored in The Louisville Slugger® Complete Book of Hitting Faults and Fixes : How to Detect and Correct the 50 Most Common Mistakes at the Plate, you know it’s true. I started going to the plate thinking I was going to get a hit. They started coming. In the fall, my confidence was far higher and the pitching was spot-on – faster, but more accurate. So, I regularly collected a pair of hits each week.
Nonetheless, I wanted a ‘professional’ bat. Is it better for me because of the facets laid out above about handle size, weight, length, sweet spot and knob? Or is it better because I think it’s better? Or does it make no difference at all?
Men were on first and second when I came up. Having been burned by watching when I love being an aggressive hitter, I went up to swing. When that pitch came off the sweet spot on my F110 (visible on the cherry finish I had them put on the barrel), I didn’t feel it in the slightest. When you hit the ball just right, it’s like… nothing. The ball sailed into the GAP between the left fielder and center fielder. I rounded first crisply, having seen the left fielder’s back and downstretched glove fail to stop the ball. I cruised into second, having hit my first ball to the warning track since about 1997 (once, in softball batting practice).
Was it the bat? Was it the mental approach? Was it the grip? Was it just one of those lucky things?
Could have been anything, but I’m going to keep using the bat, stick that approach and remind myself to use the grip, the stance, and everything. I’m just glad to help the team and, hopefully, everything will work out.
My totals for the day: 1 for 2, with a HBP and one RBI.
Final score: 11-9 victory, after a wide early lead
Season stats: .600 (3/5) batting average, .800 SLG, 1.467 OPS, 1 HBP, 1 2B, 1 SB, 1 R, 1 RBI