Would eyes on the ball help Baez? Legendary high school coach thinks so
He's a walking encyclopedia of baseball knowledge who also carries a binder full of visual examples.
Longtime Barrington High School baseball coach Kirby Smith, 85, is sharp. He analyzes the game and can even get in the batting cage for demonstrations.
He reached out after the Daily Herald's end of season Cubs analysis series. Like many Cubs observers, he focused on why shortstop Javy Baez went from an MVP runner-up in 2018 to a season-long slump in 2020.
"If you look at Baez, unless he's hitting the ball to right field, he usually is struggling because his head will release early because he can't wait to see where the ball's going to go," Smith said.
Smith chooses his words carefully, because he's cognizant of coming across as critical of a (mostly) successful major league player. But Smith certainly has the credentials to provide hitting analysis, from his long run as a successful high school coach, as well as his work with the Milwaukee Brewers in vision training.
Smith believes some vision training exercises could help Baez. That's where the binder comes into play. Smith has dozens of pages filled with photos of major league hitters making contact at the plate. One of his examples of a hitter following the ball to the bat is White Sox first baseman Jose Abreu, who was voted American League MVP.
"The notebook (began) as a collection of pictures I assembled when I was working in Milwaukee," Smith said. "If somebody has a good day at the plate, invariably his picture will appear in the paper and I'll usually cut it out. The first thing I'll do is draw a line from his sightline to where he's looking or seeing the ball."
After retiring from Barrington in 1998, Smith spent a couple of years working with the Brewers on a vision training program. It starts with a machine that can hurl tennis balls toward the plate at speeds of 130 mph and beyond.
The tennis balls will have numbers or colored dots on the sides. The goal isn't necessarily to hit the ball, but to follow it all the way to the plate and try to identify the number or color on the ball.
Longtime Seattle Mariners slugger Edgar Martinez was a proponent of the vision training and described the process in an interview with MLB Network in 2019.
"The problem I had was my eyes don't work together," Martinez said. "The tennis ball will come out about 130 miles per hour. I hold the bat (over the plate) and I would try to track the ball as far as I could.
"If the ball is spinning, you won't be able to see it. But sometimes it comes almost like a knuckleball and then you can see the number. And that's good. At the beginning, I couldn't even see anything."
Cubs fans have gotten used to Baez swinging wildly at some bad pitches. In past seasons, he's connected often enough to become one of the best shortstops in MLB. This season, he didn't.
"If Baez is looking at the center field and the ball is missing his bat by two feet, he's not watching the ball. It's that simple," Smith said. "When Baez hits the ball to right field, he's a terror. The funny thing is, there are certain players that don't dwell on this and they're easy to identify."
Upon request, Smith shared his observations on the other Cubs hitters who had career-worst seasons in 2020.
"Anthony Rizzo's pretty good and he works on it," Smith said. "Kris Bryant does a good job of tracking the ball. Kyle Schwarber isn't too bad, really.
"In my opinion, (Schwarber) does a fair job of tracking the ball, but when he decides that he's going to get a certain pitch, I think he tries to unload on the ball and he might have some slight discrepancies that cause him to release his eyes early. On the other hand, when he's going to the opposite field, his eyes are looking that way.
"Another guy that's got bad eyes is (White Sox outfielder) Adam Engel. He's improved this year, but he's a first-ball fastball guy and he hits the ball before they pitch to him."
Smith also helped the Cubs implement a vision-training program in 1999, but the practice seems to have fallen off over time. Smith gave his tennis-ball machine to The FattFro Zone in Lake Barrington. Actually, he said he traded it for a stationary bike.
It's unclear what Baez will be doing this winter to break out of his 2020 funk. But the vision training is available for any slumping major leaguers, or area high school baseball and softball players who want to try it.
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