LONG BEACH — In perfect August Southern California weather, the 23rd-annual Area Code Games began Aug. 5 at Blair Field in Long Beach, Calif.
The first day of the Area Code event was highlighted by wood bat batting practice on the main stadium field and by SPARQ athletic skills testing on a nearby softball diamond. Results of the SPARQ tests should be available Aug. 6.
For amateur players accustomed to metal bats, wood bat BP can be maddening and frustrating, even for elite high school prospects. Any Dad assembling an elaborate toy on Christmas morning has experienced similar bewilderment: Insert the hexagonal flex nut into the diagonal wing flange . . .
Help, thankfully, is on the way. I spoke to Don Slaught, a former big league hitting coach who played in the majors for seven clubs from 1982 to 1997. Slaught is currently the president of Right View Pro, a hitting video instruction company.
Using Right View’s computer video program, Slaught pointed out the swing essentials common to all great hitters, while concurrently illustrating where youngsters go astray.
Most amateur hitters, Slaught said, don’t use their legs properly and fail to position their hands and back elbow correctly. Slaught insists that a proper “attack posture” should be followed by a swing that starts slowly, accelerates at contact, and traces the pattern of slight uppercut, keeping the bat “on plane." Proper mechanics, Slaught said, “maintain your ability to adjust to the pitch longer."
This week, Right View has cameras positioned at strategic points around Blair Field, capturing every pitch and every swing of each game. Hitters can view each at bat, and compare their swings, frame-by-frame, with the swings of the best big league hitters.
By far the most fascinating video Slaught has on file shows Mickey Mantle and Ichiro Suzuki. Shockingly, Mantle’s lefthanded swing (taken from a mid 1950’s black and white film) and Ichiro’s cut are near exact replicas at every stage of the swing path.
Slaught also recorded each swing in last year’s Area Code Games, and found the best swing, from a mechanical standpoint, to belong to (drum roll please): Bryce Harper. Using a computer program that slows down each swing into precise sections, Slaught pointed out each individual stage of Harper’s swing—and found it to be remarkably similar to the best pro hitters.
The majority of BP hitters on Wednesday possess the talent to be excellent hitters, but are a vast distance away from mastering the technical aspect. A few, however, did stand out. Among the top BP hitters Wednesday were . . .
Kris Bryant, 3b, Bonanza HS, Las Vegas
Bryant needed a few turns in the cage to get his blood flowing, but he is gifted with a smooth and easy pro-type fly ball power swing. Don’t be surprised if Bryant winds up being selected as the top prospect in this year’s Games. At third base, he exhibits soft and relaxed hands and a comfortable whip-like throwing action. Bryant is reminiscent of Matt Dominguez, the 12th-overall pick in the 2007 draft.
Marcus Littlewood, ss, Pine View HS, St. George, Utah
Littlewood was acceptable as a lefthanded hitter and electrifying as a right hander. The ball flies off his bat from that side, and he ripped one shot that reached the fence in an eye blink.
Greg Brodzinski, c, Bishop Eustice HS, Turnersville, N.J.
Brodzinski displays a pro type inward shoulder turn and leg kick, and his easy loft swing produces long drives which appear to bounce off of his bat. He may need to eliminate his habit of wrapping the bat around his head.
Josh Sale, of, Bishop Blanchet HS, Seattle
In scouting vernacular, Sale is “wound tight." Intense and determined, Sale shows quickness, bat speed and some power. He looks for an inside pitch to hammer and drive; however, he will drift into stretches where he flips his front side open and drags the bat barrel behind. Sale may benefit from relaxing his hands a shade.
Austin Wilson, Harvard Westlake School, Sherman Oaks, Calif.
Wilson would probably be the first one to admit that this was not his best day. He was rolling his top hand too often and coming around the ball frequently, but when Wilson keeps his swing on an inside path and squares a pitch up he reminds observers of Marlins top prospect Mike Stanton. Wilson has that rare ability to drive a pitch deep even when he does not put an ideal swing on the ball.
Angelo Gumbs, Torrance (Calif.) HS
A terrific all-around athlete, Gumbs may have the quickest bat in Long Beach. He struggles to produce results due to an exceptionally tight top-hand grip, which cuts his power significantly. Gumbs also needs to keep his front side closed slightly longer.
One of the highlights of the Area Code Games is the Major League Baseball symposium, which will be held Thursday night. The Area Codes Games continue through Aug. 10.