One element that separates the pre-1980 ballplayer and the modern baseballer is the weight training program. There is no question that lifting weights can significantly improve your strength and help you become a better ballplayer. However, many players — young and old — seem to think that a bodybuilder-type program will help their game.
Let’s use our noggins here, boys. Take a look at Hank Aaron, the all-time home run leader of the Major Leagues: listed as 6 feet tall, 180 pounds (and he was probably slightly shorter, and lighter, in his playing days). One man hit more home runs, professionally, than Aaron: Sadaharu Oh of Japan. In fact, Oh hit over 100 more than Aaron in his career, and he played at 5’11”, 175 lbs. Neither of these players would be considered musclebound, not even “big”. They were both pretty average, as far as body type, in their leagues and in their times. However, they knew what to do with their body to make the ball go over the fence.
Before you dismiss these two men as freaks of nature, consider more fairly lean home run hitters over the course of history: Willie Mays, George Foster, and Andruw Jones all hit over 50 home runs in a season, and none of them weighed over 190 pounds. Graig Nettles was a prolific homerun hitter in the mid-1970s, yet was 6’1″, 175. Two of the most feared sluggers of the 1970s and 1980s, Jim Rice and Reggie Jackson, were considered strong, but looking at them now, they’d hardly be considered “big”. In fact, at 6’2″, 210 lbs., Rice has the build of a shortstop.
We can thank Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa for bringing attention back to Major League Baseball in 1998, thanks to their miraculous chase for the single-season home run record. In the aftermath, however, we can blame these two steroid-enhanced goons, as well as juiceheads such as Barry Bonds and Luis Gonzalez, for furthering the notion that a Schwarzenegger-like physique will make you a better hitter.
While it’s true that sheer strength can increase your bat speed, and add a few feet to a fly ball, it doesn’t mean that muscles mean home runs. The singlemost important resource we have as athletes — and human beings — is time, and faced with? the decision to spend an extra hour in the weight room? or an extra hour in the batting cage, the? decision should always be the batting cage. Technique, coupled with repetition, will help a player become a better hitter? much more than maxing out on the bench press.
Charley Lau used to say that a hitter needed to learn how to hit first, and then, eventually, somewhere down the line, he could learn to hit home runs — maybe. One of his prize pupils, George Brett, epitomized this theory. Brett was a .300 hitter before he was a 20-homer slugger. And the reason you don’t see over-the-top homerun totals when looking at his career stats is because most of the time, he wasn’t trying to hit a home run. Brett’s goal, 90% of the time, was to hit a line drive — because with that approach you have a much better chance of succeeding than if you swing for the fences. When Brett did hit a home run, he did it on purpose, believe it or not. That’s not to say he could hit a home run at will, of course; it means that he hit a home run when that was his goal, because the game situation dictated it. Once you become a great hitter, and know your body and your swing that well, and have seen enough pitches to immediately react, and the pitcher lets you, you can do the same thing. In the meantime, work on honing your swing; work on increasing bat speed; learn to pick out and turn on the inside pitch; pay attention to pitching patterns — these are the things that will help you hit a home run. And not one of those exercises involves a barbell.