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How Did Kirby Puckett Become A Power Hitter?

In 1986, the Minnesota Twins' Kirby Puckett jumped from four home runs to 31 in a single-season. How did he do it?
In baseball history, there are a handful of players who have transformed from a mediocre player into a power threat seemingly overnight. Toronto’s Jose Bautista is a recent example of that -- someone who had hit home runs in the low double-digits and was suddenly jacking 30-plus dingers annually. Like Minnesota’s Kirby Puckett, Bautista had the prerequisite tools that can equate to that type of power (quick hands, strong lower-half and powerful hips). The trick was putting it altogether and, for Puckett, the tipping point would come in his third season with the Twins.

When Puckett finished his first two seasons in the majors with an impressive .292 average but managed only four home runs in over 1,300 trips to the plate. According to Rachel A. Koestler-Grack in her book “Kirby Puckett (Baseball Superstars)”, up to this point in his career Puckett had cultivated his style based on the teachings from one of the organization’s roving minor league hitting instructors, Tony Oliva. Together in the minors they honed his inside-out swing that delivered base hit after base hit to right field but offered little in the way of round-trip power. Still, many sensed that beneath the singles exterior was double-digit home run potential. He would just need a push in that direction.

Maybe it was peer pressure that resulted in Puckett’s drive for power. In their first encounter, Puckett recalled to Sports Illustrated in 1986, Reggie Jackson had found then-rookie Puckett in the outfield before a game in Anaheim and looked at the stocky center fielder. Looking him up and down, Jackson asked Puckett, "You hit the long ball?" "Nope", Puckett replied, "I’m a base-hit hitter." "Then what am I doing here," Jackson said mockingly, "Why am I talking to this Punch and Judy hitter?"

It was not just players on other teams who would poke fun at Puckett’s single-minded approach at the plate -- even his own teammates would razz him for the lack of power. When he finally hit a home run in 1985, the rest of the Twins gave him the silent treatment in the dugout which Puckett felt was a dig. He was certainly strong enough, he just needed to work on his swing. According to Chuck Carlson in his book “Puck!”, the Twins’ regular leadoff hitter took the frustration out in batting practice that year, at one point clearing the fence on 10 swings in a row. Puckett made the decision that he wanted to add the long ball to his repertoire.

Even though he had the appearance and desire to be a power hitter, Puckett was apprehensive about altering his swing from the base hit mode. “It scared me because being a home run hitter brings a lot more pressure. I didn’t know whether I wanted that,” Puckett said of that time. It would be Oliva, now the hitting coach for the Twins, who would help convince him that it would be beneficial beyond just the home runs - it would led to more base hits as well. Puckett’s opposite field tendencies had allowed teams to shift their outfield around on him to prevent him from driving the ball into empty space in right field (not unlike the inverse alignment that Joe Mauer faced on occasion in 2014). Pulling the ball more, Oliva convinced Puckett, would open up the field more for his hits to fall as outfielders would have to play back more and straight up.

In addition to the tweaks to his swing, Puckett also hit the weights hard during the offseason. Or the buffet, depending on who you asked. When he reported to spring training in 1986, he tipped the scales at 212 pounds. That kind of weight on his five-foot-eight frame which caused concern among the coaching staff. He had gained 17 pounds over the winter. “What else can you do in Minnesota during the winter except eat?" Puckett said after he showed up to camp. Meanwhile, the coaches wondered what would happen to his defensive coverage? What of his speed on the bases?

Even then-Twins manager Ray Miller was not convinced this was necessarily a positive move from Puckett. When the Twins entered a late-May series in New York, Miller implored his outfielder not attempt to drive anything out of Yankee Stadium. After sending two long outs into the spacious outfield in the Bronx the previous night against the Yankees’ Ron Guidry, Miller reportedly told Puckett “this park’s too big for you” on the way back to the hotel. The next day, in his second at-bat Puckett drove a Joe Niekro offering 450+ feet over the center field wall into the memorials of bygone Yanks. When Puckett returned to the dugout, he told Miller “Too big for me, huh? There’s your ‘too big’” and jokingly refused to shake Miller’s hand.

Kirby Puckett had officially arrived. As the 1986 season progressed, Puckett was a one-man wrecking crew. His eight home runs in the month of April were the best in baseball. He added seven more in May. No longer was he a “turf hitter”, expected to drive the ball down or to right field. This outpour of offense earned him a trip to his first All-Star Game in Houston.

Here we can see the difference in Puckett’s swing from 1985 to 1986. While the ball in play results are nearly identical in both clips, the process is significantly different. The first clip is of an August 1985 game in Los Angeles (Rod Carew’s 3,000 hit game) which depicts a Puckett swing that has a shorter leg kick and much more movement from his feet after his swing (diving at the pitch rather than keeping his weight back):

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Compare that to his 1986 midsummer classic swing. In his first All-Star Game, Puckett displays his new swing -- higher leg kick that starts earlier with his weight back:

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“They made a change. They moved him up on the plate, you can see him on top of the plate,” said broadcaster and former pitcher Jim Palmer during Puckett’s 1986 All-Star Game at-bat. “He came up as basically a contact hitter, just trying to hit it down on the turf in Minnesota. This year Oliva did change him and if you look at his build you can see he can hit the ball a long way.”

During his at-bat, Palmer also alluded to pitchers starting to adjust to Puckett, attempting to bust him inside. According to one report in May, pitchers had started to throw inside on him to move him out of his new-found batter’s box location. On a road trip in Seattle, twice the Mariners’ hurlers threw at Puckett’s head to get him to move his feet. The messages didn’t phase him. “'Pitchers have been knocking him down, and he has been knocking them back,'' Ray Miller told reporters. ''He hit one off a pitcher's leg in Seattle after the guy threw one behind his ear.''

The trademark Puckett swing became a household brand when the Twins reached the World Series in 1987:


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And even more iconic in 1991:

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****


There are plenty of theories of how Kirby Puckett became one of the first players to go from so little to so much so quickly. Yes, there was a time when steroids were all over baseball like Bradley Cooper on Betty White. (In retrospect, it felt wrong but was entertaining nonetheless.) Even Bill James made this accusation towards Puckett in 2008.

Is power that easy to develop? Obviously Puckett had the raw natural tools and physical stature that needed some coaching to orchestrate the production. In a way, that is not unlike Brian Dozier who had just a few adjustments to surpass his previous season-high of home runs from 12 in the minors to 20 in the big leagues.

Puckett represents something in baseball that has grown increasingly rare as showcases, year-round play and the internet helps track and identify talent which may have otherwise fallen through the cracks.
The Twins found Puckett because mainly because scouting director Jim Rantz’s son happened to play in the same league and major league baseball decided to have a labor issue. Would Puckett have been discovered without that series of events? Possibly. After all, he eventually performed well enough in the junior college circuit to garner attention (fortunately for the Twins’ they had already had the exclusive rights to negotiate with him). Additionally, Puckett also represents the rare player who changes who he was (“turf hitter”) into something completely different (“power hitter”). Puckett obviously maintained the ability to get hits -- as evidenced by his career .342 batting average on balls in play, the fifth-highest among qualified hitters since 1981 -- but would he have developed into the power hitter if it were not for Tony Oliva?

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49 Comments

jumped from four home runs to 31 in a single-season - is that a Mauer prediction?

"Like Bradley Cooper on Betty White."  HA!!!

    • glunn, HitInAPinch and Bill Tanner like this

It was a crazy thing! I don't know how to explain it, and probably shouldn't (dont want to) overthink it as Bill James did. Ha!

 

I remember as an 8-year-old when he was called up liking him, probably just because of his name. I remember as a 9-year-old, getting ready for school, and my mom coming into the room and telling me that Puckett had homered the night before. 

 

But to go from 4 to 31 is crazy. He did alter his approach. I think he also did a better job of laying off of certain pitches (outside slider, for example). He didn't like to walk at all, but he definitely had a better approach at the plate and better eye for what was a strike. 

    • glunn likes this

He keeps his weight back, his head still and he strides toward the pitcher. It also appears he is swinging no harder but rather letting improved mechanics power his swing. He is trying to drive the ball rather than pull the ball. He used all fields so he hit for power and average.  Arcia should watch it over and over again, not for the leg kick but for the balance and plate coverage.

    • glunn and HitInAPinch like this
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Parker Hageman
Feb 18 2015 08:54 AM
He keeps his weight back, his head still and he strides toward the pitcher.

 

 

In response to the weight gain, Puckett responded by saying the added LBs helped him stay back/anchored. 

    • glunn likes this
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Parker Hageman
Feb 18 2015 09:04 AM
He did alter his approach. I think he also did a better job of laying off of certain pitches (outside slider, for example). He didn't like to walk at all, but he definitely had a better approach at the plate and better eye for what was a strike.

 

 

I don't know if Puckett ever laid off certain pitches -- I recall that he still swung at offerings that he couldn't hit with a 10-foot pole throughout his career -- but pulling the ball more seemed to allow for greater success, whether it was because of keeping the defense honest or just because he was driving the ball harder. Obviously we do not have batted ball data or swing zone heat maps like we do now but that would have been great to compare those seasons (1984-1985 to after). 

    • glunn likes this
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HitInAPinch
Feb 18 2015 09:14 AM

It's pretty simple:you learn to make contact before you try hitting for power.The leg kick is a timing mechanism that most power hitters use for a quick powerful swing. 

 

And, yes, Mauer can do this as well.The Twins need to make sure he is ONLY listening to Brunansky.And he already has one advantage over Puckett:He's tall enough to have an uppercut. 

    • h2oface likes this
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Parker Hageman
Feb 18 2015 09:21 AM
It's pretty simple:you learn to make contact before you try hitting for power.The leg kick is a timing mechanism that most power hitters use for a quick powerful swing.

 

 

Ben Revere has the highest contact rate in the majors. He is not one leg kick away from 20+ home runs in a season. I understand what you are driving  at but that is a vast oversimplification for what happened to Puckett from 1985 to 1986. 

 

Can Mauer do this? Maybe. He does have the issue of not being able to pull the ball: http://twinsdaily.co...joe-mauer-r3348.

    • Dantes929 and KGB like this

Well, if nothing else, this reminded me of how much I loved Puckett.

    • Parker Hageman, glunn, Oldgoat_MN and 1 other like this

I hope Joe Mauer reads this article.

I hope Joe Mauer reads this article.

I guess it depends on perspective. To me it looked like Mauer swung harder andtried to pull the ball more last year, gained no power and lost 50 points in average. I certainly cannot imagine him with a leg kick and don't believe everyone is built that way.  I would prefer Arcia read this article to learn how to harness his swing in order to be able to hit for average and power rather than just power. I believe he has the talent, just not the skill yet.  

    • glunn and TwinsMasochist like this

  I certainly cannot imagine him with a leg kick and don't believe everyone is built that way.  

Of course no one is built like Kirby Puckett.

    • glunn likes this
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Parker Hageman
Feb 18 2015 11:21 AM
I certainly cannot imagine him with a leg kick and don't believe everyone is built that way.  I would prefer Arcia read this article to learn how to harness his swing in order to be able to hit for average and power rather than just power. I believe he has the talent, just not the skill yet.

 

 

We do fixate a lot on the leg kick that Puckett added, but it is not necessarily the driving force that helped him accumulate all those home runs. In his profile of Jose Bautista's reinvention, it was the timing of his swing that was the focal point of his rebuild -- the leg keg was added for "rhythm". Puckett's leg kick added rhythm and helps with his timing. Timing was one of the cited factors for Brian Dozier's increased power. Arcia possesses the similar leg kick but you see his timing being off -- that is one area I hope he focuses on for the future.

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lightfoot789
Feb 18 2015 11:44 AM

Oliva had similar thoughts on Walker

 

This is from an article by Jim Crikket while sitting with Oliva at a game discussing.
 

"I saw the way Tony Oliva’s eyes lit up watching him play. When Oliva made an appearance in Cedar Rapids this summer, I found myself in the pressbox alone with him for an inning or so. He wanted to talk about Walker. I told him I thought Walker needed to learn to take that outside pitch to the opposite field and Oliva’s response was something along the lines of, “Noooo, why?! Let him pull the ball!” And you could just see in his eyes and his smile that he really liked Walker as a hitter."

    • Seth Stohs and glunn like this

I hope Joe Mauer reads this article.

I hope Joe avoids all discussions like this, and basically anything on the internet about him, and focuses on just getting back to being how he was before. I would prefer no one gets in his head.  I want to let him get back to doing what he does well and stop expecting him to be someone he isn't.

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Parker Hageman
Feb 18 2015 11:54 AM

Oliva had similar thoughts on Walker

 

This is from an article by Jim Crikket while sitting with Oliva at a game discussing.
 

"I saw the way Tony Oliva’s eyes lit up watching him play. When Oliva made an appearance in Cedar Rapids this summer, I found myself in the pressbox alone with him for an inning or so. He wanted to talk about Walker. I told him I thought Walker needed to learn to take that outside pitch to the opposite field and Oliva’s response was something along the lines of, “Noooo, why?! Let him pull the ball!” And you could just see in his eyes and his smile that he really liked Walker as a hitter."

 

 

I thought a note from Halsey Hall in his Hammond Happenings thread saying that the Twins had requested that Oliva and Rod Carew not give hitting instruction any more was interesting: http://twinsdaily.co...nings/?p=306228

    • glunn likes this

Can Mauer do this? Maybe. He does have the issue of not being able to pull the ball: http://twinsdaily.co...joe-mauer-r3348.

 

You are better at spotting these types of things than most or all of the rest of the board.  Has Joe ever gone through a similar swing modification?  My recollection is he looks pretty much the same now as he did when he came up.  Any fancy gifs that can be produced to prove or disprove that perception ;-)

Joe Mauer seems to get pitched outside a lot more than anyone else. More than any batter that I can remember. Maybe that's just my perception. When he gets pitches that are actually good to pull, he does that. Problem is he's trying to pull pitches that aren't meant to be pulled.  I imagine because people keep talking about how he has to be a power guy.

I remember as an 8-year-old when he was called up liking him, probably just because of his name.

Our oldest boy was probably 3 or 4 when he first became aware of "Cubby Pott".

Joe Mauer seems to get pitched outside a lot more than anyone else. More than any batter that I can remember. Maybe that's just my perception. When he gets pitches that are actually good to pull, he does that. Problem is he's trying to pull pitches that aren't meant to be pulled.  I imagine because people keep talking about how he has to be a power guy.

Maybe Joe should take bunting lessons from Carew and bunt into the shift.  He has good speed of foot.  Take those outside edge pitches down the empty third base line with the shift on.  A single is a single, whether you bunt or get it through the infield. 

 

Puckett adapted. I think that is the key, here. If one just always tries to be who they used to be, the pitchers and the defense adjust, and you find yourself a shell of what you once were and not who you would like to be.  Puckett became who he wanted to be because he made changes and adapted.  Someone with the athleticism of Joe Mauer should be a great candidate for adapting to keep the edge on his side instead of the opponents, whether that be power, or bunting, or hitting it where the defense isn't. 

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lightfoot789
Feb 18 2015 12:30 PM

I thought a note from Halsey Hall in his Hammond Happenings thread saying that the Twins had requested that Oliva and Rod Carew not give hitting instruction any more was interesting: http://twinsdaily.co...nings/?p=306228

 

According to Halsey they did.:)

 

Aren't you glad Puckett listened?Each hitter is different and needs his personal approach.What was good for Puckett probably wouldn't have made Mauer - Mauer.

    • Dantes929 and h2oface like this
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Parker Hageman
Feb 18 2015 12:36 PM
Has Joe ever gone through a similar swing modification?My recollection is he looks pretty much the same now as he did when he came up.Any fancy gifs that can be produced to prove or disprove that perception ;-)

 

 

Hitting instructor Bobby Tewksbary (http://tewkshitting.com/) and I were going back on several video clips of Mauer's swing from 2009 to the current edition recently. Given that clips are limited, grainier and from different angles (Dome vs Target Field) from 2009, it is hard to put together anything comprehensive. There are minor, minor differences (there's a bit more upper body tilt now, his got a more open stance now, etc). 

 

The only thing that stands out to me -- and it is hard to confirm based on the video clips -- is that he appears to be loading more with his hands/arms and shoulders before he starts his swing and that in my opinion may play a small factor in his bat speed:

 

2009: http://m.mlb.com/vid...le-plates-punto

 

2014: http://m.mlb.com/vid...n-9th/?c_id=mlb

 

I would have to GIF and isolate this but watch his loading process before bringing his hands forward. This is a trait that appears to be consistent between the two years. Is these move causing issues in his swing? Slowing his bat down? Is this intentional attempt at trying to manufacture power instead of letting it happen? 

    • glunn likes this

My god people.I know the man's a legend and is our hero and we're all Minnesota Nice but if we're going to take the time to write the damn article and comment on it we need to devote more than two sentences to the POSSIBLITY that there MAY have been some performance enhancing substances involved in this mystery.Did anyone notice that the scrawny 24 year old kid we all fell in love with weighed over 300 pounds when he died at the age of 45, 10 years after being forced to retire due to the loss of vision in one of his eyes.Don't tell anyone but exagerated weight gain and vision issues are common side effects of steroids. 

 

If we're going to have a discussion about Kirby's mysterious power surge we need to devote more than two sentences (one of which was more of a joke than a comment) to it. 

    • ShouldaCouldaWoulda likes this
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daanderson20
Feb 18 2015 01:01 PM

Kirby Puckett had a power surge in his mid to late 20's. It may be due to steroids but he was never tested. World continues to spin.

 

There's 3.

    • Pius Jefferson, Hosken Bombo Disco and Bill Tanner like this

Kirby Puckett had a power surge in his mid to late 20's. It may be due to steroids but he was never tested. World continues to spin.

 

There's 3.

I like to have some kind of actual proof before I believe someone took PEDS.  For example, Jeff Bagwell. No proof that I'm aware of. 

 

There's 4.


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