How Did Kirby Puckett Become A Power Hitter?
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):
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:
“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:
And even more iconic in 1991:
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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