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 overnight. Toronto’s Jose Bautista is an example of that -- someone who had hit home runs in the low double-digits and was suddenly jacking 30-plus home runs each season.
Like Minnesota’s Kirby Puckett, Bautista had the prerequisite tools which can equate to that type of power (quick hands, strong lower-half and powerful hips). The trick was putting it all together. For Puckett the tipping point would come in his third season with the Twins.
In his first two season in the majors Puckett posted an impressive .292 average but hit just only four home runs in over 1,300 trips to the plate. That style of hitting according to Rachel A. Koestler-Grack in her book “Kirby Puckett (Baseball Superstars)” was based on the teachings from one of the organization’s roving minor league hitting instructors and legendary hitter, Tony Oliva.
Together, Oliva and Puckett honed his inside-out swing that delivered base hit after base hit offered little in the way of power. However some in the organization sensed that beneath the singles exterior was long ball potential. Puckett would just need a push.
The push may have come in the form of peer pressure. Puckett told Sports Illustrated in 1986 that Reggie Jackson had found Puckett in the outfield before a game in Anaheim two years prior. Jackson approached the then-rookie center fielder. Looking him up and down, Jackson asked "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?"
Opponents weren't the only ones who would poke fun at Puckett’s single-minded approach at the plate. 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. According to Chuck Carlson in his book “Puck!” the Twins’ regular lead-off hitter released his frustration in batting practice, 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 believed he could 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.
It would be Oliva, who had moved on to being the major league hitting coach, 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 approach had allowed teams to shift their outfield around on him to prevent him from driving the ball into empty space in right (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 for more hits to fall as outfielders would have to play back more to respect his bat.
In addition to the approach adjustment Puckett also hit the weights hard during the offseason -- or perhaps the buffet, depending on who you asked.
When he reported to spring training in 1986 Puckett tipped the scales at 212 pounds. That kind of weight on his five-foot-eight frame caused some 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 jokingly said after he showed up to camp.
Twins manager Ray Miller was not convinced this was necessarily a positive move.
When the Twins entered a late-May series in New York, Miller implored his outfielder not attempt to drive anything out of the vast Yankee Stadium. After sending two long outs into the spacious outfield 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. When Puckett returned to the dugout he told Miller “Too big for me, huh? There’s your ‘too big’” and refused to shake Miller’s hand in jest.
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 out-pour 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 from August 1985. This is Puckett's pre-power 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. Puckett displays his new swing complete with the iconic higher leg kick driving his weight to his back leg before firing forward:
Former pitcher and All Star Game broadcast Jim Palmer summarized the changes.
“They made a change. They moved him up on the plate, you can see him on top of the plate,” he said 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 the at bat Palmer mentioned that pitchers started to adjust to the new Puckett by busting him inside. Pitchers had started to throw inside on him to move him off the plate. On a road trip in Seattle, twice the Mariners’ hurlers threw at Puckett’s head to get him to move his feet. The message pitches 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.''
Beginning in 1986 Puckett's new swing would result in 20-plus home runs in each of the next three seasons.The trademark Puckett swing would become 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 power so quickly. Because it is baseball and steroids have permeated the game for so long, these trends invite accusations. Even Bill James lobbed some at Puckett in 2008.
Is it possible that Kirby Puckett used steroids and make changes to his swing to get these results? Potentially, but there is nothing more than hearsay and unsubstantiated rumors.
What we do know is that Kirby Puckett had the raw natural tools and physical stature to orchestrate that power production. He just needed the right coaching and the right mindset. In a way Puckett's story is not unlike Brian Dozier who was a few adjustments go from a single-season high of 12 home runs in the minors to 42 in 2016.
Puckett's career trajectory is of a player who went from a turf burner to a power threat. Without that conversion, it's possible that the Twins don't win two World Series in five years.
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