Kagan knows importance of strong stance
Players break down Supreme Court nominee's plate approach
Elena Kagan will be scrutinized about her stance on everything in the coming weeks, now that President Barack Obama has nominated her for a spot on the U.S. Supreme Court.
Without taking sides on the matter, we at MLB.com thought it would be fun to look closely at another stance. A 1993 black-and-white photo of Kagan, from the University of Chicago Law School, was published on the front of Tuesday's Wall Street Journal with the headline, "Court Nominee Comes to the Plate." It shows her standing in the right-hand batter's box choking up on a bat and waiting with a smile for the pitch.
It made sense to ask around the clubhouses at Tuesday night's game between the Nationals and Mets at Citi Field, because (a) she could become a member of the most powerful bench in Washington and (b) she grew up in New York and is a Mets fan. The reviews by Major League Baseball players were mixed, even yielding some astute advice.
"It actually looks good," Mets catcher Rod Barajas said, holding the newspaper at his locker. "It looks like her weight's distributed evenly. Her hands are up. She's holding the bat the right way. That's something you could work with. That's something I could go out there and feel comfortable getting in the batter's box, looking like that."
Ryan Zimmerman was sitting in front of his locker before batting practice, clearly not prepared to adopt that form. "I don't know. She's got the Barry Bonds choke-up working, maybe that's two strikes on her. I don't know. She doesn't look too aggressive. She doesn't have a very intimidating face working, either. It looks like she's friends with the pitcher or something.
"It's not terrible, though. It's not great, but it's not terrible. It's not looking too aggressive. She's not looking ready to hit. She definitely looks like a Punch-and-Judy hitter, not really a power hitter."
The newspaper was passed down several lockers to that of Ivan Rodriguez, who has seen every kind of stance possible from his squatting position behind home plate. He took a long look at the image in front of him and pronounced it worthy of a true hitter.
"It doesn't look that bad," he said. "You've got two eyes to the pitcher. You've got good balance. All the balance is on the back leg. It doesn't look that bad. Batting stance looks OK -- but I don't know the swing.
"I think the batting stance is perfect, right there. Maybe she brings the bat a little longer. It looks good so far."
What would he tell her if he were squatting behind the plate during that at-bat?
"I don't know, you've got to play the game serious, I can't tell her what's coming," he said. "The only thing I could tell her would be, 'Be ready. Be ready to swing.'"
Mets outfielder Jeff Francoeur dismissed the positive reviews of both starting catchers in that evening's game.
"They're catchers," he said, grinning.
"First of all," he continued, "I'll say that she's choked way too far up on the bat. It looks like the lower hand's kind of too much over, knuckles need alignment. You can tell she's gripping the bat way too hard. She's not going to be able to get it there.
"The stance is not very good. Her feet are kind of open here. That's not going to make for a real good, powerful stance. Smiling at the pitcher is probably not a great idea.
"I do like how the head is turned. Her shoulders are nice. She's balanced. But it's not a very strong stance and you can't smile at the pitcher or you're gonna get hit. You're gonna get hit."
When told that she is a Mets fan, Francoeur shifted his position. "Is she?" he asked. "Well, tell her I like her then. Tell her she's got a good stance."
Nationals closer Matt Capps seems to have as good a read on batting stances today as anyone, winning the Majors' top reliever award for the month of April. He said it is a "good stance" overall, but added: "Even the good hitters are pitchable."
"It looks like she's choking up there and she's locked down, so it looks like she's going to give you an aggressive fight -- which is probably a good thing in the position she's going to be in," Capps said. "But with the bat head going up like that, I'm probably going to try and throw the ball on the inner part of the plate and see if I can't jam her.
"I'm going to go hard in and soft away, and try to mix up the timing a little bit. It looks like with her stance, she's going to have a hard time getting to the ball on the inner half of the plate. Anything breaking away from her, with me being a righty, she'll be a little bit in front of.
"Just the position of her hands and the position of the barrel of the bat, that's a lot of travel for that bat head to come all the way around through the middle. Where if she lowered it, she could just drop it down on the outside part of the plate hard. That's a lot of bat-head travel to get to the inner part of the plate. I don't know, I'd have to see her swing. Maybe her hands are quick enough at this stage of her life where she could still get to it."
Back at the MLB.com studios, we talked to another noted former reliever who had to make a living scrutinizing batters and knowing how to exploit their weaknesses. Here's what Jeff Nelson had to say as he looked at the newspaper photo:
"Whoever chokes up, you've got to throw them inside. Anybody who chokes up has a hard time hitting that ball inside, so they need to get around on it a little bit earlier. It looks like she wouldn't be able to handle the ball inside.
"Choking up lets you get around faster, but in most cases they want to have quicker bat speed. Choking up gives you quicker bat speed, but you still have to jam her, pitch her inside."
What about the cerebral element? She may soon be a Supreme Court Justice.
"Her stance probably needs a lot of work. But she's very smart, so she'd quickly figure out what a pitcher is going to throw anyway," Nelson said.
"I guarantee if she saw a breaking ball come at her she might be sitting on her butt on the dirt. She's probably never seen one of those.
"It looks like she is probably a low-ball hitter, so you pitch her up in the zone, too. She'll swing right through them. You look at Barry Bonds, he choked up, and he was a low-ball hitter. You want to pitch up in the zone and they usually wind up swinging right through it."
Adam Kennedy, the Nationals' second baseman, took one look at the picture and would say only: "I don't like right-handed swings."
Jose Reyes, leaning against the dugout rail during batting practice, looked at the picture and gave it a thumbs-up. "It's not bad. It's good. It's perfect," he said. "Hands are in good position. Feet, too. A little open with the left foot. She's good so far there."
And she's a Mets fan.
"Yeah?" he replied. "Say hello to her."