Tony Armas of the Oakland A's wasn't the American League batting champion last season (George Brett with his .390 average was), but I'd like to suggest that Mr. Armas was just as dangerous with men on base. Also that Tony should be ready to duck a few knockdown pitches this season, which can happen when the man on the mound thinks you're taking bread out of his mouth.
Watching Armas handle a bat with runners on base is a lot like watching some hayseed character from TV's "Hee Haw" play one of Beethoven's violin sonatas using an inverted saw for a bow. Right away you know something is wrong, except that somehow the music is precisely on key!
With Armas, a right-handed hitter with power, it's his front foot. Contrary to everything batters are taught about making good contact and maintaining balance, Tony lifts his front foot just before swinging at the ball, causing scouts to turn away in horror. It is their opinion that a man who pays so little attention to balance will never have a fat batting average. Of course, that was two years ago when Tony, mostly because of knee and shoulder problems, appeared in just 80 games; got 69 hits; collected 11 homers; drove in only 34 runs; and batted .248. But last year, in his first injury-free season in the majors, Armas played in 158 games; got 175 hits; collected 35 homers; drove in 109 runs; and batted .279.
He picked right up again this spring, too, with six homers and 16 RBIs in the first week and a half, leading the red-hot A's to a record-tying 10 straight victories at the start of the season.
Now nobody says that Tony hits funny, only that he has a unique batting style. Years ago they said the same things about a young man named Mel Ott, who lifted his front foot every time he swung but still managed a career 511 home runs for the old New York Giants. And of course the modern Japanese star, Sadaharu Oh, used a similar stance.
"It is not how you swing but where your hands end up that counts," Armas told me during pregame batting practice at Anaheim Stadium. "True, i lift my foot before I swing, only before I actually hit the ball my foot is again in contact wit the ground. i still get plenty of power from my stance and my wrists, which i try to keep stiff.
"As far as I'm concerned, I have always been a natural hitter with the ability to swing late and still make good contact," the 6 ft. 1 in. right fielder from Venezuela continued. "But I got a lot smarter after i met Felipe Alou, who taught me bat control, when to swing down on the ball, and the importance of picking up the flight of the ball also made me aware of a lot of things I never thought about before."
Unlike many of baseball's top hitters, especially when they were first starting out, Armas has never kept notes or a little black book on the habits of opposing pitchers.
"I prefer to rely on my instincts, although I did learn early that the good pitchers never work the good hitters the same way twice in a row," Tony said. "They not only change their patterns from year to year, they even change from series to series, especially if you have been having some success against them."
"The way to become a good home run hitter is not to try to hit home runs, but just try to make good contact," he continued. "Except for situations where we need the long ball to get back into a game, I simply go up ther looking for a pitch I can drive somewhere safely. If the ball winds up over the fence, that's OK. But usually it's the pitcher who triggers the home run by getting the ball up too high in your strike zone, or when he's trying to waste a pitch, he makes a mistake and gets it too close to the plate."
At one point in spring training this year, Armas has a batting average of . 175, had shown almost no power, and in one game stuck out four times.
"Hitters don't hit for all kinds of reasons in spring training, and if i paid attention every year to all of the veterans on my ball club who aren't doing well, i'd want to quit," Manager Billy Martin explained. "Actually I judge pitchers in spring training, not hitters.
"if you're a manager, you simply let the established guys, the players who have done it for you so many times before, go their own way while you concentrate your energy on other things. In fact, one of the reasons I didn't worry about Tony is because he was just as bad last spring."
With his hot start this year, Armas seems to have reestablished the groove that gave him 35 homers last season. And that was only 6 behind American League coleaders Reggie Jackson and Ben Oglivie.