How a samurai sword turned Chris Taylor into a postseason hero
Chris Taylor plays baseball like he can’t believe his good fortune, and doesn’t entirely trust it will last. This is most evident when he is on base, scurrying from one to the next like he’s afraid someone in the dugout will take his job if he doesn’t rush back to claim it. He’s easy to spot out there: usually the only guy with the old-school stirrups, teeth visible at all times.
He is a most unlikely star; maybe the most unlikely. I spent 14 games with the Dodgers in August and September, and during that stretch, I watched Taylor stand at his locker and endure the same well-meaning but loaded question almost every day: How did this happen? He doesn’t have much to say. He changed his swing. He got some confidence. He found a team that believed in him. He stares blankly at reporters who try to extract more; maybe he sees disbelief in their eyes, or worse yet, catches a whiff of patronage that suggests he should enjoy it while it lasts.
But it is remarkable, and unexpected, and in need of further explanation. In parts of three seasons with the Mariners and Dodgers, Taylor had never established himself as anything more than a quiet, hard-working guy who couldn’t hit. Before this season, he had one homer in 371 plate appearances; he hit 21 this year and added two more in the first three games of the NLCS. An extended late-season slump did drop his OPS from .932 on Aug. 19 to a season-ending .850, but he has seven hits and has scored six runs in his first six postseason games.
Adding to the mystery, I’d been told that spectral forces outside the big league ecosystem are responsible for transforming Taylor, 27, from a 4A — too good for Triple-A, not good enough for the majors — player with the Mariners into a revelation. It’s a little dicey; big league coaches are proprietary and for the most part conventional. There’s an ongoing jiu-jitsu between them and the growing number of individual gurus whose teachings often begin on the margins and stray from there.
My search for explanation led to Rancho Cucamonga, about 40 miles east of Los Angeles, and Craig Wallenbrock, a 71-year-old hitting consultant who quit the baseball team at San Diego State in the late ’60s to become “a hippie, pot-smoking surfer living on Mission Beach.” His background has created a mentality that accepts differences and despises labels, and he has to be the only hitting coach in recorded history — well, in baseball, anyway — who teaches based on the precepts of a 374-year-old text. He has a booming voice, a bottomless well of self-confidence and a bum ankle that feels better today after yesterday’s cortisone shot.
Taylor sought out Wallenbrock, who was by then a consultant for the Dodgers, and his 30-year-old assistant, Robert Von Scoyoc, last fall after learning how they had turned a then-unemployed J.D. Martinez into All-Star a few years back. Taylor was in Arizona during the playoffs, working out in case the Dodgers needed him, when he decided to work with Wallenbrock in an attempt to trade his bottom-of-the-order lifestyle for something more dramatic. It wasn’t an easy decision; Taylor was an up-and-down big leaguer. It wasn’t a bad living. “It’s a scary thought to completely change what you’re trying to do and maybe risk the possibility of going backward,” he says. “At my age, that would really hurt my career and make it hard to change your viewpoint within an organization.”
The scouting report on Taylor, as relayed to Wallenbrock by the organization: This guy’s never had power; he’s a contact hitter, can hit behind the runner, bunt a guy over.
Wallenbrock, whose independence is as fierce as his confidence, says he thought to himself, “Thank you very much for the advice, and f— you.”
Sometimes revolutions begin with a simple premise, and the elevation/launch angle revolution that transformed Taylor’s game — espoused by Wallenbrock since the ’90s but popularized only recently — started as a matter of cartography. There are five fielders (counting the pitcher) assigned to cover the infield, and three to cover the much larger area in the outfield. It seems obvious to Wallenbrock that hitting the ball in the air to the outfield affords the hitter the best chance of getting a hit.
“Craig is the godfather of the hitting revolution,” Von Scoyoc says. “He’s not more widely known because he’s chosen not to be. He’s gotten tongue-lashings from the establishment. Launch angle? What’s launch angle? Their attitude was, ‘Craig, you’re some idiot that doesn’t know what you’re talking about.’
“Eventually, the nerds always win. It’s starting to trickle down from the front office to player development and into the batting cage.”
Wallenbrock is sitting in the manager’s office for the Dodgers’ Single-A club, the Rancho Cucamonga Quakes, and he is engaging in a ribald and hilarious riff on hitting, analytics and whatever else happens to pass through his well-read mind. When the Dodgers first approached him about joining the organization as a consultant, he said, “Absolutely not. I’m much happier in my private environment where I don’t have to put up with the politics and the bulls—.” Part of the reason, he says, goes back to his favorite moment as a coach: when a player tells him he doesn’t need him anymore. “I tell every guy I work with, ‘I’m not satisfied with the job I’ve done until you tell me to go to hell.'”
It’s an odd mission statement, but it’s also just the beginning. Wallenbrock really engages when he begins talking about Eastern philosophy and samurai swords and a 1643 book written by Miyamoto Musashi titled “The Book of Five Rings: A Classic Text on the Japanese Way of the Sword,” which figures prominently in Wallenbrock’s instruction.
“The samurai soldier must always control his blade,” Wallenbrock says. “If I have three guys charging me and I lose my blade to get the first one, the next two are going to slay me. But if I can maintain my blade all the way through” — here Wallenbrock stands and slow-motions his way via upward trajectory through three imaginary foes — “I can cut through three warriors at once.”
This relates to baseball, and Taylor, I promise. The bat is, of course, the sword, and in both disciplines the blade must follow the handle. Wallenbrock identifies the “three warriors” in baseball as the fastball, slider and changeup. The “warrior” that gets to the hitter first is the fastball. “We have to be in position to fight him first,” Wallenbrock says, “and yet continue through to get the other two.”
He’s walking toward the field in Rancho Cucamonga to work with a group of hitters on the Dodgers’ Single-A team. They greet him enthusiastically as he leans against the dugout rail. They’re in their late teens or early 20s, a bunch of ambulatory hormones trying to see who can hit a ball farthest. To them, 1643 probably seems like a long time ago.
“Do these guys get any of this?” I ask.
“No,” he says without hesitation. “It’s really hard.”
We’ve been talking for more than an hour, and we’ve barely touched on the impact PitchTrax has had on umpiring or how a hitter has to have a higher launch angle — say, 26 degrees — against an over-the-top pitcher like Clayton Kershaw, and a lower one — say, 10 degrees — against a low three-quarter pitcher like Madison Bumgarner. He hasn’t even gotten into the details of posture (Musashi’s rule No. 1 for the successful samurai) or the finer points or a hitter’s relationship to the earth, but I have to get back to Los Angeles for Dodgers-White Sox.
“I just gave you an hors d’oeuvres,” he says. “We haven’t even sat down for dinner.”
Driving from one ballpark to the next, I keep thinking about the way Taylor sighs when he’s asked, one more time, to document his transformation. And so he keeps it simple, and quick: a new swing, more confidence, just getting a chance. It makes perfect sense now. Who would believe the rest of it?