We cannot plug athletes into generic approaches for their respective sports. They are snowflakes. John Baker’s guest post today serves as anecdotal evidence. Enjoy.
The end of a playing career comes like a plunge into an ice cold ocean. Abrupt, unpredictable and shocking. A moment ago I was comfortably on land, but now I feel like Tom Hanks in Castaway, treading water, confused and looking for the shoreline. The rest of my life is now uncharted territory.
Sometimes, when we stare at graphs and data for two days, it gives us insight into our mindset. In baseball, there is a fine line between quantitative and qualitative. It’s time for me to walk that line.
Prior to now, my job was clearly defined and my performance was accurately measured. Or was it? After heading to the Saber Seminar in Boston this weekend, I’m not so sure. Before I can write about or even fully process what I learned, I should put into context how I felt about numbers during my career.
As a professional baseball player, I despised looking at my numbers. I hated looking at my numbers. Fuck my numbers. I learned to approach the game on simple terms. The goal of every at bat was twofold; get a good pitch to hit and hit that pitch hard. Trying to make solid contact with a small orb hurdling through space using a glorified tree branch while tens of thousands of people scream or cheer or wave is astronomically difficult. I was taught that when we maintain an inner monologue, our ability to see decreases. Vision is directly affected by thinking. Thinking is not good for hitting. I over-thought things so much that I got a large tattoo of Auguste Rodin’s “The Thinker” on my left arm as a reminder to stop. Thinking is not good for baseball. Don’t think, react. Don’t consider, respond. Turn your brain off…
But I couldn’t. My mind would spin during at bats. “Roy Halladay throws first pitch backdoor cutters to left handed hitters 59% of the time. Are my hands where I want them to be? Keep your weight back. Or was it 69%? Should I sit cutter? Shit, he’s pitching. Strike one, fastball right down the middle. Fuck me. Ok, relax, get something up, something up, something up, something up, up, up.”
Philosophies will differ forever on approach at the plate. Many of the greatest hitters, like Mike Piazza and Frank Thomas, looked for a fast ball right down the middle, and adjusted from there. Mike added more (I’m paraphrasing), “Every time the pitcher throws me a bastard pitch, my odds of getting a pitch right down the middle increase. The ones that get thrown over the middle of the plate get hit the hardest, so I swing at those pitches.” The simple logic and appropriate use of odds is something that stuck with me from the moment I heard him say it. Despite being difficult to apply, it is the right way to think.
Brady Anderson told me he didn’t believe in counts and situational hitting. He said there was an area in the strike zone where he did damage, and his only thought was to swing when the ball wound up in that area, regardless of pitch type or situation. Again, the simplicity is profound. Brady once homered on the first pitch of the game in an Orioles/Indians playoff series. The pitch? A curveball from Charles Nagy. No, he was not sitting on the pitch type; he was sitting on the location of his best swing.
Most of baseball is reactive. The healthiest way to perform is to be fully present in the moment. I remember a lot of my professional at bats, but I don’t remember my best at bats. I remember running around the bases at Dodger Stadium after my first hit, but I can’t remember how I got to a 1-2 count in that at bat against Chan Ho Park. In stark contrast, I still have nightmares of a three pitch backwards K against Billy Wagner. My brain was hyperactive during the AB against Wagner; I was so nervous and anticipatory, I couldn’t react. I was trying so hard that I basically didn’t try. Time for a cliché: paralysis by analysis. Against Chan Ho, my mind was clear, I was present, and at the plate I was dangerous.
It is nearly impossible to oversimplify the mental approach to hitting during a game. Only ONE pitch can be thrown at a time. A singular, real time event that should consume each player’s focus. One moment, a split second of intense concentration in which we must clear our mind in order to give our body its best chance to react.
Many factors go into being a great hitter. Hand eye coordination, physical speed, strength, flexibility and mobility, proprioception, confidence level and approach. With the development of tracking technology like Trackman, Statcast, HitTrax and new wearable technology like the Zepp Trainer, we now know more about what type of swing produces the best, most consistent results. We can now train things like launch angle, identify weaknesses faster and develop evolved practice plans based on measurable scientific data. This information will lead to better, more confident hitters. I wish I had it while I was playing.
I always derived confidence from practice and training. As long as I logged time in the video room, the weight room and the cage, I could carry confidence into competition. I used my preparation as evidence to support my “Why I will succeed” hypothesis. Unfortunately, even when all preparatory bases are covered, hitting a baseball is still an exponentially more difficult skill than any other in professional sports. Most of the time, despite doing everything right, I still made outs, but they didn’t affect me like they did when I was younger.
By the end of my career I was process driven. Practice, train, approach the game with positivity and stick to the approach. I even learned to smile after hitting the ball hard only to have it caught. I never had the best numbers, but that never bothered me, unless I’d accidentally SEE my numbers on a video board and start spiraling into a black hole of statistics and mechanical thoughts and irrational ideas about pressure. Did I mention I hated numbers? During competition numbers don’t help us perform at the plate, understanding how to live in the moment with confidence does.
Be Clear. Be Present. Be Dangerous.