Throughout high school, I was a dead pull hitter. I never understood why pitchers kept feeding me fastballs on the inner half, but they kept doing it and so I kept hitting them. Occasionally I’d get some breaking balls and outside pitches, but by taking most and occasionally hitting some others hard by accident I stayed afloat.
It took no more than three weeks of (America East) conference play while at Binghamton University for the other teams to realize how you could get me out. Learning and Doing are not the same things though and as a result I faced struggles as a freshman simply because I had never learned how to truly “go with a pitch.”
Sitting tensely on the bench before a game my freshman year, I would try to keep my sanity by focusing on my approach at the plate. I struggled to visualize as many at bats as possible where I would load my hands back in a seamless and fluid movement so as to replicate the action of a perfectly synced piston. Visualization was supposed to be the cure to my inability of hitting outside pitches and breaking balls with force. This, along with nervously munching on sunflower seeds for countless hours on the bench.
The flaw with this visualization approach however was that during a game there were hundreds of variables; it was impossible to be completely prepared. It was possible however to convince my mind that I was. Nevertheless, sitting on the bench waiting to get my turn I’d try to focus on the perfect swing so at the very least I could feel good about myself and gain some confidence. Being able to manage all of the variables in my mind did increase my sense of control, but it also gave me a heightened sense of uneasiness during an at bat when I realized that things were much different than what my mind had prepared me for. The pitcher looked different, the speed was different, and even my heart rate was different.
I could feel like Babe Ruth internally, but once I got up there at game speed, it was no longer a conceptual matter. This is not to say that visualization for me was a bad thing. However, it was counterproductive to picture an impeccable, mistake-free swing just to feel good, when in reality an at bat is an imperfect, ever-changing activity. Visualization was a useful tool in practice, but only if I was able to completely stop thinking about it once I entered the box. As it turned out, being able to make tiny adjustments during the game was a more important skill to master than being able to make a huge adjustment in my mind or in a sterile, unchanging batting cage area before the game (or on the bench trying to pass the time). Some of my best at bats in fact were not the well-planned, modeled swings at all but were instead unorthodox mistakes where I made an in-flight adjustment. Conversely, some of my worst at bats were by-the-book swings where I failed to hit the throttle when it was time to. Visualization was a science. Game time hitting was an art.
Going with an outside pitch exemplifies where hitting is more finesse than one of exacts. Taking a ball the other way is the difference of only a split second. The idea can be conceptualized in slow motion, however the real thing occurs in a flash. The difference between pulling an outside pitch for a weak grounder and waiting that one more instant to slap it the opposite way is miniscule in time, but gargantuan in approach and execution. The steps can be broken down by visualization, however going with the pitch is as much about making the best of what you are given in real time and as it comes at you, even if it is not a pitch you can launch out of the park, than it is a mechanical, premeditated exercise.
Swing too early or too hard and you fail. Swing too late or too lackadaisical and you fail. Knowing just how much had to go right in order to drive an outside pitch, my mind would try to envision hitting the ball on the bat at the exact right time and exact right place in order to send a line drive to left field. In reality though, this all occurs too fast to replicate. Going with the pitch wasn’t about mastering a precise formula. Going with the pitch was about trust and confidence and adaptability. It was about being able to react to an outside pitch on a dime, without thought or mechanics getting in the way.
I would come to learn over the course of my first college season that having a textbook swing ingrained in my mind did not guarantee a good game. This only acted like a Band-Aid and lulled me into a false sense of confidence. That is the beauty of baseball; the pitch and situation are never the same. Baseball happens at real speed. My mind happened at a controlled speed.
I would like to say by the close of freshman year I had mastered the art of “Going with the Pitch.” I had not. It would take many more swings, many more setbacks, and many more long nights staring up at the dark ceiling before I would consider myself a master. Mental and physical adjustments from every corner of my game would have to come together first before a milestone could be reached.
Ken Jacobi is author of “Going with the Pitch: Adjusting to Baseball, School and Life as a Division I College Athlete” (Second Edition). He is 29 years old and currently lives in Stamford, CT. He can be contacted at GoingwiththePitch@gmail.com. The book is now available at Amazon: Order “Going with the Pitch” now at Amazon.com