I walked up to the plate totally alone and defenseless. A baseball bat was my tool to deflect a small ball traveling 85 mph or faster in the opposite direction.
The small white ball whizzed by me so fast all I saw was a blur as I started my swinging motion.
“That’s a strike,” Charlie Ellis, freshman political science major and Union baseball player, said as I was still in mid-swing. I stood awkwardly, pigeon-toed, as I sighed and tried to not look completely terrified.
But I am extremely terrified. I’m trying to get a hit off Marty Coursey, sophomore business administration major and a starting pitcher for Union’s team. I haven’t swung at a live baseball since I was in the fourth grade. The ball came in much slower then, the bat was lighter and I wasn’t afraid of an errant pitch ripping through me and shattering multiple bones.
I had a shoulder surgery almost 18 months ago, and a friend told me when they swung a baseball bat for the first time after the same surgery their arm came out of socket. That kind of pain has already entered my shoulder after the first swing like it’s screaming at me to stop. It’s just fear though, because on a practice swing right after that it felt fine, so I pressed on.
Coursey threw some more pitches at me to help the both of us get warmed up. I stepped out of the batter’s box and swung half-heartedly each time. Ellis and fellow baseball player Liam Munshi laughed as I failed for 10-15 straight pitches.
To save Coursey’s arm from getting hurt from pitching to someone like me we decided to simulate an at-bat situation for me and then call it a day.
“You’ll want to start picking your front foot up during my windup,” Coursey said. It would be the only hope for me to even touch the ball since my swing was so slow. I don’t think most pitchers would give their opponents advice, but Coursey felt bad because of how pathetic I looked in the helmet and holding the bat that was way too heavy for me.
Coursey stands at 6’3’’ and has long limbs that still look Gumby-esque from 60.5 feet away. He motions with his glove at the start of his windup, almost like he’s trying to calm me down before he eviscerates and baptizes my baseball hopes in fire leaving nothing but a burnt shell of a man left at the plate. He winds up and then his long right arm whips forward violently launching the ball toward me at a terrifying speed.
The ball hits the dirt and looked outside, but the reason I didn’t swing was not because I have a good eye. I was just really afraid of the first pitch.
Ellis, our unofficial umpire and my hitting coach for the evening, remembers being afraid of the ball and the pitcher. He was 9-years-old. In his first year of kids’ pitch he got hit by a pitch and it wrecked his confidence for several games.
“I kept stepping out of the box and my swing was weak,” Ellis said. “Eventually, my dad sat me down and told me I was either going to have to get over my fear or stop playing baseball. I knew, even at 9-years-old, that baseball was my favorite sport and I wanted to keep playing, so I had my dad throw me a bunch of inside, fast pitches until I got over my fear. I haven’t been afraid of the ball since.”
The ball came in fast and felt inside to me. My swing was a solid foot above the ball and two seconds too slow.
For a real baseball player the game at the plate is just as mental as it is physical. The pitcher is trying to trick the batter into swinging at a pitch that they can’t get a clean hit with or miss entirely. Some pitchers can just beat a batter with incredible speeds but the mind game is still present.
Coursey was pretty up front about the first strike.
“I’m going to throw an inside fastball,” he said right before the pitch. He was being kind and while I was grateful, it was also more embarrassing to know where the ball would be and still whiff on the swing.
Later on, Coursey explained his entire strategy for most right-handed hitters like myself. He wants to start with an inside fastball to get into their hands a bit and start off with an 0-1 count. If it’s a ball he goes for the same pitch again and hopes for a different result. Once he gets that first strike he starts using some of his off-speed stuff like a curve ball and changeup mixed in with the fastball to help him get the out.
While for a normal hitter a changeup would be difficult to hit if it was good, I was able to get a little closer to it because it was slower. Coursey’s changeup looks just like his fastball but comes out 10 mph slower because of the way he grips it which throws off the timing of the batter. For me it just gave me another millisecond to get the bat over the pate.
Coursey threw a brutal curveball. It looked like it was going to hit me even if it curved, so I just tried to get the bat over the plate and hope something happened. I missed by a horrendous margin.
The hard thing about the curveball from a right-handed pitcher is the way it appears to start behind a right-handed batter. I had no hope.
While asking Ellis for some advice I realized two things pretty quickly. The batter needs to have a knowledge for what a pitcher can and can’t do and know how to exploit that and that sometimes you just have to “feel it” to get the hit.
Knowing a pitcher can’t throw off-speed pitches consistently well helps a batter know to wait for a fast ball in the strike zone. According to Ellis, knowing what pitch the pitcher wants to throw in different situations helps him “sit on” (wait for) the pitch he thinks will come so he can get a solid hit.
“There are some pitches a guy will throw and you can’t really do anything but tip your hat to him though,” Ellis said. His example would be if Coursey threw a ball for the first pitch and, instead of throwing an inside fastball, threw a curveball that he didn’t expect leaving him frozen in his stance.
Sometimes Ellis and other baseball players just have a feeling about a pitch so they swing and make good contact. To someone like me this is like having a sixth sense or a second person in my head that takes control of my body and gets the hit for me. For them it’s something they’ve been doing for awhile and some pitches just feel good before the ball is even released.
“No one is born with the anticipatory skills required of an elite athlete,” David Epstein said in The Sports Gene: Inside the Science of Extraordinary Athletic Performance. In the book, Epstein presents the notion that elite athletes have more natural talent than others, but they also built up a database of information about pitchers subconsciously through multiple practices and repetitions that they can tap into when needed.
This research involved major and minor league players as well as novices wearing goggles while attempting to hit a baseball. The elite hitters were looking at the shoulder of the pitcher and then quickly to the red seams of the ball right when it was released. The shoulder’s motion, positioning and seams on the ball allow the batter to recognize the speed and type of pitch that’s coming in.
Knowing what to look at doesn’t help the batter though, because the ball comes in at a speed that makes it almost impossible for our brains to tell our bodies what to do consciously. This means that someone has to play a lot of baseball and go through a lot of at-bats so their brain has collected large enough amount of information for them to subconsciously know where the pitch will go before it crosses plate. Telling a good hitter what to look at will actually mess them up because thinking about the shoulder or seams of the ball slows down their ability to read the pitch.
This information just means that I really will have to just “feel” a certain pitch and hope to get lucky enough to make contact with the ball.
I started to swing when I realized that the ball was going to be low. It was so low that it hit the dirt just before it got to the plate and was a bit outside. I already started to bring my hands forward and don’t possess the strength in my wrists or arms to stop myself and just have a check swing, so I attempted to hit the ball like a golf ball. It didn’t work.
Since they knew I was trying to do a check-swing and didn’t want me to strike out on that swing, they called it a ball.
At this point Coursey is already up on me with the 2-2 count. His plan is to throw some kind of off-speed pitch, like his changeup, to get me caught swinging over the top of the ball.
He motions with his glove, so I start picking my front foot up and just get ready to try to hit this or my day is done. Right when the ball leaves his hand I start my slow, jerky swinging motion and I feel something hit the bat. The residual vibrations from the contact shoot through the bat into my arms and shoulders and I’m left looking for the ball. It’s behind me and almost hit a friend who was watching. It’s a foul ball, but I made contact.
The pitch was a changeup and I realize the only reason I hit it was because it was slower. I can’t react fast enough to a fastball, but because I find myself looking at the ball during the pitch instead of the pitcher and the stitching I had enough time to react to the pitch.
Ellis, Coursey and myself celebrate my tiny amount of success by laughing about how lucky it was that I made contact. I think I may have closed my eyes during the hit because I don’t remember seeing the ball after it left Coursey’s hand. I honestly didn’t think I was going to make contact the whole time, and seeing that my arm didn’t come out of socket gives me a little bit more courage to swing a little harder next time.
With my newfound courage I dig my cleats a little harder into the dirt and prepare for the next pitch.
Pitching can be a nerve-wracking exploit, but the great ones learn how to shut down the nerves and just focus on getting the out.
“This season was the first time I was really able to turn the nerves off,” Coursey said. While this was not a stressful at-bat for him, he didn’t appear to be slowing down for me and used his full arsenal of pitches he would use on a real player.
Coursey began his windup by motioning with his glove again, signaling for me to start picking up my front leg. His arm is now behind him, and I’m searching for some kind of tell as to where the pitch may go.
He whips his arm forward and I know I have to swing or I’ll get caught looking, so I unleash the most coordinated and violent swing of the day. It feels good on the follow-through, like I’m a real hitter.