When Roy Sievers beat out Ted Williams and Mickey Mantle to win the American League's home-run and runs-batted-in championships in 1957, the casual fan began to realize what major leaguers had long appreciated: that here was one of the finest hitters in the game. Rookie of the Year in 1949, Roy later suffered a bad slump and a disabling shoulder injury that almost brought about his retirement. A successful operation restored his strength and the beautiful swing so admired by his fellow professionals.
The principal difference between hitting in the minors and hitting in the majors—or maybe I should say, the difference between a minor league hitter and a major league hitter—is knowledge. In the majors you have to study things all the time in order to be able to hit as well as you are able. A few years ago I was talking to Ted Williams about hitting, and he asked me, "Do you watch the pitchers all the time?" I said, "No, not all the time." Ted said, "You should. You should watch them every minute, watch their motion, over and over again, watch what they throw to you, what they throw to you at certain times, what they throw to other hitters. Watch how they throw the fast ball, where it goes, and how they throw the curve. Watch them all the time."
You watch the pitcher to learn his mannerisms. You keep watching and watching and all of a sudden you realize something that he's doing. He does things he doesn't know himself that he does. Maybe he brings the ball up back of his head on the fast ball. Maybe just to his forehead on his curve. Or some little thing. You keep watching. As you get more familiar with a pitcher you're not so apt to be fooled by him.
Knowing the pitchers, studying them, isn't so much to help you guess on a pitch as it is to react fast to a pitch. Something in his delivery that you see at the last second means a fast ball or a curve, or where he's aiming, and you're sort of more ready for that pitch than you would be if you didn't know.
March 31, 1958
When you're actually at bat, you have to watch the ball all the time. Keep your eye on the ball every instant. Watch it in the pitcher's hand as he winds up. Watch it as he brings his arm down to throw. Try to watch it come out of his hand. Watch it as it comes to the plate. Try to keep your eye on it right up to when it hits your bat. I don't think you really can see the ball hit the bat, but try to. That keeps your eye on the ball to the very last instant. The more you watch, the better you see a pitch. Williams says he can tell the spin of the ball four or five feet after it leaves the pitcher's hand. Stan Musial says he can see the pitch seven or eight feet out from the pitcher and know whether it's going to be good or not—depending on who the pitcher is and what his good pitches are. The better you are at watching the pitch as it comes to you, the longer you can wait before you swing. And that's important—waiting as long as you can before committing yourself.
You watch everything, you study everything. Even the umpires. You have to know the umpires. I mean, the way they operate. It doesn't do any good to argue with them because one calls a pitch a strike that another umpire would call a ball. Some umpires are highball umpires, some are low-ball umpires. Some people say that the National League is a low-strike league and the American a high-strike league. [That is, that the entire strike zone is, in practice, a little higher in the American League, with the result that more low pitches are called strikes in the National and more high pitches are called strikes in the American.] I don't believe it's a league thing so much. I think it depends on the individual umpire. Some just call strikes a little lower. You have to know them. I study them, too, just like I study everything.
Now, just about the most important thing a hitter has to know is the strike zone. You have to know that a pitch is a ball or a strike. You have to know the umpire's strike zone, what he considers a ball or a strike. Even more important, you have to know your own strike zone. That is, you have to know for sure that for you this pitch is one you can hit. There are pitches that are called strikes that won't be in your own strike zone, and you try not to swing at those if you can avoid it. But when you get a pitch in your strike zone, boy, hit it! Don't wait around. Let the pitcher know that you're there to hit. The more strikes you take, the better advantage the pitcher has.
There are pitches that are outside the strike zone that it's possible to hit real good, too. I'd say a true strike zone wouldn't be squarish—rectangular, the way it is now, for the umpire to call strikes and balls—but actually roundish. You could hit a low pitch down the middle or a waist-high pitch outside, for example. You could hit them as well as pitches two inches higher or two inches closer, but it's better to learn to lay off those pitches, because they are balls. If you get in the habit of hitting them, you'll get some extra hits for a while, but the pitchers will know that you're doing it and they'll start pitching you a little further outside and a little lower. And then you won't know when to swing and when to let the ball go.
All you do going after bad pitches is to make your strike zone bigger, and the bigger the strike zone the better it is for the pitcher. I remember back a few years I was swinging at pitches that were fairly high. The umpires told me, "Roy, lay off that high pitch. That's a ball. Lay off it."
When I say, know your own strike zone, I mean there's only certain pitches you swing at. You lay off all the others. Except when it's two strikes and you have no choice. Then you'll have to swing at some pitches. Like a good fast ball high on the inside corner. That's a tough pitch for me to hit. So I stay off it until I have to swing at it.
You should keep your strike zone in mind all the time, even in batting practice. Batting practice is important. It's not just fooling around. It's an exercise, it's getting loosened up, getting your timing sharp. The mistake some fellows make in batting practice is not swinging at strikes. That is, they swing at anything. They should swing only at pitches they would swing at in a game.
In batting practice you should stand at the plate the way you would in a game. If you move around, move around the way you might in a game. Where you stand in the box depends on where you can best cover the plate. I used to stand way in the back of the box, with an open stance. Charley Dressen and Cookie Lavagetto, when they came to the Senators, got me to move up in the box and stand even. They said I couldn't reach the outside corner of the plate from where I used to stand. Now I can. I can hit that outside pitch through the middle. Sometimes, if a pitcher is working me close, I'll move back in the box, away from the plate. That's another thing Ted Williams told me. I was talking to him one day about all the trouble I was having with the inside pitches. That's all they were throwing me, inside pitches. Ted said, "Do you ever move back from the plate?" I said, "No." He said, "Try it. Move back, just a few inches. Then if they come on the insidecorner, you can hit the ball. If they come too far inside, it'll be a ball. If they start going to the outside again, move back in."
A smart catcher will know you shift like that, but you do it anyway because you have to counteract what the pitcher is doing. If you do everything the same way all the time, he's going to get you.
Things like the right stance in the box, the right kind of strike, the right kind of bat, are all things you decide on yourself. Maybe somebody'll tell you to try something different, and it works better, but it all depends on yourself and what you can do. Like a stride. Musial has a pretty big stride. I have a little one, just a couple of inches. DiMaggio hardly had any stride. It's all a matter of control, of leverage. In a bat, the main thing is good balance. I like a bat a little top-heavy, just a little top-heavy, so the weight is out in the barrel. You grip it where you want to. Some people say you should have the handle of the bat along the fingers of the right hand, so you can feel it, you know? But I like to have it right across my palm, right in the meat of my hand, where I can grab it. When you have two strikes on you, you have to protect the plate, so I choke up a little on the bat, for better leverage. Maybe an inch, that's all. Just enough to give me bettercontrol of the bat, to move it to meet the pitch.
When you stand there, keep your left shoulder up where you can see it when you're looking out at the pitcher. That's the best way to keep your shoulders level, and if your shoulders are level that keeps your swing smooth. If you lean in, you dip your shoulder, and then you either swing down at the pitch or you lose your smoothness in trying to level the swing.
Hold the bat, you know, firm, but not too tight. Control it, but don't tense on it. When you wait for a pitch, keep the bat back. Always hold it back, even when you're taking a bad pitch. Always be ready to hit, even at the last second. The big secret of hitting is waiting until the last instant to swing. If you don't have the bat back there, then you can't swing.
Hold the bat steady. I used to have a tendency to swing it in circles, swing the top of the bat in little circles, when I was waiting for a pitch. Zack Taylor—or somebody, I'm pretty sure it was Zack—told me, "If you stop moving the bat like that, it might just give you a smoother, more level swing." And it did.
Don't swing hard. When I swing hard I have a tendency to turn my head and lunge. My back shoulder drops. My body turns first and drags the bat after it. My head goes up and I lose sight of the ball as it comes over the plate. When you swing hard at a pitch you're trying to hit with your body, with all your strength. But hitting is all in the wrists, the hands, the forearms. Oh, if you're big and you have good shoulder muscles and back muscles, you'll hit harder and farther, but not unless your wrists hit the ball first. It's like in golf. You've got to bring everything through smoothly and then whip the wrists.
When you swing, your hips don't move first, and then your body, and then your shoulders. Everything turns together, smoothly, like a barrel. You have to keep your arms out away from your body when you swing. Otherwise you get all tied up, and you can't bring your arms and wrists through.
On the pitch, you have to watch the ball, all the time. The better you are at watching the pitch as it comes to you, the more you can wait before you swing. I can wait. I believe you can learn to wait. If you have good wrists, quick reflexes, you can learn to wait. The man with the best reflexes—like Musial or Williams—can wait the longest, but I think anybody can train himself to wait longer.
Waiting is the secret of hitting. It's something like skeet shooting. You react after it goes poong! There's a point in skeet shooting where you have to shoot. You can't wait any longer. But the longer you can wait up to that point, the surer your aim is. The batter who has to swing almost while the pitcher is winding up won't hit as well as the batter who can wait until after the pitcher has thrown the ball.
You're always set for the fast ball. You have to be, because it gets there so fast. But you have to be ready to hit the curve, too, and you can, especially if you wait to the last minute before committing yourself.
You have to be ready for the brush-back pitch, too. They don't throw at you as much in the American League as they do in the National, from what I hear. I understand they do it a lot over there. In the American League they brush you back. I don't have to hit the dirt more than once or twice a year. Erv Palica knocked me down. He was from Brooklyn, from the Dodgers, and Dressen warned us about the way they threw at the hitters. He threw one at me and I got out of the way. Then there was a strike, and then he threw at me again. I got out of the way. Then there was another strike, and then he threw at me again and he hit me in the head. I was turning my head and it just brushed the front of my cap. I was O.K., but they sent me to the hospital for X-rays to be sure. I was on the ground after that pitch. I looked out at Palica and I said, "Boy, you got a nerve throwing at me."
On a brush-back pitch, I lean back and I pull my bat back with me. Some guys leave the bat out in front of them, and as they fall away the ball hits the bat for a foul.
You have to control the bat. I used to have a habit—I still do, as a matter of fact, though I'm cutting down on it—in which I'd start to swing and then decide to lay off the pitch. But all I'd do would be to stop my bat, and there it'd be, out over the plate, sitting there. The pitch would hit it and, bloop, there'd be a sick little grounder to the pitcher. Last year I didn't do that more than a couple of times, but I had to really train myself to snap that bat back out of there. I can stop a swing, I've got good hands, but it doesn't do any good unless you get the bat out of the way. Now, when I stop the swing I lift the bat straight up, over my head, sort of.
I try to hit everything through the middle. You don't try to pull the ball. I try to swing so that I hit the ball about a foot in front of the plate. I don't know for sure where I actually hit it, but that's where I hit it in my mind, out about a foot in front of the plate. And I'm aiming at hitting it right through the middle. But if I hit it right, it pulls.
On every pitch, you try to wait until the ball's been pitched before committing yourself. But almost all hitters "guess" once in a while. Guessing is deciding beforehand what a pitcher is going to throw. Johnny Mize says a guess hitter is a hitter who guesses with two strikes. That means guessing when you shouldn't guess. Actually, when I say guessing, it isn't really guessing, it's anticipating a pitch. It's being really ready.
I can't guess on Early Wynn. No matter what I figure he's going to throw, he throws something else. But last August when I hit that homer in the 17th inning [His sixth in six consecutive games, a dramatic home run that won an exciting game for Washington, set an American League record for consecutive home-run games, set a new Washington club mark for home runs, and put Sievers in a tie for the American League home-run lead.] it was funny. I guessed. There was one out, the score tied. Al Aber was pitching for Detroit. Now, they usually throw me curves, and I figured for sure they'd throw me curves then, and not good ones, because I figured they wouldn't mind too much walking me. But Aber's first pitch was a fast ball low. I wasn't expecting it, and I took it, but I figured: Fast ball! What's he trying to do? Boy, if he throws me another fast ball down there, look out. Sure enough the next pitch was a fast ball in the same place and I tagged it.
I couldn't get away with that with a guy like Wynn. He's the toughest for me. He throws me everything up high and close, but it's all different, different speeds and everything. And just when I get myself set, when I know I'll hit whatever he throws up there, he throws that knuckler of his, and it's a good one. If I move back, he's throwing a slider down and away. He doesn't throw many curves, but he can throw that good fast ball in on your hands.
You have to know what the different pitchers throw you. Whitey Ford, for instance, is tricky. He'll throw me a good low curve that just slices in over the inside corner of the plate. Then he'll throw me high and tight, maybe a slow curve that comes in on me. Then a fast ball on the outside corner, low; one that has a little tail to it, almost like a screwball. You've got to be awake with Whitey. He's cocky and tough.
Billy Pierce is a lot like Ford, but he's faster. He'll go along trying to overpower you. He can throw his fast ball right through the game, and your main problem is hitting it. Ford can throw hard, but he has to save it for now and then.
A guy like Herb Score is different from other pitchers. He has a herky-jerky motion, with the foot up and then the arm. But he doesn't aim at spots. He doesn't work on you. He just throws to the plate. He throws that terriffic fast ball and a Teal good curve. If he gets his stuff over, he doesn't have to aim.
Bob Turley has a good fast ball and a good curve, and he's tough on right-handed batters particularly, because his pitch sort of cuts across the plate, from the inside to the outside. But he's not as effective as Score because, for one thing, he doesn't have the motion Score has.
If I had to make up a set of rules for hitting, I guess they'd be these:
•Constantly study the pitchers so that you are familiar with every pitching habit they have, what they can throw, when they like to throw it, how they like to pitch to you.
•Know the strike zone. Know it instinctively, know it so that you can tell what each pitch is before the umpire calls it.
•Go up there to hit, not to wait around. Swing at good pitches. Make the pitcher know you'll hit a good pitch.
•Keep your eye on the ball all the time. Try to watch it in the pitcher's hand, as it leaves his hand, as it comes to the plate, even as it hits your bat.
•Don't try to swing hard. Keep your swing smooth. Keep your body level. Don't dip your shoulder. Don't lunge.
•Learn to wait as long as you can before swinging.
•Always keep your bat back, ready to swing, on every pitch, no matter how bad.
A bat should be just a bit top-heavy, the weight out in the barrel. I like to lay the handle across the meat of my hand.
While you're waiting for the pitch, you should hold the bat back, all the time. Hold it steady but not too tight. Control it but don't tense up on it. And always be ready to swing.
The strike zone is something a batter should keep in mind at all times, even in batting practice. He should never swing at any pitches outside the strike zone.
Bad pitches outside the strike zone can be hit, but it's better to leave them alone. Swinging at them only enlarges your own strike zone, and all that helps is the pitcher.
The batter up. Top row: waiting, swinging at the outside pitch and bunting. Middle row: swinging at, taking and falling away from inside pitches. Bottom row: hitting good "base hit" pitches in the strike zone, then golfing a low bad one.
Stand in the batter's box where you feel you can best cover the plate with your bat. I used to stand way in the back of the box with an open stance (left), but I had trouble with some pitches on the outside corner of the plate. Now I stand farther forward with an even stance (center) where I can hit that outside pitch. If a pitcher is throwing inside to me, I'll sometimes move back from the plate a few inches (right). If he starts to pitch me on the outside again, I move back in.
Keep the swing smooth and control it. If I swing hard I turn my head and drop my shoulder and lose sight of the ball (left). You should be able to stop your bat in mid-swing (center) if you don't want the pitch. But you must also be able to pull it up out of the way (right).
Hitting is in the wrists, the hands, the forearms. If you're big and you have good shoulder and back muscles, you'll hit harder and farther. But not unless your wrists hit the ball first; it's like golf, except the arms are kept out away from the body. And when you swing, your hips don't move first, and then your body and then your shoulders. Everything turns together, like a barrel. You bring everything around smoothly and then whip the wrists.
You don't try to pull the ball. The best method is to try to hit everything through the middle. I try to swing so that I hit the ball about a foot in front of the plate. I aim up the middle, but if I hit it right the ball pulls itself.
The batter watches the ball all the time. You watch it in the pitcher's hand as he winds up. You watch it as he brings his arm down to throw. You watch it as it comes out of his hand. You watch it as it comes to the plate. You try to keep your eye on it right up to the instant it hits your bat. I don't think you can really see the ball hit the bat, but you should try to. Just trying to helps you keep your eye on the ball longer. You want to wait as long as possible before swinging. You should always set yourself for the fast ball, just because it's so fast, but you have to be ready to hit the slower curve, too, and you can hit it if you are able to wait until the last possible moment before committing yourself to the swing.
Pitchers present different problems to the batter. Whitey Ford, for instance, pitches to particular spots. He'll throw a good curve close, a waste pitch high and a fast ball low.
Herb Score, on the other hand, doesn't bother aiming at spots. With that terrific fast ball and that great curve, he really doesn't have to, as long as he's over the plate.
Early Wynn is the toughest for me. He throws high and tight, at different speeds. When I think I can hit him up there, he throws a knuckler. Or a slider that breaks away.
Bob Turley has a good fast ball and a good curve, and he's tough on me and all right-handed batters because his pitches always seem to cut across your body to the outside.
DEL CRANDALL ON CATCHING
The catcher of the world champion Milwaukee Braves analyzes his craft in the April 21 issue