Hey," said Roberto Clemente, "peetch me a strike." The batting practice pitcher pitched a strike, and Clemente slashed it high over the left-field fence at Milwaukee County Stadium.
"Notice he didn't ask for a curve or a fast ball," George Sisler, the Pirate batting coach, said. "Just for a strike. He's not a guesser. He hits the pitch where it's thrown."
Sisler was standing behind the batting cage, talking about the most intriguing facet of baseball, the psychological—and physical—contest between the man at the plate and the man who throws the ball at him.
"I don't like guess hitters," he said. "A batter that tries to guess with the pitcher—most of the time he's afraid of a certain pitch. The only way he can hit it is by guessing when it's coming. Most of the time he guesses wrong, just on the law of averages. You figure most pitchers got at least four pitches, so the odds are three to one against a guesser right there. Then if he guesses right, he usually swings at the ball even if it's not in the strike zone. A good batter hits strikes, no matter where they are thrown or what kind of pitch it is. Just as long as it's a strike."
He watched Dick Groat hit, his blue eyes sharp and intent. "A batter needs intelligence first," he said. "Judgment. Confidence. The mental things. They're more important than the physical. Then comes body control, quick wrists, good eyes. I have no patience with stories you read about batters complaining about night baseball, new pitches—the slider, for instance—better fielding equipment. They should blame themselves if they don't hit .300. Any good batter can hit .300, and a batter hitting over .300 now, there's no good reason he shouldn't hit .400. It can still be done."
He picked up a bat and hefted it. "The bats are too light now," he said. "This one is maybe 30 ounces. I used a 42-ounce bat, and I heard that Ruth used a 52-ounce bat and I expect he did. They use the light bats now so they can whip them around fast and hit for the fences. We hit home runs with the heavy bats. You can get a heavy bat around if it's balanced properly. There's no wood in these modern bats. That's why they break so many."
Sisler hit .407 in 1920, .420 in 1922, and his lifetime batting average, spanning 16 years in the majors, was .340, so he speaks with authority.
Clemente, one of his aptest pupils, agrees wholeheartedly with his coach on the advantage of not knowing what pitch is coming up.
"Sometimes I seet on the bench, the fellows are sayeeng, 'He's gonna peetch curve now, now he's gonna throw fast ball.' I move away down the bench because I don' want to know eet. I rather heet whatever he throw up there."
Groat, the Pirate shortstop who raised his average 50 points last year to lead the National League in batting, prefers not to guess, too.
"Sisler teaches us to be ready for the fast ball and adjust our swing for the curve," he said. "If you're looking for a curve and get a fast ball, you never hit it. But you can cut down on the speed of your swing to hit the curve."
Groat is one of many good hitters who does not want a reading on a pitcher from a coach. Recently, when the Yankees acquired Tex Clevenger from the Los Angeles Angels, Clevenger revealed that most clubs in the American League were reading Art Ditmar. In other words, by watching him closely the third-base coaches could tell whether he was going to throw a fast ball or a. breaking ball, and they relayed the information to the batter.
Bobby Shantz, the wonderful little left-handed relief pitcher with the Pirates, was often the victim of readers during his days with the Philadelphia Athletics.
"The Yanks used to read me all the time," he said. "When I finally joined the club I found out they were reading me when I swung my arm back winding up. I had my fingers across the laces for a curve, between them for a fast ball. They used to whistle from the dugout when a fast ball was coming. I don't know how much reading helps a batter, but it's hard enough to get them out when you surprise them. I guess it helps the good batters a lot. I mean a guy like Mantle, who'll wait. He won't swing at a bad fast ball just because he knows it's coming. But if he knows and it's in the strike zone, he murders it."
Aside from the guessers and the batters who can hit anything pitched in the strike zone (and this includes almost all of the great hitters), there's a third type of batter, called a looker. He doesn't try to guess what the pitcher will throw, but he looks for a specific pitch that he feels he can hit, either a curve or a fast ball. He'll ignore curves, for instance, on the first two strikes, even if they are over. With two strikes against him, he'll swing at a good curve if only to protect the plate.
"I could never hit a curve ball," says Solly Hemus, now the manager of the St. Louis Cardinals. "I don't think any little man is really a good curve-ball hitter. You have to overpower the curve, and little men just don't have the strength. But I hit it pretty well. I never swung at a curve until I had to. I got most of my hits off fast balls, and I waited for them."
Groat, who is not a big man, disagrees with Hemus. "I got most of my hits last year off curves," he said. "I hit a home run last night off a curve ball." Like most of the Pirates, Groat reflects the teaching of Sisler. The Pittsburgh team is not a power-hitting club, nor does it need to be in the wide stretches of Forbes Field. But it hits for a high team average, and many of the hits are slanted into the opposite field.
"You have to be a three-field-hitter to hit for a good average," Sisler says.
He thought for a minute then, going over the days a long time ago, when he hit .400 and over. "The big thing is being smart," he said. "There are dumb catchers in the league, and dumb pitchers, too. You can tell on the first pitch how they are going to work you. Then you don't have to guess. You know what's coming. And you can hit it. Wherever they throw it."
He thought again for a little while, an old man now with sharp, intelligent eyes.
"The mistakes they make," he said. "They step in too quick so that they hit off the front foot and they're not balanced. And they move their heads too quick. They watch the ball and step into it and move their heads and can't see it, and it breaks and they swing and miss. That's what I was saying before. You need quick wrists, but you also have to think to hit. That's the biggest part of it. Thinking."