Updated: Apr 12, 2022
There are so many different pieces of information I have learned from coaches throughout my career. I have been given useful information, and I have also been fed very... very... bad information. Usually, bad information is weeded out by future coaches who have a better idea of what they are talking about, and you slowly begin to formulate your approach to the game. There was one wrong bit of information, however, that was never corrected during my career. I had to figure the answer out for myself.
This phrase was, and still is arguably, the most common mistake made by countless coaches. When I hear this phrase, or a variation of this phrase, I hear everything wrong with baseball. In fact, this idea gets under my skin so much, to the point where I can feel my blood boil whenever I hear someone yell, "Go down swinging," or "Don't go down without a fight."
Let me get one fact straight. I don't know if you've picked up on this pattern yet, but the higher the level of baseball being played, the less the hitter swings. Don't believe me? Watch a professional baseball game. That's right: as you improve as a player, you are expected to swing LESS. Weird, right? Let me give you a few reasons why this is the case.
1. Can you hit everything? Be realistic with yourself. Can you hit EVERYTHING? Can you be ready to hit any pitch and any location all at the same time and hit the ball hard, no matter where it's pitched? Didn't think so. Me, neither. This doesn't mean we suck; it just means we are human. And guess what? Big Leaguers can't hit everything. They are just better than you and I at knowing which locations they can hit. There's a reason why everyone has hot and cold zones. (For those of you who don't know what those are, hot zones are the locations you can hit, and cold zones are the locations with which you struggle with.)
2. Put yourself in the mind of a pitcher. Let's say you have two strikes on a hitter. What are you trying to do - throw one in the strike zone and let him hit it? Of course not! You're trying to send him walking back to the dugout, filled with feelings of humiliation and failure. Therefore, you're obviously not going to try and throw him anything good to hit. You want to make him chase something out of the zone.
Now, put yourself back into the mind of a hitter, someone who just got screamed at by their coach at the sidelines, "Go down swinging!", putting the idea in your head that you are determined to swing, no matter where the pitch is. The pitcher winds up and throws a slider in the dirt. You, being ready to swing at just about anything, flail your bat out in a feeble attempt to "stay alive." You miss the ball entirely, lower your head, and begin your stroll back to your dugout. What a magnificent at bat.
3. Say on that same two-strike count, the pitcher rears back and fires a perfect fastball about an inch off the outside corner. Now, you have two options. One, you can swing and hope you hit the ball hard somewhere, but realistically there is a reason we call that pitch "a pitcher's pitch." Chances are you are just going to roll over or hit a weak ground ball somewhere. Or two, you can take it. If you take it, the umpire might very well call it and send you walking back to the dugout anyway. However, if he calls the pitch a ball, you have earned yourself another pitch and have given yourself that much more of a chance at getting a mistake from the pitcher - something that you can actually hit HARD. (Spoiler alert: pitchers want you to swing at the outside fastball.)
Granted, I get that every ball player is a bit different. I've known players that have the uncanny ability to simply foul any pitch off that they don't like and force the pitcher to try again. However, the majority of players I have played with aren't going to touch a curveball in the dirt or a well-placed fastball on the corner of the plate. To the coach that tells a player they better not go down looking because they need to go down with a fight, I say patience is a virtue. As a hitter, patience is one of the few weapons we have. We can't control what the pitcher throws us, we can't control what the umpire's strike zone looks like, and we can't control where the defense is playing us. However, we can control what we swing at - or don't swing at, in this case. I'll ask you, when you are in the box, are you looking for what you want to hit or what you think the pitcher will throw you? If your answer is the latter, how do you know what he is going to throw you?
Every time I worry about what the pitcher is trying to throw me, I fall one step behind. I'm left chasing after whatever he throws me, because what he throws me is always changing. What doesn't change, however, is what I want. In a game where there is little a hitter can control, why give up one of those few controllable aspects? Why give in? Looking for the pitch you want gives you a sense of grounding, a sense of being completely ready for a certain pitch, rather than "kind of" being ready for multiple pitches. Only when you are bought into one pitch can you be aggressive on offense, taking your best swing on your ideal pitch, not the pitch the pitcher wants you to swing at. So don't be afraid to show your confidence by taking a few pitches. Make the pitcher work. After all, the more tired he gets, the more mistakes he may give up.
On an equally important note, since when was it a foregone conclusion that we were going to fail? Coaches say "Go down swinging," as if it has already been decided that you are going to go down in the first place - as if getting into a two-strike count already means you need to abandon your approach (an approach that has worked out pretty well, mind you) and all of a sudden change everything you've ever done at the plate. I don't know about you, but I'm not going to trust anyone who talks to me as if I will surely fail.
My solution? Treat every pitch like a 2-0 count. I got this little nugget from a buddy of mine who played in the Orioles organization (just so you don't think I'm crazy). Think about it. What is the purpose of doing such a thing? Think about what counts you feel most confident in - usually 1-0, 2-0, 3-1. Coincidentally, these counts are often the ones we have the most success in. The reason? We are looking to do damage. Therefore, we only swing at the pitches we can do damage with. The game becomes simple in these counts. Start paying attention to which counts you have better plate discipline in, which counts you feel more comfortable in, and which counts you have more success in. Notice how your body begins to subconsciously tense up when you get to two strikes. Notice how we quickly shift from "do damage," to "just make contact." Our aggression becomes defensiveness and our zone unintentionally expands. All of sudden, instead of swinging to succeed, we are swinging to "not go down looking." In other words, we are swinging just to swing.
These are some of the mind games we play with ourselves in the box - unnecessary. The only pressure we may feel in two-strike counts is the pressure we put on ourselves. Forget your coach yelling at you from the dugout, thinking that somehow swinging at a terrible pitch in the dirt makes you more of a "man" than taking strike three. Either way, you're 0-1. Let the ignorance go and start using your brain. Bet on yourself. Wait for what YOU want, not what anybody else wants. Stay calm, control what you can control, and be aggressive and take some pitches.
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