Several years ago, I remember watching on YouTube the entirety of a game played in the Los Angeles Coliseum, where the Dodgers made their home for a couple of years in the late Fifties. Seating capacity was about a hundred thousand. The trouble was that right field was approximately 450 feet from home plate… and left field was 200 feet closer! To prevent right-handed pull-hitters from racking up five homers per game, a high net was string a good way along the left-field bleachers. Fans could see through it, but batted balls would strike the netting and plop harmlessly at the left fielder’s feet unless they were really jacked up. That fielder would often have a play at second. During the YouTube game, Stan Musial was thrown out at the keystone sack in a critical late-inning play after ripping an oppo-liner into the ropes.
Musial, Gilliam, Wally Moon, Charlie Neal… I really enjoyed that game, even though its dubious black-and-white quality had me thinking in the back of my mind that the whole thing was happening under the lights rather than in broad daylight. One thing that leapt out at me was the pace. I believe the contest actually reached ten innings—but it lasted well under three hours. To be sure, players weren’t stepping out of the box and messing with their gloves (for you youngsters, there were no batting gloves back then). More than that, however, was the eagerness of every hitter to put bat to ball. There were very few deep counts. Everyone was hacking.
Now, I’m not going to say that working the count is a bad thing. I’m not going to say that it’s good, either. As a strategy, I find it fully neutral, dependent on specific conditions. Sleeping under a heavy blanket is a good idea at certain times of year; at other times, it would be idiotic.
The immortal Oscar Charleston liked for his protégés to take lots of pitches during their first couple of plate appearances so as to lull the opposition into thinking that they would keep that approach throughout the game. Then, as the stakes began to rise during the later innings, Oscar’s boys would ambush groved, get-me-over strikes early in the count. That makes lots of sense… but you have to assume that his opponents would catch on if the two teams played each other regularly.
It seems like I must have sat through hundreds of my son’s games—between travel teams, high school, and college—where one or both sides had been told to take pitches and wear down the starter. This could be effective if the starter weren’t pumping strike after strike across the plate. Let’s say he is, and your side makes a mid-game adjustment. Now you’re determined to swing at everything, which he very quickly notices, and you soon find yourselves chasing sliders that dip two feet outside. Yeah, I’ve seen that game a few dozen times, if not a few hundred.
Coaches, for the most part, appear to believe that they do their job well when they put the “take” sign on. Again… it depends. Leading off a game, you would surely want to make the pitcher deliver five or six pitches, just so that your bunch could see what he’s got. Striking out in that circumstance isn’t necessarily bad. You also don’t want to go up hacking on a hot day in a very close game as the innings pile up for your starter. For pity’s sake… give the poor guy a few minutes to stay off his feet in the dugout!
The mindset I don’t understand has a middle-of-the-order hitter feeling good about himself after he strikes out looking at four deliveries—all because he was “patient” and just didn’t get his pitch. What single positive outcome does this approach achieve? I suppose if our Mighty Casey never misses a mistake and is facing a hurler known for leaving hangers over the plate, patience might be a virtue; but I would prefer to have a line-up of guys who can hit the ball where it’s pitched, at least with two strikes.
I never got a chance to play at a very high level (and I do mean “chance”: what with Vietnam, an unstable economy, and rioting in the streets, my generation had a lot of trouble focusing on things like baseball). With the Old School style that we preach on this site, however, I imagine that I would be a pretty aggressive hitter at any level. This is because our line-drive swing is especially well suited to taking outside pitches up the middle or the opposite way. Pitchers like to stay outside. I would be looking for that location from Pitch One, without much concern for speed; because if I get a little in front on a change, I pull the ball. The one pitch I don’t want to see and would probably take until I had two strikes would be high and in. How many times do today’s moundsmen throw that pitch—and how many times is it called a strike on a take?
Now, if the pitcher has just walked three batters in a row, I’ll naturally be more selective. If we’re in the mid-innings on a hot day and we know that their bullpen is pitiful, I’ll be more selective. If I have shown myself to be a tad too aggressive all day long, I’ll be more selective.
It seems to me that in the matter of taking or attacking pitches, everything depends on circumstance: on the count, the number of outs, the score, the inning, the runners on base, the pitcher, the bullpen, your special hitting abilities, your history with this pitcher, your pattern at the plate so far today—and let’s not forget the umpire!
Being patient? Yeah, sure… but no. It depends.