A Pitch is a Pitch
Over the last month, Playoff Fever has hit Major League Baseball. Some of its symptoms are coaches on the hot seat, debates over innings limits, and constant talk over which teams will be able to grab hold of a spot in "the dance." The greatest symptom, however, is the heavy scrutiny of a "key series" or a play late in the game. This symptom is known to influence players to try to raise their level of play and is probably the most dangerous of all of Playoff Fever's symptoms. Worse yet, this last symptom has been known to be contagious and to infect an entire team (2011 Braves anyone?).
Now that we have addressed the symptoms, let's talk about how to avoid Playoff Fever if you are a competitor. There is a very simple solution with no expensive antibiotics or organic diet necessary. All you have to do is understand one very simple principle: "A pitch is a pitch." What I mean is that the reality of baseball is that no singular pitch carries greater value than another unless we assign that value. Whether it's thrown in the first inning or the last, the pitch is still only worth one pitch. The value assigned is certainly influenced by circumstances. A pitch thrown with runners in scoring position could be considered "more important" than one thrown with nobody on. What creates this illusion of "the biggest pitch of the game" is the influence situations often have on us. The moment wouldn't exist without all of the others that led up to it. Constant challenges to "find out what you're made of right here" may be seen as ways to motivate players, but again this is dangerous. Implications of whether a player is successful in a singular situation being used as the evaluation for their makeup is unfair for so many reasons. Also, coming from the world of rational thinking, what makes the games in September any more important than games in early May? Again, it only happens with our way of evaluating the situation. It influences players to "do a little more" or to "try a little harder." With that being said, I'll admit playoff baseball games are more important. They aren't important enough to change the way you have always played the game though. One of my favorite concepts introduced to me by a mentor of mine whose influence has appeared multiple times on the blog, Geoff Miller, is that of trying too hard. Trying too hard's result can be just as bad as not trying hard enough. The message sent to players who have had success all year is that somehow what they did then wasn't quite good enough for late season baseball. What are the dimensions of the field in late season baseball again? Channeling my inner Coach Norman Dale, I'm fairly certain the ball still needs to be thrown over a 17 inch-wide plate. Hitters, you still should see the ball, hit it, and run. As coaches, you can either add to the external pressures of help to minimize. Why create more of that fickle beast known as indecision?
As I've started to pay attention, I am more and more convinced the teams who have the most success in these late season playoff pushes and into the playoffs are the ones who, I think with absolute intention from the coaching staff, continue to play how they have all year. The Royals from 2014 come to mind. They won last year in the regular season by running the bases, playing great defense, and having a lights out late-inning bullpen. They won in the postseason by running the bases, playing great defense, and having a lights out late-inning bullpen. I can still remember watching the 2013 Red Sox play a World Series game against the Cardinals. Some of the details escape me, but the basics are that it was fairly early in the game, the Red Sox had runners on first and second, and there were no outs. Twitter Coaching World exploded with calls for the Red Sox to sac bunt and exploded again when whoever was hitting swung away and fouled off a pitch or two. "How are they not bunting here?" "Doesn't John Farrell know how to coach situational baseball?!?! #BuntThemOver." John Farrell very much did know what he was doing. The Red Sox were a team that had swung the bats all year. Why change now? Because expert analysts say so? Me thinks not. To bunt the runners over would have been a message to the team to change the way they had played all year. It would have been to place doubt in the preparation for this very moment. The player who "should have bunted" went on to bang one off the wall, the Red Sox went on to put up a crooked number, and they won the World Series. In what can only be called a broadband miracle, all of those coaches who somehow thought they knew the Red Sox better than their manager must have lost their connection at the same time. Only crickets ensued. Did I cherry pick a situation? Absolutely, but I am reminded of something I have heard several times before. Just because something doesn't work out doesn't mean it was the wrong decision. This is something I think managers and coaches have to live by in order to not drive themselves crazy with second-guessing. There are so many variables to whether something works out or not. Sometimes, the hitter gets out. Sometimes, the pitcher gives up a hit. We lose games! That doesn't mean you didn't do what gave your players and team the best chance of being successful. It means we are human.
Lavar Burton would say, "You don't have to take my word for it," right about now. Here is a piece of an interview I found with Hall of Famer John Smoltz on "handling pressure on the big stage." The principles apply throughout late September and into October. Enjoy:
I really believe there’s a makeup. There’s a mental toughness that allows you to handle things that maybe the game, for people, goes too fast. The ‘what if’ scenarios suffocate them. To me, I don’t think you can be afraid to fail. Most people think, “oh, that comes with the territory,” but it really doesn’t. There’s a lot of players that put themselves in situation where they have that out-of-body experience and the next thing you know you’re like, what happened? I truly believe that if you’re not afraid to fail and you allow the moment to not be bigger … you can slow the game down and actually make it to your advantage. Look I feasted off guys who got aggressive and wanted to be the hero. I feasted off situations where the aggression and the moment makes people do things differently. I relished in it. I feel that moment was something I prepared my whole life for.
What stands out to me, among others things, is what Smoltz says about feasting off of guys who "wanted to be a hero" and "the moment makes people do things different." Smoltz relished the situation and pitched as he always did. He had an ultimate level of trust in his stuff and preparation for the moment. Derek Jeter, Madison Bumgarner, and David Ortiz are in this class of player as well.
In conclusion, remember, "A pitch is a pitch." Everything else is create by our perception of these external influences we allow to creep in. If you allow the influences to affect you, that is COMPLETELY NORMAL. There is no need to beat yourself up about it. My advice to you would be to reconnect to the moment and choose to focus on your job during that pitch to the best of your ability. This is where the recommendation of performance routines and using your breath tend to come into play. Do what has always made you successful, and let everyone else have situations dictate their approach. "Consistent behavior gets consistent results." Bingo!