Once again the Royals were rained out. (Man, I’ve written that way too many times already this season.) In the meantime here’s an interesting conversation I had with Royals outfield and base running coach, Rusty Kuntz. We were talking about playing 162 games and the effort required to make it through such a grueling schedule. What Rusty had to say may surprise you.
By LEE JUDGE
The Kansas City Star
Don’t give it your best
Recently we talked about Mike Moustakas playing too fast and making an error on a potential double-play ball. The other day Rusty Kuntz came by and we discussed learning to play at the right speed once you arrive in the big leagues. Rusty said high school and college kids play two or three times a week and are constantly told to give 100% or even the mathematically challenging 110%. Then they sign a professional contract and are constantly being told to slow the game down. Rusty said that’s the number one question asked in rookie ball: how do I slow the game down?
By slowing yourself down.
Professional ballplayers play every day for months on end. If you go out and try to give 110% on each and every play, you’re not only going to wear yourself out, you might get hurt—and then you aren’t helping your team. According to Rusty, you play professional baseball at 80%. Hit a groundball, run it out at 80%. Catch a fly ball and throw it back into the infield, throw it in at 80%. Rusty then asked me what would happen on a groundball where the hitter sniffs an infield hit. The ball is hit to the shortstop’s right and he has to dive to keep the ball on the infield or the batter hits a slow roller to third. What will happen to the batter who was giving 80%?
"Adrenaline kicks in?"
Now the guy giving it 80% is right where he wants to be—giving it his best when it matters. And the reason he can give it his best when it matters is he didn’t wear himself out giving it his best when it didn’t matter. Rusty said that bench players—guys like Elliot Johnson and Miguel Tejada—can give it 100% when they’re on the field because they don’t play every day, but the regulars have to learn to pace themselves. Apparently you can go to a high school tournament and see good baseball played on Friday night and by Sunday the same players—not used to playing every day—will be dragging. They haven’t learned to pace themselves.
By pacing yourself you have something extra to give on line drives in the gap or getting down the line to break up a double play. If you don’t pace yourself not only will you not have anything extra to give when it matters, you might not be able to play at all.
When I first met Jason Kendall—and they don’t make ballplayers any tougher—I asked him where his left foot was positioned when a runner was coming home and there would be a play at the plate. If the catcher has his foot on the left-field foul line, the runner has a clear path to the plate and there shouldn’t be a collision. If the catcher is straddling the foul line, he’s blocking the entire plate and the runner is going to have to knock the catcher down to score.
Jason said the only time he straddled was "late and close." Early in his career Jason straddled all the time—until Gary Sheffield ran him over and gave him a concussion. After that Jason decided he needed to be a little smarter and only block the plate when it was "late" (in the final innings) and "close" (the score was close enough that a run mattered). Taking a beating when you’re up or down by six runs in the third inning didn’t make a lot of sense—even to a tough guy like Kendall.
I once naively talked about how George Brett always hustled down the line and unfortunately said it front of a former teammate, Clint Hurdle. Clint said I was full of it, at times George went three-quarter speed down the line just like everyone else, "but he never did it when it mattered." Apparently, learning when it matters, when to bear down and when to back off, is part of becoming a true professional. So kids, if you want to be a pro ballplayer, learn when not to give it your best.
If I can inspire just one young person to mail it in, I think I’ve done my job.
(OK, that last bit was a joke, but it is interesting to learn how professional ballplayers get through 162 games. We’ve all been indoctrinated by all those sports movies depicting athletes giving it their all. To find it just ain’t so—to find out that giving it your all on every play is actually detrimental—is eye-opening.)