On Sept. 29, 2009, Milwaukee Brewers catcher Jason Kendall walked to the plate to face Colorado Rockies closer Houston Street. There was one out in the top of the ninth, two runners on, the Brewers were down 5-2 and Kendall was the tying run.
Kendall and Street had been teammates in Oakland, so Kendall was well acquainted with what Street threw and when he liked to throw it.
Kendall looked Street in the eyes and said: “You know I’m getting a hit off you.”
Two pitches later, Kendall hit a three-run home run to tie the game. If Kendall could intimidate you, he would. He felt it gave him an edge.
Talk to big-league ballplayers, and they’ll tell you confidence — or the lack of it — can determine the outcome of a confrontation.
It’s only a scratch
When former Royals bullpen coach Doug Henry was asked about confidence, he said a pitcher better believe he’s the baddest dude on the planet.
Pitchers who lack confidence nibble at the corners of the plate because they don’t believe their stuff is good enough to challenge the hitter. Then they fall behind in the count and have to throw a fastball down the pipe just when the hitter expects one.
Confident pitchers come right at the hitter: “Here’s my best stuff: I don’t think you can touch it.”
His career numbers back up Henry’s opinion.
If Henry fell behind 1-0 on the first pitch, after that opponents hit .277 and slugged .475. If Henry got ahead 0-1, those numbers were .193 and .302.
If Henry nibbled he scuffled; if he was on the attack he dominated — and Henry wouldn’t be on the attack if he wasn’t confident.
When a hitter did damage, Henry would go into Monty Python’s Black Knight routine: He could have his arm cut off and Henry would think, “It’s only a scratch.”
If he wanted to stay in the big leagues — something he did for 11 years — Henry could not give in to despair; whatever the results, he had to continue believing he was one bad dude because any other attitude would make things worse.
Jerry Dipoto is currently the general manager of the Seattle Mariners, but before that he pitched in the big leagues for eight years.
Back then, Dipoto would not use a Jerry Dipoto card when he played the baseball board game Strat-O-Matic; the numbers on that year’s card weren’t good enough.
When asked why he wouldn’t use his own card — after all, the only hits he would give up were imaginary — Dipoto said he wasn’t in the business of giving up hits any time, imaginary or not.
Dipoto didn’t want failure of any sort stuck in his head; it might hurt his confidence. Giving up imaginary hits might lead to giving up real ones.
Relentless focus on the positive
On Wednesday, the Royals lost to the Cleveland Indians and ran their record down to 29-58. Afterward, Ned Yost had this to say about pitcher Danny Duffy:
“I think he got a little bit tired right at the end, but I thought this could be one of the best games he’s pitched for me all year long.”
Instead of focusing on yet another loss, Yost focused on Duffy’s effort, which was a good one.
In a June 29 story written by Star beat writer Lynn Worthy, Yost defended what the Royals have accomplished this year despite being in last place in the American League Central.
“I think the improvement has come in the experience level of a (Jorge) Soler, (Hunter) Dozier, Nicky (Lopez) wasn’t up here last year. (Adalberto) Mondesi is making good strides. I think our defense has been better than it was last year. We struggle at times with command of our pitches, but our stuff is good.”
Most big-league managers could make Norman Vincent Peale seem like Debbie Downer when it comes to the power of positive thinking.
And there’s a reason managers take that attitude.
The 2019 Royals
Fans are well aware of the Royals’ record, so when Dayton Moore or Ned Yost say something positive about their team it can sound disingenuous or delusional. It can sound like they’re trying to con fans into believing the team is better than it is.
But as satisfying as it might be for unhappy fans, having the manager and GM throw the Royals under the bus won’t help.
Here’s what Moore said not long ago in a Vahe Gregorian column:
“Whatever happens throughout your daily routine, concentrate on what’s next, OK? Concentrate on what’s next. Don’t stay wounded, don’t stay down.”
When a pitcher gives up a 442-foot home run and claims it was a “good pitch,” we tend to roll our eyes; you don’t give up tape-measure shots on good pitches. But the pitcher is trying to control what goes on inside his head. And thinking he’s lousy isn’t helpful.
The pitcher doesn’t want to stay wounded.
When a team is in last place and on its way to 100 losses and a player talks about the talent in the room, we might think the player is clueless. But once again the player is doing what he can to stay positive.
The player doesn’t want to stay wounded.
If a player lacks confidence he’s going to be passive and passive doesn’t cut it in the big leagues.
When a player, manager or general manager tries to put a positive spin on negative results, it can sound like they don’t understand that there’s a problem or don’t take that problem seriously.
But nobody in the world better understands or takes the problem more seriously than guys who will lose their jobs if it isn’t fixed.
And when a big-league manager publicly criticizes his team it’s a pretty good sign he won’t be a big-league manager much longer. Negativity can spread, so the people in charge want to get that bad attitude out of the clubhouse before it infects everybody else.
Believing you’re going to lose leads to losing: opportunities are lost because players are giving a lousy effort and losing focus on what’s in front of them.
Believing you’re going to win leads to winning: opportunities are recognized and seized because the players are giving a good effort and focused on the moment.
Negative people bring everybody down; positive people pick everybody up.
It might be satisfying for outsiders to say the Royals are lousy, but the people on the Royals won’t.
Because it doesn’t help.