Some Answers for Eric — The Mental Game

This is the fourth part of a long article, segmented for online reading convenience, on Eric Byrnes’ batting difficulties, and the mental aspect of solving these problems. This one and the 5th part are the heart of what I was trying to say when I first wrote the article, so I have moved them to the top of the blog. What I say here about Byrnes would also work for other players and can be translated into other walks of life. So please read on:

Some Answers for Eric — The Mental Game

All physical activity begins on a mental level. Therefore, Byrnes should first examine his mental approach to batting.

What does Byrnes think about when he’s at the plate? Any thoughts like, "I hope I get a hit," or "I’ve gotta get a hit" are a waste of mental energy. At the plate, there need be only mindfulness of any instructions the third base coach is relaying, the hitting situation and what kind of stuff the pitcher has that day. It is critical to be in the moment, not trying to prove anything to anyone, not even to oneself.

Johnny Damon made a good point in 2004. One has to be an "idiot" out there, not over-thinking, but rather letting the brain make the necessary split-second calculations and letting the body execute the brain’s decision, trusting the years of physical training and game-playing experience that have honed the skills to the major-league level. Byrnes does this routinely in the field, whether it’s an ordinary catch or one of those spectacular dives into the gap. The same process has to be applied to hitting.

But away from the game itself, there should be time to think and to ask questions: What are the root causes of the inconsistency? Do they stem from personality traits or physical execution, or both? What can be done to achieve more consistent high performance?

During the last series at 2005 at Fenway between Baltimore and Boston, Jerry "Remdawg" Remy, announcer for the Red Sox, came up with a stat that showed Byrnes had THE LOWEST batting average in the American League for away games. (And then Byrnes struck out). The thought of Eric Byrnes being the league’s worst at anything he does in baseball is simply mind-boggling to me. Byrnes needs to ask himself: Why was away so different from home? While he’s at it, he should ask himself: Why is there a significant disparity between batting averages against right-handed pitchers and left-handed pitchers? The disparities are especially frustrating when, as we can see from stats in the next paragraph, he can hit righties for power.

Sometimes, the way stats are interpreted is more important than the stats themselves. Byrnes needs to ignore the propaganda about what he cannot do.

How many times have we heard that Byrnes cannot hit right-handed pitchers? He can, and he does. But the way his stats are interpreted, and the repetition and publicity given to that interpretation, give a false impression that can ruin Byrnes’ approach to hitting, if he has internalized this propaganda even unconsciously. Here’s an example from the 2004 edition of his MLB web page:

[H]is career high batting average was aided by a .344 (54 for 157) mark against left handed pitching, the third best mark against southpaws in the American League… hit seven of his 20 home runs against left handed pitching and 16 of his 38 career home runs have come against southpaws…

Do the math. If seven of his 20 home runs in 2004 came against southpaws, then Byrnes hit 13 homers off righties. If 16 of his (‘til that point) 38 career homers came against southpaws, then Byrnes hit 22 homers off righties. While it’s true that he hits left-handers significantly better for average than he hits right-handers, part of that goes with the percentages; Byrnes is a right-handed hitter. But even in abysmal, aberrant 2005, when he hit .189 in his 15 games with the Rockies, 8 of the 10 hits he got during that time were off right-handers!

This is what I mean by saying he’s got the tools. Ninety-nine and 44/100s percent of the guys reading this could not do what Byrnes has already done. But when someone keeps hearing "You can’t," some rather negative tendencies develop: subtle changes in mental approach or mechanics that validate the negative judgment, or over-effort to prove the negative judgment wrong that backfires. Byrnes can hit right-handed pitchers. He has hit right-handed pitchers. He just hasn’t done it with the consistency he, his organization, and his fans would like to see. So he needs to focus on achieving consistency in doing what he can and has already done! Which means, first of all, remembering that he has already done it.

Byrnes needs to learn that relaxing does not mean he’s giving less than his all.

Byrnes always give 100% and we all know that. But with that being the case, more effort does not solve his difficulties because it is impossible to give more than 100%. When Byrnes tries to amp up his effort even more, he runs into the law of diminishing returns. His frustration level increases, which leads to bad decisions, such as enlarging the strike zone to swing at balls. (More on that in the "More Answers for Eric" article).

I was watching a game in which one of the Orioles announcers said Byrnes looked like he was trying to squeeze sawdust out of the bat handle. Not good. The announcers also talked about him being wound up real tight. Not good. Byrnes needs to relax more at the plate; he needs to discern what his 100% effort is and not seek to go beyond that. If his 100% effort is not yielding positive results, the answer is a different approach, not an attempt to redouble his effort at what is not working.

Byrnes needs to learn the limits of effort as a practice tool.

"I’m working, that’s the only thing I really can do at this point. Obviously it hasn’t been the type of year I expected to have. To this point it’s been pretty much a disappointment. At the same time it’s not from lack of effort or lack of working because I come out here to prepare myself every day." –Eric Byrnes

As I watched Byrnesie slog through 2005, I kept seeing the same stance, which meant the same approach to hitting. We all know the saying "If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. " But if you try, try again, and you still don’t succeed, you need a different approach. Time and effort are not enough. Pitchers have found his weaknesses and have learned to exploit them. He has to adjust to that, not just try harder at the same ol’ thing that is no longer working well. Or to put in the way an opera workshop director I studied with 10 years ago put it, "Practice does not make perfect; practice makes permanent."

Eric, don’t let your wonderful work ethic end up grooving your weaknesses. Use practice as an opportunity to experiment. There is a line between "If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again!" and "If you keep doing the same thing but expect a different result, you’re insane." Byrnesie, I know you are not insane.

Byrnes should develop an identity as a certain type of hitter.

I have seen Byrnes bat all over the lineup except 3rd. That has to create confusion as to hitting approach and what to practice, especially for a guy like Byrnes who can and has done everything from bunt for a single to hit home runs. Knowing that he belongs in a particular hole in the lineup will help because each hole has a certain archetype that creates a focus for practice.

Having a hitting identity does not throw the idea of situational hitting out the window. Certain situations require adjustments, e.g., say it’s the 9th inning, and the team is down by 2 runs. The guy leading off the 9th is the powerful clean-up batter who is one of the top homer hitters in the league. But in that situation, a solo shot won’t help. Slugger would do better for his team in that situation to get on base as the archetypal lead-off hitter is expected to do.

But even though adjustments have to be made during some situations, there are certain archetypes attached to each lineup hole. I think Lee Mazilli had the right instincts about Byrnes being a 2 hitter. His speed confers the makings of a great 2 hitter, who can play hit and run, leg out infield hits and steal bases. He also has some power, which comes in handy if the guys in the bottom third of the order start a rally. It’s a matter now of becoming a high average hitter, like 2’s should be. Again the issue is consistency. Being sure of who he is as a hitter will help direct his practice.

Byrnes needs to develop and maintain certainty.

This is the hardest thing for a hitter to do because the very best of them fail over 60% of the time. The 2005 season has recently ended. The last time a batter finished a season above .400 was in 1941, when Ted Williams hit .406. Baseball is full of .500 pitchers and .500 ball clubs; they are the definition of mediocrity. Baseball has never had someone hit .500 for a season. The utterly worst won-loss record in the majors in 2005, the Royals’ .346, is a splendid average for a hitter. Yet the best hitters have to go to the plate each time with the certainty that they can and will hit safely, that they know what to do to hit safely, even if they were out the last time, the last three times, or the last 30 times. It’s part of how hitters break slumps. It’s part of how they come through in the clutch, like St. Louis’ Albert Pujols did in Game 5 of the 2005 NLCS.

The key to certainty is to have the mentality of Pujols’ great opponent in that moment, the fearsome Astros closer Brad Lidge. When a great closer blows a save, he puts it behind him; tomorrow is another day. The Dodgers’ Eric Gagne saved 84 straight. Blowing No. 85 didn’t send him into a tailspin. The Yankees’ Mariano Rivera blew the save in the clinching game of the 2001 World Series. The Diamondbacks won the game and the championship. But we still know Rivera’s a great closer, one of the best there ever was; he’s put that defeat behind him and saved many other games since then.

A great hitter needs that great closer’s mental toughness. Yet a hitter has a more difficult job maintaining certainty because being out over 60% of the time is the norm for the best of them and each failure can chip away at certainty. And rather than one failure a day, e.g. a blown save, there is a failure per unsuccessful plate appearance in a game.

But sometimes the certainty is there, even in the midst of struggle. Certainty is part of what is called "peak performance" or "being in The Zone." And Byrnes has been there. He should look at film of himself on Aug. 31, 2005, when he went 2-4 with 2 RBI, 2 R including a homer off a curve ball thrown by a right-handed pitcher in an away game. The stats say that breaking stuff, right-handers and away games are all trouble spots for Byrnes But not that AB. He had had good days at the plate before. In fact, he went 3-5 with a homer on July 31st. But I saw something special on August 31st. I knew every time Byrnes was going to swing. His eyes just lit up. The outs were well hit. That day I saw the certainty of Eric Byrnes, major league hitter. And I left for work after that game in a great mood, sure that his slump was over. But he got a single the next day and then it was downhill again. There were times in September when I felt as if he would not get a hit for the rest of the season, and as I looked at his face, I wondered if he felt that way, too. The certainty was gone. Where did it go? What does he have to do to get it back to stay?

Kéllia Ramares
Oakland, CA

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