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When Roy Sievers beat out Ted Williams and Mickey Mantle to win the American League's home-run and runs-batted-in championships in 1957, the casual fan began to realize what major leaguers had long appreciated: that here was one of the finest hitters in the game. Rookie of the Year in 1949, Roy later suffered a bad slump and a disabling shoulder injury that almost brought about his retirement. A successful operation restored his strength and the beautiful swing so admired by his fellow professionals.
The principal difference between hitting in the minors and hitting in the majors—or maybe I should say, the difference between a minor league hitter and a major league hitter—is knowledge. In the majors you have to study things all the time in order to be able to hit as well as you are able. A few years ago I was talking to Ted Williams about hitting, and he asked me, "Do you watch the pitchers all the time?" I said, "No, not all the time." Ted said, "You should. You should watch them every minute, watch their motion, over and over again, watch what they throw to you, what they throw to you at certain times, what they throw to other hitters. Watch how they throw the fast ball, where it goes, and how they throw the curve. Watch them all the time."
You watch the pitcher to learn his mannerisms. You keep watching and watching and all of a sudden you realize something that he's doing. He does things he doesn't know himself that he does. Maybe he brings the ball up back of his head on the fast ball. Maybe just to his forehead on his curve. Or some little thing. You keep watching. As you get more familiar with a pitcher you're not so apt to be fooled by him.
Knowing the pitchers, studying them, isn't so much to help you guess on a pitch as it is to react fast to a pitch. Something in his delivery that you see at the last second means a fast ball or a curve, or where he's aiming, and you're sort of more ready for that pitch than you would be if you didn't know.
When you're actually at bat, you have to watch the ball all the time. Keep your eye on the ball every instant. Watch it in the pitcher's hand as he winds up. Watch it as he brings his arm down to throw. Try to watch it come out of his hand. Watch it as it comes to the plate. Try to keep your eye on it right up to when it hits your bat. I don't think you really can see the ball hit the bat, but try to. That keeps your eye on the ball to the very last instant. The more you watch, the better you see a pitch. Williams says he can tell the spin of the ball four or five feet after it leaves the pitcher's hand. Stan Musial says he can see the pitch seven or eight feet out from the pitcher and know whether it's going to be good or not—depending on who the pitcher is and what his good pitches are. The better you are at watching the pitch as it comes to you, the longer you can wait before you swing. And that's important—waiting as long as you can before committing yourself.
You watch everything, you study everything. Even the umpires. You have to know the umpires. I mean, the way they operate. It doesn't do any good to argue with them because one calls a pitch a strike that another umpire would call a ball. Some umpires are highball umpires, some are low-ball umpires. Some people say that the National League is a low-strike league and the American a high-strike league. [That is, that the entire strike zone is, in practice, a little higher in the American League, with the result that more low pitches are called strikes in the National and more high pitches are called strikes in the American.] I don't believe it's a league thing so much. I think it depends on the individual umpire. Some just call strikes a little lower. You have to know them. I study them, too, just like I study everything.
Now, just about the most important thing a hitter has to know is the strike zone. You have to know that a pitch is a ball or a strike. You have to know the umpire's strike zone, what he considers a ball or a strike. Even more important, you have to know your own strike zone. That is, you have to know for sure that for you this pitch is one you can hit. There are pitches that are called strikes that won't be in your own strike zone, and you try not to swing at those if you can avoid it. But when you get a pitch in your strike zone, boy, hit it! Don't wait around. Let the pitcher know that you're there to hit. The more strikes you take, the better advantage the pitcher has.
There are pitches that are outside the strike zone that it's possible to hit real good, too. I'd say a true strike zone wouldn't be squarish—rectangular, the way it is now, for the umpire to call strikes and balls—but actually roundish. You could hit a low pitch down the middle or a waist-high pitch outside, for example. You could hit them as well as pitches two inches higher or two inches closer, but it's better to learn to lay off those pitches, because they are balls. If you get in the habit of hitting them, you'll get some extra hits for a while, but the pitchers will know that you're doing it and they'll start pitching you a little further outside and a little lower. And then you won't know when to swing and when to let the ball go.
All you do going after bad pitches is to make your strike zone bigger, and the bigger the strike zone the better it is for the pitcher. I remember back a few years I was swinging at pitches that were fairly high. The umpires told me, "Roy, lay off that high pitch. That's a ball. Lay off it."
When I say, know your own strike zone, I mean there's only certain pitches you swing at. You lay off all the others. Except when it's two strikes and you have no choice. Then you'll have to swing at some pitches. Like a good fast ball high on the inside corner. That's a tough pitch for me to hit. So I stay off it until I have to swing at it.