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April 05, 2010
Hitters who work the count and get on—guys like Denard Span—are more valuable than ever. Is it a gift, or can players develop base instincts?
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April 05, 2010

The Virtues Of Patience

Hitters who work the count and get on—guys like Denard Span—are more valuable than ever. Is it a gift, or can players develop base instincts?

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"If they want to hit me, I'll take it," Span says. "I'll take whatever I can get."

McGwire was a controversial choice to be the Cardinals' hitting coach, not only because of his steroid admission but also because a lot of people wonder what a .263 lifetime hitter can teach others about hitting.

There's no telling just yet how McGwire will do as a hitting coach, but the second issue is ridiculous for two reasons. First, some of the most famous batting instructors—Charlie Lau (lifetime .255) most prominent among them—couldn't hit a lick. Second, McGwire was one of the best ever at working the count. His .394 lifetime on-base percentage ranks higher than that of Honus Wagner, Willie Mays, Hank Aaron or Pete Rose. Not only did he walk a lot (only five players who played in at least 1,600 games walked more per plate appearance), but he also became good at getting himself into favorable hitting counts. But when asked how much count strategy he teaches hitters, he shakes his head.

"I tell hitters all the time that they have to trust their eyes," McGwire says. "That's the key. You have to keep it simple. I never guessed. Never. If the count was 3--1 or 0--2, I tried to treat it the same. I didn't overthink. I didn't say, Oh, he'll try to throw a fastball here, or He's ahead so he'll try to get me to chase. I just looked for the ball out of the pitcher's hand. That's what you have to do as a hitter."

Hall of Famer George Brett concurs. He says the perfect mental state for hitting is when the brain is completely blank. Brett, the vice president of baseball operations for the Royals, often asks hitters what they're thinking about when they're on a hot streak. He gets great joy when they say—as they often do—"I was thinking about nothing."

Span doesn't disagree. "You can't overthink it," he says. "Sure I study the pitchers on video, I know what they throw, I have a game plan. But I'm not in there trying to guess with him. I want him to try to guess with me."

As good as he was in 2009, Span is certain he can improve his on-base percentage even more. Last year, after all, was only his first full season in the majors. He looks around at players who have taken dramatic steps forward, sees that it is something you can get better at and tries to pick up a few tricks. Figgins had shown moderate-to-good plate discipline throughout his career, then improved dramatically last season; he walked 101 times (his high had been 65) and saw more pitches than any other player in baseball. New Red Sox shortstop Marco Scutaro, who had never even walked 60 times in a season, had 90 free passes in '09 while with the Blue Jays. Boston's Kevin Youkilis—the famed Greek God of Walks from the book Moneyball—saw more pitches per plate appearance than any other AL player and turned that into the second-highest on-base percentage in the league.

"I don't know if this is exactly what I dreamed about," Span says. "I mean, on-base percentage and all that. You're growing up, you dream about winning a batting title or hitting 40 home runs. But you know what I did dream about? Being a major league baseball player. And this is how I have to do it."

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