So you made the varsity team as a freshman? Congratulations!
You got offered a scholarship to play in college? Great news!
You were drafted to play professionally? Awesome!
You got called up to the Major Leagues? Unbelievable!
Reaching higher levels in the game by all means should garner a sense of achievement. Each step higher, however, is not ‘making it,’ but rather the makings for more work. As players advance in the game, each rung of the baseball ladder is melded together by one simple thing: good old fashioned work ethic. Those who are never complacent with where they are- regardless of how high- are the ones who have a constant inner drive that will enable them to maximize their true potential and reach the pinnacle of their own individual game, whatever level that may turn out to be.
As a minor league manager, the question “what does it take to play professional baseball” gets asked often. And while there is a pretty good general understanding amongst the baseball community of the tools and athletic ability that scouts are looking for when it comes to the amateur draft, we wanted offer a different kind of insight for aspiring big leaguers (and their coaches) to digest.
There are a handful of simple truths when it comes to understanding what it takes to move up in baseball, whether that be from middle school to high school or from the minor leagues to the big leagues. As players embrace these ideas, they’ll put themselves in a better position to accomplish their goals on the diamond.
Simple truth #1: With each new level reached should come the understanding of getting out of the kiddie pool and jumping into the ocean.
Just about every single player that signs a professional contract or commits to a college scholarship is a stud, the best of the best. They have grown accustomed to being the man, constantly being the center of attention. By far, the biggest adjustment a player must make upon advancing ranks is to understand the fact that they are no longer ‘the man’ and will no longer be the guy who everyone’s eyes are on. The sooner this sets in, the sooner our next meaning can take over.
Simple truth #2: Real hard work is probably not what you think. Time to learn what hard work truly is.
Any player who gets drafted- or any athlete in general- will tell you they work hard. Truth be told, the far majority don’t know what that term really means, and will soon be exposed to hard work, live and in-person. This past season in Greenville, South Carolina, our players started their work day at 2:00… for a 7:05 game. That’s right, FIVE hours before 1st pitch. At the lower professional levels, our biggest challenge is getting extremely talented kids to work right, meaning they have a purpose with every single thing they do, every single day. It’s not about taking 1,000 swings or throwing 200 pitches in the bullpen; it’s about quality over quantity. Position players don’t waste swings in the cage, and take every ground ball with perfect mechanics. Pitchers make each throw with a repeatable arm action and delivery that forces them to think about what they are doing. This adjustment is as much mental as it is physical and when accomplished, the player cannot help but improve and eventually move up. But as players work to move up, they are bound to hit a bump or two, or ten, in the road.
Simple truth #3: Players need to be prepared to get knocked down repeatedly, and more importantly, they must learn how to get back up.
Baseball is a game of failure. Anyone who has ever laced up a pair of spikes knows this. Most players who are afforded the opportunity to play in college or professionally have resumes of performance. Their success as amateurs often sets the stage for careers to take off. Part of that accomplished history on the field includes consistent, sustained achievement. High school standouts often hit well over .500 and some college pitchers put up video game-like numbers, sometimes averaging well over a strikeout per inning. The bottom line is that they are used to being very good almost all of the time. But as players move up, so does the talent. And it’s with that high-bar of ability across the game that brings upon something that many have never dealt with: failure.
As an amateur, a slump may be going hitless for a single game. As a pro, a slump will mean going a week without making hard contact, or a handful of outings on the mound where outs are hard to come by. For most, professional baseball players are experiencing true failure for the first time in their lives, and it’s how quickly they are able to handle the failure that will separate one from the other. The ones who look at failure as an opportunity to get better are the ones who progress throughout the game. Those who use failure as a means to hold a pity party or throw a temper tantrum are the ones who will be out of the game before you know it.
Simple truth #4: To truly be able to honestly assess performance, players must force themselves to become consumed by the process, and NOT by the box score.
We live in a results-oriented society in a time of instant gratification. In so many different walks of life- independent of sport- we are used to evaluating performance by the numbers, the perceived bottom line. To fans and fantasy league owners alike, baseball is the epitome of this. Players often become the anti-thesis of this. Baseball is the only sport of the major four where the very best amateur player usually needs a handful of years in the minor leagues before making it big. The argument can be made for that reason alone that our sport is, in fact, the toughest out there, but that’s another conversation for another day. As amateurs, all these guys have ever known has been statistical success. But as they’ll soon realize that as the talent improves, those back-of-the-baseball card numbers will drop, often drastically. For a long time, the word ‘slump’ is a foreign word, but play the game long enough and you’ll will quickly get to know its true meaning.
As mentioned above, the first slump of a player’s career is on the horizon as he climbs the baseball ladder. Having never truly failed before, most don’t know how to deal with the struggle. They become fixated on the what without realizing the why. Well-hit balls and quality at-bats are a staple of our daily reports that go to our front office in Boston about hitters, as is command of the strike zone, game plan against the opposing hitters, and repeatable deliveries for our pitchers. Base hits and strikeouts are a byproduct of the former, which is always our focus with our guys. The sooner a hitter can understand why he continuously is rolling over the ball, for example, the sooner he can become consumed with working to avoid it. Progress may be seen in baby steps, like a jam shot ground out to second or foul balls into the opposite-field stands. It is about controlling what you can control, which will allow the results that everyone wants to take care of themselves.
For those fortunate enough to play collegiately or professionally, moving up in the game is without a doubt one of the most rewarding things anyone can accomplish in life. It is a privilege to wear the uniform and is by no means anyone’s right. Many will be selected… but only the hard-working few will be chosen. Professional baseball is not for everyone, but we ask you this, now knowing some of the game’s simple truths, are you ready make the effort to get there?