— Derek Shelton, sunglasses shielding his eyes from a late afternoon sun, leaned against the netting on the batting cage as he looked on while Asdrubal Cabrera took his pregame swings.
Shelton, the former hitting coach for the Indians, uttered not a word as he fixed his sights on Cabrera.
“We’re just going through his routine,” Shelton would say later.
He had done most of his tutoring of players inside the cages at Progressive Field. It’s in the cages — and in the video room — that he offered hitters the advice they needed to hit better, he said.
What Shelton told them came with no guarantees, though. Not because he didn’t have knowledge of how to hit, and not because the Indians he tutored didn’t have talent — to the contrary.
But it wouldn’t have mattered if Shelton coached the Indians, the Red Sox or the ’27 Yankees, he would have had the same difficulty: Teaching people to hit ain’t easy.
For after talking to numerous athletes in multiple endeavors, we've become convinced that no other skill in sports, whether it’s shooting a basketball, catching or passing a football, hitting a driver straight down the fairway or saving a puck coming toward the net at 100 mph, is more difficult to do well than hitting a baseball.
“I think we’re kind of biased, because this is what we do,” Shelton said. “I definitely think it’s the hardest thing to do.”
Don’t believe Shelton, a coach? Then just ask men who have excelled in more than one sport. Take, say, Hall of Famer Dave Winfield.
Winfield, a three-sport star at the University of Minnesota in the early ’70s, could not think of anything in the other sports that came close to being as difficult as hitting a baseball.
He agreed with Shelton that hand-eye coordination was central to success, particularly in the 4/10th of a second a hitter has to decide to swing or not. Consider, too, that swinging and getting a hit brought other considerations into the equation, regardless of how good a player’s hand-eye coordination was.
Hitting is a one-vs.-nine competition, Winfield said. Think that makes hitting well in the big leagues more difficult? Try throwing in thousands of fans screaming and still focusing like a laser on a ball that does everything but dance the tango.
“No matter who you are, no matter when in history, putting the bat on the ball is one thing, getting a hit is another,” Winfield said. “The best person has done it just four-out-of-10 times.”
Rays outfielder Gabe Gross sided with Winfield here. Gross, who started at quarterback for Auburn before abandoning football for pro baseball, called the cerebral side of playing quarterback a challenge, particularly so when he looked at the totality of the quarterback’s duties.
Reading defenses, mastering a complex offensive scheme and calling audibles can test an athlete’s talents, Gross said. But none of these challenges test an athlete like trying to square up a Mariano Rivera cutter with the barrel of a wooden bat. The margin for success is small — almost nil.
“I mean, you can obviously get a hit on a ball you didn’t hit well,” Gross said. “But you’re not gonna hang around and make a living doing that.”
Nor is a ballplayer going to make a living if he can’t accept the mental side of baseball, which means coming to terms with failure.
“You never want to accept failure, but it’s part of the game,” Gross said. “You’ve gotta learn to deal with failure maybe would a better way to term it.”
The minor leagues are filled with ballplayers with physical skills, but they can’t translate those skills into production. Their brain gets in the way, said Jason Stein, an authority on hitting.
Stein, a former minor league umpire and the son of veteran Major Leaguer Bill Stein, teaches hitting at a baseball camp he and his father run in the Dallas-Fort Worth area in the offseason, and during the season, Jason Stein served as a hitting consultant with the Indians organization.
He can help most ballplayers hit to their ability if they have good hand-eye coordination, he said. But every player has a limit. No hitting coach, apologies to men like Shelton, can turn Mario Mendoza into Joe Mauer or Albert Pujols.
“Everybody has a limit; everybody has a ceiling,” Stein said. “All you can do is help them try to find a way to reach that ceiling.”
Part of the help coaches like Stein provide is with the mechanics of hitting. He calls the nuances of hitting a teachable skill, though it’s just a complement to hand-eye coordination. Those nuances — balance, hand position, stride and head position — separate the .300 hitter from the .200 hitter.
“Until you teach a kid — or a hitter — how to do things properly physically, you can’t address all the things that come into play when you’re talking about a professional hitter,” Stein said.
White Sox outfielder Josh Fields understands Stein’s point as well as anybody. Fields, a former starting quarterback at Oklahoma State, has always had the physical tools to be a success, but he’s yet to put those tools together.
His inability to master “the pure aspect” of hitting has prevented him from emerging into the star the White Sox thought he would be.
“Pitchers can throw it with so much movement on it nowadays,” Fields said. “They’re throwing it really, really hard, and it seems like every year, you know, someone’s coming up with a new pitch or tweaking a pitch somehow and making it move more, making it a little more deceptive.”
So each time a ballplayer like Fields walked to the plate, he faced the unknown and carried with him uncertainty — or, as Winfield put it, a respect for it.
“Hitting a baseball when you’re hot is easy,” said Ricky Williams, a Heisman Trophy winner and an NFL running back who played Minor League baseball in the late 1990s. “But when you’re in a slump? The hardest thing about baseball is being in a slump when you have to play every day. Because you have to mentally find a way to get yourself out of it.”
For a slumping batter, hitting turns into a chess game: How will the defense play him? What will be the pitcher’s mix of pitches he’ll face? Will the location be hard stuff inside on the hands or a breaking ball on the outside edge?
The batter also must carry a dose of fear with him, a fear of failure and a fear of getting hit by a pitch.
The Justin Verlander fastball that awaits him can read 100 mph on the radar gun, and he can’t be sure whether the ball is coming at the inside corner or barreling in on his neck.
He knows if the pitch hits him, it’ll hurt him, Winfield said.
“You try to break that fear that you’re gonna win just three out of 10 times,” he said. “But you also have to have a certain fear of the ball. If the fear overrides your confidence, you can never get the job done.”
That’s the challenge Shelton faced. He had to address the mental side of teaching the art of hitting as much as the technical side of it. Neither is easy.
Inside the Indians clubhouse, he shook his head as he thought about his job of teaching Major Leaguers how to hit.
His was a daunting task.
“You’ve got a guy standing 60 feet, 6 inches away from you,” Shelton said. “The other thing is the pitcher’s making it sink and cut; he’s making it drop. He’s adding and subtracting speed to it.
“I mean, those variables alone make hitting extremely difficult.”