Don't Leave Your Fate Up to the Umpires

Joshua Nichols #39 takes a swing | OKC Vipers vs Lake Hefner Pelicans | 2021

Any half-witted athlete knows just how important officials are to the world of sports. Umpires are no different for the game of baseball. We need them because they are of tremendous value in so many ways. They do so much more than “call the game” as we say. They control the pace of the game. They are responsible for upholding the integrity of the game. A good umpire knows how to keep peace on the field or bring peace back to field of play if chaos rears its ugly head. If we truly recognized just how important blues are to the game, we’d be much more intentional in showing our gratitude rather than our disdain. But that’s another topic for another time.

As much as I value umpires, as a hitter, I don’t believe in leaving my fate up to them.  Time and time again, I have watched batters blow their tops after a called strike three where the ball missed the zone by an inch or more. Please, don’t get me wrong. I’m not suggesting that we, as a batters, shouldn’t be frustrated by bad calls. It’s quite the opposite.  If I get a called third strike and I believe it was a ball, you can bet I’m gonna be pretty irate. But what if we could minimize those experiences by taking a different approach at the plate?

“Every pitch is a strike until it’s not.”

I refer to the above quote as sluggers’ mentality. I love it when the catcher catches a ball that I obviously considered but held back on; and in an effort to get in my head he says, “Oh, he wanted that one.” I calmly reset my feet in the batter’s box and go through my pre-pitch ritual and confidently say, “I want EVERY one.”

It’s true. I want every. single. pitch! I am there to hit! Recently I found myself infuriated with a pitcher I was facing in a tournament that accused me of attempting to stick my elbow out in front of the ball of a high and inside pitch.  My first thought was,

🤬…I am  41 years old and still have two days of game play in this tourney. You think I actually want to get drilled in the elbow by a 70+ mph fastball? C’mon! I ain’t Roger Dorn!

I was actually quite surprised on how angry this made me. Of course, no one likes being accused of something they didn’t do, but I think what irked me the most was the idea that if he really knew me and my approach to hitting, he’d never entertain such a ridiculous thought.

In this article, I would like to attempt to allow you to get to know me a little better when it comes to my approach to hitting.  In all honesty, my hope here isn't to help you become a better hitter.  If my approach helps you with that, then that is merely an added bonus. My goal is to share with you how my approach to hitting is also part of my approach to life. So, let's get into it.

Josh's 5 Rules for Succeeding at the Plate

1. Don’t take juicy fastballs (if possible).

Where do we tend to do this the most? Answer: the first pitch of the AB, and when there’s a 3-0 count. First, allow me to give my disclaimer. I am not saying you shouldn’t take in these circumstances. Baseball is a chess match. It’s a game of strategy. Sometimes the situation is one of such where you might need to take thereby risking letting a juicy fastball fly by you right down the middle.

I hit cleanup in every game of my senior year of high school. [Caution: Humble bragging ahead] Combining my fall and spring seasons, I had a BA of .470 with 20 home runs and 100+ RBI’s. I can only remember getting the take sign once.

It’s the top of the 7th inning. Game is tied. Two outs. Runner at third. I’m up to bat. I have been hitting well all game. I take the pitcher to a 3-0 count. I step out and look to my third base coach; and then I see it. Hand held out, fist clenched, the dreaded take sign. “For real?” I thought. “But why? We are one run away from going up. We have a runner at third, and I’ve been performing really well. We have a good shot if he throws me a strike. Screw that! If it’s juicy, I’m swinging!” I stepped back into the batter's box, eye balling the pitcher. He throws a fat one right down the pipe. I can feel my eyes get big as I barrel up on it. Unfortunately, I was slightly on top of the ball. You guessed it...ground out to short. We lost that game in the bottom half of that inning.

Here’s the point. I should have taken the pitch out of respect and obedience to my coach alone. The reality is that I got selfish, and because of that I failed to see strategy. I failed to trust my coach. I should have taken that pitch because the runner on third base was the fastest kid on our team. As I started my swing, I realized why I got this one and only take sign. The guy on third was stealing home. But it was too late. I was already at the point of no return. After my bat hit the ball, my teammate who was hauling @$$ to the plate had to dodge my bat as I almost took off his head. Given this reality, not only did I understand the point of the take, I also realized my teammate would likely have been called safe at home. My selfishness screwed up a strategic play, nearly killed my teammate, and more or less cost us a much needed win.

Although I don't plan on taking any juicy fastballs as I approach the plate,  I do recognize that there are times when taking is the better decision. When that time comes, I hope to have the discipline to not let my ego get in the way. But, I also hope that I hate every moment it. Letting juicy pitches go by should be painful, even if it’s the right thing to do.

2. Want every pitch. 

I won’t take up too much space on this point as I touched on it earlier. When I step to the plate, I want to be in attack mode. We are at war with the pitcher. His weapon of choice: a small round ball of string, covered in leather. My weapon of choice: a large wooden club designed specifically to combat his weapon of choice. So, as he fires at me, everything about my plate presence should reflect a strong desire to attack.

If there is one thing that drives me nuts with the kids I coach, it is when they relax their posture at the plate before the ball reaches the catchers mitt. Even if taking the pitch is the smart decision, I never think it’s wise to leave our attack posture when at war.

3. Expect to hit.

I’m not suggesting that the desire for hitting should trump a hitter's desire to get on base. After all, it’s impossible to win games with no baserunners. However, our preferred method for getting on base is important in my opinion.

Some players might take a more lackadaisical approach while at the plate. Their inner voice might be saying something like, “Hit, walk, hit by pitch...I really don’t care as long as I end up on base.” I’m not suggesting this approach is wrong. I  personally would prefer a more aggressive approach at the plate. However, if all I am thinking at the plate is, “hit at all costs,” then not only do I display that I’m not afraid to swing the bat, but I also display that I am willing to swing at almost anything. This  approach does not hold the pitcher accountable to throwing good pitches. I think of one particular scene in the 1990 hit movie Major League. Pedro Serrano is up to bat in his last AB of the movie.  Before he hits a curve ball out of the stadium, he whiffed on two curveballs. The camera cuts to the pitcher who is smirking in amusement because everybody in the league knows Pedro cannot hit a curveball.  

In conclusion,  on one extreme we have the lackadaisical batter and on the other extreme we have  the overly-aggressive batter. I’m looking for an approach that falls somewhere closer to the center of this continuum or even just right of the center. This type of batter you might think of as more of an assassin. This batter steps up to the plate with confidence. He takes an approach that says “if you put the ball in the vicinity of my wheelhouse, I’m gonna hit it down your freaking throat!”  The pitchers also know that they’re going to have to work very hard for this out. Because not only is this batter great at swinging his bat, he is also great at not swinging when the situation calls for it. In other words, he is a smart batter, which makes him even deadlier. The batter that comes to my mind the most that I know personally, is my buddy and teammate Cody Ousley.  Another one would be my Des Moine Grays teammate, David Case.  I widely consider both a couple of the smartest batters I have ever played with. They definitely are baseball assassins. 

4. Stay in there! Don’t immediately pull away from a ball that is coming at you.

If I haven’t already made it clear, I absolutely hate getting hit by a pitch. One reason for this is because I’d rather get on base by hitting the ball not by getting hit by the ball. But the other reason for this is that it freaking hurts!

Our natural instinct, of course, is to get out of the way when a speeding object is coming directly at us. In baseball, we are trained to react counter to that natural instinct in many different ways. For example, a hard ground ball or line drive, we are taught from a very young age to put our bodies in front of the ball. Even when we’re learning to play catch, we are taught to move our heads in front of the ball instead of trying to catch the ball while moving away from it.  Hitting is no different in a lot of ways. In the highest levels of play, the speeding object can move over 100 mph, just inches away from our bodies, and we are expected to not flinch, but actually to swing at it. So why would I encourage batters to not get out of the way when the ball is coming at them. ? The answer - so that we are better prepared for the off-speed pitch.

I’m not one who’s ever really been that good at picking up spin. In fact, I have trouble believing that anyone can pick up spin.  I definitely don’t believe that the brain can consciously do it while we are at the plate. If this is something that is possible, it is only made possible by repetitious training where the brain reacts to the stimuli without us even knowing. This definitely could be possible given that a lot of baseball training is done this way.

However, since I don’t have a lot of confidence in my mind‘s ability to react to spin, my approach is to stay in the box even if the ball is coming at me. Especially if I have two strikes on me. If I get hit, then I still get on base. But the last thing I want to have happen is to get a call strike three on a curveball that pretended to be a wild pitch.

5. Be willing to go down swinging.

At the end of the day, I’m a hitter! Similar to the reality that you can’t score if you don’t get on base, you also can’t hit the ball if you don’t swing the bat. In my opinion, if you’re going to be a great hitter, you have to trust your stick more than you trust the umpires.

Two commonly uttered words by little league baseball coaches across the nation when a batter has two strikes are “anything close.” Why is that? Well, because we don’t want them to take any chances with a ball near the zone. 

"Hitters need to trust their abilities to hit more than trusting the umpire to make the right call."

This is obviously within reason. But it’s up to each batter to determine for themselves what "within reason" means for them. One batter might feel like a ball that is one inch off the plate is reasonable to swing at with two strikes, but any more than that would be unreasonable. Another batter might be more comfortable with the ball being two inches off the plate on the outside but one inch on the inside. Anything beyond that would be unreasonable to that particular batter. There is obviously a point on the wild pitch continuum where most players would agree that the pitch is unreasonable to hit. But from my experience as an adult baseball player, most batters are not swinging at those pitches. It’s the near misses that tend to take people down. Again, the question I think we should ask ourselves is:

"Do I trust my stick; or do I trust the umpire to make the right call on near misses?"


There are so many life lessons I believe can be taught through this game of baseball. I truly believe that is one reason why the game means so much to many of us. So what is the lesson here?

When we really think about it, there’s so much of our lives that we can’t control, probably way more than we would care to admit or examine. We didn’t ask to be born. We didn’t ask to grow up in the homes we grew up in. We didn’t asked to go to school in the schools that we went to. Yes, when we became adults we acquired more control over our lives, but our decisions are heavily influenced by the experiences we had growing up. So, we have little control over those incidences either.  We might be able to better control who we pick as our partners in life or what type of job we want. We have more control over how we treat ourselves; and how we treat others. But we don’t have control over how others respond to us. We don’t have control over the expectations our employers have for us. And we don’t have control over our bodies in the end. It doesn’t matter how healthy we keep our vessel, it will still grow old, it will still break down, and eventually it will die.

Another thing we don’t have a lot of control over are the umpires in our lives. Umpires can actually be something tangible like a person or entity that governs us. Our umpires can also be a lot more ambiguous like the unwritten rules that govern our brains, most of which we are not aware of. For instance, in mental health we teach people to learn to trust their gut when their gut is telling them something is off. Sometimes, they never quite figure out what their gut is responding to. Sometimes what they think their gut is responding to, they find out it wasn’t that at all. The reality is that our brains and bodies are paying attention in ways that we are not consciously aware of. That is important for survival. Umpires also are important for not only surviving the game of life, but they also serve an important role in effort to help us play the game well. That said, too often in life I think we hang back and leave our fate up to the umpires. We don’t ask for that raise because we just hope that our employers will see the good work we’re doing and offer it to us. We don’t talk to our spouses about things that are bothering us in hopes that the umpires of their lives will help them to read between the lines and realize the problem on their own. Time and time again we find ourselves debilitated by fear. We let opportunity after opportunity, pitch after pitch, go bye because we’re too afraid to swing our bats at something that feels a little bit out of reach. We hope the umpires will call a ball, thus, we get another chance. Sometimes that happens and sometimes it doesn’t. 

We are all playing the game of life. Similar to baseball, it is also a chess match. The challenge that I leave before you is one that I, myself, face every day. Do we want to leave our lives in the hands of the umpires, or do we want to do a better job in trusting ourselves with the opportunities that are thrown our way? Yes, sometimes we might go down swinging, but rarely will we be disappointed in our ABs.

Joshua Nichols is the founder of the social media experience known as Baseball Training for Older People, otherwise proudly referred to as "BTOP" (BEE-top).  Take part in the BTOP experience by like, following, and subscribing to all the BTOP social media accounts.  However, if you really want to get the full experience, then make sure you join the private facebook group called BTOP Legends. Now, let's get to get'n!


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