With his team down to their last out in the deciding game of the 2012 World Series, and trailing by a run, Detroit Tigers slugger Miguel Cabrera stepped into the batter’s box at Comerica Park to face pitcher Sergio Romo.
The signature pitch of the San Francisco Giants reliever was a slider, a sweeping breaking ball that moved from his right to left like a darting frisbee. Romo began the at-bat by throwing five straight sliders to Cabrera, an unusual sequence for most pitchers, but not Romo, who threw the pitch 77 percent of the time that season. The fifth slider started outside and broke away for a ball, evening the count at two balls and two strikes.
Watching from the bench, rookie San Francisco catcher Curt Casali noticed that Cabrera took the pitch with little interest in swinging.
“I swear, I was like, Just throw a fastball down the middle and he’s going to take it,” Casali says now, looking back at one of the most memorable pitch sequences of his career. “When he didn’t swing and didn’t foul it off, it was because he was doing an auto take.”
On the next pitch, starting Giants catcher Buster Posey made a gutsy decision, signaling Romo to throw a fastball right down the middle—gutsy because Romo’s fastball was below average by Major League standards, and Cabrera is a future Hall of Fame hitter. And yet, in the biggest moment of his career, Cabrera was caught off guard. He watched the perfect pitch go by without offering a swing, and the Giants mobbed Romo on the field in celebration of the team’s second championship in three seasons.
“Are they ansty at the plate? Are they not going to swing?” Casali says of observing batters’ reactions to fastballs, sliders, curveballs and changeups. “You just know in your gut it’s going to work.”
A lot goes into pitch calling, from game theory, scouting reports and data analysis to real-time, in-game observation. We were curious what a salesperson could learn from the art and science pitchers and catchers put into selecting which ball to throw in any given situation. What skills of that craft might be transferable to an actual business pitch? We talked to major league coaches and catchers to find out.
Minnesota Twins pitching coach Wes Johnson is considered one of the game’s most creative teachers. While coaching college ball, he had his catchers wear earpieces during practices. He employed a walkie-talkie to speak with them in real-time, talking them through pitch-calling strategy. Johnson is still teaching in the majors, working primarily with the Twins catchers so the team’s pitchers don’t become overwhelmed while trying to throw strikes.
Hours before a game, Johnson has a meeting with that night’s starting catcher. They review data, video and scouting reports of the opposing lineup, looking for weaknesses to exploit and areas of strength to avoid. They discuss how the skillset of that day’s starting pitcher aligns. Twins catchers then keep a laminated card of pitch-calling data in their back pocket during games, which they occasionally refer to. There’s a lot to digest. But Johnson never wants to be too married to any script.
“We’re going to have a general plan, but I want to build in adjustability,” Johnson says. “[Twins pitcher José] Berríos has a phenomenal breaking ball, but maybe he’s really struggling to command it, and that can abort the plan.”
Adjusting is key in baseball and sales.
Leadership and business coach Ben Fairfield has made a career in teaching how to improve sales techniques. He sees plenty of parallels to the diamond.
“I have to very quickly read my audience, like the pitcher is reading a batter, and assess what their likely behavioral styles are,” Fairfield says. “You have to have a pretty good idea of who that other person is, and how they think and process information. That’s also why you see a huge gap in salespeople. It’s why you have the top 1 percent making huge money, and then you have other people who get into sales and get out just as fast. It’s not that they can’t make it, it’s that they haven’t been taught.”
Fairfield listens for the ability to adjust on recorded calls when coaching clients.
“Are we mirroring and matching the rate of speech of the person we are talking to?” Fairfield says of one trait he evaluates. “[Maybe] I need to slow down to make it as comfortable as possible for the customer on the other end.”
As exhibited in the Romo sequence to Cabrera, unpredictability is another key.
Kyle Snyder is the pitching coach for the Tampa Bay Rays, perhaps the most analytically-driven team in the sport. “We are always trying to maintain our unpredictability,” he says, noting that the task is far more of an art than a science.
Rays catcher Mike Zunino is always asking questions during games: What kind of swings are the opposing batters taking? Is a batter seemingly waiting for a certain pitch? Is his starting pitcher too amped up?
Quality questions are also key in sales.
“We get bad answers when we ask poor questions,” Fairfield says. “We are all paid in direct proportion to the quality of the questions we ask.”
Fairfield wonders how I typically respond when, after walking into a store, a sales associate asks “Do you need some help?”
“No thank you. I’m just looking,” I say immediately. It’s like the salesperson threw a fastball in a predictable fastball count and I mashed it 550 feet. Too easy. Fairfield offers an alternative approach for the salesperson, something a customer might not be expecting.
“‘Hey, I’m so grateful you came in, how’s your day going?’” Fairfield says. “‘What can I help you find?’ They are still going to be hesitant, but now all of the sudden you’ve built some rapport.”
Building rapport is key between pitchers and catchers, too.
For a plan to work, pitchers have to trust the signs being given by the catcher. Casali notes that when he played for the Cincinnati Reds, he easily attained the trust of right-hander Sonny Gray, whom he had known since they played together at Vanderbilt University. But with other arms, he would go out of his way to talk to them during pre-game meals or on charter flights to build relationships.
Ultimately, Fairfield says, making a pitch is a WAG—a “wild-ass guess.” But some guesses are more educated than others. Adapting quickly, building rapport and asking good questions can make all the difference.
This article originally appeared in the May/June 2021 issue of SUCCESS magazine.
Photo by Beto Chagas/Shutterstock