For some, mental approach is far from average
Players use teachings of Blue Jays scout Springer to groom confidence
"The batting average is Satan."
Let's just start right there.
Of all the disparaging, discrediting and overall disapproving things that have been said in recent years about the statistic we've turned to throughout our baseball cognizance, none cuts to the core quite so swiftly and mercilessly.
Steve Springer is the man uttering those words. They are the backbone of his belief that a game Yogi Berra supposedly once described as "90 percent mental and half physical" is, indeed, very much conditioned to mind over matter.
Springer is both a pro scout and a "performance coach" for the Toronto Blue Jays. His chief responsibility is working with the club's Minor League position players on the mental side of their approach at the plate, on feeling confident when they take the field.
And the batting average, Springer will tell you, can absolutely crush that confidence.
"The batting average, for me, is the biggest trap in baseball," Springer said. "You can do everything right and go 0-for-4. How can that be? You can hit three rockets right at somebody. The pitcher knows you beat him, the pitcher's mom knows you beat him, but your confidence goes down because your batting average goes down? How does that make sense?"
Baseball fans, media and evaluators have gained a greater understanding and appreciation for the other statistical measures of a player's output. And yet this is still a game inherently built on hits, or lack thereof. When they're not falling, a sport fixated on failure can eat up even the most strong-minded of men.
"I'm telling you," said Adam Dunn, whose batting average has dropped in recent seasons, "if people didn't post people's batting averages on the scoreboard or in the media, people would be batting .400. I'm serious. I believe that. You look at Spring Training, and I know it's a small sample, but you've got guys hitting .500 in 50-60 at-bats. They know they're hitting good, but they don't know what they're hitting."
While Dunn's hypothesis is impossible to prove, the primary point that must be made here is that batters of every age and rank do pay attention to their batting average, warts and all. They know that even the most consistent of hitters is going to fail, on average, more than six times out of every 10 at-bats. But the ones who can mentally separate themselves from the implications of their average are the ones who can approach each at-bat with a fresh set of eyes.
"The approach I've started to take over the past year is quantifying success in a different way," said Reds slugger Jay Bruce, who has struggled with consistency in his career. "Because I ran into the problem where no matter what I did, I was wondering why I wasn't doing more. Getting in good counts, not getting overanxious, those are things I can control. That's how I quantify success now. So you're not chasing the 2-for-4s or 3-for-4s. You're chasing good pitches to hit and mental preparation and the work you do in the cage."
This is the approach Springer adopted late in a 14-year professional career that netted just 18 plate appearances (and four hits) in the big leagues. Springer realized -- much too late, he'll tell you -- that he was overly invested in the results, and not the process.
"When a guy is scuffling, it is very rare that it's a mechanical problem," Springer said. "Eighty percent of the time, it's a compete problem, a confidence problem."
Springer came to the conclusion that he was at his best when he worked with longtime hitting coach Tommy McCraw, who was a rover for the Mets when Springer was in their system in the late 1980s. McCraw taught Springer to watch the pitcher, to pay deep attention to what he was throwing in certain counts on that specific day. It engendered in Springer an all-for-one, one-for-all mentality, in which he was as invested in his teammates' at-bats as his own.
He's been preaching it ever since, recording two audio CDs (sold through his web site, qualityatbats.com) that became staples of pregame prep for the likes of Jose Bautista, Mark Trumbo and Paul Goldschmidt, among others.
"If you start hearing those voices saying, 'You've got to get a hit right here,' the pressure is through the roof," Trumbo said. "If you keep it simpler and say your goal is to hit the ball hard, you can deal with whatever happens and it makes it easier."
Trumbo has embraced the idea of "wanting the fifth at-bat," which is a difficult idea to embrace on those days when you're 0-for-4 and your spot in the lineup is coming due. Just last week, against the Tigers, Trumbo was 0-for-3 with two strikeouts when he came to the plate to lead off the bottom of the 13th inning against Phil Coke. Five pitches later, Trumbo had smacked the ball over the left-field wall, and the game was over.
"I can't tell you how many times you go through a whole game 0-for-3 or 0-for-4 with some absolutely terrible at-bats," Trumbo said. "The easiest thing to do would be to just shut it down and say, 'This isn't my day.' But if you can keep that mindset that there's still damage to be done and you can be the hero, that can keep you where you need to be mentally."
Sometimes those 0-for-3 days become 3-for-30 stretches that prompt players to make dramatic changes to their fine-tuned mechanics or approaches. Trumbo went through a miserable second half last season, batting .227 with a .630 OPS after the break, after hitting .306 with a .965 OPS before it. He says he had to remind himself that his swing wasn't fundamentally broken.
"You've got to rely on the facts," Trumbo said. "The facts are that I've gotten thousands of hits over my career, from youth on up. They're going to come. It's just a matter of when they're going to come. You'd like the gaps and down periods as short as possible, but sometimes they're not."
Sure, a positive mental mindset is beneficial, but it can be awfully difficult to maintain over the course of the long season. And handwritten notes or video tutorials, while helpful, are not always handy. Springer, therefore, records an audio file for each of the players he works with in the Blue Jays' system, so that they can put it on their iPod and listen to it on the way to the park or the cage.
"It's gotten a great response from the players," said Tony LaCava, the Blue Jays' assistant general manager. "They definitely embrace the information. Each guy gets his own CD with keys specific to him. It's not a generic, one-size-fits-all approach."
A little meal money does its own share of talking. At each of the Blue Jays' Minor League affiliates, three $25 Outback Steakhouse gift cards are given out per team per week to the three guys who log the most quality at-bats. So if a guy has one of those 3-for-30 stretches one week, he can report to work Monday feeling the slate is clean, on some level.
What is considered a quality trip to the plate? Anything that falls into one of these eight categories:
1. A hard-hit ball
2. Any hit (Springer himself has his quibbles with this one, as the squibblers through the hole are inherently going to qualify, but he knows every hitter gets them from time to time)
3. Moving a guy over
4. Any RBI
5. A successful bunt
6. A walk
7. A hit-by-pitch
8. An at-bat of eight pitches or more
"If you're not in the hunt for this award," Springer said, "there's something wrong mentally."
Springer believes there would be value in expanding the program across the Major League level.
"Let's say every big league team invested $200,000 back into its hitters," he said. "You offer $100 for every quality at-bat, but only on the nights you win. Let's say every guy averages two a night. That's 20 quality at-bats. You're going to win a whole bunch of games with 20 quality at-bats a night. Let's say you win 100 games, times $2,000 a night. That's $200,000 invested back in your hitters to get them to think right."
Money well spent? Well, depends on who you ask. Many organizations have embraced the concept of "quality at-bats," yet runs, walks, hits and homers have been in decline the last few seasons. Strikeouts have reached historic levels.
Proponents of a mental mindset that downplays the importance of batting average, however, believe they are putting their players in a better position to be productive.
"So many guys' self-confidence and self-esteem gets tied to a base hit," said Pirates manager Clint Hurdle, a longtime advocate of "quality at-bat" counts. "It's amazing that they'd rather hit a ball off the knuckles that dives in-between two diving fielders than hit a line-drive rocket right at somebody. So knowing that's the mentality, how can we come up with some type of other agenda or grading system that would bring some calmness and some sanity to all of it?"
That's why Hurdle, in his days as a Minor League manager, began marking a "Q" next to guys' names on his lineup card when they'd log a quality at-bat. It's a practice he has had the Pirates adopt in their in-house evaluations.
"We've done research of the last five years in the National League," Hurdle said. "If you can come up with 15 productive team plate appearances a game, you will win over 60 percent of your games."
Of course, you won't find such numbers logged on the in-house scoreboard or flashed on the TV screen when a player comes to the plate. The batting average is still the most cited barometer of player performance.
But that won't stop Springer and others from training their minds to ignore it.
"My whole thing is hit the ball hard and you win," Springer said. "Change what you think success is and there's freedom for your abilities to come out. The batting average has no brain. It doesn't know if you're going up with confidence or not. It's the biggest trap in the game."
You might even say the devil is in its details.