Batting slumps test players' wills

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Tyler Dunne, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
Saturday, March 15, 2014

PHOENIX—The heckling began in the on-deck circle. That's what stung most. Before Lyle Overbay even failed—before he even gave fans a reason to boo—he was blistered by his own crowd.

These daily ovations with the Toronto Blue Jays in 2010 took their toll.

“Before I even struck out in a big situation,” said the Milwaukee Brewers first baseman. “I just felt like, 'Man, I must really suck.' I understand if you get caught up in the game and you're a fan and you strike out in a big moment. I understand that, 'OK, you've done this for a month and a half.' Frickin' let me have it. But I felt like, 'Holy crap.'”

Now 37 years old, Overbay speaks carefully as if trying not to awake a demon. Those first two months of his fifth season in Toronto were hell. Overbay hit rock bottom. He hopes so, anyway. As he put it, “you never know if it's the rock bottom.”

The hitting slump is unlike any torment in sports. It makes lost Little Leaguers out of multimillion-dollar professionals. Players throughout this clubhouse agree that over a 162-game grind, they're unavoidable. Slumps poison the mind, paralyze the swing and threaten careers.

So how does one overcome this?

One player says it's mental. One says it's mechanical. Another points to bravado.

Whatever the cure, these players who lived slumps want nothing to do with them again. Today, Overbay is part of a dark fraternity. He knows the next player in this clubhouse to trip into a slump will need him.

“I always compare it to a death, a death to a really close friend or relative,” Overbay said. “You think you're prepared for it, but you're not. Going through that, I think it kind of gives you that validation. It's like, 'OK, he did do that. He got through it.' That's that validation where if I didn't go through it and it's like, 'Hey, you'll be fine!' Well, really? You've never been through that, so how do you know?”

All mental

Many nights, Caleb Gindl could not sleep. All he could think about was his slump.

“I'd get so aggravated,” Gindl said. “I'd just say, 'What's going on?'”

In Class AAA Nashville—two years ago—Gindl was hitting .162 by late May. On the cusp of the majors, he was blowing it.

To him, breaking out of a slump was 100 percent mental. He needed to rewire his mental approach to each at-bat. Drastically. This wasn't about his swing.

So Gindl would trick himself. He salvaged positives from negatives.

“Say you strike out,” Gindl said, “and you had that one good swing, and you fouled it off. You have to take that positive out of that at-bat. Each at-bat, each swing, you have to take something positive or else you'll just keep digging yourself in a deeper hole.”

Gindl never spoke to a sports psychologist, though the Brewers do have one on staff that can help with this issue.

Instead, he coped with the anguish alone. Two weeks before the Class AAA all-star break is when he, on spot, changed his mindset. He quit sulking, quit throwing his bat after strikeouts, quit lying in bed bewildered. After flipping the script—celebrating a solid swing, regardless of results—Gindl hit .300 the rest of the season.

Slumps are worse for the Gindls of the sport. Players on the edge. Players who know the longer their slump lasts, the longer their odds of making baseball a career become. Major-league teams are in no rush to promote anyone in such a miserable stretch. Gindl had a 7-for-78 run.

This all, absolutely, weighed on Gindl's mind.

This is a game of failure. Achieve a feat three out of 10 times and “you're a Hall of Famer,” Gindl said. Poise is a must.

“You just have to trust yourself that you can hit—and not panic,” Gindl said. “A lot of guys panic. But when you know you can hit, there's no need to panic. Your numbers are going to be there in the end.”

He glances to his right. Rickie Weeks—the Brewers' fullback-built second baseman—was trapped in a 104-game current last season. In hitting .209 with only 24 RBI, his future is now in doubt. Mentally, Gindl insists, Weeks is tough enough to rebound. Also to Gindl's right is Khris Davis' locker. This 26-year-old has been in a total zone his short career, swinging with a clear-and-free conscience. And this zone, the cooler-than-cool Davis said, feels “like you're taking money.”

Those who maintain such good vibes last. Those who don't are in jeopardy.

Gindl believes he's better for this all. He's not off to a Ryan Braun-like start, either, in the Cactus League. On the MLB bubble—again—Gindl is hitting .130. He's 3 of 23 through nine games.

Yet he's not too concerned. Not anymore.

“There are times I might go 0 for 12 and there is no panic because I know that it's going to come back to me,” he said, “and that everything is going to be OK.”

A 'feel'

Overbay suffered from insomnia, too. His sleepless nights came that 2010 season in Toronto.

Tossing and turning, Overbay would pop in game tape of better days. For at least 90 minutes at a time, he agonized over his swing. Overbay would stare at this 2006 swing on film—the one that managed a .312 average with 22 homers and 92 RBI—and stand in front of a mirror nearby.

The stance. The knee bend. The pull. Deep into the night, he tried to imitate his swing.

Eventually, he'd salvage a few hours of sleep, head back to the ballpark and apply the tweaks. By May 28 that season, the first baseman's average was a paltry .197. He went hitless in 24 of Toronto's first 50 games.

Forget a well-hit foul ball. Forget manufactured baby steps. Even when Overbay hit a home run, it was pointless.

“Guys would say, 'Oh, this might turn you around!'” Overbay said. “And I'm like, 'Honestly, no. I don't feel that way. I don't feel where I should be.' I felt like I just got lucky or put a good swing on it at the right time.”

For Overbay, the slump was not mental. It was “a feel.” In seasons past, he could always make minor changes. Not now. He needed a new engine, not an oil change. Those first two months, he studied film until he was “blue in the face.” He wasn't unlucky, either. Overbay didn't drill balls straight at fielders or foul off 400 feet wide.

“I was flat-out terrible,” Overbay said. “Swing and miss. Topping balls.”

The backlash was malicious, too.

As the drought dragged on, Overbay heard “anything and everything” from the same fans who used to cheer him. He understands scrutiny is part of the job.

“But it just hits home that, 'Yeah, I suck,'” Overbay said. “Right there, you just put it in your head.”

Thus, even a mechanical problem could turn mental. The echo of heckles absolutely rang in Overbay's head on those steps to the plate.

There was only one way to shut them up. Fix his swing. He realized in 2010 that he never truly knew “how” to hit—it took a two-month dissection. From there, his No. 1 problem was fighting for the outside pitch. Pitchers saw this and burned Overbay on an inside pitch. Again and again. Once Overbay started connecting on the outside pitch, everything opened up. He stopped fighting.

Into June, Overbay had 13 hits in a seven-game span. By June 16, his average jumped to .241. Those soul-searching moments in front of the mirror, in time, paid off.

Even today, Overbay exhales deeply. He never wants to relive that again.

Said the veteran, “You don't wish that upon your worst enemy.”

Not scared

Past Gindl, past Overbay, toward the back of the Brewers' clubhouse is Eugenio Velez. Through this marathon of a job interview, he makes time for his mom daily.

Each phone call ends with the same order.

Play hard. Don't be scared.

A slump? The risk of demotion? Mom wants none of that. Her parenting is blunt.

“My mom is a pretty tough person,” Velez said. “My mom, always, ever since I was a little kid, would tell me, 'Never be scared. Never.' The only thing you have to be scared of is if somebody's going to kill you.”

So, yeah, what's a 0-for-46 abyss?

No one in this clubhouse, in the majors, anywhere has faced demons like this. Velez's run of 46 at-bats without a hit is a major-league record, breaking Craig Counsell's run of 45 in Milwaukee. The Tour de Futility spanned his 2010 and 2011 seasons with the San Francisco Giants and Los Angeles Dodgers. Velez was sent down to Class AAA that October and hasn't had a big-league at-bat since.

“That's tough, that's tough, that's tough,” Velez repeated. “I don't want anybody to be in that situation. You can get frustrated. It's really hard.”

Velez tried everything. He spent an extra 15-20 minutes using a tee each morning. He'd position the tee at different heights, precisely where he wanted to hit it. Velez never visited a psychologist. Like Gindl and Overbay, he watched more film.

But watching hours upon hours of tape, Velez said, “your mind goes crazy.” Overanalyzing hand placement and footwork only prolonged his hitless streak. This wasn't a mechanical issue.

The Dodgers finally showed mercy, sent Velez to the minors and then a funny thing happened.

Velez bounced back.

A national punch line, Velez rediscovered his swing. He hit .339 in Class AAA Albuquerque. In 38 games with Class AAA Nashville last season, Velez hit .377.

The key, he says, is to go down swinging. Sabermetrics tell batters to be patient, to play for walks. Velez chose to chase pitches and he got his confidence back.

“I feel like I got everything back,” Velez said. “I was never scared to swing the bat. I would swing the bat everywhere.

“Don't be scared. If you're scared, you're done. Keep swinging. Keep swinging. If you don't swing, nothing is going to happen. If you swing, something is going to happen.”

No, Velez has never feared for his life. And, “hell no,” there is nothing else that scares him. Not even his latest slump.

Asked how badly he wants to get another hit—one single hit—in the majors, Velez paused for 5 seconds.

“I can't wait,” he said. “One day. I don't know if it's going to be this year or next year. But one day.”

The manager understands

Ron Roenicke had no clue Velez broke Counsell's record. None. But Roenicke is part of this fraternity.

In wincing detail, the Brewers manager relives his two maddening slumps as a player. The 0-for-16 stretch to start one season, the 0-for-21 stretch hemorrhaging another.

Roenicke feared he'd get sent to the minors “any at-bat.” Sitting at his manager's desk, years later, the frustration returns.

“Why do you remember the negative stuff way more than the positive?” he said.

Again, someone in this clubhouse will be pulling all-nighters. But at least that player will have a manager who understands the anatomy of a slump. In eight seasons with six teams, Roenicke batted .238. He was Velez. He was that fringe major-leaguer, that player on thin ice.

That's why, Roenicke explains, slumps are worse for the unproven players. The Ryan Brauns, the Tony Gwynns, they snap out of a slump in two days. Meanwhile, each strikeout drains the value of a less-established player.

So these are the ones Roenicke will talk to one-on-one. In 2011, he helped Mark Kotsay. And through Counsell's 0-for-45 nightmare, penning a morning lineup was excruciating.

“Oh, man,” Roenicke said, “I felt for him. When you're trying to put guys into lineups and think about that stuff going on vs. where he should be in there to try to help you to win, it can get difficult.”

This is the malignant side-effect of the game. Athletes inherently magnify the negative, so Roenicke said he tries to reinforce the positive.

Because he was in their shoes.

Two days after getting that first hit decades ago—on his 17th at-bat—Roenicke was shipped to the minors.

There is no exact cure. But America's Pastime can drive you insane.

Joked Roenicke, “Such a fun sport.”

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