The baseball roller coaster
Getting used to the ups and downs of pro ball the key for GJ Rockies
There’s something to be said for playing baseball for a living.
Follow the various Grand Junction Rockies players on their Twitter accounts, and you’ll know just how much fun these guys are having:
■ Starting my first professional game tomorrow so excited I won’t be able to sleep!! #centerfield #starting (Ryan Garvey @RyGarv6).
■ best feeling in the world is waking up and playing baseball as a living#lovingit (David Dahl @ddahl21).
■ Can’t wait for the home opener and to be back in Suplizio! (Jeff Popick @Jpopick25).
■ Lovin everything about Grand Junction so far, great place with lots of great people! (Jason Stolz @JStolz11).
■ Professional debut and I got the Win, couldn’t be better (Mike Mason @Maseface18).
Then there’s the flip side, when things aren’t going so well.
“It’s hard not to get down on yourself when this is your job now,” first baseman Ben Waldrip said of the 6-for-39 start to his career. “You go home at night, and it’s tough not to think about it.”
The coaching staff walks a fine line with the psyche of young players in the midst of a slump, offensively, defensively or on the pitcher’s mound.
Is it as simple as giving a player a day off? Move them back in the pitching rotation to give them an extra bullpen session? An extra hour in the batting cage?
Or do you just keep sending the kid back out there and hope he has a good day?
“A lot of that is based on feeling,” hitting coach Drew Saylor said. “We try within our organization to have great relationships with them. Through the work (Waldrip) has done with me in the cage and the conversations we’d had with me and Tony, we kept throwing him back out there.”
Every player is going to go through a slump. It’s impossible to have a good day every day when you play 76 games in 81 days and you’re only 18 or 19 years old. Even the older players, those with four years of college baseball, are going to struggle at some point.
Diaz counsels his players that things can change in a blink of an eye.
“Three, four days ago we’ve got Waldrip hitting a buck-50, and three days later he’s hitting .280. That’s how things change, like this,” Diaz said, snapping his fingers. “We have guys like Stolz (who was hitting .367 on June 24 but has hit a bit of a slump and dipped to .263 entering Thursday night’s game), it’s gonna happen during the course of a summer.
“We can’t get too high on our horses to lose sight of the fact that we have to keep pressing and keep our focus on what we have in front of us, which is tomorrow’s game.”
Spending so much time together helps the coaches get to know what works with various players, who needs a day off to help get out of a slump and who needs to just keep playing.
“It’s kind of all of the above; we discuss what we see and the demeanors,” Saylor said. “Body language speaks volumes more than what you can hear coming from their mouths. They’re going to tell you what you want to hear; they’ll give you lip service from time to time.”
A lot of times, an extra turn in the batting cage will unveil an adjustment that needs to be made. Saylor doesn’t retool his hitters’ swings, but uses the approach of adjustments and information.
“I try to teach them to know their swing, and from there we talk about seeing an angle off the bat and then gaining information in what happened in the swing,” he said during the Rockies’ recent home stand when he watched Waldrip catch fire. “Once they get that, they can make adjustments on their own.
“That’s what I’m all about, is empowerment. If I can get these guys to think independently and have intrinsic motivation to be better and change when they need to change, then that’s my job. They don’t need me, they don’t need Tony (other than to) give them direction when they’re lost.”
And to keep them pointed in the right direction mentally as well as physically.
“It’s a mental game, and things change so much from day to day. When you have a good day and you’re seeing it well, you don’t want that night to end. I wish I could have had 30 at-bats tonight,” Waldrip said after his 4-for-4 breakout night against Orem.
He isn’t the only player who started the season slowly and then got untracked.
Jeff Popick, too, had a not-so-memorable first couple of games before unleashing a two-home-run game on June 29 at Ogden, going 3 for 5 and seeing his batting average jump 100 points in one game, from .286 to .386. He went 3 for his next 6 and pushed his batting average to .400. By the time the Rockies boarded the bus for Montana on July 9, Popick was fourth on the team in hitting at .359 with three home runs and nine RBI.
“We haven’t switched too much mechanically,” Popick said. “It’s been a thought process. Timing and rhythm are key. It’s making sure you’re on time and have rhythm.”
Popick, who played four years at Suplizio Field as an outfielder at Colorado Mesa University, was pressing early, especially after getting loud ovations when he was introduced.
“You always want to do well at home,” Popick said. “Games come and go. You can’t get too high or too low in this game.”
Saylor played close to home, so he knows what Popick was feeling.
“I was close to home and was viewed as the guy who’s coming back, and now I’ve got to play because I’ve got friends and family coming to ballgames,” Saylor said. “I was able to empathize with him. I told them they’re just people who are fans at the end of the day.
“You can’t control getting a hit. All you can do is hit the ball hard. If we’re 4 for 4, great. If we’re 0 for 4 and hit the ball hard, that’s fine, too.”
The players in Rookie ball have the tools to play in the big leagues, Saylor said, but they’re raw. The coaches see their jobs as sharpening those tools to where the Rockies can make adjustments on their own.
“The difference between here and Denver, obviously it’s a big jump, but those guys make adjustments quicker. They know why they failed,” Saylor said. “If they roll over on a breaking ball, their next at-bat they know more than likely that pitch is going to show up in the at-bat, but they know what they did wrong, they fix it, and now it’s a double into the right-center gap.
“You look at a guy like (right fielder) Julian Yan, he has better tools than probably 85 percent of the guys in the big leagues. The difference is: We’re still trying to get him to learn his swing and to learn those adjustments on his own. Once he does that, the kid is going to take off, just like a lot of guys we have on our roster.”
Through Waldrip’s work in the batting cage with Saylor, he adjusted his stance, stood up a little straighter in the box and started driving the ball.
“I started spreading out too much in the box when I was going bad, and my legs … I was almost too spread out,” he said. “I usually hit with a wide base, but I was too spread out and was just lunging at balls, trying to catch them too far out in front of the plate. I’ve been narrowing things up the last couple of days and getting back to my leg kick.”
Diaz wants Waldrip to take the “it’s not broke, don’t fix it” approach from here on out.
“I’m really proud of him and hopefully he can stick with this plan,” Diaz said, “because that plan works.”