If you ask a player what his goal is going into a season, there’s a decent chance he’ll tell you that he wants to be more consistent. It’s a reasonable enough answer, but what does it really mean? Everyone wants to perform well, so would it be just as accurate to say, “I want to be good more often and bad less often?”
Regardless of how you word it, avoiding slumps — particularly prolonged ones — is what players are ultimately looking to do. With that in mind, I asked Andrew Benintendi and Alex Cora how to go about doing so as expediently as possible.
Benintendi began by bringing up the dreaded 0-fers.
“It’s catching those little slumps earlier, before they become a thing,” expressed the Red Sox outfielder, who slashed .271/.352/.424 last year in his first full big-league season. “I went through a few 0-for-20s (he had one such stretch in mid May, and another in early September), so I probably need to be attacking those a little earlier.”
What was at the root of the problem? Cora wasn’t around Benintendi last season — he was A.J. Hinch’s right-hand man in Houston — but he does recognize the inevitability of ebbs and flows within a long season. He also knows they happen for different reasons.
“When you’re going well, you’re putting yourself into a better position more often than when you’re struggling,” said the new Red Sox manager. “Sometimes it’s mental. Sometimes when you struggle you just don’t feel right physically. But to get out of that funk as quickly as you can, it’s about recognizing who you are as a hitter and recognizing your mechanics.”
Benintendi touched on those thoughts when addressing his own dry spells. He doesn’t feel fatigue played much of a role (although he did lose weight over the course of the season), but he did admit that his timing would get out of whack and that his pitch selection was sometimes lacking.
“Sometimes I start too early — I’ll get on my front foot — and end up hitting week ground balls,” allowed Benintendi. “When that starts happening, I’ll usually try to stay middle and left-center. I’ll try to take a certain pitch in a certain location.”
I asked Cora about a coach’s role in helping a hitter right the ship.
“There’s not a trick to it, but there is a message,” explained the former infielder. “And there are going to be different messages to different players. But it’s not like you can just give them the information and all of a sudden it’s ‘Click… OK, now I’m consistent.’ It doesn’t work that way.”
And there are also times where an adjustment isn’t needed, despite what the results might suggest. To his credit, Benintendi realizes that.
“When you’re slumping, it’s easy to start thinking a little too much and then try to change something,” admitted the former first-round pick. “But really, a lot of it comes down to hitting the ball in the right spot. You can smoke one right up the middle and they have a shift there.”
“Players understand that they’re going to go through stretches where they struggle, but sometimes you hit the ball hard seven times while going 0 for 12,” he explained. “That’s not a struggle. That’s bad luck. You have to understand the difference.”
You also have to understand that not all hot streaks are created equal. According to Cora, a coach with a keen eye can sense a slump lurking right around the corner.
“There are times you can see it before it happens,” opined Cora. “The guy is still getting his hits, but what we’re seeing isn’t what we’re accustomed to seeing. You might need to have a conversation, or go through drills, to get him back to who he is. And I can talk from experience. Sometimes the numbers said I was hot, but mechanically and physically I felt off. I was getting lucky.”
Evidence often exists in data. Cora pointed out that decreased exit velocity can be indicative of a mechanical issues and that it is the staff’s job to stay on top of that.
“That’s why we’re here,” said Cora. “Sometimes guys are their own best hitting coaches — they understand their swings, and all that — but we’re still here to help. We want to pass along what we see, because you obviously want to avoid those valleys.”
Which brings us back to Benintendi, who identifies as more of a contact hitter than a power hitter. A flirtation with trying to be something he isn’t was detrimental to his quest for consistency. Chili Davis, his hitting coach last year in Boston, “never once mentioned hitting the ball at a certain degree or anything like that” — but that doesn’t mean Benintendi isn’t aware of launch-angle data.
“Sometimes I’ll go to a place that has HitTrax,” Benintendi told me. “You get all that information — the distance and all that — and I maybe kind of relied on that too much last offseason. I was trying to hit homers, which may have played a part in my peaks and valleys. This year I’ve been working more up the middle and to left-center, and trying to stay away from creating bad habits.”
Like Cora said, it’s about recognizing who you are as a hitter. If you can accomplish that, being good more often and bad less often — being more consistent — comes easier.
David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from December 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.