Mikie Mahtook on the Return of His Healthy Swing

Mikie Mahtook is healthy and riding his old swing to a resurgent campaign with the Detroit Tigers. Acquired from the Tampa Bay Rays in January for a PTBNL (Drew Smith), the 27-year-old outfielder is slashing a robust .288/.338/.464, with nine home runs in just 267 at-bats. Following a sluggish start that included limited playing time, he’s emerged as one of the few bright spots on what has turned into a moribund Motown ball club.

Last year was tough sledding for the Louisiana State University product. Coming off an impressive 41-game cameo with the club that drafted him 31st overall in 2011, he logged a .525 OPS over 196 plate appearance. Physical issues played a role — oblique and hand injuries were the primary bugaboos — but thanks to an offseason of healing and hard work, Mahtook is once again at full strength.

The change of scenery isn’t hurting. The Tigers are in team in transition, which means Mahtook is getting an opportunity to show what he can do. His body is giving him that opportunity, as well. Mahtook talked about his 2016 maladies, and the return of his swing, in the middle of this month.

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Mikie Mahtook: “I’m healthy. Last year I wasn’t. I hurt my oblique at the beginning of the season and it really affected my swing, which in turn affected my approach at the plate. Instead of being linear and allowing the ball to travel — staying extended and getting through the ball — I was basically cheating toward it to mask the pain in my oblique. I was going forward and everything was rotating toward left field.

“I was very rotational and basically cutting the plate in half. That’s obviously not good. There was really only one spot where I could get the extension I wanted. I wasn’t able to let my hands work. I wasn’t really free.

“My approach is basically to look middle, right-center, and my swing wasn’t allowing me to accomplish that. I could think that’s what I wanted to do, but I wasn’t able to hit the ball that way, or really even attempt to try, because of the way my swing had evolved based off the overcompensation. It got to be a bad habit, and it was hard to get out of that bad habit.

“The injury basically healed with rest, and I spent spring training, and the first month or so of the season, getting my swing back to where it’s supposed to be. It took work to get out of those bad habits. The hitting coaches here did a great job of harping on what I needed to do. It was, ‘Hey, stay linear. Make sure you stay inside of it. Make sure you don’t pull off.’ They stayed on me the entire time, and repetition helped me get back to where it started feeling good again — feeling comfortable — and to where it was second nature. I’ve been able to keep that same swing.

“The 2015 season was a lot different for me than 2016. I hit .295 in the 100-or-so at-bats I had in the big leagues, with nine homers. The swing I had then is more like what I have now, as opposed to last year’s. The biggest reasons are that I’m healthy and getting to play every day.

“The swing I got back to is something I evolved to. My first two years of minor-league baseball (2011-2012), I was a get-down-early guy — my front foot was down really early. That’s kind of how I’d been — even coming through college — and then, in 2013, I went to a leg kick, because I felt like I was kind of locking myself up. I wasn’t as athletic as I could be. In 2014, my first year in Triple-A, I had the leg kick and that was the best year of my professional career. Since then, where I start my setup is maybe a little different — it’s more straight up now — but how I attack the ball is the same.

“The swing I have now is my natural swing. I’m not consciously trying to lift the ball, nor am I consciously trying to hit the ball on the ground. All I’m trying to do is stay within my approach and let my athleticism work, and if my natural swing allows me to get underneath the ball and drive it… that’s the way it is.

“Obviously, launch angle and lifting the ball helps, but I don’t want to create my lift by trying to lift it. That could get me into bad habits. Peoples’ minds work differently. You can tell one guy to lift the ball and he may change his slot to the right spot, and another guy might try to get underneath it with his shoulders, and he ends up making his swing longer. So yeah, I do want to lift it, but I’m not consciously trying to do that. I’m not a 40-homer guy, but I do have the ability to drive the ball out of the ballpark.

“I think everyone who has made it to the big leagues as a hitter is talented enough to succeed. The biggest thing is staying within your approach while being able to make adjustments on the fly. Talent is what got you here, and talent is what’s going to keep you here. That’s how I approach it.

“Baseball is obviously a tough sport. You’re going to go through up and downs, and last year’s struggles honestly helped me this year. Hitting-wise, it was the worst year of my life, and I was able to get through it. This year I’m healthy, and as a result, I have my swing back. I’m making the best of the opportunity I’m being given.”





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.

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wobatus
4 years ago

Mikie says he got back to allowing the ball to travel (which I take to mean letting the ball get deep), while Eno and Justin Turner are talking about catching it out front. Different strokes for different folks. These hitting discussions are fascinating.