The mind of a hitter can be a chaotic place over the course of a 162-game season. Keeping track of pitchers, pitches, mechanics and ever-changing situations within games can get even the most veteran hitters off track from time-to-time.
Those things will be magnified in a 60-game season, and with additional health and safety protocols thrown in the mix, the mental approach to the game is going to be just as, if not more important than, the physical approach — even for a veteran ballclub like the Cubs
“That’s how you do it during the season when a guy’s not feeling good. He feels like he’s letting himself down. He’s letting the team down. Emotions play into the breakdown of the mechanics of the swing,” hitting coach Anthony Iapoce said. “You can pinpoint his elbow, his hip, but emotions break down a swing and until you dig down deeper, what he might be feeling. And during this time, it could be anything. It could be that missing the family is causing this guy to not get hits today. Feeling that he’s behind his work, maybe rush because it’s a shorter day. So dealing with all those types of things first before you even talk about hits.”
Even in a season where statistics don’t hold the same weight, players are going to have to fight through the same highs and lows of a season. For hitters like Kyle Schwarber, the preparation also will have to be intensified.
As players spend less time at the ballpark while playing through the pandemic, it puts bigger attention on studying opposing pitchers.
“I think that’s gonna be up to the hitters,” Schwarber said. “Everyone always says the pitchers are catching up, but I think with the way the game is going now there are so many plus-arms in the bullpen. I think it’s gonna be a little challenge. . . . Some pitchers might be on pitch count early. They might only be at 70 pitches and that could be three innings or four innings. Usually you’re planning on a starter to stay in there for five innings. But it could be three innings for a starter and six innings for a bullpen.
“You got to navigate and have a great plan against these guys. It’s going to be like September baseball all over again. I think with the expanded rosters here early in the year, I think there’s going to be more bullpen arms and you’re going to have to get used to seeing some names out there you’re not used to seeing, but you know, I think it’s going to be a plus overall [for hitters].”
Schwarber slashed .238/.341/.471 with 13 homers in his first 60 games in 2019 but finished the season on a tear, hitting .285/.374/.622 with 13 doubles, 16 homers and a .966 OPS in his final 60.
The Cubs have been notorious slow starters over the last few seasons, and with only 60 games in 2020, a fast start will be more important than ever.
While a two-week slump wouldn’t be the end of the world over 162 games, with this year’s condensed schedule, two weeks could be the difference between staying in the National League Central race and climbing out of a big deficit.
“[Slump] is one of the words we don’t use. If you could get a guy out of a slump whenever you wanted to, he’d never go in one, right? It’s like impossible,” Iapoce said. “So you just really [focus] on the team game, you bring the team aspect, like how can you help this team win today and in these next 60 days.
“I think probably during this time, for hitting coaches, you’re gonna probably talk about the swing as little as possible. During this time, it’s probably what everybody is going to do. Keep checking in with guys, but you just sell the team factor and it’s the same approach as when a guy’s not feeling good during the season. Small victories throughout the day.”