LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. – It's a new response to a familiar outcome. Nate McLouth(notes) is whistling something jaunty after going hitless but striking the ball hard, peeling off his socks in front of his locker and merrily discussing 2010, the roughest patch of his professional life.
The Atlanta Braves center fielder came to spring training with a plan – nothing complicated, and maybe that's the point – and he's determined to pick through the events of each ballgame and tuck something positive in his pocket. Baseball is difficult even on the best of days, and it's altogether too easy to allow failure to worm its way between the ears and cloud every thought with negativity.
That partly explains what happened in 2010, when McLouth, an All-Star acquired by the Braves in 2009 for his enticing blend of power, speed and enthusiasm, lost the ability to hit. And to steal bases. And to throw with authority. He batted .190 with a .298 on-base percentage and .322 slugging percentage, steep declines from career numbers that predicted a line of about .260/.350/.450. It got so bad he was sent to Triple-A for a month, and even after showing signs of improvement upon his return, he wasn't in the lineup during the playoffs.
"Things started to snowball and for whatever reason I could never get on the right path," he said. "I took this offseason to take a step back from everything and rebuild my confidence."
How does a player with a strong track record rebound? McLouth isn't the only established hitter seeking an answer – Carlos Pena, Mark Reynolds(notes), Aaron Hill(notes) and Milton Bradley(notes) all batted .205 or worse last season – but his efforts provide a glimpse into the difficulty of a player dusting himself off, reporting to camp with a fresh outlook and showing immediate signs of improvement.
After the season, McLouth retreated to Wyoming, not to the open spaces of the old West for mind-clearing hunting and fishing, but to Wyoming, Mich., a suburb of Grand Rapids near his hometown of Whitehall. A close friend runs an indoor batting cage and instructional facility, and McLouth went back to basics, breaking down his swing and building it back up. He took rounds of batting practice with high school kids, and when he'd offer a suggestion, the mere act of verbalizing do's and don'ts of hitting proved helpful.
"You are telling a kid something and all of a sudden you are like, 'Wait a second, why the heck don't I do that?,' " he said.
He also benefited from the Braves hiring Geoff Miller to develop a mental-training regimen for the entire organization. Miller had worked with McLouth when both were with the Pirates from 2005 through 2009, and never had McLouth been more in need of a cerebral makeover.
Lastly, McLouth put away his bat and glove and spent the Michigan winter in the weight room. With Miller's guidance, he reflected on his mental state, on the doubts and uncertainty that had infected his game, and vowed to simplify his approach, to reduce it to one word, a word that described all that he'd accomplished since signing with the Pittsburgh Pirates as an obscure 25th-round pick in 2000: Aggressiveness.
"I'd stopped attacking the fastball and in the back of my mind was saying, 'Maybe this is going to be a breaking ball, maybe this is going to be a changeup,' instead of just being aggressive until my eyes tell me no," he said. "I've got that aggressiveness back and it's amazing how it works because I've got eight walks already this spring. I've been happy with my pitch selection. When you swing at good pitches it's amazing what happens."
McLouth's problems last year began when he hit .118 in spring training. He's at .346 this spring, and his on-base percentage is a robust .528. There are zero lingering effects from a concussion that sidelined him for a month last summer. The aggressiveness has generated results that have increased confidence. He's ready to start the season.
"When you are talking about aggressiveness and confidence in hitting, it's almost the same thing," he said. "When you are confident in yourself, you are taking an aggressive hack at a ball, and good things are going to happen."
He also revisited Miller's signature mind-strengthening methods that had helped him put together excellent seasons in 2008 and 2009. One involved writing down three things he did well each day, even on unproductive days. Another technique Miller compares to movie editing: Taking time to learn from mistakes at the end of each day, then visualizing what could have been done instead had there been another "take" and mentally replaying the day with the positive outcomes.
Finally, stop trying to fix everything at once. A problem should be attacked one piece at a time.
"Major league players who have been successful expect a lot of themselves," Miller said. "They are ambitious, and that's why they achieve so much. When they aren't achieving, they see nine or 10 things they need to improve on, and nobody is able to get all that done. So the idea is to focus on one. And usually a player recognizes that the top thing on his list is responsible for most of the failure."
For McLouth, the top thing was indecisiveness, and that's why aggressiveness is his mantra this spring. He might be comforted knowing his batting average on balls he put into play was only .221 last year, an indication he was extremely unlucky and perhaps not so extremely lousy. His BABIP should even itself out, balls should find more holes, and the nightly movie in his mind might require less editing.
Other players looking to rebound follow. Debacles of 2010 and expectations of 2011 are expressed as batting average/on-base percentage/slugging percentage:
• Carlos Pena, Chicago Cubs
2010 debacle: .196/.325/.407
2011 expectation: .250/.360/.500
What gives: Irritated by a sore right foot much of the season with the Rays, Pena had decent power numbers but gave away too many at-bats. He's making $10 million on a one-year deal with the Cubs that his agent, Scott Boras, termed a "pillow contract." Comfort might translate into production.
• Mark Reynolds, Baltimore Orioles
2010 debacle: .198/320/.433
2011 expectation: .245/.340/.500
What gives: Reynolds' prodigious strikeouts totals finally took a huge toll on his batting average, even though he did hit 32 home runs. The Orioles acquired him from the Diamondbacks, and Reynolds ought to take a liking to hitter-friendly Camden Yards.
• Aaron Hill, Toronto Blue Jays
2010 debacle: .205/.271/.394
2011 expectation: .270/.330/.435
What gives: Hill was extremely unlucky, as evidenced by one of the lowest BAPIPs of any player since 1900, but he also became pull-happy, apparently enamored by his 36 home runs in 2009. If he uses the entire field, the luck should even out and his production should increase.
• Milton Bradley, Seattle Mariners
2010 debacle: .205/.292/.348
2011 expectation: .280/.370/.460
What gives: Bradley exhibited his usual toxic blend of ill temper and injury, and this time it kept him from posting solid numbers. If he can stay on the field, he ought to return to his career average production.
• B.J. Upton(notes), Tampa Bay Rays
2010 debacle: .237/.322/.424
2011 expectation: .255/.350/.430
What gives: Upton's ability to put the ball in play with authority has declined year by year, and despite his superior skills, it's hard to predict if he can make a U-turn in 2011.
• Aramis Ramirez(notes), Chicago Cubs
2010 debacle: .241/.294/.452
2011 expectation: .285/.345/.500
What gives: Injury and motivation problems permeated the Cubs, and Ramirez wasn't immune. He's skilled enough for a bounceback year, even if the Cubs aren't.
• Adam Lind(notes), Toronto Blue Jays
2010 debacle: .237/.287/.425
2011 expectation: .275/.330/.480
What gives: Too many strikeouts and a low average on balls put into play combined for a shocking decline from his breakout 2009 season. Somewhere in between would be fine with the Blue Jays.
• Matt Kemp(notes), Los Angeles Dodgers
2010 debacle: .249/.310/.450
2011 expectation: .290/.340/.485
What gives: It's time for Kemp to grow up and perform with the consistency of a veteran. If he's focused, he could put up monster numbers, and the Dodgers would be happy to grin and bear his baserunning lapses.
• Carlos Lee(notes), Houston Astros
2010 debacle: .246/.291/.417
2011 expectation: .285/.340/.490
What gives: Astros manager Brad Mills(notes) visited Lee at his home in Panama during the offseason. Maybe they discussed how Lee can reach base and circle the bases with his previous regularity: Lee batted over .300 every year from 2006 through 2009. At 34, he could have another big year left.