'It's hard to hit.' How Dodgers rookie James Outman is dealing with an inevitable slump

Los Angeles Dodgers' James Outman runs to first after hitting an RBI triple during the fifth inning of a baseball game against the Colorado Rockies Monday, April 3, 2023, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)
The Dodgers' James Outman was named rookie of the month in April, but has cooled off since. (Mark J. Terrill / Associated Press)

It’s a tale as old as the game itself. Rookie breaks camp with big-league club for first time and crushes opposing pitching. Scouts find holes in youngster’s swing. Pitchers make adjustments to exploit weaknesses. Rookie goes into extended slump.

James Outman is hardly the first, and he certainly won’t be the last player to rise and fall with baseball’s kiddie coaster, the Dodgers outfielder cooling off in May after winning National League rookie of the month honors in April, when he hit .292 with a .991 on-base-plus-slugging percentage, a major league-leading seven homers, three triples, 20 RBIs and 17 runs scored.

Scroll to continue with content

In 18 games since April 26, the left-handed-hitting Outman is batting .193 (11 for 57) with a .619 OPS, one homer, four doubles, four RBIs, 27 strikeouts and six walks, his struggles reaching a point where he did not start against Minnesota Twins right-hander Pablo Lopez in Monday night’s 9-8, 12-inning win in Dodger Stadium.

“Absolutely!” Dodgers manager Dave Roberts bellowed, when asked if it was inevitable for Outman to return to earth after his torrid start. “And the thing is, it's happened to all of our guys. I could say the same thing about Mookie [Betts], and that's a superstar player. It's baseball. It's hard to hit.”

One particular pitch has been toughest to hit for Outman — he’s batting .118 (two for 17) on at-bats that end with fastballs up in the strike zone.

“I was getting spun a lot early on, a lot of off-speed stuff and changeups for the most part, and I think I got timed up to that subconsciously, so the fastball seems a little quicker,” said Outman, who entered Monday night’s game as a pinch-hitter and struck out to end the 11th inning.


“Now, I’m getting more fastballs at the top of the zone, and they’re staying away from the low and away stuff, for the most part. I've always hit the fastball, so I think it's one of those things where once I get back on that, I'll be OK.”

Outman’s overall numbers are still good — he enters Tuesday's game batting .265 with a .903 OPS, eight homers, eight doubles and 23 RBIs in 42 games — but his 52 strikeouts in 136 at-bats, a 33.3% whiff rate, are a concern.

According to Baseball Savant, Outman also has the lowest contact rate (61.0%) in baseball and the second-lowest in-zone contact rate — the percentage of pitches in the zone that he hits with — with 69.8%

“The quality of at-bats are good — I think what's happening is they're pitching him up in the zone, and some borderline calls are going against him down below,” Roberts said. “But I still think the intent to put together an at-bat is good.


“The results haven't been good, but that's part of it. I don't think any of us expected this season to just be completely linear, and that's OK. I do know he's prepared every day, and he'll find his way out.”

To adjust to fastballs up in the zone, Roberts said, Outman may have to sacrifice some of his success on softer stuff down in the zone.

“I think it's one of those things where it's hard to cover the entire strike zone, and also front to back, so you have to break it up into halves,” Roberts said. “Sometimes you’ve got to kind of commit to a ball at the top of the zone to take some stuff down below. To kind of chase both, that's a tough way to go about it.”

Roberts has not seen any signs that Outman’s struggles have taken a mental toll on the 26-year-old, who was a seventh-round pick out of Sacramento State in 2018.


“I think I’ve got a good feel for the guys,” Roberts said, “and I don’t see any extra anxiety, panic.”

The fact that the Dodgers have won 14 of 16 games to open a three-game lead in the NL West entering Tuesday night’s game against the Twins has eased Outman’s stress levels.

“It’s a lot easier when we’re winning,” Outman said. “It's like, ‘All right, I had a bad day, but at least we won, we're in first place.’ The close games that we lose, and then I didn't contribute, those are the frustrating ones for me because I feel like I didn't do my part. But I still feel positive and everything.”

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.