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HITTING BOTTOM
Tom Verducci
June 07, 2004
Even great hitters aren't immune to horrific slumps. How does a player like Derek Jeter suddenly lose his way at the plate—and how does he find his way back?
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June 07, 2004

Hitting Bottom

Even great hitters aren't immune to horrific slumps. How does a player like Derek Jeter suddenly lose his way at the plate—and how does he find his way back?

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"Slumps are powerful things," says Rodriguez, who endured an 0-for-21 stretch with the Rangers in 2002. "Sometimes players are going so badly that, if they hit a pop-up near the third base stands, they root for the ball to stay in play so the third baseman can catch it, just so they don't strike out again. I've heard of guys telling the catcher, 'Just tell me what pitch is coming because there's no way I'm getting a hit right now and I don't want to punch out again. Just let me put one ball in play.' "

Says Yankees DH Jason Giambi, "Oh, yeah, there are times you're going so bad you swing at the first pitch just so you don't get to another two-strike count, because you know you'll strike out. So you'll take your ground ball to second base and get out of there thinking, O.K., at least I made contact. That's something"

Slumps can be all-consuming, affecting a hitter's mood, appetite and behavior. Former Yankees outfielder Paul O'Neill says that when he was in a slump, it "never really left me. It was what I thought about as I went to bed and the first thing when I got up in the morning."

Says Devil Rays manager Lou Piniella, a former player notorious for his intensity, "When you're in a slump, thank God for the invention of the watercooler."

Slumps would awaken Piniella, a lifetime .291 hitter, in the middle of the night and, eventually, would rouse his wife too. Anita Piniella would hear yelling coming from downstairs and fear a burglar had entered the house. Instead she would find her frustrated husband swinging a bat in front of a mirror, talking to himself.

Hitting is an art with karmic overtones. Cold streaks are charged by the static of many disjointed thoughts. Hot streaks are marked by the absence of thought, or as the yogi Berra once philosophized, "How the hell are you going to think and hit at the same time?"

Like an artist visited by a muse, the hitter has an elusive relationship with the baseball goddess known as Feel. Explains Yankees centerfielder Bernie Williams, "You get the feeling that they can't get you out. It's something that seems to come from your inner being. You can't wait for your next at bat. It's like riding a wave, being right in the middle of a 50-foot swell and riding it all the way in to shore, and then you paddle back out and do it as long as you can. And then [the feeling's] gone."

The loss of that feeling, however, can have practical explanations. As Jones says, "When I'm not hitting, 95 percent of the time it's something mechanical. So the key is to figure out what the mechanical flaw is. You get in the cage and try to work yourself out of it. The other five percent of the time, it's mental. Every time you go to the plate, you feel like they've got 12 people out on the field, there are no holes, and you're not going to get any hits."

Jeter's slump had mental and physical origins. As he pressed to get off to a good start, Jeter admits, his anxiety had him "jumping at the ball." Rather than waiting for a pitch to get to him, especially an outside pitch, Jeter would lean forward in his haste to hit it, jerking his head instead of keeping it steady. He was particularly hard-pressed to hit fastballs, which he had previously feasted on (below). Last year, for instance, he batted .330 against fastballs from righthanders on the outer third of the plate, according to the scouting service Inside Edge. In his first 43 games this year, however, Jeter was hitless in 16 at bats decided by those same pitches. He struggled when hitting with two strikes (.127, versus .235 in 2003) and even when he was ahead in the count (.250, versus .459). Furthermore, his "well-hit average"—Inside Edge's category for hard-hit balls, regardless of whether they end up as base hits—dropped from .316 to .245.

"You're trying so hard to get hits instead of just hitting the ball," Jeter says. "But you can't guide the ball. Your eyes are the key. When your head moves, your eyes move, and you don't see the pitch as long. That's why when you're going good, the ball looks slower. You see it longer. Now I'm staying back, letting the ball get to me instead of trying to go out and get the ball."

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