David Freese and Colby Rasmus will play key roles for the Cardinals this year, as will their hitting coach, Mark McGwire. Both players will be counted on to provide offensive punch, while Big Mac will be entrusted to help the young sluggers surpass their 2010 production. Rasmus is coming off a season where he hit .276/.361/.498 with 23 home runs. Freese hit .296/.361/.404 with four home runs before having his rookie campaign derailed by an ankle injury after just 80 games.
McGwire, Freese, and Rasmus each took a few minutes to talk about their hitting approaches prior to Sunday afternoon’s game in Ft. Myers.
On his role as Cardinals hitting coach: “It’s really just to be eyes and ears for the hitters. They pretty much know what to do, with the understanding that there is always room for adjustments. This game is about adjustments. It’s about pitch selection and it’s about understanding the pitcher on the mound and what he has on that given night.
“Up here, everybody has solid mechanics. If they didn’t, they wouldn’t be in the big leagues. That said, there is always room for fine-tuning those mechanics. But as a hitting coach, I’m primarily just eyes and ears for these guys. They want me to watch certain things, and I do that. The majority of the times they get into an area where they don’t feel too good, it’s usually about pitch selection.”
On hitting from the neck up: “This game is mental. They had the physical ability to get here, now it‘s about understanding that the mind is the most powerful thing to keep you here for a long period of time. And when you’re talking about the mind, it’s all about knowing what that guy on the mound is trying to do to you. You have your own Rolodex of how his ball is moving and what he usually does with certain sequences.
“The basis of hitting is that you have to see the baseball. A lot of people forget to see the baseball. If you have an idea of what the guy is going to try to do, you can get into that batters’ box and just concentrate on seeing the baseball.”
On when Colby Rasmus struggles at the plate: “It’s usually pitch selection. He’s young, and that’s what happens when you’re young. These pitchers will find your weaknesses very quickly. With all the video out there, they get to see everything. The biggest thing is, when somebody is pitching you really tough, the easiest thing to do is lay off of it. If you keep swinging at it, they’re going to keep throwing it there. The same with [David Freese]. It‘s usually pitch selection.”
On if good pitch recognition can be taught: “It’s more or less that you talk about it and then they have to process it themselves. Everybody is different. By talking about it, hopefully by saying certain words, it might click for them mentally. Then, by watching video and understanding what that guy has on the mound—that’s what pitch selection is.”
On how he utilizes video: “I’m big on video when it comes to understanding what the pitcher is trying to do, as far as his rotation and what his hand release is on certain pitches. I’m big on looking at that before a game.
“I’m not a big advocate of looking at mechanics all the time, like on a daily basis. I’m a true believer in that there is only one way of finding a feeling about hitting, and that’s by playing a baseball game. You can’t find a feeling on a video screen.”
On plate coverage: “When you play in the lower ranks, going all the way back to college or high school and then the lower minor leagues up to Triple-A, you’re gaining the understanding that you’re up there trying to hit the ball, and cover 17 inches of the plate. It’s really impossible to cover 17 inches of the plate up here in the big leagues. You have to be good at one side of the plate or the other. You’re either going to be a good, solid middle-in hitter, or you’re going to be a good, solid middle-away hitter. When you’re really good at one of those sides, the other side just falls into place. It’s when you’re not so good at the side you’re supposed to be good at, and you try to cover the other side, when you get yourself in trouble.
“I stress covering one side of the plate only. Be really good at it and if a pitcher is pitching you tough, don’t give in to how he is pitching you. Stay in your location. If it’s middle-away, stay there, because do you know what? They throw strikes and some days they’re going to be on. Other days they’re going to off. They’re going to make mistakes, so be disciplined.”
On the role hitting coaches play: “They help a lot, especially for a guy like me who doesn’t have a lot of experience. They kind of show us how to go about our business. They help us get ready for guys we haven’t faced before. Throughout a season, when they see something, they’ll kind of tinker with us a little bit.”
On McGwire: “Big Mac is really good at keeping me even-keeled and understanding that you’re going to have your ups and your downs. He helps me remember that I just need to go with the flow.
“He always tells me to stay within myself. There are obviously good pitchers on the mound in the big leagues and if you try to do too much they’re going to eat you up. That’s something he’s really helped me with.”
On when he is struggling at the plate: “I’m usually leaking—my shoulder is leaking. I like to be a guy who is gap-to-gap, so when I’m yanking the ball too much, that’s when I get into trouble.
“When you get to this level, you have to be able to make adjustments on your own, in the middle of a game or even in the middle of an at bat. But all of the coaches are around to help you when you get caught up with stuff. Everything is so detailed at this level that you need to be on top of your game, and that’s what they’re here for.”
On not thinking too much: “Once you get in the box, you just need to worry about the ball. It’s see the ball, hit the ball. I know that’s pretty elementary, but that’s how it goes. Mac is real big on that. If you can’t see it, you can’t hit it. When you get in that batters’ box, everything has to be focused on that baseball.”
On the role hitting coaches play: “It’s someone to keep me positive, someone to keep me thinking clear and not putting too many things in my head at once. It’s more mental than physical.
“Different hitting coaches have different philosophies about they want you to go about it. Some are more mechanical and some are more mental. Some back off of you more and some are all up on you. They‘re not all the same.”
On McGwire: “He tells me to stay positive. Baseball is a tough game, so don’t get down on yourself. You have to know that those pitchers on the other side are pretty good sometimes. You might go up there and hit the ball hard four times, but you might go up there and he paints on you four at-bats in a row. You have to deal with that. Don’t think that you have to go in and work on something, or change something, just because a pitcher carved you up that day.”
On when he is struggling at the plate: “It’s usually my timing. I have a leg kick and when my timing gets off they start throwing me a lot of off-speed pitches. My leg kick gets a little quick, looking for the fastball. That’s probably the biggest thing.”
On making adjustments: “Reps in the cage can do good for you, but it’s all about getting in that box and being able to transfer from the cage to the plate. Once you get up to the plate, you’re there all by yourself. If you take one swing and pop it up, you can’t just put it back on the tee. You have to be able to fix it when you’re out there on the field. Staying positive is big part of being able to do that.”