Craig Counsell has played on two World Championship teams, for the Florida Marlins as a rookie in 1997, and the Arizona Diamondbacks in 2001. After getting off to one of the best starts of his career with a .387 OBP this season while playing everyday at shortstop and third base, Counsell dislocated his right thumb and suffered a torn ligament. He was pronounced out for 10 weeks. After surgery to repair his thumb, Counsell hopes to begin rehab in three weeks, while spending time with his wife Michelle and their first child, born May 3. Counsell recently chatted with BP about coming back from injuries, the virtue of plate discipline, and his approach to hitting.
Baseball Prospectus: What does it take to have a successful rehab?
Craig Counsell: It’s time more than anything. This was a torn ligament in my thumb, so it’s not as critical as it was last year, when I hurt my neck, and time will heal it. It’ll be in a cast for a month. Then I just have to work hard to get my range of motion back, the strength back, and resume baseball activities. As soon as I’m in baseball shape again, I’ll be ready to go.
BP: Is there any preparation you can do while rehabbing that you couldn’t otherwise? Maybe spend more time looking at tape or preparing in other ways?
CC: You can look at as much tape as you want, but in 10 weeks, you lose a lot of that good feel you get playing every day. When you do get back on field, it’s important to be as close to where you left off as possible.
BP: Are there any physical activities you can work on in the meantime? Extra weight work, or building stamina?
CC: The focus for me is trying to push the time envelope to get back. If the doctor says it’s 10 weeks, I’m going to try to make it eight weeks. If I can somehow get back to playing quicker, I can give myself an extra 10 or 15 games and hopefully help my team.
BP: The Diamondbacks infield has been in flux the last couple of years, with Matt Williams‘ injuries, and Tony Womack struggling at short, which has meant plenty of playing time for you at short and at third. Is there a position you prefer playing? Do you prepare differently for one vs. the other?
CC: I feel like I’ve been an everyday player, but not in the traditional sense. Not many players get to do that, to play every day, but at different positions. It’s fun–I look at it as a challenge, in that it’s kind of unique right now. I don’t prefer either position or make any major adjustments either way, I just like to play. Although I don’t see myself as a third baseman really, since it’s a miracle when I hit a home run (laughs).
BP: You got to play on two World Series teams with the Marlins and the Diamondbacks. How did the two experiences differ for you?
CC: In Florida I was a rookie. I’d been on the team for two months and was just along for the ride, trying to play baseball. It was just kind of a blur how everything was happening so quickly. In Arizona, I’d been there longer, and was more established on the team. It made the experience a little more rewarding.
BP: We have to talk about your batting stance, of course. How did it start?
CC: It was as simple as a slump. I got released by the Dodgers in spring training 2000, came to Arizona, and was struggling. I was trying new things to get things rolling again. It just worked–it was as simple as that really. I’d love to hit like John Olerud. Unfortunately, the funny-looking stance is what works for me.
BP: You’ve made a living of taking pitches, working walks, getting on base. Is plate discipline something you learned, or did you always have it? In general, do you think it’s something that can be learned or taught, a natural talent, or both?
CC: For me personally, I think it’s how I’ve always been. But I’ve also always realized I’m never going to have a lot of power. If I wanted to play, I knew I had to be a guy who gets on base in front of guys who do have power. I always thought that walks are an important part of the game. Getting on base has to be a weapon for me. I know in college and the minors, taking pitches and getting on base was always something that I made important.
BP: So say, someone like Alex Cintron was struggling to get on base. Could you work with someone like that and teach being patient at the plate?
CC: I don’t think it’s something that can be taught overnight. The reason people don’t take too many pitches is that they’re afraid to strike out. You have to be comfortable hitting with two strikes, and that’s tough. I think (plate discipline) is somewhat of a skill, as much as something you can learn. All players–especially players without a lot of power at the top of the order–should make a point to be conscious of it. That’s all you can do, it’s not necessarily something you can work on. You can pick your spots and look for ways to test (taking pitches and being patient). It’s difficult to go into a game and say ‘I’m going to walk.’ It doesn’t really work well if you approach it that way.
CC: Not a particular kind. I don’t like facing good pitchers (laughs). Just pitchers who throw good pitches. I know I’ve struggled against Shane Reynolds, and he’s not a power pitcher by any means. Woody Williams too. They just make good pitches. At the same time, Billy Wagner is not someone I like to face either.
BP: How much do you work on learning a pitcher’s tendencies, pitch sequences, and other hints? What can you do to gain an edge as a hitter?
CC: A lot of players look for edges. Whether it’s through video, scouting reports from the pitches charted the last time he threw, looking at what a pitcher throws on which counts…you can use all those things. Everybody’s different, but for me, I like to have information. I don’t use all of it, but there’s certain stuff you see that you want to use. You can’t be in the batter’s box thinking about everything and paralyzed by information though–you just have to use the things that you find most helpful.
BP: Is there an instance of one pitcher that stands out for you, where you really got the edge on him by preparing a certain way or doing something differently than you would have otherwise?
CC: I think more of situations obviously. In the playoffs of 2001 we were playing St. Louis. I had a 3-1 count, Gonzo was on deck, we were down; normally that’s a situation where people would think I wasn’t swinging, that we’d want to get the tying run on base. You can use something like that to your advantage. I took an aggressive swing and ended up hitting a home run to tie the game. Meanwhile people were surprised that I even swung.
BP: What kind of off-season exercise regimen do you use to get ready for the season?
CC: For me the focus now, as a middle infielder, is to maintain agility, speed, and range to play longer. The longer I can play shortstop in the big leagues the longer I’ll be able to have a job. A lot of my conditioning is maintaining a lot of speed and agility. As you get into your 30s, athletes tend to lose a lot of that.
BP: We hear of players who go to special institutes to do their training, or hire personal trainers and gurus to help them train. How do you go about it?
CC: I go back home to Milwaukee and train with a friend. The main thing is that you do it. There are different programs guys have that are great, but the main thing is that you make an effort to do it. I’m doing everything I can to focus on maintaining my own skills.
BP: Who did you look up to growing up as a baseball fan?
CC: I grew up in Milwaukee, watching those good Brewers teams in the 80s. My three favorites were Jim Gantner, Paul Molitor, and Robin Yount. Molitor and Yount were great obviously, but Gantner was a little closer to what I am. All three were great examples of how you want to be as a baseball player, of how you want to handle yourself on the field.
BP: We’ve heard you’re a fan of Baseball Prospectus. How did that come about?
CC: It just comes from being a baseball fan I think. Some of it is also the nerd in me that got an accounting degree in college. I always liked numbers–and looking at them from a baseball standpoint interests me. It’s a new way of looking at baseball, and I enjoy it for that reason.
BP: Accounting, huh? That’s not your typical major for a jock. Did you feel you had the ability to make the big leagues, or were you figuring, ‘I’d better get a degree I can fall back on’?
CC: I’ve always been the small kid, the undersized guy. But no one ever told me I had to stop playing. Until someone tells me I’m not good enough, that I have to stop playing, I won’t stop. Getting my degree was definitely something to fall back on. But I always wanted to be a ballplayer first and foremost.
BP: What do you think you’ll want to do after your career ends? Go into accounting or stay in baseball as a coach, manager, or something else?
CC: I want to stay in baseball, no doubt. It gets in your blood. I’ve done it my whole life, and I’d like to stay involved in the game somehow.