A World Series MVP, a cancer survivor, and a four-time All-Star, Red Sox third baseman Mike Lowell is one of the most highly-respected players in the game. He is also an author, having chronicled his life in the recently-released Deep Drive: A Long Journey to Finding the Champion Within. The book was written with Red Sox beat writer Rob Bradford, who covers the team for the Boston Herald and writes the insightful and sabermetrically-friendly Bradford Files blog. David talked to Lowell about one of the subjects he covers in Deep Drive: his approach to hitting.
David Laurila: Prior to the 2006 season you called Gary Denbo, who had been one of your hitting coaches in the minor leagues, and told him, “I think that I’ve lost the ability to stay direct to the ball.” What did you mean by that?
Mike Lowell: I’ve been the type of guy, being a right-handed pull hitter, that the pitch middle-in–and even a pitch that’s a ball or two inside and is probably a ball–I’ve always been able to hit that ball hard and fair. And I didn’t feel that I was able to do that. I think that in 2005, I tried to change a lot of things because I didn’t get off to a good start, and instead of sticking to the plan I was kind of looking for a quick fix. I think that in all of the tinkering that I did, I lost that ability. Whether it was a feel or whether it was the combination of what you think your body is doing and what it actually is doing–sometimes you’ll look at a video and see that it’s really not doing what you think it is. So that offseason, I kind of went back to square one, kind of like I was back in the minor leagues and trying to stay direct to the ball. Gary was the Yankees hitting director when I was in the Yankees system, so I felt that he was the guy to come back to. He almost exaggerates in the drill work, things like keeping your hands close to your body and making solid contact. When you can eke out a decent line drive with something so exaggerated, when the pitch is farther out and more into that power zone, it feels a lot more comfortable. I think that’s what I meant by telling him and what he did in turn when we had that three-day session that was mentioned in the book about how I could get back to where I wanted to be.
DL: You wrote about doing a lot of drill work hitting off a tee. How does hitting a stationary object help prepare you to hit a 95 mph fastball?
ML: Well, I don’t think the velocity helps at all, but one thing that you’re doing is establishing muscle memory and trying to reproduce the right swing. Being able to hit a 95 mph fastball is an instinctual thing; a God-given thing; if everyone could do it, being a major league baseball player wouldn’t be that big of a deal. The guys who have reached this level have that ability, so it becomes, “When you get to it, are you getting to it with the right approach; are you giving yourself the best percentage to get a base hit?” The proper mechanics can be repeated over and over. Plus, for practical reasons you can’t just find someone who can throw 95 and put him on the mound for you to work out.
DL: Denbo told you to “Hit the ball up the middle and remember how your muscles felt when you did that.” Can muscle memory be isolated in that manner?
ML: I don’t think that you should think about it, but over time, with repetition, it’s something that just becomes natural. Especially during the game–if you’re thinking about anything besides the ball, you’re at a disadvantage right there. Your whole concentration has to be on the ball during the game. You can work on things during batting practice and during drill work, but you to have to rely on, and have confidence in, what your approach is and what your preparation was in order to be able to execute the same thing in a game.
DL: Writing about a session you had with Red Sox sport psychologist Don Kalkstein, you said “The usual thoughts of looking for a fastball on the middle of the plate or further inside were gone; if the ball looked good I was going to swing.”
ML: Sometimes you believe that you can only do damage on one type of pitch, so what I think he wanted to do was just broaden the fact that for seven years in the big leagues I was able to get hits. My average was a little better than average for a major league baseball player. He said that he couldn’t believe that all of my hits were on pitches middle-in, that I must have gotten hits on pitches middle-away and even balls that might have been out and away. What he was trying to portray was that the ability is there to hit all kinds of pitches, because it’s been shown. If there was no track record, maybe we should be starting from a different point, but what Donny was saying was to not to try to be so perfect on the pitch and the swing. The swing is there, the ability is there, so just try to let it loose. That’s what he was trying to put across.
DL: A few pages later, you wrote, “My approach after a Donny talk is to look for my pitch until two strikes, middle-in.” Is that at all contradictory to what you said earlier?
ML: What I meant is that you always have to make adjustments. There are certain pitchers who aren’t consistent in hitting their spots, and when I wrote that–I think that was actually a journal entry that I wrote–we were going through a batch of pitchers who notoriously weren’t like a Greg Maddux or a Tom Glavine or a Roy Halladay. Those are pitchers who hit their spots consistently and never miss toward the middle of the plate. So that was more a case of saying, ‘Have more confidence in your ability than giving the pitcher the respect that he’s going to make his pitch every time.’ So, in that sense, it’s kind of to look for my pitch, middle-in, until two strikes. With two strikes you just have to battle. It was basically not giving the pitcher the respect that he can repeat a pitcher’s pitch more than one time.
DL: You wrote about how when you got to Boston, (former) Red Sox hitting coach Ron Jackson was “looking for the perfect swing, and from where I was coming from that kind of expectation wasn’t an option.” Can elaborate on that?
ML: That was Papa Jack: what he saw was video of the 2005 season. I think that during the offseason going into the 2006 season, there was a lot of work that was put into getting my approach back to where it had been before the 2005 season. So it was only natural for a hitting coach, if what he saw was the ’05 swings, was that when that person comes to spring training you want to change him as well. With Ron Jackson, what I thought was happening those first couple of days in the spring is that we talked stride, we talked hands, and it was kind of, “Let’s do this today; let’s do that tomorrow,” and I felt like that was a clutter of stuff. I wanted to work on what I had worked on in the offseason. And he accepted that; he was fine with it. It was just that in his initial conversation, with his desire being that he wanted his players to do well, he wanted to do everything he thought possible to get that perfect swing. But doing all of those adjustments, without having the same time under his belt knowing what I did in the offseason, it wasn’t an option.
DL: Ozzie Guillen once gave you hitting advice, telling you to try to hit the ball as softly as possible. What did he mean by that?
ML: Sometimes when you’re pressing, you want to get a hit so bad that you look like you’re almost squeezing the bat into sawdust. What he meant there was to just relax, and if you try to take as soft a swing as possible, you still have to take a swing. He actually said to do that in batting practice, and that I’ll see that my hands will be able to feel free and flow smoothly. It sounded like an extreme comment, but I think that the result was basically telling the player to just relax and take it easy.
DL: You wrote that, “it’s amazing how easy it is to forget the simplest things in the micromanaged world of baseball.” With that in mind, to what extent do you use charts and video, and how much attention do you pay to stats like OPS?
ML: Well, when you’re talking about other players, I think OPS is significant, because usually the highest on-base percentage guys are the ones that are the highest run-scorers, and the highest slugging percentage guys are driving in most of the runs. So they go kind of hand in hand. The point of the game is to either score them or drive them in, so I think those two stats are very relevant when you’re talking about how runs can be produced. I just think that in baseball, sometimes we try to over-analyze everything because this is a very numbers-type sport–and that’s what makes it great. I rely on video a lot of time when I haven’t faced pitchers. You want to get an idea of what they do and about their last start; how they’ve been pitching this year. But I think experience is the most important thing. Video can tell you what’s going on, but I know how I felt the last time I was facing a Roy Halladay, or someone else within our division who I’ll have a lot of at-bats against. In that sense, for me, a lot of guys like to look at video a lot more and take what the video gives them, but if I have significant at-bats, say 15 or 20, against a pitcher, I like to draw off of my experience against them.
DL: How do you balance keeping things simple with knowing as much as you can about a pitcher?
ML: One is preparation, and the other is the game. You have to use the tools you feel comfortable with to prepare yourself for the game, and get yourself in a position where you’re taking a consistent swing. Once you feel that has been established you go into the game and rely on that and look for the ball. You try to keep it simple during the game, but you also have to use all of the tools that are available to you to help you prepare for that game.