Commentary

A batting slump can be a scary thing

Many players say it's a completely helpless feeling when they struggle at the plate

Originally Published: May 12, 2012
By Tim Kurkjian | ESPN The Magazine

The confounding slump of Albert Pujols reminds us again of the staggeringly high degree of difficulty of baseball, and reminds us of the trauma caused by a terrible slump, as told by a former Oriole, Brady Anderson. Many years ago, he was a passenger in a car driven by teammate Rene Gonzales, who was going far too fast on a dangerous road late at night in the rain. Anderson said to Gonzales, "Gonz, if I wasn't hitting .178, I'd ask you to slow down.''

[+] EnlargeAlbert Pujols
Andrew Weber/US PresswireAlbert Pujols has been a picture of frustration for much of this season.

Every player is prone to slumps, even Pujols, one of the greatest hitters of all time. All slumps end, but while they are going on, it is a helpless feeling for a hitter. A bad slump will keep you up at night, it will make you quit smoking, and if you don't smoke, it will make you start. There are countless stories about what players will do to end a slump, countless times that a hitter will stand in front of a mirror at 3 a.m. swinging an imaginary bat, wondering what he is doing wrong, and wondering when he will get another hit, if ever. On the final day of the 1984 season, after going 0-for-3 with three strikeouts in a perfect game thrown by the Angels' Mike Witt, Rangers outfielder George Wright, who finished the season in a terrible slump that left his average at .243, was asked what he was going to do next. He said, "I'm going to change my name and move to Africa.''

Orioles third baseman Mark Reynolds has had his share of slumps, and more than his share of bad days at the plate: He has struck out over 200 times in three different seasons of his career. "My mom was watching a game on TV last year, and said to me the next day, 'How did you miss that 2-0 slider?''' Reynolds said. "I said, 'Mom, it's not that easy.'''

Mets third baseman David Wright shook his head and smiled. "When you're in a slump, you go to bed at night and you lie there and your mind is racing and you think about everything imaginable: your bat model … your bat size … your pitch selection … how you are wearing your pants,'' Wright said. "But when you're going good, you sleep very well.''

Baseball is not like basketball and football. Great jump shooters in the NBA don't go from scoring 25 points a game on 48 percent shooting to six points a game on 18 percent shooting, but in baseball, it happens all the time. No great NBA jump shooter misses 10 shots in a row, then frets that he'll never make another shot … because another shot is coming any second, and he can't wait to shoot it because he knows this one is going in. Great NFL quarterbacks don't get four games into a season without a 100-yard passing game, or a touchdown pass, but in baseball, it happens all the time. Great NFL quarterbacks throw five incompletions in a row, but they know the next one is going for six.

"The game is not easy,'' Pujols said. "Sometimes we make it look easy. Most times, it's not.''

Hall of Famer Frank Robinson had one of the greatest rookie seasons in baseball history, but in his second season, he had an 0-for-20 slump, and 35 years later acknowledged, "I didn't think I was ever going to get another hit.'' In the middle of what would be seven straight terrific seasons with the Rockies, outfielder Dante Bichette said, "Every day I come to the ballpark, I wonder if this is the last day that I'll be able to hit in the major leagues.''

He could really hit. Not everyone was as good as Bichette. Outfielder Bob Dernier batted .255 in 2,483 at-bats for the Phillies and Cubs. "For me,'' he said, "every at-bat was a fist fight.'' When Rafael Palmeiro, a great hitter, would struggle, and would moan about it, teammate Billy Ripken, not a great hitter, once said, "Hey, try going out there with my hack.''

Adam Dunn had a pretty good hack for 10 years, averaging 35 home runs per season, and hit at least 40 in a season five years in a row. But last year, he dropped to 11 home runs, batted .159 and had 177 strikeouts -- he and Reynolds are the only players to qualify for a batting title and finish a season with a higher strikeout total than a batting average. Dunn offered no explanation for his struggles; he tried everything to get out of his slump, but nothing worked. Marlins manager Ozzie Guillen, who was Dunn's manager last year with the White Sox, said recently, "I love Adam Dunn. He was terrible last year. But he never gave an excuse. After every game, he stood at his locker and took it. I love Adam Dunn.''

The game is not easy. Sometimes we make it look easy. Most times, it's not.

-- Albert Pujols

Dunn has been a much better hitter this year -- he has hit nine home runs already -- proving again that baseball players can get really bad or really good so quickly, and often without explanation. Mike Lowell is a perfect example. In 2005 with the Marlins, he was terrible as he hit .236 with only eight home runs in 500 at-bats. He was traded to Boston after that season, and he went on to hit .284 with 20 home runs in 573 at-bats in 2006, and the year after that, he hit .324 with 120 RBIs.

"I have no idea why I was so bad, and I have no idea how I got good again,'' he said.

One of Lowell's former teammates, Jeff Conine, said, "He tried everything to get out of it. He tried too hard. I believe the guys that struggle the most to get out of a slump are the smart guys that care. Mike cared more than anyone. He tried harder than anyone. But whatever he tried, didn't work.''

Hall of Fame third baseman Mike Schmidt said this spring, "When I was really going bad, even in the prime of my career, if you had told me that I would have a better chance of hitting with my back to the pitcher, I would have tried it. You'll do anything to get out of a slump.''

Pujols will come out of his slump, and when he does, it will be breathtaking to watch. But in the meantime, what he is going through, what all hitters go through, you wouldn't wish on any player. It is a feeling unique to baseball, a feeling of helplessness, a feeling that sometimes gets so bad, driving too fast on a slick road late at night isn't as scary as hitting .178.