FORT MYERS, FLA. – Byron Buxton doesn’t remember the opponent or the date. He will always remember the thought.
The Twins center fielder often looked helpless at the plate early in the 2017 season. He was batting .082 on April 20. He received advice from any acquaintance who had ever owned a baseball card.
His mind swimming, Buxton sought the counsel of a few Twins veterans, and found a common theme among quality hitters. The physics of making solid contact on a round ball moving 90 mph using a round bat can’t be contemplated in the split-second required for the ball to reach home plate, so Brian Dozier and Joe Mauer told him to take only one thought into the batter’s box. Unburdened, Buxton performed like a star.
“I remember it like it was yesterday,” Buxton said. “It was a pitch low and away. Me thinking ‘right-center,’ I stayed on the pitch and drove it for a triple. I said, ‘That’s what I’m going to stick to.’ ”
Embracing the power of one thought, Buxton hit .314 with a .912 OPS (on-base-plus-slugging percentage) from July 4 through the end of the regular season, joining a litany of great Twins hitters who adopted a similar approach.
Wednesday, the Twins beat Baltimore 9-8 at Hammond Stadium. Mauer hit two opposite-field doubles and Buxton hit one.
“I try to drive everything right toward the pitcher,” Dozier said. “Another way to think about it is, I try to knock down the center field wall. If I do that, then I can cover the plate, and still turn on inside pitches and pull the ball. But I’m not trying to pull the ball or go the other way. It just happens.”
Mauer is a dedicated opposite-field hitter. Twins manager Paul Molitor used to think, “Let the ball travel” as a way to remind himself to be patient and willing to hit outside pitches to the opposite field. He, like Buxton and Dozier, had hands fast enough to pull inside pitches without planning to do so.
In the world of Zen and the Art of Swing Maintenance, trying to pull the ball can be disastrous, even if pulling the ball in and of itself can be a good thing.
“If I had one thought, it was to make sure I had the middle and outer plate covered and to trust myself inside,” Molitor said. “If I got a little antsy or paranoid about a guy making a pitch inside, there usually weren’t good results for me. Let the ball travel.”
Kirby Puckett wore out the baggie in right field of the Metrodome. Kent Hrbek hit majestic shots to left-center. Molitor and Chuck Knoblauch both hit .341 in 1996 by spraying hits to center and right.
Justin Morneau broke out of slumps by lining outside pitches to right-center, which would lead to fastballs inside he would pull.
Twins Chief Baseball Officer Derek Falvey was watching the Detroit Tigers take batting practice once when he discovered Miguel Cabrera, Victor Martinez, J.D. Martinez and a few other hitters were playing a game, awarding points for home runs hit to center or the opposite field. If they pulled a home run, they earned negative points.
Falvey said he has read research on “internal vs. external cueing.” Scientists confirm the approach of top hitters: A mental picture is worth a thousand words.
“If you focus on what your body is doing, you’re in trouble,” Falvey said. “There is a view that your body will organize itself with the intent of what you’re trying to do.”
Falvey trusts hitting coach James Rowson to distill video and statistical information.
“James will say, ‘OK, I’m not saying any of that to the player, but I can get him to do what he needs to do,’ ” Falvey said.
Puckett used to say, “Swing hard in case you hit it.” Knoblauch thought about knocking the cap off the pitcher’s head. During spring training, Hrbek would try to hit the cows that once wandered in the pasture beyond the left field fence. It seems that in baseball, one simple thought can make the difference.
Jim Souhan’s podcast can be heard at MNSPN.com. On Twitter: @SouhanStrib. firstname.lastname@example.org