Lakeland, Fla. — Fierce competitiveness can work for you and against you — especially in a game like baseball, with its long stretches of inactivity, its intense bursts of action and its high failure rate.
Tigers left fielder Mikie Mahtook is a perfect test case for that dynamic. His fierce competitiveness, his fearless football player’s mentality, is his edge. It’s what helped get him to the big leagues.
But an edgy competitiveness can morph quickly into angst when things aren’t going well. Manager Ron Gardenhire saw that happening with Mahtook earlier this spring after a few ugly at-bats.
“He’s a positive kid and I don’t want him to get frustrated with anything,” Gardenhire said. “He’s game-on. He makes no excuses for anything that happens. At times, he’s trying to do too much instead of just barreling balls up.
“He’s trying to hit that eight-run home run with nobody on base. That’s where he’s got to calm down and learn to control the game a little bit.”
That’s a fine line for players like Mahtook, players not gifted with elite, Mike Trout/Bryce Harper-type skills. Calm them down too much, you run the risk of dousing their fire. And that’s the last thing you’d want to do, especially with Mahtook.
“If you are an athlete, you don’t want to fail,” Mahtook said before the game Monday. “In a game like baseball, it just sucks when you do. I could not play for 10 months and come out the first day and get mad when I got out.
“You never want to accept failure. You don’t want to accept getting out.”
That part of Mahtook will not change. He has no poker face on the field. You know how he’s feeling, whether he’s fired up or frustrated. But that doesn’t mean intellectually he doesn’t have it all in the proper perspective.
“It’s spring training, man,” he said. “I’m just trying to get ready for the season, trying to get my timing and trying to feel good, trying to get that feel back. I am not worried about results. Yeah, you want to get hits. You want to see immediate results.
“But you just keep working and keep trying to get back to where you need to be.”
Mahtook came into the game Monday with five hits in 25 at-bats this spring, with nine strikeouts. He has yet to produce an extra-base hit.
He struggled throughout spring training last year, as well, and went on to have a break-out season with the Tigers (.276/.330/.457 with 12 home runs and 38 RBIs).
This spring, he was quick to point out, is nothing like what he went through last year.
“Not at all,” he said. “My swing last year was way messed up. Now it’s all about getting my timing. Nothing has changed from last year. There is no change in my swing. Last year I was revamping everything. This year there is no revamping.
“It’s just trying to get back to the point it was last year.”
Tigers hitting coach Lloyd McClendon got Mahtook to stand more upright at the plate and take some of the moving parts out of his swing. It wasn’t until the end of May that he got comfortable with the swing changes.
And then he caught fire.
From June 2 through Aug. 18 he hit .337 with a .917 OPS, including seven home runs, nine doubles and four triples. He started feeling groin pain right around that time, which cooled him off. He ended up being shut down on Sept. 22.
So, to Gardenhire’s concern, Mahtook isn’t overwrought about his early plate struggles, despite his angry reactions to yet another roll-over ground out.
“What is it, 25 at-bats?” he said. “I am really not too worried about it. The hitting coaches are there for a reason. If something gets out of whack, they will get you back in line. But I hadn’t hit in five months. You come here and play games and you get a little quick.”
To obsess over results is to miss the point of spring training. Especially for established players.
“That goes both ways — if you play well or if you play really bad,” Mahtook said. “It doesn’t translate into the season necessarily.”
It’s about putting in the work and getting ready for the grind of the regular season. Mahtook, who spends at least 30 minutes in the cage every morning before the work day officially begins, feels like he’s close to getting back into a groove.
“Yeah, it’s getting there,” he said. “The more pitches you see, the more at-bats you get, the calmer you get, the slower the ball gets. That’s really it.”
Getting there, indeed. He was 0-for-3 Monday but he hit the ball hard, on the barrel, his last two at-bats — both line outs to center. It’s coming.