Lakeland, Fla. — It almost sounded like a malaprop when manager Ron Gardenhire said it.
Talking about Tigers outfielder Mikie Mahtook the other day in Dunedin, he said, “He’s out of (minor-league) options, and that can maybe make a guy relax.”
Huh? How does being in a situation where he gets designated for assignment and waived if he doesn't make the team allow a player to relax?
“Now it’s on his shoulders,” Gardenhire said. “He makes the team or, if he doesn’t, I mean, he won’t clear waivers. So maybe it’s just one of those things where he just comes in and plays, not worrying about anything else.”
Maybe. But what Gardenhire said last might be closer to the heart of the matter.
“I think it’s maturity, more than anything else,” he said.
Mahtook has a survivor’s maturity, one that developed painfully through a season of failure and rediscovery last year.
“Honestly, I just had such a bad year,” Mahtook said Tuesday. “Thankfully I salvaged a little bit of it at the end. But I went into the offseason just wanting to work on some things, but telling myself: I can’t do any worse than I did last year.
“And the worst-case scenario is, I get DFA’d and someone else picks me up.”
In that sense, Gardenhire was spot-on. Mahtook is carrying a lighter load, emotionally, this spring. And why wouldn’t he after what happened last year? He was ticketed to be the Tigers starting left fielder, until he hit a frosty .161 last spring (9 for 56), then opened the season hitting .129 in nine games.
He went from everyday left fielder to Triple A in less than a month.
“The last thing I thought about last year was getting sent down,” he said. “I didn’t think about, ‘Oh, I have an option,’ or anything like that. I think for me, it’s more about using last year as motivation for this year. I put all the pressure I could on myself last year and look how it turned out.
“I am confident in all the work I’ve put in. I’ve always worked hard in the offseason, but I have specifically worked on certain things.”
Using the J.D. method
Mahtook, off to a much better start this spring, has taken a few pages from former Tigers teammate J.D. Martinez’s handbook on understanding your own swing mechanics — what they are, why they work, and what happens when they stop working.
“My goal this offseason was to really study my swing,” Mahtook said. “It’s similar to what J.D. did. I’m not talking about doing a whole swing change. But understanding my swing, so whenever something does go wrong and I don’t have that feeling that I want, I know how to get it back.
“So that when I have struggles, they’re not so deep.”
After getting himself straightened out at Toledo last season, Mahtook wound up finishing the season back in the big leagues and playing regularly. Over a five-week span, from Aug. 16 to Sept. 22, he hit .255 with a .349 on-base percentage, slugged .571 with nine home runs and 23 RBIs and had an OPS of .920.
This is what he’s capable of, and it wasn’t the first time he’s flashed that kind of production.
“I know how good a player I am and how good I can be,” Mahtook said. “I’ve had spurts throughout my career. Like in 2017, for 3½ months I was playing better than most people in the big leagues.”
In the final 84 games that year, he slashed.294/.345/.481, with 10 home runs and 31 RBIs.
But for every surge there have been deeper and sometimes more prolonged slumps.
“I just had to take a step back and say, ‘Why? What’s the difference? Why can’t I do that consistently?’” Mahtook said. “Obviously, there are going to be ups and downs. Baseball is hard; I get that.
“But why are the ups and downs so up here (raising his hand high) and down here (lowering it)?”
Where Martinez keeps notebooks on all the pitchers he’s faced, Mahtook reviews and critiques his at-bats — keeping mental notes on where the at-bat might have failed or succeeded.
“You have to know, ‘OK, I struck out, why?’” he said. “Did the pitcher beat me? Did he make good pitches? Or did I get myself out because I offered at bad pitches? And why did I offer at those pitches? Was I not in a good position to hit?
“When you go back and rewind it, you can see — OK, this is why. This is what I did wrong, how do I fix it? Now I can go back and fix it.”
Case in point: Monday in Clearwater against the Phillies. Mahtook struck out half-swinging at a slider — a pitch and location that have vexed him plenty over the years.
“I felt like I lost my posture (at the plate),” he said. “It was a checked swing, and maybe I went too far, maybe I didn’t. But I put myself in a bad position. The next at-bat, I knew what I did wrong, I corrected my posture and I got a base hit to left.
“When you are going good, you can make those kind of adjustments. When you aren’t going good, you have to realize you are never as bad as it seems, and you are never as good as it seems.”
More than a feeling
After getting nine hits all of last spring, Mahtook has already collected three hits, and two walks, in his first seven plate appearances this spring. Which, he knows, means next to nothing in the grand scheme.
“It’s more than just getting hits,” he said. “It’s the way I’m seeing pitches right now, how I’m taking pitches, how I’m offering at pitches and how I am hitting the ball. Even the ball I flew out to left on (Monday), it was a good swing. I just missed it.
“I could go 0-for-5 right now, but still have that same feel. I’m seeing it and I am hitting the ball on the barrel. Even if they aren’t falling, that’s the big thing for me.”
If the Tigers broke camp today, Mahtook probably would be the fourth outfielder. Victor Reyes and Dustin Peterson are also vying for that role. But camp doesn’t break for another month, so Mahtook will just carry on with his positive mental hygiene and Martinez-inspired swing analysis, thank you, and let it all play out.
Although, he might end up buying some notebooks.
“People say you always remember how you felt when you are doing bad, right,” Mahtook said. “When you are going well, you never remember how you felt. So, when things are going great, why not write down what you are feeling?
“So that when you are struggling, you can go back and look at it and you can remember those good feelings.”