BRADENTON, Fla. – “They gotta keep working until they start getting feelings. This is about feelings.”
Those words came from Francisco Cervelli’s mouth, but this wasn’t the latest recording of his ‘That’s Amore’ segment for the PNC Park scoreboard. No, Cervelli was talking about what he’s learned to be the best mentality to take into Spring Training.
After a long winter away from the diamond, it just takes time to find those “feelings” again, whether we’re discussing pitching, hitting or fielding. Repetition surely provides comfort, but only if those are good reps.
That was a topic of conversation around Josh Bell’s locker over the weekend inside the Bill McKechnie Clubhouse. After developing a reputation as a relentless seeker of swing truths — sometimes even adjusting his mechanics mid-game — the man sometimes known as ‘Tinker Bell’ has settled into a routine that he feels helps him eliminate all the usual clutter in his mind.
“It’s just a trust aspect,” he said. “I feel like my workday ‘cleans me up’ pretty well and I can actually play the game instead of think my way through it. I feel like I still make adjustments between pitches and stuff like that, but it’s nothing major. I’m trusting what I’m doing, so it helps.”
And how did Bell develop this routine? Turns out he took some cues from a guy who just showed up in black and gold a few weeks ago: Colin Moran. The former Astros prospect went through some well-publicized swing tweaks two offseasons ago, during which he picked up some warmup tricks from Jeff Albert, one of the hitting coaches in the Houston organization.
Now, those methods are apparently aiding the enemy. Such is baseball.
“It helps me know if I have my ‘A’ swing or my ‘B’ swing,” Bell said. “I took a lot from Colin. They’ve got some things figured out over there (in Houston).”
Moran, who has just 39 major-league plate appearances, said he adopted his routine because of his experience with “stinking” during a brief call-up to the Astros in 2016. With Albert’s coaching guidance, the former sixth-overall draft pick streamlined his pregame habits to make them more practical.
“It had a lot to do with deliberate practice, so you’re not just practicing things you’re not doing in a game,” Moran told me. “Make sure you’re doing the things in the cage that’ll get you ready for the game, your game swing. … I was searching for answers on how to (adjust) and I think I found a good way to prepare.”
Both Bell and Moran are in the stage of their careers in which they’re more likely to be open to suggestion on how to prepare, whether for an individual game or the season at large. No matter the position or experience, though, spring brings a trial-and-error period for players still in the market for best practices.
“Everyone’s working on something in here, or should be working on something to get ready for the season,” said lefty reliever Kevin Siegrist, he of five big-league seasons but only a minor-league roster spot for now. “It doesn’t really come back every year the same way, so you’ve gotta relearn how to get ready, that aspect of the game.”
To Cervelli’s point about “feelings,” he joked that he “didn’t know how to stand at the plate” at the start of Spring Training. But after more than a decade of major-league camp experience, he knows not to panic if the needle is skipping over the usual groove, even at this point of the proceedings.
“Just gotta be patient,” he said. “Do one thing every day. One thing, one thing. It’s gonna take you there.”
It’s interesting to hear from players on how they approach the games that “matter, but don’t count,” to use Clint Hurdle’s words from last week.
Jameson Taillon, for instance, said after a recent start that during Spring Training he does more “doubling up” — that is, throw two of the same pitch consecutively — so he can better ingrain a certain feel. On the other hand, Adam Frazier and José Osuna seemed to indicate they tackle the Grapefruit League no differently than regular-season action.
“Get the timing down, hitting-wise,” Frazier said, “and then go from there. Just swing at strikes, barrel the ball. Stay within myself. Feel like I’m in a good spot now.”
Of course, someone like Osuna should be taking these games more seriously, since a big-league job is at stake here. If he’s going to experiment — either with the bat or the glove — that will be in the Venezuelan Winter League, he said Monday. Yes, he has 104 games with the Pirates under his belt, but he’s been in competition mode for the past few weeks and will stay that way until the equipment truck gets loaded for the long trip north next week.
“It’s a little bit different, but mostly the same,” Osuna said, comparing this experience to last spring. “You have to come to work. You have to earn your job. … We have a couple more games. I don’t have time to worry for the last day, but I feel ready, you know?
That’s simply not the case for Trevor Williams, who started last season in the bullpen but went on to put up one of the best performances by an MLB rookie starting pitcher in 2017. He’s known he’s an ironed-on member of the rotation since the end of last season, when management informed both him and Chad Kuhl that they should prepare during the offseason as such.
Williams made mention of “putting as much hay in the barn” as possible during the winter, so he could be ready for not just the six-month season, but also the spring run-up. After participating in a few big-league camps, which are longer than the minor-league version, that pacing oneself is prudent in March as well as June or July.
“One thing that I’ve noticed is that once Spring Training starts, is you have to really differentiate,” Williams said. “It’s not the offseason anymore as far as your workouts and your throwing. We’re not in season yet, so you really have to watch and listen to your body and see how it responds. There’s no reason to burn out in the weight room on March 18.”
This might surprise some who only know Williams from his active social-media persona, but he’d definitely classify himself as an observer at this relatively early stage of his Pirates career.
“What I’ve learned in my few big-league camps is to just observe guys who have been here before,” Williams said. “Guys who have a lot of dirt on their cleats, per se. It’s one of those where you’re always trying to watch. You’re always trying to learn more.”
Being a sponge as a default is all well and good, but in a camp where the oldest pitcher (George Kontos) is 32, there’s more responsibility for the zero-to-six players to help each other along, too.
If one happens to have, say, some recent high-leverage lessons to pass along, then all the better.
“At 25 I have a lot more experience than most guys my age do,” Joe Musgrove said. “So I’m coming over here, trying to be part of a young core building something really special, but coming over with a little bit of experience that I’m willing to share. But by no means am I coming over here thinking I’m the experienced veteran that has nothing to learn.”
Like any habit, though, a person must take ownership of it, regardless of how much outside input is accepted. Getting back to the self-possessed Bell, he’s usually going to be proactive in searching for solutions to his problems, but he’s bullish on the Moran plan being a long-term answer for the annual springtime quest of catching feelings.
“It’s 100 percent better than last year,” Bell said. “Feel like I’m controlling the zone the way I’d like to, especially at this point in camp. Couple more weeks to go, but I feel I’m in a better place.”