2/26/2013 1:56 P.M. ET
Zobrist finds feel at the plate -- and holds on to it
By Bill Chastain / MLB.com
PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla. -- Finding the feel is the goal of any hitter. Once found, the feeling can be fleeting unless the principles used to find it are properly ingrained.
Ben Zobrist found the feel last season.
Now he's hoping that what he found in June will sustain him in 2013.
Backtrack to the beginning of the 2012 season when the Rays slugger opened with a .205 average in April and followed that with a .202 average in May.
"You know the first couple of weeks of April you give yourself a break because it's the first weeks of the season," Zobrist said. "But after that I was scrambling a little bit just trying to figure out how to get my hands back to where they need to be and how to figure out my bat path."
With his average hovering just above the Mendoza Line, Zobrist looked for a lifeline. After going 0-for-8 in the first two games of a three-game series against the Yankees in New York, that lifeline began with a conversation about hitting with teammate Drew Sutton.
"Everything began to change so quickly after that conversation I had with Drew," Zobrist said.
New concepts in his mind, Zobrist began to try to implement them by doing early work with hitting coach Derek Shelton.
"We figured out what drills I needed to do to make everything happen, and it clicked from there," Zobrist said. "The rest of the season was just making small adjustments on that program."
Zobrist went 1-for-4 in the series finale in New York, then he took off when the team went to Miami for a three-game series that saw him go 7-for-11 with two homers, five RBIs and five runs scored. He hit .344 in June to raise his average to .252. Staying on track, he finished the season at .270 with 20 home runs and 74 RBIs.
Given the results of last season, Zobrist arrived at Port Charlotte feeling good about his swing.
"[Having an approach that works] certainly clarifies your brain and you don't have to think as much," Zobrist said. "For me, it's enabled me to do my work and kind of leave it there in the cage.
"To me, there's a peace of mind for sure. There's a peace of mind knowing what your routine is going to be and the feeling for what you're looking for is. How you plan to go about that."
Zobrist allowed that his approach incorporated a lot of different concepts all rolled into one, such as mental things, trigger points, swing thoughts, decision-making and mechanics. During the offseason, a great deal of effort went into preserving the feeling that had been created in 2012.
"I talked to him this winter about it," Shelton said. "He told me what he was doing in his work, that he still had the same feel. One of the hardest parts in maintaining that feel over the winter time is to stay within in his same drill work, because guys like to fluctuate with their drill work at times. The fact that he was able to stay consistent with it and maintain that feel, that feels pretty good."
Even when a hitter finds a feeling, Shelton noted that he won't always be able to hang on to it.
"You're going to go through stretches when you don't have it," Shelton said. "But I think the better you know yourself, and the more open conversations that we have ... because there are certain things that we'll see that they might not feel. Or they'll feel and we won't see. That's the communication which Zo does a really good job with."
Zobrist isn't exactly where he wants to be just yet as he prepares to depart to join the United States team for the World Baseball Classic. But he's close.
"There's still an element of the speed and the distance of seeing guys off the mound now and getting the rhythm and everything you need to get," Zobrist said. "But I know what kind of feel I'm looking for, and I know what it's supposed to look like."
And that's a good thing for the Rays.
Bill Chastain is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.