TORONTO – Typically in years past, an 0-fer night would have sent a frustrated Colby Rasmus directly into the batting cage for a couple hundred swings, the centre-fielder determined to immediately identify and correct the flaw that led to a sub-par performance.
Often he’d work to the point of exhaustion, beating himself up throughout an exercise incredibly self-destructive, both physically and mentally. Over time those habits became increasingly detrimental, to the point that the Toronto Blue Jays identified them as factors behind his second-half collapse last year.
All that is why this year the 26-year-old is working hard at not working so hard, on trying to let things go, on not looking at every bad game as reason to tinker with his swing. Under the close watch of hitting coach Chad Mottola, Rasmus is learning to work smarter, and to leave a difficult past behind.
“Physically it’s been good, physically and mentally,” Rasmus says of his adjusted routine.
“Coming from where I came from, I didn’t know how to work, really, and Motor knows that. I would just always be balls to the wall instead of pacing myself because Tony (La Russa, the former St. Louis Cardinals manager) would always say, ‘You’ve got to play every game like it’s the seventh game of the World Series.’ I didn’t know how to tone it down for the 162, you know?
“I was always getting whipped like that horse going round the track, so it was hard for me to learn how to do that.”
In trying to help him break free of his past patterns, Mottola has tried to “educate” Rasmus on the things that make him successful at the plate, so when he does work in the cage, he’s focused on specific keys, rather than swinging away in search of an answer.
They don’t have a set routine in terms of how many rips he takes on a daily basis, but his workload is closely monitored. Monday, for instance, Rasmus didn’t take batting practice on the field, because he’d already done enough in the cage.
A frequent message Mottola delivers is, “Don’t let the result dictate how you work the next day.”
“Workload gets a lot lighter for him when times are good, and that’s what I want to make sure of, that when times are bad, that he just doesn’t work, work, work,” explains Mottola. “We’re trying to pay attention to the things that get him going good, so that he gets a little bit more educated in hitting than going and swinging for hours until, OK, there it is.
“We’re trying to educate him a little more on why things are happening.”
It’s a message Rasmus is receptive to, but one he sometimes still struggles to accept. After a bad game, he says, “instinctively I want to go and take 200 swings just to make myself feel better, so I can sleep at night.”
Asked why he can’t simply forget a rough night and move on, he replies: “I was never able to look at it that way. St. Louis was very result-oriented, if you go 0-fer, you didn’t play the next day when I was a rookie, so it was instilled in me when I was 22 years old and I didn’t know no different. I just tried to listen to what they say and do it, sometimes good, sometimes bad.”
As a result, Rasmus never fully trusted a batting stance, a swing, an approach at the plate because every 0-fer made him adjust. Combined with the burden of expectation on him in St. Louis, where he was a first-round pick in 2005 and projected as the next great Cardinal, it made for a very difficult way to play.
“That’s why I haven’t been as good as people thought I should be,” he says bluntly. “From the time I was this big (he puts his hand just above his knee), I was working to get here, pounding protein shakes, working out when I was 10 years old, running sleds, pulling weights I shouldn’t have even been pulling, and trying to get here.
“Then I get here and it’s like you can’t even enjoy the game because it’s so, got to do it. You can’t just enjoy being here, being around the teammates and stuff like that. I say that because now it’s better for me, here I’m definitely better. I still got some demons in my head I’m trying to get out, but that’s just part of it, part of things that scar you along the way.”
In some ways Rasmus’s prodigious talent left him in a position where no matter what he does, it’s never good enough. Even in Toronto, pundits and fans point to his faults as a player and yearn for an upgrade, ignoring all the positives he brings to the table.
Consider that heading into Thursday’s play, Rasmus ranked second among all big-league centre-fielders with 13 homers, third with 36 RBIs, fifth with a slugging percentage of .474, eighth with an OPS of .793, and eighth with a Wins Above Replacement of 1.9.
For more than two-thirds of baseball Rasmus is an upgrade, yet people look at him and keep expecting more. It’s why he struggles to define what success is for him.
“I’ve always had a problem with that, everybody always saying that I should do this and do that,” says Rasmus. “I would always try to tell them I am who I am, and I just try to play hard and have fun. But they didn’t like that answer. La Russa didn’t like that answer. He’s like, ‘This ain’t fun, we’re trying to win.’ And to me, it never made sense.
“All the people in St. Louis were like, ‘You should be doing this, you should be hitting .300 with 30 every year.’ If I’d go 0-for, they’re just, what was he doing today, or call me in the office. I never could let it go. When I’d get home, in the morning I’d wake up and the mailman would come at me and say, ‘You need to be hitting the ball the other way.’”
What Rasmus has learned to do is better evaluate what makes for a good game. It’s no longer strictly about the numbers in the box-score, but the processes within each at-bat and each game that determine how he assesses a given performance.
“Hell yeah, no doubt about it,” he replies when asked if the way he judges himself has evolved.
“I just try to tell myself that if I worked hard, and got ready mentally for the game, I was prepared, my body was prepared and tried to make some good plays in the game and tried to be in the game, focus on what I’m trying to do and tried hard, that’s all I can do. Like (Monday), I felt really good going into the game, swing felt good, body felt good, running-wise, everything. (Jorge De La Rosa) struck me out twice but he made some good pitches.”
Put all together, Rasmus is as comfortable as he’s ever been in the big-leagues.
“I’d say so, I definitely feel good, I feel like I want to come to the field and I want to help this team win,” he says. “I don’t feel like I’ve got to get myself ready to get four home runs, steal five bases and rob three home runs.”
The Blue Jays don’t expect or need him to do that. They need him to keep being kinder and gentler to himself, and let the production, even if it’s steady and not spectacular, follow.