You'll swear you're reading about a dozen different players when you check out the bio of Toronto Blue Jays Performance Coach Steve Springer:
• Was initially cut during his first year of junior college, eventually earned a whopping three at-bats as a college freshman
• Has 34 years of experience in professional baseball and more than 14 years of playing experience, including 11 in triple A
• Didn't start on his high school team
• Was less than five feet tall and less than 100 pounds as a high school freshman
• Made his MLB debut with the Cleveland Indians in 1990 and was also called up in 1992 with the New York Mets
A man well-traveled in the world of baseball, Springer has personally been through the ups and downs of what is a very unique experience in the game. We caught up with ‘Spring’ to chat about how he’s helping hitters of all ages perform at their best.
IP: So what exactly is your role with Toronto?
Right now I’m the mental coach for the Blue Jays. I work with all of our guys on the mental aspects of hitting. It sounds great and everything, but I promise you that no one ever thought I would be doing anything in baseball!
When I was a freshman in high school I was 4-foot-11, ninety pounds. I got four at-bats all year, and the only reason I made the team was because my brother was our star player. By the time I was a senior I was 5-8, 140 pounds, the smallest senior in high school. I had a sophomore take my job, so I didn’t play. My brother Gary went to Golden West Junior College [Huntington Beach, California] and was all-state. I wasn’t recruited by anybody. I had nowhere else to go so that’s where I went too, and I went out for their summer team and got cut. I mean, my brother’s all-state and I can’t make the team as the first base coach?
Three days later I was home watching Oprah with my mom not knowing what I was going to do, and my brother came home with a uniform because three guys quit. I was a 19-year old freshman in college, I got three at-bats the whole year.
Fortunately I grew four inches when I was 20 years old and I went from second-string second baseman to an all-conference shortstop, and I ended up playing 14 years of pro baseball, 11 in triple-A. I played in 1,591 games and had 1,592 hits. I ended up getting two hits in both [the American and National] leagues in the big leagues. I was sort of a ‘legend in the wrong league,’ but for what I was when I started, I’ll take that career.
I don’t want to mislead people; I was always a good player, I was an all-star when I was 11 and 12, but I just didn’t grow an inch from then until when I was 15. I grew nine inches in high school. I would stress to coaches that if you’ve got an undersized kid with some skills as a freshman, that’s the guy you keep around.
IP: In addition to working with one of the MLB’s most potent lineups, you also work with youth players regularly. What is your message to parents?
If you asked me whether I could teach 100 12-year olds or teach their parents, I’m going to take the parents every time. They’re their kids’ number-one coach. Parents would die for their kids, but they throw little mental daggers to their kids and absolutely sabotage their sports careers.
Baseball is the biggest self-esteem-destroying sport in the world. The seven-year old that makes an error already wants to cry, and the other team is cheering, and then he has to ride home with us parents. So for one error, this seven year old who just wants an ice cream gets beat up several times.
I get more e-mails from parents about ‘little Johnny is great in the cage but he freezes up in the games.’ I call those folks and I tell them that someone has turned their little kids into perfectionists, so get ready for the kid to quit when they’re 13.
IP: How do you teach your ‘process’ in such a numbers-driven game?
Batting average is the biggest trap in the game. We can do everything right and go 0-for-4. You might hit three on the screws right at guys, and baseball says you fail. I beat the pitcher, the pitcher knows I beat him, his mom knows I beat him, but I lose confidence because my batting average went down. It’s a trap and it makes no sense.
I will never ask a guy to ‘get three hits.’ I’ll ask you to be the best competitor on the field, with the attainable goal to hit the ball hard and help your team win.
My whole thing is changing what we think success is. We’re all good when we’re confident, right? So the question is, how do you create confidence? When I have it I’m good, but when I don’t have it I’m not very good. It’s about attainable goals, daily goals, hit the ball hard, you win. Help your team win.
This is where it gets really hard. When you go 0-for-4, and then 0-for-4 again, now you’re 0-for-8 and all of a sudden it’s about ‘getting your hits’ again. I’ve got a new game, new pitcher, new hero tonight and I’m letting that guy [who is 0 for his last eight] play tonight, mentally speaking. If you like your abilities and they’re not showing up, it’s not your ability’s problem, is it?
This is why I like the ‘opening day’ mindset. Every day is opening day. Nobody in the history of the game has ever walked to the plate on opening day with negative thoughts. Why? Because they have no yesterdays beating them up.
IP: What is the best way for hitters to ‘keep it simple?’
I teach a multitude of major league all-stars and I talk to them the same way I talk to 12-year olds. That’s the best thing about what I teach. Anytime you ask me a question, it goes back to the mental side of things. You’ve got all these stats, sabermetrics, WAR, OPS, and until you can push a button and tell me how many times a guy was walking up to the plate with confidence versus how many times he went up there without it, the numbers are skewed. We’re blending the .220 hitter with the .340 hitter, we’re blending the .220 hitter with the guys who get it.
The batting average has no brain, it doesn’t know who’s walking up to the plate. There’s not a confident A.J. Pollock batting average and a non-confident A.J. Pollock batting average, it’s one number, and it doesn’t care who shows up.
I’m trying to help these guys hit .300 by getting the right player to show up. I give you permission not to be perfect, I give you permission not to get three hits. However I need you to be the best competitor on the field with the attainable goal to hit the ball hard and help your team win. I’ve had that exact conversation 1,000 times with the guys who call me.
Ninety percent of a quality at-bat is how you feel when you walk up to the plate. It doesn’t mean you get three hits every game, it means you’re the right guy to be playing.
IP: How does your spiritual life help you as a baseball instructor and role model?
I spent 11 years in triple-A and I’m like, ‘really God? 11 years?’ I feel he put me through that to do what I’m doing now, which is helping dads and their kids. God blessed me with a couple call-ups and now when I speak, I give my testimony and let everyone know that God is real, and he loves you. It’s not like I’m Billy Graham or anything, but when you grasp God’s grace, it’s pretty cool to just think about it.
I don’t mean to come off as ‘holier than thou,’ but there are so many analogies between baseball and the Christian walk. We beat ourselves up over yesterday’s games and over yesterday’s sins. I’ve got anew game, new pitcher, new hero every day, and I’ve got the same God every day, and he forgives me. We think we need to get a hit to have success in baseball, and we think we have to be perfect to be a Christian.
IP: For all intents and purposes, you’ve ‘been there, done that’ as a player. How does that impact your coaching style?
I can’t spell ‘psychology’ but I teach it. I learned from the school of hard knocks. I’ve gone 1-for-20 thirty times, I know what it feels like. I know what it feels like to go 10-for-20, 12-for-20. I did it, I felt it, I touched it.
I didn’t come out of the womb with this stuff. I learned from Clint Hurdle, who was a former teammate and my manager for two years. I learned from Tommy McCraw, who taught me how to watch a game, how to hunt pitches. Way too many hitters try to hit fastball, curveball, slider, changeup 0-0 and they’re not ready for anything. Is it easier to hit one pitch when you know it’s coming or three pitches when you don’t? If I tell you ‘here comes a fastball, 100 percent’ and you can’t put a good swing on it, then go play soccer.
I’ve been scouting my whole life and I’ve written down ‘this guy’s got a bad swing’ maybe three or four times. They’re all got good swings, or good enough. The approach, the confidence, the pitch recognition, the competitiveness, those are the things that can be worked on.
There’s no exact science to this game, it’s why there’s 40 rounds in the draft. It’s why guys drafted in the first round can’t get out of A-ball and it’s why guys that don’t get drafted spend 10 years in the big leagues.”
That’s the beautiful thing about my story; I was the baseball-version of Rudy. Now I’m teaching everyone from 12 year olds to major league all-stars how to compete.
Steve Springer was a clinician at the 2012 ABCA Convention. You can go to www.ABCAvideos.org
to watch the video of his presentation. For more information, visit qualityatbats.com
and follow @qualityatbats