Upon further review, Yoenis Cespedes wondered aloud this past week if maybe giving up golf was having a negative effect on his early performance at the plate. For somebody who apparently loves stepping up to a tee box as much as digging into the batter’s box, this late-April revelation shouldn’t be surprising.
Plenty of major-leaguers share Cespedes’ affection for golf, and also play regularly — most often during the offseason. But the Mets’ slugger seemed to be the only one to come under intense scrutiny for doing so, primarily because of injuries loosely associated with his pregame rounds on the golf course.
In 2015, Cespedes was spotted playing at Chicago’s Medinah Country Club the morning before Game 4 of the NLCS against the Cubs, and an otherwise harmless round became something else when he had to leave in the second inning that night because of shoulder soreness.
The following year, Cespedes found himself in the media’s crosshairs again — and drew criticism from his own general manager — when he spent one August morning on the links and later aggravated a bothersome quad muscle in that night’s game against the Yankees.
Sandy Alderson famously described the latter incident as “bad optics,” regardless of whether or not that golf outing directly contributed to Cespedes’ injured leg. The hyperactive setting of the Subway Series didn’t help, either.
But what if Cespedes speaks the truth, and golf truly is a positive influence on his offensive production for the Mets? Through his first 24 games, presumably without his links-related therapy, Cespedes was batting .214 (21-for-98) with a .666 slugging percentage and 41 strikeouts to go with five homers and 23 RBIs.
Is it possible that putting away his clubs for the season was a well-intentioned mistake? There is evidence to suggest that may be the case.
Take the Yankees’ Aaron Hicks, for example. Hicks grew up playing golf before baseball, has a handicap around 1, and figures he makes it to the course up to five days a week during the winter. Once the season begins, however, it’s not unusual for Hicks to visit a driving range to help straighten himself out at the plate if things feel a little off.
“When my righthanded swing gets in a funk, I’ll go hit the range,” Hicks said. “It gets me back on track. I think it just helps me with direction, being able to stay long through the [strike] zone, and being able to keep everything compressed.”
Speaking at his Yankee Stadium locker, which usually has a putter or two leaning in the corner, Hicks illustrated how his golf swing impacts his baseball version, bringing the upper half of his body through the ball, then extending his arms fully around.
“I think the direction helps being able to go up the middle,” Hicks said. “I think that’s what kind of gets me going.”
When Hicks believes he’s in the need of some golf-related maintainence, it’s not usually too extensive. His time at the range usually involves hitting 30 or 40 balls, about the number in a medium-sized bucket. And Hicks tends to go when the team is in California, particularly in the Los Angeles area, where he can golf with his dad.
Twins manager Paul Molitor, a Hall of Fame infielder who finished with 3,319 hits and a career .306 average, recalled the occasional golf outing during his playing days, but didn’t make much of a connection between his swing on the fairway and the one in uniform. Molitor also remembered the “mythology” from back then about golf potentially hurting you at the plate, making it more of a pitcher’s pastime during the season. As someone who has played with Hicks, he wasn’t surprised to hear the Yankees outfielder using the golf swing as a way to tune up at the plate.
“You ever see him hit a golf ball?” Molitor said. “It’s impressive.”
Inside Molitor’s own clubhouse, Brian Dozier actually mined the mechanics of his lifelong golf habit to greatly enhance the slugging dimension of his baseball swing. During his 2011 season at Double-A New Britain, Dozier played golf one day with his hitting coach, Tom Brunansky, who averaged 26 homers during his six-year tenure with the Twins (he finished with 271 over 14 seasons). While on the course, Brunansky marveled at how Dozier, then a light-hitting infielder, was crushing the smaller, dimpled white ball.
“Golf was the start of what unlocked my swing to where it is to now,” Dozier said this week in the Bronx. “[Brunansky] noticed a couple things, how I fired in golf but didn’t fire the same way in baseball, with my hips and all that kind of stuff. That was kind of the setting point to changing my swing and to start developing more power.”
It didn’t happen overnight. Dozier hit a total of 16 home runs in 365 minor-league games at a rate of one every 101 plate appearances. But once Dozier reached the majors, his power numbers began to climb, from 18 homers in 2013 (in 147 games) to 42 three years later (in 155 games). To date, Dozier has homered for the Twins once every 23.7 plate appearances.
While Brunansky’s concept was simple, basically getting Dozier to be more explosive with his lower half, the transition took time. As Dozier explains it, he had to completely reboot how he thought of himself at the plate, despite his familiarity with the critical aspects of his golf mechanics.
“My [baseball] swing at the time was more of an old-school, foot down, not really get off the back side contact — a spin hitter,” Dozier said. “Rather than . . . why am I not firing and wham at the ball like I do in golf? So when [Brunansky] saw that on the golf course, we completely changed from top to bottom. That was kind of the start.”
During his childhood, Dozier, 30, picked up a golf club at the same time he did a bat, around the age of 4. Aside from those transformative years with his swing, when the two sports merged in the cage, Dozier mostly keeps the two separate, other than maybe a Pebble Beach outing with teammates during the West Coast trips.
Come winter, however, Dozier says his clubs get plenty of use, and he fully understood why Cespedes would want to make golf part of his regular routine again. Dozier remembered that Jim Thome told him how he would take a club with him on the road and hit balls in the cage before games. In retrospect, it worked out pretty for Thome, who retired with 612 home runs and a .956 OPS in earning this year’s election to the Hall of Fame.