Scottsdale, Ariz. -- As most ballplayers struggle through the repetitiveness of spring training and seek diversions to keep their minds off the stress of roster cuts and position battles, Colorado Rockies minor league outfielder Mike Tauchman stands out. Introspective, Tauchman carries an air of soft-spoken intensity, as I found out walking up to him in the club's locker room just a day before he was eventually reassigned to minor league camp.
The outfielder, who slashed .294/.355/.381 across 507 at-bats last summer for the Double-A New Britain Rock Cats, has flown under the radar to get to this point in his professional career. Drafted by the Rockies in the 10th round in 2013 out of Bradley University, the lefty is a career .294/.370/.393 hitter in 255 minor league games. He comes complete with a good eye at the plate (double digit walk rates until he fell just short in 2015), and good contact skills (just a 12.3% strikeout rate last summer), despite little power (a career .763 OPS with just seven home runs over his first three pro seasons).
Nevertheless, he's moved quickly through the Rockies' system, jumping from short-season ball to High-A Modesto, and then again to the pitcher-friendly Double-A Eastern League last summer, where he finished eighth in the league in hitting. Along the way, he's found that the significance of physical skills may paradoxically decrease as the mental side of his game becomes more and more important.
"I started to notice last year, at this point there’s not a whole lot of mechanical or physical changes to make, because if you did, you wouldn’t be at these upper levels," Tauchman told me about knocking on the door of the big leagues. "It’s really just refining your approach, doing what you need to do to be mentally locked in when that pitch is thrown. The minute you lose focus is when a ball gets hit in the gap and you’re not really ready for it, or you’re not quite on time for the pitch you want to hit, so you foul it back instead of hitting it."
"The competition is too stiff to miss those opportunities," he added. "The majority of ways I have tried to grow as a player in the past year have been from the mental side."
Obviously, being in big league camp until nearly the end of spring training provided Tauchman with unlimited opportunities to grow—from experiencing big league and Triple-A pitching in Cactus League games, to simply observing his teammates in the clubhouse, where the outfielder found his locker nearby big leaguers Carlos Gonzalez, Brandon Barnes, Mark Reynolds, and Ben Paulsen.
"Any time you can watch and learn from guys who have established themselves and put together multiple quality seasons in the big leagues, you want to be able to pick up anything you can," Tauchman admitted. "Whether it's preparation, mental approach, or any physical things that they do with their game that could help you. It’s really positive to have, especially in the outfield group, guys who have had a lot of success at the Major League level to watch and emulate."
Of course, it's not just teammates that are showing Tauchman another level of professional baseball; the thoughtful Chicago native had his eyes opened to a new level of competition this spring, and it showed in Cactus League stats. He was just 4-for-26 in 20 spring games on the big league side, slashing .154/.267/.231 with a triple and a stolen base. As he should at this pointin his appra, though, Tauchman took it as a learning experience.
"There’s never any let-up," Tauchman admitted about Cactus League play. "Everybody in big league camp has Major League talent, so every at-bat you need to bring your A-game or else the at-bat is going to be over pretty quickly. You have to make sure you’re locked in from that first pitch, because chances are you’re only going to get one pitch to hit."
With all this talk about preparation and focus—Tauchman harped on it more than most, but literally every player this month has talked to me about "consistency," or "finding a rhythm," or other related ideas—I decide Tauchman might be the perfect guy to expand a little on why psychological preparation is so important and, at least for him, exactly what that focus explicitly entails.
He didn't disappoint.
"I think it’s very important to establish a routine for yourself, where down to the minute you know what you’re going to do," Tauchman explained about what it means to seek consistency in baseball. "If it’s a seven o’clock game, what time you get to the ballpark, what time you’re in the training room, what time you get early work in."
"In batting practice," he continued, "how many swings do you take? What do you do in your rounds? How you prepare for the game defensively, with your arm, and with stretching? It ought to be as down to the minute as you can be. Just so you can tell yourself, 'this is what I do now, this is what I do now, and this is what I do now,' so you don’t let your mind wander and get off topic."
The outfielder seems like quite the creature—maybe on some level prisoner—of his own habits. But then again, it's clearly been working for him in the minor leagues. If mental preparation to that level of intensity is what it takes for Mike Tauchman to hit around .300 for a fourth consecutive professional season, who are we to argue with that?