There’s a hitting area just off the weight room at the Dodgers’ spring training complex in Phoenix — seven netted batting tunnels with a roof and a long wall, fake turf and L-screens everywhere. At 8:30 on a chilly February morning, it’s a cave of activity. Catchers work on their pitch-framing at one end; at the other, hitters chat with coaches before taking hacks.
Then a ball explodes off a bat in Tunnel 4, and they all go quiet. A catcher steals a glance from his crouch. A hitter stops and stares. A couple of coaches line up along the netting behind home plate. Corey Seager, the 22-year-old All-Star shortstop and reigning National League rookie of the year, is putting in work.
His swing is already legendary around here; the efficiency with which Seager deploys his most lethal gift is profound. Power hitters are often famous for the violence of their swings, the high leg kicks and viciousness of force through the ball. Seager is the antithesis. There are no grand movements. His head is perfectly still, his back elbow perpendicular to his sinewy body. There’s a small toe-tap, a wide yawn of a step, a mass of controlled action ready to be unleashed forward. Seager’s left-handed swing is like the undercurrent of a river — liquid and beautiful and deceptively powerful, the source of its strength invisible to the naked eye.
Coach Shawn Wooten zips a ball underhand from behind a screen, and Seager pulls it toward a massive metal pole that’s holding up part of the roof. A resounding boonnnng echoes through the cave. Wooten zips another ball. Seager drills the pole again.
There’s meticulousness to this preparation, intensity to Seager’s focus. But the practice is the product of fear. There exists an aching worry inside Seager. Last year he produced one of the greatest offensive seasons by a rookie shortstop: 26 home runs, 6.1 WAR and a slew of Dodgers franchise records. All that for a guy who stands 6-foot-4, is north of 210 pounds and happens to play one of the game’s most demanding defensive positions. But he worries that 2016 will be the high point of his career, that pitchers across the majors will suddenly figure him out. He sometimes finds himself thinking about a packed Dodger Stadium — 56,000 in the stands, millions more watching on television — and then he imagines himself failing. Seager spent the offseason honing his swing with his baseball-playing brothers back home in North Carolina, yet when he stepped into the batter’s box for the first time this spring in Phoenix, there was a split second of doubt. He wondered whether he could still hit.
It’s a great motivator, this fear. After every underhand toss from Wooten, there’s a pause, a recalibration. Each movement is reconsidered. Seager thinks about how his body felt when he pulled back in anticipation of the pitch. Where were his hands? What were his hips doing? He retraces the path of his 34-inch, 32-ounce Marucci bat to that ball. Wooten pulls out his cellphone and takes a photo of Seager as he sets up in the batter’s box. They study it. Wooten underhands the next pitch.
Forty minutes into the session, Seager grabs the hem of his long-sleeved shirt and wipes his face.
He helps pick up the 108 balls he has hit and fist-bumps his coach. He then heads toward the clubhouse. Stretching on Field 3 begins in 30 minutes, followed by fielding drills and batting practice.
That’s right. The kid hits before he hits.