Orioles' Trey Mancini learning from failure to rediscover his best self in second half

Jon Meoli
Contact ReporterThe Baltimore Sun

Trey Mancini has the words almost committed to memory, two months after they flashed across his cellphone screen in one of the darkest moments of a season full of them — “right in the thick of it,” as he’d call it.

It was after a Saturday matinee with the Miami Marlins, a game in which he’d slammed his helmet in frustration after having a game-tying hit taken away from him on a ball up the middle to end the inning. By then, a scowl had become part of his uniform. His sister, Katie, tried to change that.

“You know I always knew you’d make it,” she wrote below a pair of pictures of an 8-year-old Mancini in a red Little League uniform. “Even when you were this age. You’re broken right now, but you have a chance to rebuild yourself. You didn’t come this far to only come this far.”

Mancini, 26, can rattle off many moments from the hardest four months of his baseball career as inflection points to the turnaround that has taken him come close to regaining his standout rookie form. He bottomed out by batting .216 at the All-Star break, but entered Friday having brought that up nearly 30 points thanks to a second half in which he hit .301/.333/.534 with eight home runs in 37 games.

And with six weeks of games having been played since his low point, Mancini’s vantage on where he’s been is one many around the Orioles would’ve hoped he’d arrive at when he got out of his funk.

“When the offseason hits, I’m going to look back at this year, and I hope I’ll be extremely appreciative for what happened, but it doesn’t change how hard it was,” Mancini said. “I don’t wish it upon anybody. I do think it’ll help me in the future for not letting things spiral out of control again. But I lost total feel for my swing, what I was doing. I just wasn’t able to make the adjustment. For some reason, since the All-Star break, I just got some confidence back.”

That moment against Miami on June 16 was just one of many when it became clear to everyone watching the Orioles — players, coaches, fans and family — that Mancini wasn’t the player for whom things came easily as a rookie last season. Few in the Orioles clubhouse had even seen him like this before.

Austin Wynns, who roomed with Mancini in rookie ball when they joined the organization in 2013, said he watched similar struggles early in 2014 at Low-A Delmarva. Then, Wynns said Mancini dug himself out of it through sheer force of will.

“He didn’t venture out to talk to people,” Wynns said. “He likes figuring things out on his own, because he got to this point. He’s a born hitter.”

Said Mancini: “I didn’t handle it well, at all. I just kind of kept it boiled inside, and it was tough. But that’s what the minors are for. It’s for learning how to break out of things, and what works for you.”

Yet save for those early struggles, and a stumble after he was promoted midseason that year to High-A Frederick, Mancini did nothing but hit his way to the majors, then hit when he got there. He batted .293 with an .826 OPS and 24 home runs last season. So when he got off to a slow start — then banged his right knee into an unpadded section of wall in foul territory down the left-field line at Camden Yards on April 20, just as he was heating up — there wasn’t much to draw from.

“I was pretty open about it,” Mancini said. “I talked to people, seek advice, but at the end of the day, you’ve got to be the one who snaps out of it, and I did not do a good job of that. It’s funny, looking back just at how tough it was — it was sometimes hard to get up and get your day started, just because it weighs on you. I care about this more than anything. It sucked. It really sucked.”

There wasn’t much he could do about it, either. He only missed a couple of days with the knee injury, and nothing was structurally wrong but Mancini said it “created some bad habits.” Specifically limiting his ability to stay back in his stance and keep his weight loaded, causing him to be out in front of the pitch too often and cause weaker contact.

When he did hit it well, it found plenty of leather, and often in big situations. His batted-ball profile from this year to last year is almost identical — the only thing that’s changed is his batting average on balls in play (BABIP) was down from .352 to .284 entering Friday.

As his frustration against the Marlins took hold, he had just come off a stretch of a month without a hit with a runner in scoring position. It finally boiled over that night, manifesting itself in his sister’s message.

“She said it just broke her heart to see that,” Mancini said.

She wasn’t the only one. A few weeks later, in between games of the Orioles’ July 9 doubleheader against the New York Yankees, catcher Caleb Joseph could “just sense Trey might need a little pick-me-up.” Mancini had appeared to be turning a corner the previous week, then another regression came.

“I basically just reminded him how good he was at baseball,” Joseph said. “What he did last year in his first year was worthy of Rookie of the Year votes. He made it look extremely easy, and it’s not that easy. I just tried to remind him that he’s an above-average major leaguer, no matter what, [and] that dealing with failure is just as important as dealing with success at this level.

“It’s just more times than not, you’re going to have failure. You’ve just got to be able to learn how to deal with it. I gave some tricks about trying to help him find ways to have little victories “

No positive was too small, whether it was sticking with his approach and spitting on a tempting, nasty pitch that would have taken him out of the zone, finding a few barrels, or even a couple of good swings in batting practice.

“As hard as it is to do, that helped a lot,” Mancini said. “That was his main message, take something positive out of every day.”

That message was reinforced over the All-Star break, when Mancini got almost a full week away. He didn’t leave Baltimore, though, because he’d been trying to find time to meet up with Mo Gaba, a young Orioles fan who has been through three battles with cancer and taken on a special meaning to many of the team’s players.

As the baseball world was bustling down the road in Washington for the All-Star Game, Mancini and Gaba spent a day together and had his outlook change.

“At the time, I wasn’t feeling so great about myself,” Mancini said. “Seeing him and hanging out with him that day, it did put things into perspective and it helps to realize there are so many things in life that are bigger than baseball, too. It kind of makes your struggles seem like absolutely nothing. I remember going home that day and thinking, ‘What am I doing being this miserable?’ ”

Once play resumed in Toronto, he put that into action. The second half began with a two-hit day against the Blue Jays, but an 0-for-4 showing followed.

“I remember going home to the hotel room that night,” he said. “Normally, I’d probably just lay down and think about the game and all this stuff, and I just kind of was like, ‘You know what? You have another game tomorrow. We had 66 games left at the All-Star break, so we had 64 more left. What are you going to do? There’s still time to salvage the end of this year and show your team and everybody that you’re the player that they think you are.’ That kind of, I think, helped to almost have that bad game right off the bat.”

The positive momentum built from there, in no small part because of the confidence that came with results. Hits seemed to be finding patches of green instead of gloves, and before their eyes, the frustration that puzzled so many evaporated.

“I think that since the All-Star break, I have seen a noticeable change,” outfielder Mark Trumbo said. “I think a lot of people have, and I think it’s allowed him to kind of refresh a little bit and move on from some of the at-bats that don’t go his way. He can’t cling onto those any longer than is absolutely necessary, and I think in the first part of the year, they’d linger a little longer than he would have liked.

“I think that’s going to be the next step for him. I’ve tried to talk to him about it, and so have [hitting coaches] Scott Coolbaugh and Howie Clark, as well. This game is so full of failure, he’s going to get better at dealing with it, and it’s going to help him as a player. When you’re in your first couple of years, him being in year two now, there’s not a lot of breathing room. At some point, it’s going to get a little easier for him.”

The results of his change in mental approach have coincided with a healthy knee, and he’s making more authoritative contact and hitting the ball to center and right-center field more often.

“When Trey is going really well, he’s able to power the ball to right-center field,” Joseph said. “It doesn’t mean he hits every ball there, but when he’s going good, he hits the ball to right-center field, and it’s got some thump on it. For me, you know he’s starting to feel really good when he does that, and he’s done that the past couple of weeks or so. But he’s a guy that doesn’t miss many good pitches over the plate. As those misses go down and turn into solid contact, that’s when you know he’s starting to come back around.”

Said manager Buck Showalter: “I can’t tell you in the last month, how many times he’s gone up there with a strikeout or maybe a weak at-bat, and next thing you know he’s got three or four hits. That doesn’t surprise anybody that knows Trey.”

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