Senior Writer

Slow-starting players one of great, unsolved mysteries


TAMPA, Fla. -- Mark Teixeira bought a pitching machine over the winter. Justin Verlander kept a list of five bullet-point items tacked up in his spring locker. Troy Tulowitzki just shook his head and shrugged.

Each of these men has been an All-Star. Each has helped lead his team to a World Series. And yet each retains a permanent place on baseball's All-T.S. Eliot Team.

April, kids, can be the cruelest month.

They are the game's version of a guy battling the snooze button each morning. He knows it's time to rise and shine. But somehow ... he ... just ... can't ... get ... going.

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"I try to make light of it," Tulowitzki said one morning last week at Colorado's spring home in Scottsdale, Ariz. "But it sucks to be talking about that at this time of year.

"Every year I say, 'This is the year I'm going to have a great first month.' "

Yet nearly every year, April is Lucy yanking the football away from Tulowitzki's flailing Charlie Brown. His lifetime numbers in the season's first month are among the worst in the game for players with at least 1,650 plate appearances: .662 OPS (on-base plus slugging percentage).

"Last year I wouldn't consider a slow start," Tulowitzki said. "Maybe power-wise [one home run in 100 plate appearances], but my average [.304 over the first month] finally wasn't .200 at the end of April."

Talk about grading on the curve.

These are among the great, unsolved mysteries of modern life:

 What's the deal with Mick Jagger's hair?

 How can people persist in eating Rocky Mountain Oysters?

 And, why do certain elite players annually slog through April as if their cleats were coated in maple syrup?

Mark Teixeira's career batting average in the month of April is a paltry .235. (AP)  
Mark Teixeira's career batting average in the month of April is a paltry .235. (AP)  
Teixeira (.742 OPS in the season's first month) was batting .136 on the last day of April last year. Which was rough even based on his usual slow-starting standards (career April batting average: .235).

"I remember getting off to slow starts in high school and college," Teixeira said during a conversation at the Yankees' spring home in Tampa last month. "A lot of it has to do with the amount of work you do in the offseason."

Or more precisely, maybe what kind of training you do in the offseason. Specifically looking to actually start hitting when the schedule tells the Yankees to start playing, Teixeira overhauled his routine this winter, scaling back on his usual weightlifting program in favor of more swings in the batting cage.

"I'm spending 15 to 30 minutes more in the cage now because I have more energy to do that," said Teixeira, whose slow starts can be double trouble because, as a switch-hitter, he has got more to worry about at the plate than most.

The first step of his latest plan came when he moved last year. Now living about a 15-minute drive from Bobby Valentine's Sports Academy in Stamford, Conn., Teixeira purchased a pitching machine, donated it to the Sports Academy and then used the facility (and the pitching machine) sort of as his own personal gym this winter.

"It's all confidence," Teixeira continued. "If your swing isn't right and your bat is slow, you're not going to have any confidence. If you're strong and short to the ball, the hits will fall and you build confidence.

"That's what I'm looking for this April. I'm looking forward to it."

Verlander, too. Among those with a minimum of 350 innings pitched, his 5.06 ERA over the first month ranks among the worst in the game. His lifetime ERA from May 1 through season's end? A tidy 3.55.

Like Teixeira, Verlander is looking for answers to change the trend, starting with that to-do list in his spring locker.

"Every day I'll look at that list," he said last month. "They're just some things I worked on [last] April when things weren't going right. Things that helped me get to my May and June form."

One of the items was to bear down harder in each spring start, which he felt would sharpen his focus and help him spring forward more quickly (after starting 1-2 with a 5.53 ERA in his first five starts last summer, he finished at 18-9 with a 3.37 ERA).

"Trying to set the clock forward a month," he said, grinning. "To May."

Then there are those at the other end of the spectrum. As much grief as Dodgers center fielder Matt Kemp took for underachieving last year, you never would have guessed what was to come when he was crushing seven homers and collecting 20 RBI in his first 23 games in April.

That included smashing a home run in each of the Dodgers' first four home games -- a feat this spring he claimed to barely remember.

"A little bit," said Kemp, who, along with Tampa Bay's Evan Longoria, Texas' Ian Kinsler and the Yankees' Nick Swisher routinely is among the game's quickest out of the gate. "But I like to finish strong. That's the most important thing."

Kemp's career .312 batting average, .362 on-base percentage and .538 slugging percentage in April are his highest of any single month all summer.

But just as the slow-starters are at a loss to explain why they scuffle each April, Kemp has no tips to offer toward the secret of sprinting out of the blocks.

"Just play, man," he said. "Whatever happens, happens. It's really hard to explain. I just do the same thing every year. Stick with what got me here.

"Hopefully, I can repeat that, and then have six months like that."

Rare is the player who can do that.

"At the end of the day, it's your season that people look at," Tulowitzki said. "The whole season, not just a month or two.

"I remember talking with Albert Pujols in the outfield at the All-Star Game last year, and he felt he was playing just OK. He said, 'I'm waiting for that month when I get real hot and it makes your season.' "

Tulowitzki and his Rockies are famous for those months, and fast finishes. But that doesn't make those frigid first days of the season any easier to digest.

"I always remember being at first base with Adam LaRoche [another slow starter you'll find on the accompanying graphic] and it's a month into the season and we're both at .230, .240," Tulowitzki said. "And we're both standing there at first base going, 'It's early.' "

And that, too, is part of the gig. Once a guy has established himself in the league -- Teixeira, Verlander, Tulowitzki -- the awful Aprils at least become somewhat more tolerable when the backs of those baseball cards suggest better things to come.

"I always try and trick my mind and say I'm a fantasy player's dream," Tulowitzki said. "I always get love from my friends. They say, 'You won me my fantasy league championship at the end of the year!' "


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