It’s a story as old as the game itself. Rookie breaks camp with a major league club for the first time, crushing opposing pitchers. Boy Scouts find holes in a teenager’s swing set. Pitchers make adjustments to exploit weaknesses. Rookie finds himself in a long crisis.
James Outman is hardly the first, and he certainly won’t be the last player to zip up and down baseball’s childhood roller coaster. The Dodgers outfielder cooled off in May after winning the National League Rookie of the Month award in April when he hit .292 with a .991 on-base plus slugging percentage and has seven home runs, three Triples, 20 RBIs and 17 runs that lead in the major leagues.
In 18 games since April 26, the left-handed outman batted .193 (11 for 57) with a .619 OPS, one homer, four doubles, four RBIs, 27 strikeouts and six walks in a 9-8 12-innings win he didn’t start against Minnesota Twins right-hander Pablo Lopez on Monday night at Dodger Stadium.
“Absolutely!” Dodgers manager Dave Roberts roared when asked if it was inevitable for Outman to return to Earth after his hot start. “And the thing is, it’s happened to all of our boys. I could say the same about Mookie [Betts], and this is a superstar player. It’s baseball. It’s hard to hit.”
One particular pitch was the hardest for Outman to hit — he hits .118 (two for 17) on at-bats that end with fastballs in the strike zone.
“In the beginning I got spun around a lot, mostly with off-speed stuff and switches, and I think I subconsciously adjusted to that, so the fastball seems a little faster,” said Outman, who started Monday as He finished the evening game pinch-hitter and ended the 11th inning with a strikeout.
“Now I’m getting more fastballs at the top of the zone, and they mostly stay away from the low and away players. I’ve always hit fastball, so I think it’s one of those things that I’ll be fine with when I get back to it.”
Outman’s overalls are still good — he goes into Tuesday’s game with a .265 batting average with a .903 OPS, eight homers, eight doubles and 23 RBIs in 42 games — but his 52 strikeouts in 136 at-bats, a Whiff rate of 33.3%, are a minus point of concern.
According to Baseball Savant, Outman also has the lowest contact rate (61.0%) in baseball at 69.8% and the second-lowest in-zone contact rate — the percentage of throws in the zone that he hits.
“The quality of the bats is good — I think what happens is they throw him up in the zone and some borderline calls go at him down below,” Roberts said. “But I still think the intention to put up an attack is good.
“The results weren’t good, but that’s part of the game. I don’t think any of us expected this season to be totally linear and that’s okay. I know that every day he is prepared and will find his way out.”
To get used to the fastballs up in the zone, Outman may have to sacrifice some of his success on softer balls down in the zone, Roberts said.
“I think it’s one of those things where it’s difficult to cover the entire attacking zone, even front to back, so you have to split it in half,” Roberts said. “Sometimes you kind of have to commit to a ball up in the zone to get some stuff down. Pursuing both somehow is a difficult path.”
Roberts has seen no indication that Outman’s struggles have taken a mental toll on the 26-year-old, who was selected in the seventh round by Sacramento State in 2018.
“I think I have a good sense of the guys,” Roberts said, “and I don’t see any additional fear or panic.”
The fact that the Dodgers have 14 of 16 games left before Tuesday night’s game against the Twins to build a three-game lead in the NL West has eased Outman’s stress level.
“It’s a lot easier when we’re winning,” Outman said. “It’s like, ‘Okay, I had a bad day, but at least we won, we’re in first place.’ The tight games we lose and then I didn’t contribute are frustrating for me because I feel like I didn’t do my part. But I still feel positive and stuff.”