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St. Louis Cardinals spring training

St. Louis Cardinals infielder Patrick Wisdom takes batting practice during St. Louis Cardinals spring training on Wednesday, Feb. 15, 2017, at Roger Dean Stadium in Jupiter, Fla. Photo by Chris Lee, clee@post-dispatch.com

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. • Almost two years ago, when he was adrift at the plate in Class AA, Patrick Wisdom returned to the Cardinals' facility in Jupiter, Fla., for 10 days of intensive work to overhaul his approach.

He's back at the scene of the demotion this spring.

But he's come to show off his swing, not fix it.

Wisdom, now 25, has been one of the revelations of spring, earning additional starts like today's at designated hitter because of his production. The righthanded-hitting third baseman with a feel for first is seeing the culmination of work that started with that 10-day demotion back in 2015. He returned from it to Class AA to hit .309 in the next month with seven homers and 23 RBIs in his next 25 games. That was good enough to win the Texas League Player of the Month Award, but he wasn't consistent enough to get ahead.

In 2016, Wisdom hit .233 with a .374 slugging percentage, and the third baseman with lofting power hit only five homers in 262 at-bats. A hamate bone injury that required surgery further limited him.

The 52nd overall pick in the 2012 draft, Wisdom arrived in pro ball at the same time as Michael Wacha (19th overall), James Ramsey (23rd), and Stephen Piscotty (36th). Not only has he seen his peers move ahead and reach the majors, the next wave of position player prospects -- Harrison Bader, Magneuris Sierra, and Paul DeJong -- have caught him. They may even steal playing time from him at Class AAA Memphis.

The frustration from last season and urgency from the roster pinch all around urged him to make some changes -- and not just with his swing.

Wisdom sat down for a conversation with me about them in this, a Prospect Q&A from Cardinals spring training:

***

Derrick Goold: I remember talking to you as you were searching for your swing, even back here in Jupiter, Fla., a few years ago –

Patrick Wisdom: I think you caught me during the (Arizona) Fall League.

DG: That’s what it was. Do you see your swing right now as all these years in the making?

PW: I would say that’s fair. It’s where was when I was in (Class AA) Springfield and had those three good months. Player of the Month and everything. It’s like that’s where it is right now. The key is just to repeat it.

DG: Those three months came after the time down here to reset, right? Who was that with?

PW: George Greer. (Cardinals minor-league offensive strategist.)

DG: The idea was to have this real simplification of your swing, and improved balance.

PW: Right. It was just how we changed my hands a little bit – how you grip the bat – and then we focused more on what we call a ‘power line.’ Staying linear. Instead of trying to hit the ball to the left-field foul pole, you’re trying to hit the ball over the batter’s eye in center field. It kind of gives the swing more of a direction, and you can generate your power in that direction rather than generating it toward third base.

DG: And if the pitch is in a location to pull, then you pull. The power is there for wherever the location of the pitch is …

PW: Exactly. So if you’re, say, always more directed to center you have the ability to hit the pitch that is in and hit the pitch that is away with power in that direction.

DG: When you say changed your hands, what do you mean? Did you physically change how you gripped the bat?

PW: Yeah. I used to kind of – well, I would say, I choked the bat. Deep in my hands. So we put it more in my fingertips. Which gives you more of a feel.

DG: So, instead of in your palm, it was in your fingers?

PW: It gives you more control. Everybody is different how they grip the bat. It can be such a minute difference, right? You look at Mike Trout, he’s a little different than Miguel Cabrera. It is definitely whatever fits for you best. It worked for me. I know when I start to struggle I now check my hands and where I’m gripping the bat. We’re all human, and you want instant results. So you change something just to fix things immediately when you need to stick with it.

DG: That’s something that you can talk to any hitter about. If you’re going to make a change, you have to commit to it, and there are going to be hard times.

PW: Of course. When I changed my hands – and George can attest to this – my hands were physically bleeding. It was so new. I wasn’t used to holding a bat that way. I was taking so many swings, so many repetitions, that I started getting blisters and those started bleeding. It is what it is. It really did work out.

DG: Are swinging through the blood?

PW: I was down here for 10 days so I wanted to get the quality work in. I wanted to work. I didn’t mind the blood or the pain. So, it doesn’t even faze me anymore.

DG: When you first feel that bat in your hand, in your fingertips, do you feel like you’re loose, like almost with a fishing pole instead of strangling the bat?

PW: That’s a good analogy. It’s just different. You just feel a lot looser. I’m kind of at a loss for words to describe it because you hit the nail on the head. You see an immediate result, especially when you’re taking BP on the field. We took a lot of BP on the field, and that was where I could really see the ball and the ball-flight results. We’re able to see even on flips when you’re hitting home runs, like, you definitely see it translate on the carry.

DG: The one big step then is maintaining that swing. It seems like that is where you are now.

PW: It goes back to what I said, ‘We’re all human.’ We want to be perfect. We want to succeed then and there. As soon as something doesn’t go right, you just want to changing things. Once you start changing, you can lose who you were. That foundation that you had goes away. George had to remind me, ‘Hey, get back to what we were doing.’ It’s so simple. It really is. But it seems so far away. Especially when you’re playing in a game and you want to get a hit and you want to come through for your team.

DG: You’ve been in major-league camp multiple times, so do you feel this one is significantly different for you, that you’re better-equipped for it?

PW: Yes. Right. It started this offseason when I had a plan on what I wanted to work on, and I worked on it as early as November. Actually, even I would say October. I was working three days a week, I would say. It was able to translate into spring training, and after talking with (John Mabry) and Billy (Mueller) that’s it. You have it. Now it’s just being able to maintain it, like you said. Just make sure that I’m doing it every single day here. Every. Single. Day. You can kind of get away from it sometimes and then that goes downhill. If you keep getting away with that, it will catch up with you. Being able to work in there with them, with the things that I worked on in the offseason, being able to translate that into a game – all of that has really been good for me. Back to your question, I would say that coming into this spring training I knew what I needed to do. In the past you’re a younger guy, per se, so you’re just trying to fit in, go under the radar. You want to listen to what they’re saying and do what they’re saying, but you don’t want to be a problem. This one I feel a little older. I’ve been to big-league camp a couple of times. I know what to expect. I know how to go about my business. It’s just a lot different this year.

DG: What was this ‘plan’ that you put together?

PW: I reflected on the past season and knew what I struggled on – which was consistency and being able to generate a consistent swing. I spoke with George and we exchanged video back and forth with what I was working on down here before in 2015. We just created a swing that was easy to repeat. The basics that I knew what I had to do. It’s like a checklist – here are the things that I need to do.

DG: Do you call those keys?

PW: Right. Yeah, whether it’s a physical key or a mental key. They can go hand in hand. Those are the things that I worked on.

DG: Three days a week – so you’re trying to make that muscle memory.

PW: With failure, during the season it’s every day. You are trying to go out there every day and perform every day so it’s tough to work on something. You give a try and you fail and there’s no time so you throw it out the window. You move on to the next new idea. So, trying to erase the bad habits that I created for myself. I erased those and started fresh. I started super slow just to introduce the muscles to it, and then ramping it from there. The next thing you know you’ve done it enough that it becomes second nature.

DG: There’s a punch – punchier? is that the word? – punchier aspect to your swing then in the past. Maybe that comes from being more direct, or shorter to the ball. There were times when it looked like you generated power with a long buildup, and now it’s a punch.

PW: That’s another thing we worked on. You can take a lot of big-league hitters and see how short and compact they are with their swing, but also how long they are through the ball. Nolan Arenado is a prime example. He’s got a super-long finish. Or even Miguel Cabrera. But look at them and you see the point at which their hands are when the pitch is released to where the hands are when they make contact – it’s such a short distance. Being able to focus on that short quickness has really helped as well. It helps you see the ball longer. You don’t feel that you have the cheat. You’re not as anxious up there, feeling you’ve got to swing as soon as the pitcher lets the ball go.

DG: What was the driving force behind this plan? Was it frustration from last season? Was something outside of that? Was it where you are in your career, seeing what level you’re at and the level ahead what it takes to get there?

PW: There were quite a few, really. Frustration is definitely one. The past years of failure. Feeling like I never met my personal expectations and knowing inside that I was better than what I was putting out there. Being able to take a step back mentally. Being hurt last year really helped me step back and watch from a distance and really understand what I needed to do to start separating myself again. A lot of it came with a mental adjustment. I had to think differently, on the field and off the field.

DG: What does that mean?

PW: Confidence. Really. That’s what it comes down to.

DG: Less belaboring the negative, carrying them around every day, at the plate?

PW: With the game every day, if you struggle it can dwell on you. There are the sleepless nights and then you got to the ballpark the next day and it’s just the same feeling. Then you worried about facing the pitcher. It can spiral out of control on you. So being able to take a step back and mentally, I would say, reboot. I have a different mentality coming into spring training and going into the games and it’s about knowing that you can play at this level. You’ve played with the guys who are coming up each year and then you see them in the big leagues succeeding and you have to be like, ‘I want that.’ You have to figure things out. You self-reflect. You self-adjust. What do I need to do to do better?

DG: That was one thing I wondered. There were your peers, other players in your class of prospects and age groups, and you’ve seen some of the younger guys catch up and move past, and you’re at a spot in your career where there are so many different directions you could go. It does seem like there’s a moment here for you to, OK, define where you fit now.

PW: Exactly. It really was just a mentality thing. I had to not be so caught up in what everybody else was doing. I had to stop being worried about what everyone else thought of me, whether it be teammates, guys across the field, people in the stands. You can get caught up in that. There is a lot of chatter that goes on in the clubhouse, good and bad. You get caught up in that hoopla and you become self-conscious. Wait, I don’t want to be that guy. Wait, I want to get there. You have to stop listening, stop worrying, and really focus on yourself and what you do. In college and high school were you worried about what other people thought? It was like a chip on the shoulder when you saw the other team talk about you, and it felt good. Why not now? You want to be the guy in the clubhouse or on the field that’s not thinking about that. What gets you to the big leagues is what gets you to the big leagues. Find that. Look at the Carpenters, the Molinas, the Peraltas – anybody in the big leagues – and they weren’t worried about what people thought about them. They were there for one job: get a hit and get to the big leagues.

DG: That has to bring some calmness to you. You’re not going up there with questions that make you wonder. You’re going up there with a swing you trust.

PW: You’re going up there no matter who is pitching. It doesn’t matter who is 60 feet, 6 inches away because he’s going to throw it and you’re going to hit it. That is what it boils down to. If you can eliminate all those outside things. Yogi Berra said that it’s 90 percent mental. It truly it is. It truly is. I had to learn that.

DG: If you’re carrying a lot of these thoughts up to the plate –

PW: You’re defeated.

DG: -- right.

PW: If you’re worried about your stance or your hands or your swing in BP and how it felt or who is watching you or how you’re walking up to the plate or how you’re doing your batting gloves – all those thoughts can run through your head and you’re already defeated. The next thing you know you have two strikes on you and you don’t even know how it happened.

DG: So what are you now? When you go up to the plate, what are you thinking?

PW: I’m going to beat this guy. It’s a mentality thing. It really is. If you talk to successful guys in the big leagues they have a mentality, and it’s strong. You can see it the way they walk, the way they talk, the way they act, the way they work off the field. They have that mentality about their business and I’m grasping that idea now. It’s helping.

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