Each time Cameron Maybin strolls toward home plate, a battle between reason and temptation is being waged. While he steadies his stance, he reminds himself where he wants to hit the ball: between second base and the second baseman, safely up the middle.
“But my subconscious,” Maybin said, inching close and intensifying his voice, “that little guy, he’s like, ‘Well, what if he hangs a slider? You could get him.’ ”
Reason tells him that if he tries to go deep he’ll probably swing at a poor pitch, fly out and be angry at himself for half an hour.
“ ‘Dude, you got some power, though,’ ” temptation replies. “B.P. was crazy. You could get him.”
Maybin, 30, has been waging that tug-of-war at the big league level for a decade. Only in the last three seasons has reason regularly won. As a man, the kid once touted as a true five-tool player has become a prototypical leadoff hitter, running the bases more fervently than ever while eschewing homers for walks.
“I’m just trying to stay away from that guy,” he said of the evil voice.
Physically, as an athlete, I was ready. But mentally, the mental fortitude that you need to have success up here is very important.
Maybin debuted at age 20 in 2007, as the second-youngest man in the majors. He started the season in Class A ball and earned an August promotion to double-A. After he hit four homers in his first six games, Detroit called him up. When he arrived at the old Yankee Stadium, Tigers coaches asked him to stand up taller in his stance to unlock additional power. He did as requested and homered off Roger Clemens in his second game.
“See, I told you,” he recalls two coaches telling him.
The rest of his season didn’t go so well. Maybin batted .143 over 24 games, hardly played in September and was sent to Florida in a blockbuster trade for Miguel Cabrera.
Baseball America still had him as the sport’s No. 6 prospect the subsequent spring. Clayton Kershaw, on the verge of making his major league debut, was No. 7. But while Kershaw’s ascension was steep, Maybin’s was unsteady.
“I would love to say that I never went back to the minor leagues after I first came up, but I was a baby,” Maybin said. “Even mentally, from a maturity standpoint. Physically, as an athlete, I was ready. But mentally, the mental fortitude that you need to have success up here is very important.”
In his speed, size and willingness to heed coaching, Maybin sees much of himself in Byron Buxton, Minnesota’s center fielder and a former No. 2 overall pick. Last month in Anaheim, Buxton changed his batting stance three times in a four-game series, and Maybin was flooded by memories of his own struggles as he observed.
“I feel for that kid, watching him,” Maybin said. “Somebody’s gotta get him an approach. Just get on base, man. You’re such a freaky athlete.”
Maybin wishes he had been given smart advice a decade ago. Instead, he recalls a minor league coach pulling him aside during his first spring training, telling him the Tigers did not draft him 10th overall to bunt for hits.
“I’m like, ‘I weigh 185,’ ” Maybin said. “ ‘What do you mean?’ ”
When he came up, Maybin modeled himself after Gary Sheffield, then a 38-year-old Tiger. Every at-bat, he tried to homer to straightaway center. Singles and stolen bases weren’t priorities, and he tweaked his loading mechanics — the body movements that set up a swing — after extended homer-less stretches. Nothing stuck.
“Hitting .240 is not fun, especially when you’re a good athlete and you can affect the game in so many ways,” Maybin said. “It makes for lonely days, hitting .240, a lot of frustrating nights and days. It came to a point where I just had to make a change.”
The change began in October 2014 in the Dominican Republic, spurred by a local hitting savant named Luis Mercedes.
“He was the first guy that changed my life, helped me to understand my load,” Maybin said. “It was crazy. I’d been playing for so long, so many hitting coaches, and I was just so raw.”
His understanding improved the next spring, when San Diego traded him to Atlanta and Braves hitting coach Kevin Seitzer retaught him how to hit. Since then, Maybin has a .350 on-base percentage.
In conversation, Maybin goes back to Buxton, a fascination of his. Maybin and Angels teammate Ben Revere had an extended discussion about the 23-year-old this week in Minneapolis, after Buxton used one of his uncanny tools — speed — to rob Maybin of a double.
“I hope he’s lucky enough to get with somebody like I got with Seitzer, who was able to sit down with me, explain to me that I could have a lot of fun at the highest level,” Maybin said. “I would love to talk with that guy about some things that I’ve learned the last few years that have made the game unbelievably fun.”
I’d say how David Ortiz was to the Red Sox, the vocal leader he was, Cam is the same way with us.
Maybin speaks of his abilities with reverence. “If you look around the game, I’m one of the best athletes in Major League Baseball,” he said.
His self-regard does not bother his teammates because he also showers them with praise. When Andrelton Simmons answered a question about his exclusion from the All-Star Game because of the crowded American League shortstop class, Maybin shouted from across the room: “You’re the best shortstop in the … game, and you should be there!”
Maybin always stands at the figurative center of the Angels’ clubhouse. He is a boisterous presence, capable of assuaging dismayed teammates with his indefatigable energy.
As the Angels packed their bags for a trip to Texas last week, two hours after Yunel Escobar had been ejected from a win at Minnesota, Maybin looked at him and flung his hand in the air in disbelief, the same displeased motion Escobar made at umpire Doug Eddings to earn ejection.
Escobar looked at Maybin, who just grinned. Escobar let himself smile and did the motion again, to Maybin’s laughter.
“I’d say how David Ortiz was to the Red Sox, the vocal leader he was, Cam is the same way with us,” Revere said. “No matter how many runs we’re down, he’s still saying, ‘Let’s go, guys!’ No matter what, he’s that vocal leader. Every team needs that, and that’s what he is to us.”
Right-hander Jesse Chavez, who, like Maybin, is new to the Angels this season, noted that Maybin offers interpersonal skills the club previously lacked. Kole Calhoun, Chavez said, is a leader, but in a quiet manner.
“Being on the other side and watching this group, they had it; it was just one person needed to bring it out,” Chavez said. “I think that is what this clubhouse needed. Everybody is as great as they already were, and then there’s a little bit of fire from where he came up with other guys. Meshing clubhouses together makes a winning ballclub.”
With a record of 45-47, the Angels are not a winning ballclub. But in six weeks without Mike Trout, they won about as many games as they lost, and that qualifies as a win.
The players are aware there will be trades if they fall out of the wild-card race before July 31. Maybin has enjoyed being an Angel and believes the club can qualify for the playoffs. But as a veteran of five trades, two of which were salary dumps, he also understands he could be a prime commodity.
“If somebody sees something they like in me and wants me, I’m thankful for that,” he said. “Things happen. One thing I do know is that this is a business. Another thing I know is that I’ve been a part of the business end of it quite often.”