Understanding Lars Anderson: A study in baseball makeup

July 27, 2013 - 11:10 am

My phone buzzed a few days ago. Ryan Kalish was calling. '€œLars just got released.'€ That'€™s the way it works in baseball. When a family member goes down, we all hear about it. Ryan and I share Lars Anderson in common, Ryan as a longtime organization mate with the Red Sox and me as his 2007 manager at class A Greenville. Ryan and I also both count Lars as a dear friend. Ryan and I discussed how to approach Lars, to be supportive and to let him know how much we care. Lars, now 25, was ranked the No. 17 prospect in all of minor league baseball by Baseball America in 2009. As a pure hitter, he may have been No. 1. He was ahead of Dominic Brown, Eric Hosmer, Carlos Santana, Ben Revere and Desmond Jennings, just to name a few on BA'€™s list. As his manager, I identified him as a man who could take walks, repeat his swing, impact the baseball and drive it all over the ballpark and play average (for a major leaguer) defense at first base. He was a physical specimen who resembled a young Chris Davis in size and fluidity if not power. When I met Lars for the first time and extended for a shake, his right hand (Lars hits left-handed) dwarfed mine in the same way Alex Rodriguez'€™s did when I met him initially in Texas in 2001. Lars was inquisitive, often asking questions related to art, history and music. We talked about philosophy and our family history and how it shaped us emotionally and intellectually. Both of our fathers and my mother were active politically and had different values than traditional baseball families. Both Lars and I were taught to embrace life outside of baseball and to seek out answers rather than accepting reality as it was dictated to us. Our fathers both suggested a '€œquestion authority'€ approach to sports and life in general. Lars'€™ father in particular used to tell him, '€œPart of figuring out the boundary is stepping over it.'€ Though his manager (and 31 at the time), I actually related to Lars better than I did the staff members who shared the coaches'€™ room with me. Despite his evident gifts as a player, Lars was also astonishingly hard on himself. He had difficulty stepping outside of himself to recognize that he was performing beautifully. Perhaps this explains, in part, why I was able to relate to him. I had the same issues as I performed well in the minor leagues. In fact, as Double-A player for the Jacksonville Suns of the Southern League as a member of the Detroit Tigers organization, I had a .976 OPS and my wife often reminds me that from my vantage point, I sucked that season. I learned later as a big leaguer what the true definition of sucking was and longed for those minor league days. I understood what Lars felt like as he peered into a carnival house mirror. But Lars and I weren'€™t really alike. I had failed plenty growing up; Lars was always the best in class. He stood 6-foot-4 and weighed in at 215, and according to him, he got there quickly. I, on the other hand didn'€™t have a hair under my arms until I was 14 and looked up at all of my classmates until I was 17 when I finally started to grow. I was an average high school baseball player and barely graduated. All of my mental, physical and emotional development began after I left my LAUSD, city section school. Lars, on the other hand excelled at baseball and basketball through his senior year. His athletic prowess was evident at an early age. '€œBy the time I started playing organized baseball, it was pretty clear to me that I was the best player on the field every time I stepped out there,'€ Lars explained. Lars dominated in the classroom as well. '€œI was anywhere between a 3.7 to a 4.0, I really liked school,'€ he told me. And by the time he arrived at the Oakland County Coliseum for a pseudo tryout in 2006 where he grew up watching baseball, he was trying to chase his reputation down. The Red Sox had drafted Lars with their 18th-round pick in 2006. In order for Lars to sign, he '€œwanted first round money, which at the time was around $1,000,000.'€ The Red Sox weren'€™t prepared immediately to make that commitment and agreed with Lars to '€œfollow me around'€ for the summer before diving in headfirst. Part of Boston'€™s evaluation of Lars came in the form of an invitation to the A'€™s ballpark for a workout when the Sox were in Oakland for a series. I was playing for the Red Sox at the time and witnessed his introduction to the major league baseball environment. Before he arrived at the stadium, Terry Francona and Theo Epstein had given some of us the heads up that we would see an exciting, 18-year-old masher. They asked that we take good care of him and passionately awaited our feedback. What we witnessed was indeed impressive. Herein lies the moment of makeup evaluation on Lars Anderson. It was the corroborators'€™ chance to pay attention to Lars'€™ behavioral patterns, to draw conclusions about how he might handle a major league environment. It is one of the most difficult elements to assess in the toolbox of an athlete. It turned out that David Wells and Keith Foulke were throwing live batting practice sessions that afternoon and Lars would be joining me and a few other hitters against them. In my recollection, Lars consistently barreled up the ball, striking hard groundballs; his session culminated with the slashing of a line drive into the left field corner off of a surprised Wells. Lars remembers it slightly differently, acknowledging the bullet to left but illuminating the frustration with the groundballs he was hitting. '€œMy adrenaline was through the roof, so that was pretty cool,'€ he remembered, '€œbut I was pounding balls into the ground and fouling balls off. '€¦ That may have been a sign of things to come.'€ And it was. Lars was unable to see the forest through the trees and appreciate the fact that he, a teenager, had just been holding his own (at the very least) against a man that had thrown a perfect game at Yankee Stadium. This was also the person that I encountered the following year in Greenville. It was easy to identify his somatic gifts but something relating to his mental toughness was amiss. When I stepped back that year to write a report on him, I believed that the only thing that would stop Lars from becoming an everyday first baseman on a championship-caliber team was my inability to come up with an MLB comp for his emotional outlook. Josh Reddick, who hit in front of or behind him in the lineup, had an athletic attitude that I'€™d seen in every clubhouse I'€™d occupied. Josh thought nobody could beat him and if that they did, he'€™d win the next time. His was a self-fulfilling prophecy advantageous for a baseball player. For Lars, it seemed to work in the opposite manner. The Reddick/Anderson study has some implications beyond confidence and mental toughness. While there is no question that Josh was the most assertive hitter I had in Greenville that year, he didn'€™t have a traditionally '€œsmart'€ approach to hitting. He walked up to the plate, identified a ball he thought he could drive -- which was a pitch anywhere in the general vicinity of the state of South Carolina and at any speed -- and swung as hard as he could. We marveled as he got the sweet spot on balls at his eyes and shoe tops. And we often thought, when he whiffed on a ball in a similar location, '€œAt what point did he think he could hit that pitch?'€ But Red never changed that approach. He never wavered from the see-ball, hit-ball mentality that so many quality major leaguers utilize to keep their heads clear. I once asked Pudge Rodriguez after he crushed a home run to right-center field in Texas, '€œWhat did you hit, Pudgy?'€ My intention, of course, was to acquire some useful information for my upcoming plate appearance. Pudge told me and everyone else within earshot, '€œI don'€™t know.'€ He wasn'€™t withholding valuable intel, he wasn'€™t being malicious and he wasn'€™t joking. Pudge really didn'€™t know and didn'€™t care to. I fantasize about how good the hitters that fall in this bucket could be with the right amount of data in their back pocket and how to deliver said information to them. Alternatively and equally as fascinating is the notion of how good a guy like Lars could be without the burden of analytical thought. Anderson, in contrast to both Red and Pudge, was knowledgeable both on and off the field. His intelligence, coupled with his extreme curiosity, was a detriment to his ability to swing with conviction. Remove this mental boundary and his physical tools play like they did when he was a kid, when he dominated with size, strength and bat speed. He hadn'€™t yet failed at that point. He was always the best, a designation that became customary. The moment he failed, he began to call into question the reason for everything, began to tinker and in a sense, strangle himself with thought. To get his take on the matter, I asked Lars what has held him back, why he'€™s without a spot in any lineup let alone a major league one. '€œIn the most recent past, I don'€™t have the belief in my physical abilities,'€ he told me. He was specifically talking about his swing and expressed that he'€™s as good as he'€™s ever been -- if not better -- on defense. In fact, it'€™s Lars'€™ belief that his defense and hitting have flip-flopped. He now trusts his defensive skills and distrusts his offensive persona. From the outside looking in, I find this to be insane. I saw with my own two eyes the physical capabilities. I saw the spectacular swing path. I saw the brute strength. I bluntly asked him and he confirmed that he still '€œhas pop.'€ Men don'€™t lose it at age 25. The natural physical decline has not yet occurred for Anderson. Baseball players are almost never good self-evaluators. They are either, in the case of most superstars, too generous or in the case of players who get outraced by their potential, self-deprecating. This assessment, of course, is not a rule -- it'€™s pretty general, but I'€™ve witnessed it often in player development. At this point in Lars'€™ career, a major adjustment needs to be made. It'€™s going to take a lot of work. He'€™s going to need to practice as much on his mental game as on his physical. It will take focus and determination and a willingness to believe in his gifts in a way that he has yet to embrace. It'€™s time for him to '€œstep over the boundary.'€ If he wants to, Lars will find a spot to play this year or next. If he makes his way back, I'€™ll ask him about what propelled him. I expect to learn something applicable about player makeup, the mysterious variable that so often determines whether or not a players'€™ physical skill set is permitted to shine through, thereby enabling performance in harmony with ability. Gabe Kapler spent parts of 12 years in the major leagues from 1998-2010, playing for the Tigers (1998-99), Rangers (2000-02), Rockies (2002-03), Red Sox (2003-06 '€“ with a brief interlude in Japan), Brewers (2008) and Rays (2009-10). He also spent a year managing the Red Sox'€™ Single-A affiliate in Greenville. Follow him on twitter @gabekapler.