Cubs duo aware of 'sophomore jinx'
MESA, Ariz. -- Gordon Beckham doesn't pretend it wasn't scary. Any major league baseball player coming off a great rookie year would be lying if he said he didn't think about it.
From Mark Fidrych to Steve Sax to Joe Charboneau to Kerry Wood, the expression "Sophomore Jinx" has become almost a jinx in itself.
"When I didn't meet expectations, I kind of panicked," said Beckham of his struggles last season. "It was like 'Why am I not doing what I'm supposed to do?' "
Geovany Soto and Randy Wells place themselves in the sophomore slump club and any advice they might offer Cubs' teammates Tyler Colvin and Starlin Castro, both coming off standout rookie seasons, is tempered by the fact that it's obviously not that easy.
"Obviously you want to do great," said Soto, the 2008 Rookie of the Year and the starting National League catcher in that year's All-Star game. "I wasn't doing so well that next season and all of a sudden you're in a little bit of a hole and you're kind of new at this and you don't know how to take it at first so you try to get out of it. But the pressure keeps adding and adding."
In June of '09, it was revealed that Soto had tested positive for marijuana at the World Baseball Classic, where he represented Puerto Rico the previous March, and was banned from playing internationally for two years. He ended up missing a month of the '09 Cubs' season due to injury and batted .218 with 11 homers and 47 runs batted in, after .285, 23 and 86 that magical year before.
"Especially when you're young and coming up to the big leagues, you want to impress. You want to do good to stay here," Soto said. "There's so much competition, you finally get here and all of a sudden you have a good first impression and then comes the second year and you think 'OK, I'm really legit, I'm good.' Then you kind of struggle for a little bit and you panic and you can fall."
Wells is sort of a borderline sophomore jinx qualifier. Yes he went 8-14 with a 4.26 ERA in his first full major-league season after finishing 12-10 with an 3.05 ERA his rookie year. But he still had 18 quality starts last season, second-best on the team. He also, however, went 11 starts without a win, going 0-6 with a 5.76 ERA during that period, and only hopes he has figured out how to stay focused as he fights for a spot in the starting rotation.
"I don't think the game changes from year to year," Wells said. "But I think when you have success in a big market like Chicago, a lot of people want to get their hands on you, whether it be endorsements or appearances or signings or stuff like that.
"For a young guy who hasn't made a whole lot of money in his career and especially guys who have families and stuff like that, when people throw dollars or endorsement stuff in front of your face, it's tough to say no."
Last summer, Wells suddenly found his name in the paper practically every time he dined out or went to a club. Once, he had to fight off reports that he was out late the night before a start. And because of his success his rookie year, he said it was tough to know how to remedy what was going wrong on the field.
"Greg Maddux talks about whether he won a game or not, he'd want to sit down and look at the things he did wrong and I never did that," Wells said. "So when things started going wrong, I never knew where to turn or how to dig deep."
Wells vowed he won't make the same mistakes, starting with the outside opportunities that obviously distracted him.
"I don't do anything like that anymore. I just kind of try to stay in a shell," he said. "This game is short-lived and right now, this spring training is a sign of that, going from winning 12 games to now fighting for a job. You've got to prioritize what's important to you and where your focus needs to be.
"Some people deal with it better than others but for me, it was trusting in who I needed to trust and knowing who was looking out for my best interests rather than everybody calling and saying, 'Hey, do this, do this.' So I made some changes."
Colvin said outside forces won't be a factor for him after his first full season in the majors, when he clubbed 20 home runs and knocked in 56 runs.
"Last year I did a couple of things but I did it on the off-days and beyond that, there's no reason for me to do anything right now. I'm going to focus on baseball," Colvin said. "It's fun to go out there and do stuff and have people love you and like to watch you play. But at the same time it's your business and you have to be ready for the game and you can't be worried about that stuff." For Colvin, who is seeing action at first base in addition to right field, that means becoming even more of a student of the game.
"Everyone says it's a game of adjustments and it is," he said. "Pitchers will figure you out but you need to figure out the pitchers as well. I could see how some people could get complacent and just be excited that they got here, but you have to keep working at it and figure out what got you here in the first place."
Castro tied for fifth in Rookie of the Year voting last season as the Cubs' 20-year-old everyday shortstop, batting .300 with 41 RBIs in 125 games, and said it took the help of his "big brothers" on the team to keep him on an even keel.
"It's not easy," he said. "The preparation is very hard because in your first year, when you have a slump, you think too much and the veteran guys talk to me all the time. They tell me, 'Hey, you're good, take it easy, don't be crazy.' I know a little more this year because of last year, and I will try to do better."
After visiting his family in the Dominican Republic during the offseason, Castro said it only made him more dedicated to continuing what he started.
"I have to focus, concentration on my game, only my game," he said, "and think just baseball because it's my work and helps my family have a good life."
Beckham is a true non-qualifier for the sophomore jinx, though that's not what it felt like when he batted .200 in his first 65 at-bats last season after being named Rookie of the Year in '09 while hitting .270 with 14 home runs and 63 RBIs.
"It was a really tough first half mentally for me," he said. "I was mentally spent."
In retrospect, he said he can't be sure what caused the slow start.
"Sometimes there's a lot of other factors involved -- pressure you put on yourself, expectations people place on you," he said. "When I didn't meet those expectations, my mind started racing. And that's part of being a young guy in the game and not really realizing it's such a long season that you have to just kind of take the emotion out of it for right now at least. And that's something you learn the older you get."
Beckham ended up hitting .310 in the second half of the season with a slugging percentage of .497.
"I worked really hard but it just didn't work, it didn't work, it didn't work, and we finally got a feel in the cage late in June," he said. "It was just frustrating and the only way you can get out of it is to pull yourself out. People can say 'You're going to be OK, you're going to be OK' but until you pull yourself out of it, until you believe it to your core, it's not going to happen."
Melissa Isaacson is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.