San Bernardino, California —— It’s taken two seasons under the hot Central Valley sun in Visalia, but Austin Byler has finally figured it out.
To say the Arizona Diamondbacks prospect has been through the ups and downs of pro ball thus far is an understatement. In his rookie summer with Missoula in the Pioneer League back in 2015, the first baseman slugged 42 extra base hits in 66 games, walking away with a ridiculous 1.058 OPS and postseason award imaginable. Two weeks after the season ended, though, he was suspended for testing positive for an amphetamine—the worst mistake of his career—which forced the University of Nevada product off the field for 50 games to start 2016 and upended all the momentum he had carried into pro ball.
When he finally got back on the field last year, splitting time between Low-A Kane County and High-A Visalia, Byler never got on track at the plate, slashing just .254/.320/.403/.723 over 83 games with 11 doubles and eight home runs in an underwhelming follow-up to what had been such a breakout rookie summer. Add to that a re-do at Visalia this summer which had Byler hitting just .199 as late as June 5, and in the span of less than 24 months the kid who couldn’t miss in Montana suddenly couldn’t hit in California. And at 24 years old, the clock was ticking.
I was at that June 5 game, ironically, where Byler’s 1-for-5 day bottomed out his batting average at exactly .199 with just a .310 slugging percentage. Here’s every at-bat he took that day on the road at Inland Empire:
If you’d have watched Byler play that day, you’d never know he was hitting below .200, because the first baseman couldn’t stop smiling and joking. I was jarred by it at the time — who laughs and smiles while they’re in a slump? But there was Byler and Visalia hitting coach Vince Harrison, laughing it up and needling each other back and forth like times were good. Now two full months later, I finally understand it: having fun, even when hitting a pathetic .199, is what redeemed Austin Byler.
“We have a relaxed culture here, and it’s huge, man,” Byler told Baseball Census during a late July game also on the road in San Bernardino. “It’s huge. If you go the park and you’re pressing, and the team is losing, and nothing is going right, it’s such a drag. But then you look around and you remember why you’re out here, and the coaches are having fun, and the players are having fun, and everybody is joking around with each other and enjoying each other’s company. Everybody starts doing better that way.”
One thing is certain: Austin Byler has been doing better that way.
In the last eight weeks since that June 5 visit to San Bernardino, the Arizona Diamondbacks prospect raised his batting average more than 50 points, going on a tear that has included 12 multi-hit games and pulling him far above the dreaded Mendoza line, and then some. Entering play on Thursday, Byler is slashing .250/.325/.393/.717—lower than he’d like, maybe, and almost identical to his slash line from a year ago, but when put in in the context of his brutally bad first two months it’s incredible.
Go back to that June 5 game, because that’s right about when the redemption took hold. Two weeks prior, Austin Byler had been taking it hard; forget about smiling and laughing, he was fully living the throes of a bad slump.
“Back in mid-May I was doing really poorly,” the Arizona Diamondbacks first baseman recalled. “I was down in the dumps and I wasn’t hitting anything, and all of a sudden it came to me that we have such a limited time to play this game, and we are so lucky that we do. I started to ask myself ‘Who do you play for? What do you play for? How do you go about each day?’ I love playing for my family, and seeing them come out, and that’s what it’s about.”
“I talked to my college coach on an off day about a week before that series [at Inland Empire in early June] that you came to, and we talked about two really simple things: see the ball as well as you can, and swing at your pitch,” Byler continued, remembering what flipped the switch for him. “If you swing at your pitch, odds are you’re going to have a good at-bat. Whether you leave the park 0-for-4 or 4-for-4, if you swing at your best pitch in every at-bat, you’re going to have a pretty good game. You did your best job.”
And so Austin Byler has crawled out of an unimaginable hole—in June, no less. It’s one thing to start the season slowly and overcome a tough few weeks, but to scuffle for two full months and then pull your way up out of it is commendable. Of course, that doesn’t mean there’s a Hollywood ending here. Byler is a first baseman, and first basemen must hit for power. He has four home runs this year. He hit eight last year. Take away that monster summer in Missoula and he has yet to put together even average power in full-season ball. And yet power will be what ultimately makes or breaks his career considering the role in which he finds himself.
“I understand the expectation is there, me being a first baseman, but I’ve honestly just stopped thinking about it, man,” Byler said of his slower-than-ideal power development. “If I go out there and play hard every game and give myself a chance to succeed in as many situations as I can, that’s enough for me. I’m fine with that. And so whenever my time is done, or if I go up, or whatever happens, I can look back and know that I gave myself the best chance to succeed when I was out there.”
“If you’re trying to prove things to other people, that’s when you start pressing, and that’s when things usually go south because you’re trying to hit a ball 600 feet,” he continued. “The less you really try in this game, and the more you relax, the more success you have, and it becomes fun.”
Even so, this is the California League, where dry air, windy ballparks, and short porches make it so that almost anyone can get their fair share. Why not Byler? He says all the right things, but let’s be honest — it weighs on him a little bit.
“It’s been a mental adjustment because all my life I was used to hitting home runs, and lately I haven’t been hitting any home runs,” he admitted. “And for a while I wondered, why? How do I get back to that? But honestly, I’ve come to realize that if I just have good at-bats, and play as a team player, all that stuff will end up taking care of itself.”
Consider that Austin Byler’s final frontier; the first baseman is solid in other aspects of his game, as tough as they come mentally and emotionally, and this year has proved himself able to make major adjustments to dig out of major holes. Should he ever produce impressive over-the-fence power, the Arizona Diamondbacks may have something here.
Beyond that, he’s already eyeing the bigger picture of what 2017 has been—and just like that June 5 day when he was all smiles hitting just .199, Austin Byler has finally discovered the right mindset: just keep finding the good.
“I’m a more mature hitter than I’ve ever been, and I think I’m a better hitter than I’ve ever been,” he said, smiling. “That’s a weird thing to say, right? It’s funny because you look at the stats from the outside and it’s like ‘better hitter? No way.’ But you look at it from a personal standpoint, and the things I’m focusing on at the plate now, I feel like I’m so much more equipped for this game right now.”
He smiled again, pausing to look around the field that was now empty after pre-game batting practice.
“I finally don’t feel like I’m pressing all the time,” he finished, almost letting out an audible sigh of relief. “And it’s allowed me to enjoy the game more.”