By Yoo Jee-ho
SEOUL, June 11 (Yonhap) -- As a free agent for the first time this past offseason, Tyler Saladino chose a guaranteed playing opportunity with the South Korean club Samsung Lions over a minor league deal in his native United States with a chance to make the majors.
The 30-year-old utility man, though, stumbled out of the gate so badly that he almost cost himself that precious opportunity in the Korea Baseball Organization (KBO). Through his first 14 games, Saladino was batting .128/.209/.231, with one home run and two RBIs.
But he's been a different player since, hitting safely in 12 of the next 15 games to raise his triple slash line to .273/.387/.466. Saladino now has four home runs and 17 RBIs.
In an email interview with Yonhap News Agency on Thursday, Saladino admitted he was pressing too much earlier in the season.
"My struggles in the beginning were a classic example of overthinking and entirely losing focus on the baseball," Saladino said. "For years now, I have tried to keep my priority on seeing the baseball as early as possible and making good decisions at the plate. I had lost focus of that in the beginning, but have been doing a better job of that as of late."
Saladino said once he stopped thinking too much, he began swinging the bat much better.
"I believe the majority of this turnaround is due to just clearing out a lot of unnecessary thoughts while at the plate and allowing myself to focus on the ball," he said. "That has helped see the pitches better, which translates to more understanding of the pitchers. And it helps with confidence as well as other things needed at the plate."
Batting below the Mendoza Line after the first 14 games of a 144-game season may not seem to be such a big deal, when considering how much baseball is left at that point. But import hitters like Saladino face a different type of pressure to produce immediately than homegrown ones.
For one, there is only one foreign position player on each of the 10 KBO teams, and most of them bat in the heart of the order, with teams looking to them as the main RBI guys. While the Lions signed Saladino more for his glove and defensive versatility than hitting, he was still being counted on to produce on offense. Expectations were such that Saladino batted either third or cleanup in seven of his first eight games.
The hot seat in which Saladino found himself became practically scalding on May 30, when the Kiwoom Heroes released Taylor Motter, a utility type player in Saladino's mold who had also been struggling at the plate. If Motter was gone, could Saladino be far behind?
Incidentally, Saladino went 3-for-4 with three RBIs that same day to raise his batting average from .193 to .230. He hasn't fallen below .200 since.
"I am fully aware of the pressures to perform. I added that on to my struggles in the beginning and that made it that much harder," Saladino said. "I am very thankful for the constant encouragement and patience of our coaching staff during my struggles. They trusted that things would come together and constantly supported me, which I believe helped turn things around so quickly."
Saladino acknowledged he also put some pressure on himself whenever the Lions games were broadcast live back home via ESPN. The U.S. sports cable station singed a deal to carry six live KBO games per week, and the Lions have received a ton of early exposure.
"I just wanted to represent my family, friends, fans and everyone back home well and make them proud," Saladino said about playing before the ESPN audience. "But winning the ball game and staying focused on the right things is more important. So I don't think myself or the guys change whether the game is on ESPN or not."
Even during his slump at the plate, Saladino's defense never deserted him. He has appeared at first base, third base, shortstop and left field so far. He filled in for injured shortstop Lee Hak-ju at shortstop at the start of the year. Since Lee returned, Saladino has mostly played the two corner infield positions.
Saladino, who played every position except catcher and pitcher over his 326-game major league career, said it's difficult to pick his favorite position because, "I just really love playing baseball so if I'm on the field, the position doesn't matter."
"The biggest challenge I would say is making sure you have room in your equipment bag for all of your gloves," Saladino quipped.
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