At one point, Matt Hague apologized for his reluctance to dwell on his numbers, for harping on the need to avoid complacency. Sure, he’s having the season of his life. But that’s the point. Baseball can be a cruel master. As soon as a hitter takes anything for granted, the law of averages drops in for a reckoning.
In his Yankee days, Paul O’Neill went nuts on people who talked about his hot streaks. Hitting a baseball is one of the most difficult skills in sports. The best hitters can’t allow themselves to think it’s getting any easier. It’s when things are going well that you learn to remain silent.
But Hague’s statistics can speak for him. The Bisons’ veteran corner man is having one of the finest offensive seasons in franchise history. Entering Wednesday night’s home game against Syracuse, he was leading the International League in batting (.346), on-base percentage (.431) and hits (124), all by a fairly wide margin.
Hague was second in the IL in runs (52), RBIs (61) and doubles (25). He was third in at-bats (358), already enough to qualify for a batting title. He’s well on his way to becoming the Bisons’ third batting champ of the modern era; he has a shot at breaking Dave Clark’s modern record of .340, set in 1987.
“I don’t really pay much attention to it,” Hague said in the home dugout, four hours before the game. “I guess it’s an accomplishment so far. It’s still a long season, though. If I start focusing on the stats, it takes away from what I’m trying to do, where I get a little too overanxious or excited.
“Once you play baseball that way, it usually has a negative effect,” he said. “You get too complacent. I think you have to have a day-by-day mindset. When you start thinking about that stuff, it takes away from it.”
This isn’t an entirely new phenomenon. Hague has been one of the best hitters in the minor leagues for awhile. As of Wednesday, he had a career batting average of exactly .300 over 896 minor-league games, and a sparkling .375 on-base percentage. Those are the stats of a proven professional hitter, a guy who understands his craft.
The first three and a half months of this season were a hitter’s dream, though. It’s no wonder Hague doesn’t want to talk about the numbers. You don’t want to offend the baseball gods. Hague had an on-base streak of 37 games – the longest in the IL by nine games this season – broken on Tuesday, when he went 0 for 5.
Hague bounced right back Wednesday, drilling an RBI single to left in his first at-bat. He also got a hit in his second at-bat for his 40th multi-hit game of the season.
A hitter has to stay humble, no matter what the numbers say. Hague turns 30 next month, but he says you never feel you’ve truly arrived as a hitter. You’re constantly evolving.
“The big thing for me is I keep learning about myself,” he said. “I guess when I fail, I try to learn from it.”
So what are some of the lessons he’s learned this season?
“Feeling where my body’s at on a day-to-day basis,” he said. “It’s mechanical and mental. Let’s say, knowing what the pitcher’s trying to do, if he’s throwing a sinker or slider. I’ve learned that if I fail the first at-bat, he’s probably going to do the same thing the next at-bat.
“So I try to take advantage of my failure and turn it into a successful at-bat.”
Hague, a native of Bellevue, Wash., is a big favorite at Coca-Cola Field. His at-bats are events. He’s a hustler and a smart baserunner, an approachable guy with an upbeat attitude. On his Twitter account, he describes himself as ‘future husband of Erica Wise.’ He and Wise, a Louisiana native, are scheduled to be married in New Orleans in November.
“It’s going to be fun,” Hague said. “I’ve been there a couple of times and every time I go there, I don’t want to leave, because I’m a big food guy. I love food and there’s some amazing food there. I didn’t like spicy food until she got me hooked on it.”
Perhaps it’s no coincidence that Hague’s finest season, one that could result in an MVP award, came after he became settled and happy in his romantic life.
“I think so,” he said. “It helps you get your priorities straight. She kind of opened my eyes to my faith a little. When you get those two things, I guess it makes life easier and gives you a simple focus.”
Hague says he loves Buffalo, especially the food. But when you’re hitting .346 in Triple-A, it’s hard not to think about the big leagues. He doesn’t dwell on it. But he talks often with Chris Colabello, who hit his way out of Buffalo early this season and hasn’t stopped since; Colabello is hitting .324 in Toronto.
Why couldn’t the best hitter in the IL do the same? Well, the Jays don’t need a first or third baseman. They’d also like to see more power from a corner infielder. Hague has only seven home runs. He played his way onto the Pirates’ opening day roster in 2012 by hitting for power in the spring. But he didn’t produce in the real games.
Hague had 70 at-bats with Pittsburgh early in the 2012 season. He batted .229 without a home run and was sent back to Indianapolis.
“My first start was against Cliff Lee and my second was against Clayton Kershaw,” he said. “I remember the first at-bat against Lee. Carlos Ruiz was catching and my knees were shaking, I was so nervous. Ruiz goes, ‘Hey, Poppie, step out a second, take a breath.’ That eased me a bit.
“You have to learn from it. You see it all the time, guys getting better the second time around. It’s a comfort thing. You’ve got to grind through it and have fun while you’re doing it. Ultimately, we’re playing baseball. We’re little kids running around out there.”
The question is whether Hague will get a second chance in the bigs. He’s not confident that he’ll be called up to Toronto in September. There’s talk that his next stop could be in Japan. Still, with Major League offense at its lowest level in two decades, you have to think there’s a place for the best hitter in the IL.
“There’s 30 teams out there,” said Bisons manager Gary Allenson. “If it’s not the Blue Jays, it could be somebody else. It’s tough to hit .350 in the International League, and he played two months here in this weather. You can’t tell me that everybody in the big leagues is a better hitter than he is.
“It’s not possible.”