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James Wood isn’t trying to be perfect. He knows baseball won’t allow it.

James Wood isn’t trying to be perfect. He knows baseball won’t allow it.

Tooba Shakir 54 years ago 0 0

James Wood had been in the batting cage for almost three hours, but he wanted one more round. It was a January morning in Maryland, a few days before the Washington Nationals prospect was set to leave for spring training in Florida. He wanted to get this right.

Wood, wearing a white New York Giants T-shirt, blue sweats and white Nikes with a gold swoosh, stepped into the box. He took a deep breath after sending the last few balls into the batting cage netting. After each pitch, Wood looked down and tried to visualize where it crossed the plate.

“Where is that? Feels like it’s out there?” Wood said to Gerardo Caceres, who has coached Wood since he was 13, and Trey Lipscomb, another Nationals prospect. He pointed to the outer part of the plate after fouling a pitch off. “I’m like early, but I’m not.”

Wood is a 21-year old outfielder and a key part of Washington’s rebuild. He’s still developing, still perfecting his craft. He’s also still working on the mental side of the game, still learning that he won’t always get things right. A few minutes later, he whiffed on a pitch and stepped out of the batter’s box. He stared at the ceiling and let out a deep sigh. He watched three more pitches go by before hitting a groundball. After two more takes, he rolled his eyes and mumbled to himself, “That’s a strike.”

Wood fouled off one final pitch before he motioned for Lipscomb to take his place. Then he ambled behind the screen and caught his breath.

“It’s why baseball drives people crazy,” Wood said. “It’s hard, but I try not to [be perfect]. But it still happens. … I think here is where you kind of try and be perfect with your intent and your mechanics.”

‘It was never about his success or failure’

James Wood’s mother, Paula, can remember a day when her 9-year-old son wasn’t hitting well. His team was losing, so he went into a mental funk that he couldn’t shake, even after his squad came back to win.

Wood’s parents “lit into him” on the ride home, Paula Wood said. The way his mom saw it, Wood wasn’t going to play on the team anymore if he wasn’t going to be a good teammate. The next morning, Wood wrote an apology letter that he initially addressed to his parents and later sent to his coaches.

“I really should have been cheerful to my team when they were cheering me own instead of having a big bad attitude,” he wrote.

That letter still hangs on the refrigerator at the family’s home in Maryland.

“For us, it was never about his success or failure on the field,” Paula Wood said. “It was about your attitude about it and who you are as a teammate.”

Paula Wood said that’s when her son learned how his drive could work for him instead of against him. Now, Wood is preparing for his fourth professional season — and his second full year in the Nationals organization — hoping for a 2024 that meets his expectations.

Wood’s 2023 campaign was one many would envy, even if he felt he had inconsistent mechanics and didn’t put the ball in play enough. He smashed 26 home runs and drove in 91 runs with a .520 slugging percentage — all first among Nationals minor leaguers. His .874 OPS ranked second. He stole 18 bases. And he jumped a level from high Class A Wilmington to Class AA Harrisburg. If he continues to progress, he could be in the majors this season.

“There’s a lot I could improve on,” said Wood, whose laid-back demeanor often conceals his desire for perfection. “So I kind of just … I’m definitely happy about the year I had. But I still got a lot that I could’ve done better.”

The biggest knock on Wood heading into this season is a familiar one — his strikeout total. Wood struck out in 31.5 percent of his plate appearances. Critics have taken note, which is why he has fallen slightly on most preseason rankings. But he’s still the No. 2 prospect in the organization on most listings, behind Dylan Crews, the LSU outfielder whom Washington made the No. 2 pick of the 2023 draft.

‘Just trying to be myself’

Caceres, the coach who has worked with Wood for years, has noticed he is paying closer attention to details and not just relying on his talent.

“I’m going to be honest with you: I think he’s a freak superhero, that he is using only half of his powers,” Caceres said. “Because I don’t think he has been maximized yet.”

Wood spent the offseason watching video, trying to learn and improve. He wants to trust himself to let fastballs get deeper in the strike zone before he swings. Nothing can compare with game reps, but he tried to replicate what he could. Earlier in the offseason, Caceres set up a fastball machine and a breaking ball machine so Wood had to react naturally.

And in the cages in January, Wood tracked the path of each ball that left his bat. If he hit a fastball fair down the left field line, that gave him a sense of how deep he could let the ball get. The longer he can let the ball travel, the better he can adjust to spin. He also has made a few mechanical adjustments to load better with his hips, keep his weight back and stay inside the baseball.

“I’m still trying to drive the ball,” Wood said, “but just doing it under control. … Just trying to be myself, make it simple and as easy as it possibly can be for myself.”

Wood had dropped to 215 pounds by the end of last season. This offseason, he went to agent Scott Boras’s facility in Florida to learn how to put on and maintain weight. Heading into 2024, Wood is around 240 pounds. He hopes the change will allow him to take another leap.

“He’s always been obsessed with baseball in a different way than anything else in his life,” Paula Wood said. “So like his room? No. Like his uniform? No. But about the sport of baseball? Yes. And I think a lot of people miss it because it’s not how he is in other parts of his life and because of his demeanor. He’s got that laid-back demeanor, so people don’t realize just how dedicated he is to doing baseball the right way.”

Wood grinned as he reflected on the last time he fell short of his goals. He thought back to high school, when he faced the same critiques he faces now. Back then, he tried to be someone he wasn’t at the plate — and things only got worse. This time, he feels better prepared. Others have noticed his maturity.

Caceres remembers attending a Harrisburg Senators game last season. Wood struck out three times in a row — he thought Wood might have been trying to impress him. Then, in his fourth at-bat, Wood hit a home run.

“You don’t want to be perfect in this game,” Caceres said. “You’re going to fail a lot. So for him, he understands that failing is a part of the game. He understands that failing is normal. It’s okay because he found his reset button.”

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