Austin Schultz Develops Sixth Sense To Improve His Game
There’s no one who understands what Austin Schultz is thinking better than he does.
Kentucky’s 21-year-old utility player can—and will—easily break down his strengths, the areas he’s working to improve and offer in-depth insight into each of his tools. But beyond the typical toolset, Schultz emphasizes that there’s at least one way in which he’s been thinking outside the toolbox.
It began in the fall of his freshman year, as the Nebraska native ventured into the world of college baseball. With the Wildcats, Schultz experienced real failure between the white lines for the first time, a “horrible” realization of what might be to come. But he discovered a sixth tool, the mental aspect of the game, and Schultz began taking steps to improve it like he would any other skill.
“Going through that type of failure, you learn a lot about yourself as a player,” he said. “That’s molded me into the player I am today … I’ve been trying to work on it and focus on that just as much as the physical side of baseball, with the swing and arm strength and everything. The mental side is definitely a major tool in the game.”
Growing up, Schultz was the kind of player who constantly thought about every worst-case scenario. In recalibrating the way he thinks, the No. 283-ranked draft prospect has been reading books like Heads Up Baseball: Playing the Game One Pitch at a Time, subscribing to some of the theories presented by Steve Springer, a mental coach within the game who at one time worked for the Blue Jays, and documenting his thoughts and practices.
“I carry around a journal to write what I thought about my game or my at-bats,” Schultz said. “When I’m not doing well, I go back and look at the notes from when I was going good to see what I was thinking about. It keeps me consistent with my mental game and gives me something to focus on that day, like wanting to hit the ball harder or focus on right-center field, or small things to keep my brain concentrated and keep my mind off of if I didn’t have a great day that day or why it wasn’t a good day. Maybe I hit four balls hard and they didn’t fall, or maybe I was thinking about mechanics in the box, so why was I doing that and what was I thinking? It’s good reflection for me that I’ve been doing, but it’s been a process.
“There are days you don’t feel as good or you’re not as motivated, something doesn’t feel right in your swing, and it’s hard to be positive. It’s easy when you’re doing well, and the ball looks like a beach ball and you’re hitting a double every at-bat. The tough games, the games you grind through, those really show what type of player you are.”
On the field, Schultz is a player who spent most of his life at shortstop. He’s been leading off and playing center field for Kentucky this year, but understands his future might be at second base. The 5-foot-10, 200-pound utility player’s run tool is his best weapon, and he has the most work to do defensively.
“Speed doesn’t slump, so it’s always good to have that tool in the box,” Schultz said. “I’ve gotten a lot of infield singles this year where I may not hit a ball well, but I can still run it out and get a knock out of it. And I’m more of a hitter-type player over defense. Moving to the outfield has been a transition, to work on throwing the ball with more backspin to bases and stuff … So speed, hitting and then defense toward the bottom, but I’ve been working really hard to get defense up there.”
Schultz believes that what helps him across the board, especially with his defensive transitions, is his athleticism. He stopped playing basketball by sixth grade, wrestled in his seventh- and eighth-grade years, retired from track and field with all the blue ribbons he could muster, and then played football and baseball for all four years of high school.
“Those Friday night lights are so much fun,” Schultz said. “When I started to get some recognition for football, some awards, they asked what I did for recruiting over the summer and I was always playing baseball. I would get done (with) summer baseball and go straight into football, put the pads and helmet on and get back into the swing of things.
“Football really helped me with the aggressive side of baseball, stealing bases and stuff. Growing up I had coaches tell me I played baseball like a football player and I never really understood what that meant or where it was coming from, but that’s how I played the game, where I attack and I’m full go, because that’s how you have to be when you play football.”
Schultz finds the most comfort on the middle of the diamond, infield or out, where he believes he can be a leader and make the most of his athletic prowess.
“I’ve played shortstop the most throughout my life,” he said. “I played center field growing up but once I got into high school I moved to shortstop. Then I had two years as an infielder here at Kentucky … It will be interesting to see what happens in the future, if I get an opportunity to play professional baseball, where I’ll end up. I’ve heard a lot that I’m more of a second-base type, but anywhere in the middle of the diamond, I’m very comfortable.
“The biggest thing is learning the angles at second base because they’re different from shortstop. And learning how to do different types of backhands and turning double plays, learning those moves and angles that are the opposite of shortstop, that would be the biggest challenge.”
“I have an above-average arm, but honestly it could be better,” Schultz said. “Going from the infield to the outfield, I have a really short arm path where I have to get the ball out quick, so it’s been different to try to get that long arm path and throw balls a lot further. On the field it’s quick throws on the run and different arm angles. [But] I’m very comfortable on the infield, throwing on the run, fielding on the run.”
Schultz went 28 games without a home run to start this season, but reverting back to some of his old ways, he’s amassed four long balls over his last six contests.
“I have some pop,” he said. “I’m never up there trying to hit a home run but if I put my best swing on a ball, it will go. Last weekend I hit a home run against Georgia that went 458 feet, so that was pretty cool. The power is starting to come out.
“I was in the four-hole last year, so I always had guys on base and I was trying to drive in runs. I went back to some drills I did last year that I got away from and I hit three home runs in four games this past week, so I don’t know why I got away from them. You have to make adjustments with your routine, what feels good and what works, so I’m not sure if that’s why that power surge came back. I’ve hit a lot of balls off the wall or that were killed by the wind to where my teammates (teased me) because I didn’t have one, so it’s nice to see the ball go over the fence recently. But if I’m consistently hitting the ball hard, good things like that are going to happen.”
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“When it comes to the middle of the diamond, you obviously need to be good defensively at a high level but you also need to hit and your bat will keep you in the lineup,” Schultz said. “That’s something that’s always been there for me. My bat’s been good, so they’re always going to find a spot for me to play. But I’ve been working on my defense to get that up there as well, because it’s easy to take a million swings off the tee or the machine but it’s hard to take that many ground balls or pop flies with it.
“Being in the leadoff spot this year, I’ve had a different role. Every at-bat, I’m going up there and trying to hit the ball hard every single at-bat. If I get pull happy and try to hit home runs, then I’m 0-for-4 with groundouts and strikeouts and it doesn’t do anything for my team. I’ve tried to have a gap-to-gap, line-drive approach, having quality at-bats where I know that with my strength and swing, if I catch a ball just right, it’s going to go.”
Easily a carrying tool for the utility player, Schultz has always had speed and he continues to find ways to take advantage of it.
“At a very young age, I competed in track and I never lost,” Schultz said. “I had all these blue first-place ribbons, and that’s when I figured out that I had something. It’s always been natural for me. In high school, I was hitting the weight room hard, but playing football I was able to do agility stuff. There were a lot of big guys running around, so I had to run away from them and had to figure out how to run faster in that aspect. The older and stronger I’ve gotten, the faster I’ve gotten. I was worried that if I got bigger, stronger, I would be slower, but it’s gotten better. I really don’t do a lot of agility work or sprint work, I’ve been blessed with it.”
Since he’s been at Kentucky, Schultz’s fastest recorded 60-yard time was 6.36 seconds. In his freshman year he remembers running home to first once in 3.87 seconds, and in his most recent weekend series he “ran some 4.0s.”
“I can fly down the line a little bit,” he said. “I always wish I was a lefty just to see how fast I could actually get up the line. But anytime I hit a big hop ground ball or a weak grounder to short, I’m always trying to run my best time and sneak a single out of it.
“I’ve had good instincts on the basepaths and I’m 15-for-16 on the year in stolen bases too. The biggest thing for the leadoff guy is getting on base, and walking me or me hitting a single can almost end up a double or triple with my speed. And it can affect pitchers where if they’re worried about picking me off or making sure I’m not getting out too far, they can leave a cookie over the plate for the hitters behind me. It helps everybody. My speed can affect the game in so many ways.”