Vitters aims to maintain child-like attitude
Outfielder alters body, mind to stay on field, have more fun
MESA, Ariz. -- Baseball is fun again for Josh Vitters, which is something he couldn't say last season.
In 2013, Vitters was limited to 28 games at Triple-A Iowa because of injuries, which included back problems, a strained muscle in his right rib cage, and a strained right hamstring.
"Last year was tough on me," said Vitters, the Cubs' first-round pick in the 2007 First-Year Player Draft. "I had a lot of injuries, and I had a lot of time to sit back and think and a lot of time to sit back and watch the game of baseball.
"I think that I took a lot out of sitting back and watching the game and thinking about it, like a lot of things I wouldn't be able to take out of the season had I been playing," he said. "I think from that perspective, it was actually a really good experience to be on the [disabled list] for a lot of the year last year, because I think it helped my mindset and my drive for this year."
Tired of dealing with injury setbacks, Vitters, 24, spent most of the offseason training at Athletes Performance Institute in Carson, Calif., which has a stellar list of clients, including Dustin Pedroia, Justin Morneau and Josh Hamilton.
"It was really good for me," Vitters said. "It helped me, and I feel really strong coming in this year and more confident than I've ever been.
"It basically just makes you a better athlete, especially for me, because I had not previously trained that way. I think it was beneficial for me."
Vitters checked in about the same weight as one year ago, but his body composition is different. There's more muscle, less fat. He has more energy. Vitters talked to a nutritionist, but he stuck with his meal plan.
"Obviously, cheeseburgers will be mixed in there," Vitters said of his diet. "Maybe less cheeseburgers, less pizza."
The physical changes have helped Vitters' attitude.
"I think that preparation is absolutely key for confidence," Vitters said. "This year, I'm more prepared than ever, therefore I'm more confident than ever. I'm really just starting to learn the way that it really works to keep building off of different things I'm doing over the offseason to become an everyday player."
The Cubs did promote Vitters to the big leagues in August 2012 along with another first-round pick, Brett Jackson. But neither has been back in the Major Leagues since. Vitters batted .121 (12-for-99) in 36 games that year; Jackson didn't fare much better, hitting .175 (21-for-120) in 44 games.
This spring, Jackson, 25, talked about how he regained his joy for the game after doing a clinic for 9- and 10-year-olds. Vitters can relate. His epiphany came while sidelined.
"I was just watching the game from a different perspective, not like one where I'm studying maybe every little thing, but kind of sitting back and watching the culture of the game and watching guys having fun," Vitters said. "It just kind of hit me that I can start having fun in this game again. It's not all work. It's really fun when it comes down to it. It's just a game. I think that is a perspective that I gained from being on the [disabled list] and missing the game that way."
There were opportunities last season as the Cubs either traded outfielders (David DeJesus, Alfonso Soriano and Scott Hairston) or lost them to injuries (Ryan Sweeney, Thomas Neal and Brian Bogusevic). But both Vitters and Jackson were hurt when needed. Vitters doesn't want to go through that again.
"Right now, I'm just focusing on continuing to better myself in every way, and I would love to get an opportunity at the big league level this year," Vitters said. "I think I could absolutely help the team. I'm just going to keep doing what I'm doing now and let the cards fall where they may."
What Vitters has done is focus on the outfield. He still has his third baseman's glove tucked in his locker just in case he's needed there.
Vitters feels strong mentally and physically now. It just took him some time to figure out what he needed to do.
"I just decided I wanted to take a positive step forward, and I knew that if I wanted to make improvements, I had to change what I was doing in the past, because it wasn't working for me," Vitters said. "You look in the mirror and you say, 'I can do more.' That's where I'm at right now. I'm just going to leave it all out on the field and see what happens."
Vitters is smiling a lot more, too.
"Every time I drive by a Little League field, it reminds you what it's all about," Vitters said. "In order for anybody to play their best, they have to be having fun."
Carrie Muskat is a reporter for MLB.com. She writes a blog, Muskat Ramblings, and you can follow her on Twitter @CarrieMuskat. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.