Miguel Vargas improving at second, but is it impacting his hitting?

Miguel Vargas improving at second, but is it impacting his hitting?

Every day the Dodgers play, hours before first pitch, Miguel Vargas works in front of the dugout with third-base coach Dino Ebel, who puts the rookie second baseman through a series of agility drills to improve his instincts, quickness and athleticism at a position Vargas rarely played before this season.

The results are tangible. The 6-foot-3, 205-pound Vargas — who is taller, with longer levers, than most big-league second basemen — looked awkward going to his left in April and May, but he made three superb plays, including two diving stops, to his left against the Chicago White Sox and San Francisco Giants in mid-June.

“I see his reads, his first steps, and he’s getting to a lot more balls,” first baseman Freddie Freeman said. “I think that’s from all the hard work he’s been putting in with Dino. I mean, it’s hard to learn a position that you’ve never played before, and to do it in a big-league season is extremely difficult.”

Vargas’ eyes light up when asked if the work he is putting in with Ebel is paying off — ”Yeah, yeah, 100%,” he said with a grin — but a strange thing happened on the way to the 23-year-old becoming a more proficient defender at a position he made only 27 starts at in five minor league seasons:

He suddenly forgot how to hit, which is the skill that got the Cuban native to the big leagues in the first place.

Vargas hit .049 (two for 41) with a .271 on-base-plus-slugging percentage, one homer and two RBIs in 14 games from June 9 through Sunday, a slump that knocked him out of the lineup for Sunday’s game against Houston and Tuesday’s series opener at Colorado. Manager Dave Roberts said Vargas would start Wednesday and Thursday night against the Rockies.

“It’s a mental break more so than anything,” Roberts said. “I had a great conversation with him [on Sunday] to kind of ease his mind, to let him know our confidence in him hasn’t wavered. I think for me, it’s just going back to what he does really well, and that’s to get hits.

“If we can kind of simplify it to that, to swing at good pitches and not try to do too much, to not have to be a carrier [of the offense] and slug, just to get hits, I think things will start to turn. But I’m really proud of the fact that the defense has been compromised.”

Vargas was the best pure hitter in the farm system, a gap-to-gap slugger who hit .313 with an .878 OPS, 49 homers and 265 RBIs in 410 minor league games.

He hasn’t been as prolific at the plate in the big leagues, with a .201 average, .678 OPS, seven homers, 14 doubles and 30 RBIs in 72 games entering Wednesday, but he has looked overmatched for much of the past 2½ weeks.

“I think once you start to struggle, you start to press a little bit, you try to get things back in one game, one at bat, and then it just snowballs,” Roberts said. “It’s not just young players — it happens to veteran players, too — but it’s more magnified for a younger player. Hopefully this little reset will [help him] get back on track.”

The problem, Vargas said, hasn’t been swinging at bad pitches or a lack of contact. His 20.7% chase rate entering Wednesday is actually well below the league average of 28.4%, and his 22.0% whiff rate was below the 24.8% league average.

“I feel like I’m seeing pitchers well, but I’ve been missing a lot of pitches in the zone,” Vargas said. “Sometimes in the big leagues, you only get one pitch, and if you miss it, it sucks. But I don’t feel like I’ve lost my confidence, and that’s what matters for me.”

The juxtaposition of Vargas’ struggles at the plate and improvement in the field makes you wonder if his offense is suffering because he’s expending so much time and energy on defense.

When Freeman moved to third base for 16 games with the Atlanta Braves in 2017, he hit .286 with an .881 OPS, still solid production but a dip during a season in which he hit .307 with a .989 OPS.

“I mean, I’m sure,” Freeman said when asked if a player’s offense can lag when he’s focused so much on defense. “When I switched to third base in 2017, that’s all I thought about, was making sure I didn’t mess up in the field. And I didn’t hit as well playing third, so it affected me.”

Vargas doesn’t feel like his offensive preparation has taken a back seat. He’s spending as much time in the batting cages now as he did when he hit .290 with a .914 OPS, three homers, seven doubles and 12 RBIs in 16 games from May 2-20.

“I feel like I’ve been working both sides of the ball pretty well,” Vargas said. “Obviously, when you don’t have good results on offense, you feel really bad. But I feel confident, and every time I go up to hit, I feel I’m in a good position to compete.”

Vargas may be losing some starts at second base to Mookie Betts, but the Dodgers haven’t lost faith in him. Vargas has shown flashes of the offensive player he was in the minor leagues, and they believe his bat will play in the big leagues.

“Miguel is a really good hitter,” Freeman said. “He’ll be fine.”