ARLINGTON, Texas — Josh Jung grounded a single into left field in the first inning of the Frisco RoughRiders’ game against the Corpus Christi Hooks on June 15, marking his first professional at-bat in 650 days.
It’s been a sinuous road to get to Frisco for Jung, who was taken No. 8 overall by the Texas Rangers in the 2019 MLB Draft after an outstanding three-year career at Texas Tech.
The year he was drafted, Jung played in 44 games for the Hickory Crawdads and AZL Rangers and performed well, posting a .316 batting average.
COVID-19 hit in the spring of 2020, shortening the MLB season to 60 games and canceling the minor league season. When baseball did resume, Jung reported to the Rangers’ alternate site, where he practiced with the team but did not appear in any games.
In March 2021, Jung broke a bone in his foot, delaying his season debut until mid-June.
Jung went a long time without the opportunity to take in-game at-bats, but he evolved as a player during his time off.
At the alternate site in 2020, he went to Globe Life Park to train everyday. Without games to worry about, Jung got to hone in on more specific skills. He hit just two home runs in 174 at-bats of minor-league ball in 2019, so he concentrated on improving his ability to pull the ball in the air with power.
The work has already proved fruitful in the young 2021 season. He has four home runs in 72 at-bats, including this blast to left-center field.
Working at the alternate site also allowed Jung to get reps in the ballpark he hopes will be his future home.
“It was kind of surreal in that aspect,” he told KLBK Sports. “Being able to go in, train, practice, have failure or success in that ballpark because if my career goes the way I want it to, I’ll be playing there one day and I’ll have those same failures and successes there.”
In addition to the big-league venue, he was around big-league players — men who had lived the life of a professional ballplayer for years. As someone still adjusting to being a full-time professional, Jung absorbed advice from his seasoned teammates on how to handle the professional grind both on and off the field.
Jung said the most important thing he learned was not to put too much day-to-day pressure on himself. Hitters typically only get four or five plate appearances per game, and with such a small number of chances, the pressure to capitalize on each one can feel immense.
But in a sport where a .300 batting average is considered stellar, even the best players will find themselves focusing on more failures than successes if they dwell profusely on each at-bat. He’s adopted a pair of phrases to help himself brush off the negative thoughts: “Be Water” and “Surrender the Result.” He keeps them in mind to remind himself not to live and die with the highs and lows of each day.
“When you put so much pressure on one at-bat, you kind of limit the success you can have,” Jung said. “And that can cause negative self-talk or negative thoughts.”
That pressure can feel especially intense for Jung because of what he means to the Rangers’ organization. Texas held a 35-55 record going into the MLB All-Star break, the fourth-worst mark in all of baseball. With little success at the MLB level, eyes have turned towards the reinforcements coming from the minor leagues, and as the No. 8 overall draft pick, Jung is expected to be a foundational piece of the next successful Rangers team.
While he tries to take things day-by-day, he admitted that it’s impossible to completely push away the burden of his high expectations.
“To say those thoughts don’t arise, it would be false,” he said. “Because they are always there.”
The expectations are just one aspect of the transition from a student-athlete to a full time professional. Jung had to change out the aluminum bat he used at Texas Tech for a wooden one, and lives in an unfamiliar city instead of a college town.
But for him, the biggest adjustment has been the frequency of the games.
“In college you play four-to-five times a week, in pro ball you could have an 18-day road trip where you’re playing every single day, throw in a doubleheader or something… There’s really no grind like professional baseball. Especially getting on the charter bus and driving through the night just to get to the hotel for a few hours and then go play a game. That’s a grind.”
Jung wanted to make sure his body was prepared to deal with that grind, so refined his diet while he was recovering from the foot injury. He’s taken to cooking almost all of his meals instead of eating out. By doing this, he can keep a close eye on the amount of vegetables and supplements he gets each day. He takes care of his body in other ways too, including monitoring his “sleep score” each morning to see how well he slept.
The long hiatus between his professional at-bats was not ideal, particularly when considering the circumstances that caused it. But it did provide Jung with a unique opportunity to step back and assess himself in a multitude of ways without the pressure of appearing in professional games.
“I feel like I’m such a different player and in a different headspace from where I was at in college and in 2019. When in your career do you get a year off to just train?”