Ryan Kalish has freed up his mind and added fluidity to his swing. As a result, the 25-year-old outfielder has a chance to earn a roster spot with the Chicago Cubs. That’s only part of the story.
The once-highly-regarded prospect reached the big leagues with the Red Sox in 2010. His future looked bright, but instead of breaking out, he began breaking down. Injuries have dominated Kalish’s career. He missed all of last season and faced the possibility of never playing again. More on that in a moment.
The adjustments to Kalish’s left-handed stroke began in the off-season. Following a long stint on the shelf, he had to rediscover who he was.
“I was a little mechanical with everything,” said Kalish. “Coming back [from injuries] you think you’re going to just snap back into place. but it’s not that easy. A lot of baseball — especially the swing — is about fluidity and whatever feels most natural.
“Early in the off-season, I was just kind of taking a stride and swinging,” continued Kalish. “With fluidity, you have some sway, or what we like to call ‘swag.’ You have movement and flow. With everything that happened to me, I was concerned with all these little things. The advice I got was, ‘Hey, this is baseball and you have to be natural, you have to let your body do what it wants to do.’ You also have to free your mind. When you’re in the box, thoughts of what you’ve worked on have to go out the window. A lot of what we did as children, I’m trying to get back to now. Back then, we weren’t thinking about anything.”
Not long ago, Kalish thought his career might be over. His fears ran even deeper than that. The medical procedures he faced were anything but simple.
“I had both my labrums repaired and two neck surgeries,” explained Kalish. “The last one, about eight months ago, was cervical fusion, which is basically a replacement disc in your neck with four screws and a metal plate in front of your vertebrae. To me, that’s mind blowing. Once you start talking about the cervical spine… Let me put it this way: Every day I come out here is a blessing.”
Brandon Moss is blessed with raw power. Swinging from the left side, the Oakland A’s outfielder-first baseman has gone deep 51 times in 711 at bats over the last two seasons. He has big plans for the coming campaign.
“I’m working on bunting,” Moss told me last week. “I’m a dead pull hitter and get shifted a lot. There were times last year I didn’t feel good at the plate, or was going through a tough stretch, and would come up in a situation where I needed to get on. They’d shift me all the way over and I’d think, ‘If I could bunt, I might get a double.’”
It was easier said than done. Moss specializes in long balls. His short game has been almost non-existent. In 1,550 major league plate appearances he has yet to execute a sacrifice bunt.
“I tried to bunt for a hit once last year and completely whiffed the pitch,” admitted Moss. “I didn’t really know what I was doing. I‘ve sacrificed [in the minor leagues], but I don’t think I’d ever tried to beat one out. I got one down the other day, in a game against the White Sox, and got a base hit.
“It was a matter of learning the correct technique,” added Moss. “I had bad footwork. I kind of squared around the wrong way with my back foot. Chip Hale worked with me on moving my front foot.”
The 30-year-old slugger doesn’t aspire to become Juan Pierre. He’s simply looking to keep teams honest.
“If you’re able to get one down, it works two ways,” explained Moss. “Either it shifts the defense back over and opens up holes on the pull side, where I hit the ball, or they keep doing it and it’s a free hit. I just have to make sure I get it by the pitcher.”
I asked Moss — a .253 lifetime hitter — if his new weapon will allow him to hit .300 this year. He laughed.
“There’s no way,” said Moss. “That’s not me. Let’s put it this way. I do hit home runs — last year I hit 30 — but that’s 30 swings out of god knows how many. It’s not like when you put a bunt down, you think, ‘Man, I’d have hit a home run on that pitch.’ There’s never a guarantee — even if you feel good at the plate — that you’re going to hit a home run.”
Former Mets and Royals right-hander Brian Bannister was a panelist at last weekend’s SABR Analytics Conference. In a discussion centered around BABiP , he opined that not all ground balls are created equal.
“You have a round bat and a round ball,” said Bannister. “When you look at PITCHf/x data, you see [the movement]. Brandon Webb’s fastball sank almost to the rate of gravity. If you held a ball in the air and dropped it, he was one to two inches above that as it’s falling toward home plate. He had one of the best sinkers in baseball.
“If you picture a Bell Curve, and you picture a fastball, [against] the guys with more sink, hitters are going to hit higher on the ball. They’re going to hit the top half more often, because the ball is sinking at a faster rate. [A batted ball] is classified as a ground ball, but a Brandon-Webb type is getting a four- to five-hop ground ball. My pitches weren’t sinking as much, so I’d get one- and two-hoppers. They’re hit with more steam, because [hitters are] barreling them up a little more. There’s something to the quality of sink.”
Burke Badenhop relies on sink. The Red Sox reliever doesn’t miss a lot of bats, but he does kill a lot of worms. His z-contact rate is typically in the low 90s, while his ground ball rate has ranged from 51.1 to 58.5.
He also relies on numbers. Knowledgeable about sabermetrics, he graduated from Bowling Green University with a degree in economics.
“Playing the percentages is important,” said Badenhop. “It’s a way of determining who you are and what you do. This is my tenth year and I know what I need to do to get outs. Pitching is about sticking with things that work. You know what your best pitch is and go from there.”
When you face Badenhop, you’re going to see a lot of sinkers. He throws his signature pitch 70 percent of the time. I asked him if it’s possible to throw too many.
“If it’s working that day, no,” answered Badenhop. “I’m not trying to trick hitters. Tom Brookens was my short-season A-Ball manager. With his Pennsylvania twang, he used to tell me ‘Hoppy, don’t try to fool guys. Use your quality pitch and make him hit it.’ The pitcher has all the advantage in the world. The odds are heavily in my favor.
Badenhop knows where to look for knowledge. The right-handed reliever closely followed the career of an esteemed professor of pitching.
“I grew up idolizing Greg Maddux,” said Badenhop. “I read an article about how he grew up in Vegas and his dad was a blackjack dealer. He once asked his dad, ‘Aren’t you ever worried about losing a bunch of money?’ His dad explained that he’s the house, so the odds are in his favor. Inherently he’s designed to win. The quote from Greg Maddux was, ‘When I’m on the mound, I’m the house.’ I’m obviously not Maddux, but if I make my pitches, I‘m going to be get outs more often than not.”
Badenhop had a .289 BABiP last year. Unlike some in his profession, he knows what the acronym stands for. He also knows where to access the vertical movement of his sinker.
“PITCHf/x helps me know why I had success on a given day, or why I didn’t,” said Badenhop. “You can’t really see sink from the mound. I’ll have an idea from the quality of contact and how my catcher is catching the ball — is his glove moving early or is his glove moving late? — but PITCH/fx will validate that for me.”
Logan Forsythe came to the Tampa Bay Rays to play the role of Mr. Versatile. The 27-year-old former Padres infielder may do more than that. His track record suggests he’ll be a good table setter if he gets sufficient at bats.
OBP was the name of Forsythe’s game coming up through the San Diego system. He reached base at a .416 clip in six seasons on the farm. His big-league OBP is just .310, but it has been heavily influenced by health and playing time. In 2012, when he logged a career high 315 plate appearances, his it was a solid .343.
I asked Forsythe if at bats would translate to his stat sheet.
“They do, but playing time is also dictated by how you play,” said Forsythe. “That’s how baseball works. You have to perform to get into the lineup. As far as [OBP], I’ve always been that type of hitter. I’ve always worked the count. That said, I’m also trying to advance myself by being a little more aggressive in certain situations. It’s about thinking the game.”
Few think the game as much as his new manager. I asked Joe Maddon about Forsythe’s hitting approach earlier this month.
“He definitely knows how to work an at bat,” said Maddon. “He’s not an expander. We’re seeing a very easy-looking rhythmic swing, and the ball off the bat is hot. He hits the ball hard. I think he fits anybody’s criteria regarding what you’re looking for in how to work an at bat.”
It goes without saying that Maddon likes his ability to play all over the field. Making Forsythe an even better fit is his familiarity with defensive shifts.
“We shifted in San Diego,” said Forsythe. “We’d do it against certain guys, like the strong pull guys left and right. We’d change around. A couple times we’d do something drastic like a five-man infield. I’m comfortable on both sides. Last year I ended up playing pretty much everywhere under Buddy [Black].”
I asked Maddon if experience at multiple positions makes it easier for a player to acclimate to shifting. Somewhat surprisingly, he didn’t have a ready answer.
“I’ve never thought of it,” admitted Maddon. “Throwing from different angles would be the biggest thing. When we get our shortstops and third basemen moving out of their comfort zones, it becomes a more difficult throw for them. A utility player being moved around in a shift is used to the ball off the bat at different angles, and throwing from different angles. I can’t say for certain, but thin-slicing it, you’re probably right.”