It’s no secret that Christian Yelich can hit. The 22-year-old Miami Marlins outfielder was drafted 23rd overall in 2010 for much that reason. He proceeded to hit .313/.387/.499 in the minors before being called up last July. This year he’s off to a .315.384/.393 start in 99 plate appearances. Many view him as a future batting champion.
Yelich is more guarded than most. I’ve asked hundreds of hitters about their approach, and almost all have been willing to expound on it. Not Yelich. When I broached the subject earlier this week he was personable yet reticent.
“I will not tell you that,” responded Yelich. “I do look for stuff up there, but I don’t really want to say what I’m trying to do. I don’t like talking about my approach.”
That wasn’t the answer I’d hoped for, as talking to the talented youngster about his craft was a primary reason I ventured into the clubhouse. Pursuing it from a different angle, I asked if he is the same hitter now as when he signed.
“I think you stay the same,” answered Yelich. “Guys get in trouble when they try to change when they get to pro ball, or when they get called up to the big leagues. Making major changes usually isn’t a great idea, but you can make adjustments. Teams make adjustments to you and you make adjustments to them. That’s the game of baseball.”
The left-handed hitter was fairly forthcoming on mechanics.
“Coming into pro ball I was a little taller,” said Yelich. “I was basically straight up. I really wasn’t on my legs a whole lot. I made an adjustment to spread out a little bit. Guys were throwing harder and I was able to recognize pitches a little better that way. That’s the only major mechanical adjustment I’ve made.
“Physically, every hitter is different. Guys have things they do when they’re successful, and things they do when they’re starting to go bad. You have to be able to recognize what those are. You learn yourself coming up through the minors; you learn your swing better.”
He remained reserved when I revisited his approach.
“Your first go-round in the big leagues against some of these teams… I’m learning pitchers,” said Yelich. “Certain pitchers do certain things and fall into patterns. And pitchers try to learn hitters. That’s why I don’t want to tell you about my approach at the plate. It’s a big part of the game. Certain guys pitch you a certain way and other guys pitch another way.”
I asked what a hitter can divulge that can’t be ascertained from video and scouting reports.
“You’d be surprised,” said Yelich. “That’s just the way it is.”
Jarrod Saltalamacchia is open about what it means to be a Marlin. The 28-year-old catcher is a veteran presence on a team loaded with youth and promise. Last season he was the second-youngest starter on a team that won the World Series. I asked “Salty” about going from Boston to Miami.
“There’s a lot less media here,” answered Saltalamacchia. “There aren’t 25-30 [reporters] waiting for you after a game like in Boston. Otherwise, the biggest difference is that there are a lot of younger guys. I’m finding myself saying things like ‘This is how we did it’ or ‘This is what I’ve seen.’ In some ways, it’s almost more of a coaching [role].
“We have a lot of young guys who can play but are still trying to find themselves,” continued Saltalamacchia. “The league doesn’t really know them, so it’s fun to see them go out there and just kind of see-ball-hit-ball. That’s kind of a Catch-22. In one respect it’s good, because you want them to be… how should I say this? With veteran guys you know what you’re going to get. With young guys there are still a lot of unknowns. It’s fun for me to watch them go out there and just play the game, have fun, and kind of search for who they are.”
I asked Saltalamacchia, a week short of his 29th birthday, if he has a firm grasp of who he is as player.
“I pretty much know who I am now,” said Saltalamacchia. “I don’t go out there to do more than I’m capable of doing. The best thing about veteran guys is you don’t see them trying to be something they’re not. They know what they can do with certain pitches and they do it. They also know how to control their emotions. Young guys are still young. They try to prove themselves by doing more.
“When I was in Texas, I would watch guys like Mike Young hit and be like, ‘Man, that would be awesome; I’m going to try to do that.’ But that wasn’t me. I’m not going to be a contact hitter. I’m going to work counts and try to hit gaps. I’m going to have my strikeouts. It wasn’t until I got to Boston and talked to Varitek, Pedroia and some of the other veterans – they said ‘Hey, don’t get away from who you are.’ Dave Magadan was another huge help as far as finding out who I am.”
Saltalamacchia feels Jose Fernandez has yet to fully find himself. That’s bad news for opposing teams, as the Marlins ace is already one of the best pitchers in baseball. He is also, as Salty recognizes, just 21 years old.
“Jose has amazing stuff, but he’s still kind of throwing the ball,” opined Saltalamacchia, one day before Fernandez overpowered the Atlanta Braves with 97-mph fastballs and knee-buckling curveballs. “Once he discovers how good he really is and starts pitching, he’s going to be really, really good.”
The veteran catcher cites 28-year-old closer Steve Cishek as an example of a pitcher with a good understanding of who he is.
“There are times he’ll come set and wait a few seconds, because he wants the hitter to maybe think a little bit more,” said Saltalamacchia. “Or he’ll just bear down and really concentrate on where he wants the pitch to go. He’s got a good understanding of who’s up and he knows how to slow the game down. If you’re able to slow the game down enough to where you’re thinking and not just gripping the ball and throwing… that’s something that comes with experience.”
Vidal Nuno has experienced a lot at a relatively young age. The 26-year-old southpaw went from California to Kansas before Cleveland took him in the 48th round of the 2009 draft. Two years later he was pitching in the independent Frontier League. Last week he replaced the injured Ivan Nova in the New York Yankees starting rotation.
How did Nuno end up at Baker University in Baldwin City, Kansas?
“It was about opportunities and needing to see the world a little bit, see the United States,” explained Nuno. “I talked to family members, and a couple of scouts told me the best way to get my name out there was to move on from San Diego. I had options – I could have gone to San Diego State – but I needed to get out and meet new people, have some new connections.
“I wasn’t drafted out of high school. I was a small kid, barely throwing 82, but I had good command and a heart that made me compete. I had that going for me.”
Those attributes were enough for Nuno to excel at the small-college level and get drafted. They weren’t enough to keep him in pro ball. The Indians released him after a nondescript first full professional season in low-A. I asked the stocky lefty if he feared his career might be over when he was let go.
“Oh yeah,” admitted Nuno. “That’s always a question when you get released, or even when things aren’t going your way. It was a little downfall for me. What they told me was there weren’t enough innings where I was at. They’d drafted a lot of pitchers the last two years and there is always going to be a depth chart. Teams are going to give the chances to the guys who got the bonus money. It’s about getting an opportunity, and when I’ve gotten an opportunity I’ve done my best to take advantage of it.”
That’s exactly what Nuno has done since the Yankees signed him off the scrap heap. Despite a fastball that averages just 89 mph, he’s pitched himself onto a big league staff. How did he do it?
“It’s been heart and work ethic,” opined Nuno. “I also added a changeup and a cutter from Double-A to now. I’ve always had good command, but instead of having two pitches, I have five or six. I use all of them. I have to.
“It’s all about pressure points and arm action. I’m not a flamethrower. I’m a crafty guy. I have to be crafty and make the ball move. If I do that and locate in and out, it’s going to be a good day.”
Mick Kelleher didn’t have a particularly good day on August 7, 1977. Playing for the Chicago Cubs, the 5-foot-9, 170 lb. infielder suffered bruised ribs tangling with Dave Kingman. Known for his prodigious power, “King Kong” stood 6-foot-6 and weighed well over 200 pounds.
Kelleher currently coaches first base for the Yankees. When he consented to talk about his infamous fracas, the first thing I asked was, “Are you braver than you are smart?” Kelleher laughed. “I was at that time.”
“Kingman was with San Diego and the game was in Chicago,” remembers Kelleher. “Bob Shirley was pitching for the Padres and Steve Renko was pitching for the Cubs. Steve was about 6-6, 260. We had a knockdown, drag-out all day long. There were two fights prior to the one I got in with Kingman. People were throwing at each other.
“Kingman came up and Renko hit him in the shoulder. He didn’t charge the mound, he just went to first base. The next guy hit a ball to short and he turned it over to me – I was playing second base – and here was Kingman, coming in, standing straight up. He didn’t slide. He basically came after me. I went to the ground, but then got up and we fought. He’s a big man, but in the heat of battle you kind of lose it. It didn’t matter how big he was, we were going to fight. The next thing I knew we were on the bottom of the pile.
“I ended up with five bruised ribs on the side where he hit me. I had a wrenched neck and a charlie horse. When my feet hit the ground I flipped him over my shoulder and one of his legs landed right on my thigh. I was pretty banged up.”
The ramifications were far different than they would be today. Kelleher and Kingman were the only two players ejected from the game. Both were fined $250 and neither was suspended.
Following the season, Kingman signed with the Cubs as a free agent and the two became teammates. Upon reporting to spring training, Kingman found Kelleher wearing a provocative piece of apparel.
“I had a t-shirt my fan club in Chicago had given me,” explained Kelleher. “It said ‘King Kong Killer.’ His nickname was King Kong and mine has always been Killer. I used to wear the t-shirt around the clubhouse. He wasn’t a real popular guy and we didn’t know each other very well at that point, but I’d go around the locker room wearing the t-shirt. I’d be punching my fist into my other hand. Everybody got a real kick out of that.
“Dave and I ended up becoming friends. We never talked about the fight. It was just something that happened in baseball on that one particular day. That’s the way the game was back then. He never brought it up and I never brought it up. We did joke about the t-shirt, but that was about it.”
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