On Tuesday night, Conner Crumbliss launched what should have been a solo homerun onto the right-field porch at Banner Island Ballpark in Stockton. The ball bounced back on the field after clearing the fence, and inexplicably, the base umpire called the hit a double rather than a homerun.
It is just that sort of bad luck that dogged Crumbliss throughout the first half of the 2011 season. During the first few months of the season, it seemed like every line-drive Crumbliss hit was right at someone and every pitch that was borderline was being called against him.
Crumbliss' fortunes have changed dramatically during the second half of the season and that better luck was reflected in what happened after he was robbed of the homerun on Tuesday. Instead of that call ruining his evening, Crumbliss turned it into part of a personal milestone. Having singled in his first at-bat, Crumbliss homered in the at-bat after the "double" and then later tripled to complete the cycle.
"I had a rough first half. Things didn't go my way really, but I battled back. I've tried to stay positive in the second half," Crumbliss said. "I think I've done better in the second half."
That is an understatement. Before the All-Star break, the Emporia State University alum batted only .241. Although his on-base percentage was an outstanding .397, Crumbliss didn't homer once and his slugging percentage was only .277. Since the break, he has hit .302 with an on-base percentage of .415 and – most notably – his power has returned to the tune of a .488 slugging percentage. Even without the overturned homer on Tuesday, Crumbliss has gone deep five times in August and seven times since the break. The seven homers are a career-high and his overall slashline now sits at .273/.407/.388.
Part of Crumbliss' struggles during the first half can be attributed to adjusting to the more advanced pitching style in the California League.
"The pitching is a little different [from the Midwest League]. You see less fastballs in hitters' counts than you did last year. Last year, if it was 2-0 or 3-1, it was fastball no matter what. Now it's not. You get change-ups, sliders, whatever they can throw for a strike, it's coming," Crumbliss said.
Since turning pro, Crumbliss has developed a reputation for being one of the most patient hitters in minor league baseball. During his first professional season in 2009, he walked 60 times in 71 games for short-season Vancouver and Low-A Kane County. In 2010, Crumbliss led all minor leaguers with 126 walks in 134 games with the Cougars.
Ironically, Crumbliss attributes much of his second-half success to being less selective.
"I've been a lot more aggressive at the plate. I was kind of passive during the first half of the season and I've been swinging in a lot of early counts during the second half," Crumbliss said.
"Just trying to drive balls instead of hitting singles. Trying to hit doubles and get the ball in the gaps."
Crumbliss has walked slightly less frequently since the All-Star break (41 times in 59 games as opposed to 51 times in 56 games during the first half), but he still has an outside chance of breaking the century mark for walks for a second straight year.
The Kansas native says that he wasn't always such a selective hitter.
"It kind of happened during summer ball in college. It was my first time using wood bats and it's harder to hit. I just tried make things as easy on myself as possible, swing at strikes and work the count to try to get on-base as much as I could," Crumbliss said.
"I've been working on it over the years and it has gotten better and better."
The 5'8'' Crumbliss has drawn comparisons to former Oakland A's utilityman Tony Phillips, another undersized player who brought value to his team through his speed, versatility defensively and his ability to get on-base regularly. Like Phillips, Crumbliss is a natural second baseman who can also play centerfield. Crumbliss has received praise for his defense both at second and in centerfield. While he is comfortable at both positions, Crumbliss admits that he prefers playing in the infield.
"I definitely like the infield better. More in the action. It's more fun, but I can do both. It's easy," Crumbliss said.
"I would say it's easier to go from infield to outfield. For me personally, I would say it takes less preparation to play the outfield than it does the infield. It's easier to go out than come in because if you aren't taking grounders every day, it's tough to be sharp in a game situation."
Crumbliss and the Ports have five more regular season games before they head to the post-season for the fourth consecutive season. The left-handed hitter's goals are simple for the rest of the season.
"We've still got some games to go and then the playoffs. We definitely want to finish strong and hopefully win a championship," Crumbliss said.
"We try to get better every game and I hope we give ourselves a chance at the end."