What a difference a year makes.
Last season Chris Rahl went to the Short Season A Yakima Bears and put up what most would feel were respectable, but underwhelming, numbers. Especially when you factor in that Rahl was the D'Backs fifth round choice in 2005 out of William and Mary. His .269/1/10 (in 182 at bats) looked more like the numbers a fringe pro might be putting up than the type of numbers the first outfielder chosen by the D'Backs in the draft might be expected to produce.
Still, the Diamondbacks elected to have Rahl skip over Lo-A South Bend completely, and he began the 2006 season at Hi-A Lancaster, working with, among others, JetHawks hitting coach Damon Mashore. This is exactly what the doctor ordered for Rahl.
"We've been working a lot on what my swing should look like," Rahl says, "just working on being consistent, and putting the same swing on the ball."
That swing has been consistent, it has looked pretty, and it has brought incredible results. One thing it doesn't look like is last year's swing, as Rahl, who topped FutureBacks.com's Power Rankings for the second week in a row Monday, has been putting up monster numbers thus far. Through Monday he was .363/4/26 in just 157 at bats, and showed no sign of cooling off soon.
Call it the power of incentive.
"I had about the worst offseason possible," Rahl says with a weary laugh.
It wasn't the lack of numbers that was bothering the young outfielder, it was a bad shoulder. September 2nd, less than three weeks after the end his season, Rahl had surgery on his shoulder after he tore cartilage diving into second base. The surgery was tough, the rehab was tougher, but for Rahl, who comes from a tight knit family, the distance was the most painful part.
"I went from never really having been away from home, I went to college less than an hour from my parent's house, to moving to Yakima, then tearing up my shoulder, and after surgery, I did my rehab in Tucson. So I went from never really having been away from home, to spending all of three weeks there in the last six months."
What the rehab, and time alone, did do was refocus Rahl on his game. The results are showing, but he's not satisfied yet.
"I feel like I can hit for a little more power than I've shown so far, a little more than I showed in college too. But there's an adjustment, I only really feel like I'm ready to go full steam now, because I am coming off surgery. I feel like I can steal more bases, show a little more speed, but I'm still just a little tentative about diving into bags after the surgery. You don't want to overextend yourself, but I feel like I'm pushing a little more every day, and that's a positive."
Perhaps the only chink in his game this season has been his strikeout totals (33 in 157 at bats this year), but it's not a stat that really worries the youngster.
"My biggest season in college was my sophomore year, and I had a lot of Ks that season too. What I'm learning is how to have a good two strike approach, that's the biggest thing I've been working on now with Damon Mashore, is just to put a good swing on that two strike pitch. It's a work in progress, but there is progress."
Progress is something Rahl will have to continue to make in a D'Backs system full of talented outfielders. Everyday in Lancaster he plays next to the top prospect in the system, right fielder Carlos Gonzalez, and ahead of him are other high draft picks like Jon Zeringue, Carlos Quentin, Chris Young and Scott Hairston. Rahl does have the advantage of being able to play all three outfield spots, and since he's only been in the system for a grand total of four months, there's certainly time to prove himself.
"I've always come in as kind of an underdog, and that's the way I like it," Rahl says, "I want to feel like I deserve everything I get, that I worked hard for it, and that I've earned it. I don't want anything given to me, I want to take it."
For now what Rahl is taking is a new look at pitchers. His hot start has gotten around to the entire California League and he's noticing a difference in what opponents are throwing him.
"In my last series I really started noticing pitchers throwing me a lot more sliders and offspeed stuff in fastball counts. It took me a couple at bats to realize what they were doing, but I know all I have to do is make the adjustment, and hit a couple of those pitches hard, to get them to try something different."
There figure to be a lot of 'different' things coming Rahl's way, and a lot of adjustments to make, but one thing is for certain, even half way across the country, he'll find his way to home.