This is a regular in-season and off-season premium piece on the site where I along with other site writers sit down with a coach in the Indians minor league system and really break down and discuss several players on the roster and talk about some of the philosophies surrounding the development of players.
In this week’s edition of “Coach’s Corner” I had a chance to sit down with Low-A Lake County hitting coach Kevin Howard. He completed his second year in the organization after joining in 2015 and serving as the hitting coach at Short-A Mahoning Valley.
As always, these pieces are in a Q&A format in order to provide the raw uncut comments from the manager or coach.
Q: This was your second time around with the organization. How did things go for you this year?
Kevin Howard (KH): It went great. I didn’t really know what to expect coming out of spring training as I didn’t know a lot of the guys well, but I just had a real pleasant surprise. The year [Francisco] Mejia had was incredible, as well as [Tyler] Krieger and [Connor] Marabell. It turned out much better than I expected and I just had a lot of fun doing it.
Q: Catcher Francisco Mejia showed some considerable improvement with his performance this season across two levels (102 G, .342 AVG, 11 HR, 80 RBI, .896 OPS). You only had him for a little over half a season, but what did you like in the short time you had him?
KH: The thing about Mejia is he is a very gifted hitter naturally, which you just don’t find from a guy who plays his position. He has a natural ability to get the barrel to the ball. All of his struggles in the past were about controlling his aggression. He is a high energy kid. He wants to go up there and swing hard and hit the ball hard, so you just have to constantly remind him to keep himself under control and balanced. If he does that and stays focused on just that, he can really do some special things that other people are not capable of.
Q: What was the genesis behind Mejia’s transformation with his performance?
KH: Mechanically, we didn’t make any adjustments to his swing. We made some adjustments in his setup just kind of getting him to bend his knees to get into a better posture position before he starts to stride which just makes it easier for him to keep himself under control when he does stride. His biggest issue was that his body was flying forward so quickly that at times it was making it hard for him to see the ball. When we controlled that move forward simply by getting him down in his legs a little more to where he could balance more, from there it was all just using his athleticism to get the barrel to the ball.
Q: Shortstop Willi Castro had a nice year (126 G, .258 AVG, 7 HR, 49 RBI, .653 OPS). You had him in 2015 at Short-A Mahoning Valley so have really had a chance to see his growth the last two years. What kind of strides did you see from last year to this year?
KH: He has taken huge steps in being able to drive the ball. I know he only had 7 homers, but the way the ball was coming off the bat was a lot harder. He is still only 19 so he has a lot of ways to go in that area and is getting stronger. He was the biggest difference from one year to the next that I saw as far as the ball coming off the bat. He is a really talented player and still dealing with the grind of playing every day at shortstop which is not easy on a 19 year old body. I think when he gets used to that you are going to see some big things from him offensively.
Q: What does Castro need to work on improving?
KH: For him at the plate it is the same thing as in the field, and that is coming every single day to have his focus 100% there and avoid going through the motions and wasting at bats. I think every professional hitter wastes at bats at some point through the year, but I think the best hitters waste less than those that are not as good. For Willi, I think he wastes more at bats than a guy who is two or three years older than him. I think as he matures and develops a plan for each at bat, his numbers are going to go way up.
Q: Second baseman Tyler Krieger was a 2015 Draft pick who sat out his draft year and made his organization debut this year at Lake County. He split the season between Lake County and High-A Lynchburg and had a great showing (128 G, .299 AVG, 5 HR, 58 RBI, .794 OPS). What impression did he leave on you before moving up to Lynchburg?
KH: From a hitting coach’s standpoint, he is what you call a low maintenance type of player. He doesn’t need a lot of coaching. He knows himself, knows his swing and knows a lot about the game already. For him, it is just about keeping him on time, keeping him balanced, keeping him in rhythm and just getting in good practice. Just keep him comfortable and confident. From an improvement standpoint, he has to get stronger and mature physically. He has to get used to the daily grind of playing every day as well. Playing infield every day is tough on the knees and hips. Once he learns how to do the prep work and do everything he needs to do so he can keep his body fresh so he can run and swing a 100% everyday he is going to see huge strides in his career.
Q: Do you think Krieger has a chance to show more pop down the road?
KH: I do. I think he hits the ball hard enough to hit home runs. I tell people that all the time. I think when he learns how to backspin the ball a little more his home run numbers are going to go up. I don’t think it is a matter of him not being able to drive the ball, as he shows in batting practice he can hit the ball way out of the yard. Sometimes with a young hitter it takes them a little time in the minor leagues to figure some things out and then you will see those power numbers come.
Q: Outfielder Connor Marabell was a key guy for you all season and was probably your team MVP (130 G, .298 AVG, 7 HR, 69 RBI, .807 OPS). He was an underrated player coming into the season but has since opened some eyes and made himself a lot more interesting. What did you like about his year?
KH: He naturally hits the ball hard. Similar to Mejia, he had some issues with controlling his body and with over striding. To be honest, he really worked hard in the offseason on things he came up with himself to keep him in control. He got consistent with the way he wanted to load. He got efficient with the way he wanted to use his body. His control change is about as much as I have seen in a kid from one year to the next and it turned himself into a really good hitter.
Q: Marabell’s performance between Short-A Mahoning Valley in 2015 and this past season at Lake County was like night and day. What was the big reason for that improvement?
KH: Baseball is all about consistently and repeating your mechanics. I think at times in Mahoning Valley he showed the kind of hitter he has become now, but I think the consistency was not there. I think it is a credit to his work ethic. He has a lot of determination and as much as I have seen in a player since I have been coaching. He was determined to get himself under control. He was very realistic with himself with what he needed to work on, which is very difficult for a player to do. Once he realized what he needed to do he was determined to fix it. He still has a lot of stuff he needs to do, but he is on the right track and has a good idea of the direction he needs to go.
Q: Infielder Sam Haggerty had an inconsistent year (100 G, .230 AVG, 4 HR, 39 RBI, .642 OPS) but also dealt with a few injuries. He’s another guy you had last season at Short-A Mahoning Valley. How is he coming along?
KH: He actually had a good year last year as far as production went; he was just hurt a lot of the year. This year it was a little bit of the same as he wasn’t able to stay healthy. But he has some ability in there as he has a lot of speed, some explosiveness and some power. I think that when he starts to develop just learning how to be a better hitter and learning how to have an approach and execute that approach, he has a shot. There are not a lot of guys who can play the infield, outfield and run the way he does. He just needs to continue to develop as a hitter. I think since he came back from his injury around the All Star break his numbers got better. He started to figure some things out and if he can continue to move in that direction he will be good.
Q: What can Haggerty do to get on-base and put up quality at bats more consistently?
KH: He does swing at strikes and takes his walks. His strike zone discipline is very good. For him it is just about getting on time to hit a fastball consistently. He will foul back and miss some hittable pitches that he is capable of driving. When he figures out how to be on time and keep the bat in the zone long enough to hit those fastballs a little more consistently, he is going to see himself in a whole new light in the organization.
Q: Infielder Yonathan Mendoza is another jack-of-all-trades player on the roster who you can move around (87 G, .261 AVG, 2 HR, 34 RBI, .650 OPS). What do you like with the bat?
KH: Yonathan is a valuable guy to have around just because he can play so many positions and he is going to give you good at bats. Similar to Haggerty, he sees the ball well. He takes his walks and doesn’t swing at a lot of balls. He needs to learn to use his whole body to drive the ball. He has good hands and can get the barrel to the ball; there just is not a lot behind it at times. He has shown power in limited times, and if he can learn to do that more consistently he is going to be a lot better as a whole package.
Q: Outfielder Bobby Ison was another role guy on the team (98 G, .224 AVG, 3 HR, 36 RBI, .590 OPS). He sort of is what he is as a player, but is it his personality and makeup that make him such a great fit on any team?
KH: He is just really a superior clubhouse guy. He is liked by all of his teammates. He sets an example on how to go about your business every day, the way to focus, the way to work in the cage and the way to work on stuff in the outfield. He has some ability in there, too. He has the ability to work at bats and work counts to make a pitcher earn it. He makes pitchers work. Having him around was a plus this year.