As long as he couldn't get on base, his defense and speed alone would not make him the leadoff hitter the Padres had in mind when they drafted him. To help this, the Padres and Noel worked tirelessly in the offseason to make Rico a switch-hitter. You will often see a player learn a new defensive position or give up being a switch-hitter, but rarely do you see a hitter learn how to hit from the other side of the plate.
The results from the offseason effort have been promising. Through the first half of this season Noel was hitting .304/.359/.333 with 46 stolen bases and 46 runs scored. Despite a late-season slide, Noel has a chance to top 100 stolen bases on the year and is reaching base at a .362 clip from the left side.
We caught up with Rico to talk about hitting from the other side of the plate.
After 62 stolen bases last year, you were already at 70 in July. What is helping you steal so many bases?
Rico Noel: I've been a little bit more aggressive this year. I like to challenge my skills, and not be intimidated by a pitcher that has a really fast time to the plate. I don't see a really good catcher or a fast pitcher as a reason not to steal, rather as more of a reason to steal so I can test myself.
Do you do much research on the pitchers before the game?
Rico Noel: Yes and no. For the most part I stick to what I do best and just make sure I get a good jump. Most of the research comes as a hitter. I will know what a pitcher throws, and if I know the pitcher mainly throws a sinker or offspeed pitches, I know they will be easier to run on.
On base I might spend the first few pitches trying to pick up on their moves and any tendencies they have. Sometimes I will make a mental note if they do something weird and see if I can use that to my advantage.
What has the transition been like to switch-hitting?
Rico Noel: I think it has just helped me see the ball better. It was a lot of hard work but I am hitting 50 points higher than I did last year so it is all worth it.
At the beginning though, it was really difficult. There would be pitches right down the middle that you know you should hit hard, and I would barely tap it. I think the biggest thing was just getting my body comfortable to swinging from the opposite side of the plate. I had to trust that the coaches knew what they were doing.
Since this is my first year switch hitting, I am a little bit more patient than I normally am. I am walking a little bit more this year but also striking out more. Most of my strikeouts come from the left side (113 K in 319 AB, vs 18 in 118 from the right). But it should all improve as I get more comfortable with it.
How did the transition happen? Did you come to them or did they come to you?
Rico Noel: They approached me. Before I got drafted, a lot of different organizations would ask me if I ever switch hit or ever thought about switch hitting. I never had. So the San Diego Padres took a chance when they drafted me and asked me at the end of last year if I would try it.
I learned it and worked hard over the offseason, and I was told that they just wanted me to try it this year, and if it didn't work I could scrap it. So far though, it has been a success, so I don't plan on giving up on it anytime soon.
Has your bunting changed now that you are hitting from the left side as well?
Rico Noel: Yes, it has improved and helped me reach base more as I am able to get out of the box quicker. It was also something that I had to get comfortable with, and even now it is still not always comfortable, but I think it has helped my game.
How important is the first step for an outfielder? What helps you get such a great first step and early jump on balls?
Rico Noel: The biggest thing I think is never taking a pitch off. You have to stay focused every pitch because you never know when one will be hit into the gap and that first step could be the difference in the game. The first step is more of a mental game and developing an effective pre-pitch routine than it is the speed of the player.
I personally will focus on every pitch and will start to lean one way or another before the batter even takes the swing because I know where the pitch is being thrown.
Do scouting reports play a large part in it?
Rico Noel: For the most part scouting reports will just tell us where to play, right center, left center, etc. The rest of it is just our own instincts. You need to pay attention to the pitcher, where the pitch is at, reading the hitter, it is the game behind the game to get you prepared to take that first step.
You've played mainly center but have started a few game in right and left. Is center your favorite position?
Rico Noel: Definitely. My favorite thing is to take extra base hits away from players. I love diving in the gap and seeing the look on the hitters faces when I take extra base hits away from them. I have a lot of pride in that.
Now that you are more of an all-around player, what are you most proud about your game?
Rico Noel: I just try to be an all-around player. Obviously I know I am not a guy who is going to hit for power, but all around meaning that everything I do I try to be better than everyone else. So I just pride myself on my all around game.