MadFriars' Interview: Rico Noel

EL PASO, TX - Anyone that has played in a baseball game with someone much better usually comes up with a solution on making things fair. Make him bat from the other side, if he’s right-handed make him bat left or vice versa.

Usually after watching the former superstar take some ungainly hacks order is restored in the universe and all is right.

Now imagine being a professional baseball player and entering into your second year the organization decides that it would be a great idea if you learned to hit from the left side for the first time since you have played baseball.

Welcome to the world of Rico Noel.

In 2011 the Padres asked Noel to become a switch-hitter to take advantage of his speed envisioning him as a lead-off hitter at the big league level. Noel, 25, who was taken in the fifth round of the 2010 draft from Coastal Carolina University can play all three outfield positions, and was named by Baseball America as the Padres’ top defensive outfielder in 2012.

Additionally, he has not only been able to steal bases but has been highly efficient with his best year coming in 2010 where he stole 62 bases in 67 attempts.

Still the prospect of learning how to switch-hit as you progress up the ladder against better and better pitching is truly an accomplishment. We sat down with Rico to talk about the challenges of learning to switch-hit on the fly.

After a slow start Rico has been heating up in July with a .345/441/.414 slash line.

You only began switch-hitting in your second year as a professional at High-A Lake Elsinore in 2011. As a natural right-handed hitter how have you progressed from the left side?

Rico Noel: The biggest thing is knowing what pitches I can handle and making adjustments a lot quicker. You start to notice how a team is trying to pitch to you and begin making your adjustments.

Now I am able to do that from series to series and from at-bat to to at-bat especially since we have played against many of the same guys at different levels in past years.

When you talk about what you “can handle” does that mean what you can drive? Are you like most left-handed hitters and are looking for something that is down and in?

Rico Noel: I wouldn’t say that, its just knowing my game. I’m not a guy that is expected to drive the ball out of the park on a consistent basis. My biggest thing is just trying to work up the middle.

The main thing is that I want to with every at-bat is get a good pitch to hit. So many of these pitchers have so much experience that they have faced guys like me before. So my biggest thing is just worrying about me and not getting to caught up in what the pitcher is trying to do to me.

How are you different as a right-handed hitter as compared to a lefty? Some switch-hitters are different from each side.

Rico Noel: Eventually you become the more of the same type of hitter. Hitting left-handed has helped me clean up some things on the right side. But my approach of what I am trying to do is pretty much the same; the bat is the same as is the stance.

I may be a little more aggressive right-handed when it comes to certain pitches. I’m a little more selective left-handed.

Since you get so many more at-bats from the left side how do handle how much you work on both sides? Do you take a few more left-handed than right-handed swings?

Rico Noel: I usually take the first two rounds left-handed. Then start hitting from the right. I really work more on my bunting from the left side.

I was going to ask how you are progressing on your baserunning but you have consistently had a high success rate throughout your career. So since you have been successful since you became a pro what have you been doing to improve?

Rico Noel: The past few years I’ve been trying to test my limits, to find out how aggressive I could be on a daily basis. Now at the higher levels it’s more about just playing the game correctly, running to help your team not for the numbers.

Like Dave Roberts said the true test is can you steal that bag when everyone in the park knows that you are running? That is what I am really striving for.

Dave Roberts [the Padres’ bench coach and baserunning instructor] has helped me out tremendously and he really made it a point to work with me during spring training. I love being around him; he really went out of his way to help me out.

I’ve always enjoyed watching you play the outfield, especially in the corners because you are not the biggest guy in the world but have a pretty powerful arm that many times the opposition doesn’t know about it.

Where do you get your arm strength from?

Rico Noel: When I was younger I didn’t really have an arm but it’s something that I always wanted. So in the off-season I really try to work on making sure that I have the proper mechanics. The main thing is to make sure you are accurate.

Sometimes we get lost in not really getting the details of the fundamentals right and that is something that I really try to focus on.

Is long toss one of the things you work on?

Rico Noel: Long toss does help but I focus on how I grip the ball, make sure I get that good four-seam grip, and staying behind it. It doesn’t happen like that all the time in the game but trying to keep it down and throw through the ball.

My arm strength has increased every year and I really love throwing guys out.

You are a switch-hitter, play all three outfield positions. Can you think of anything else that can keep you busy during the day?

Rico Noel: [laughs] I actually went to college to play middle infield, but haven’t done that recently. Right now I’m just working on getting better in the outfield and with my hitting.

On the field I’m at ease and just want to just keep working on getting better.

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