Crafort working on consistency

EUGENE-- Media day last week found the Eugene Emeralds tucked in their dugout waiting for the various members of the media to request an interview. To pass the time, the players socialized, cracked jokes and generally caroused, as men in their late-20s will tend to do. All the players engaged in this type of behavior but one, Willy Crafort.

Instead, Willy Crafort sat quietly at the end of the bench speaking quietly with catcher Brian Hernandez.

Crafort is shy and speaks very little English. His lack of knowledge of the language has not kept him from showing the Padres just what he is made of. Instead of his tongue, Crafort lets his game do the talking.

Signed on February 2, 2003, just seven days before his eighteenth birthday, Crafort is a product of San Pedro de Macoris, Dominican Republic. If that city sounds familiar it is because it is the same place that has borne Baltimore Orioles' fireballer Daniel Cabrera and Washington Nationals' slugger Alfonso Soriano.

In his first two years, Crafort struggled to show his talent. With the Dominican Summer League Padres, Crafort hit a paltry .185 with 51 hits in his first 277 professional at-bats. Not only was Crafort not getting hits, he was also struggling to get on base. In those first 109 games between 2003 and 2004, Crafort compiled a whopping 91 strikeouts against only 27 walks. His on-base percentage during that stretch was a meager .268.

Last year, though, flashes of Crafort's potential began to shine through. He began the season with DSL Padres once again and through 14 games hit a pedestrian .208 with ten hits in 48 trips. Of those ten hits however, four went for extra bases. Crafort slashed three doubles and one home run en route to a much improved slugging percentage of .333. Not only was Crafort hitting more, but also his eye at the plate was rapidly getting better. In those 14 games, Crafort struck out ten times and drew five bases on balls. This improved eye led to a 36-point jump in his OBP, earning Crafort a promotion to the Padres' Rookie League affiliate in Peoria.

Crafort's stock continued to rise once he came stateside. During the remainder of the season, he tallied a .248 average, which, when combined with his work in the DSL, gave him a career-best mark of .238 over 52 games. His power also continued to blossom once he reached Peoria. Over the course of the rest of the year, Crafort hit two more home runs and drove in 19 more, giving him three home runs and 22 RBIs on the year. His ten doubles and two triples in 2005 tied him for second and third on team, respectively. His best game of the year came on August 8 when he notched a season-best three hits, including a double, versus the AZL Giants.

Crafort cites a more level playing field as a major part in his upswing. In the Dominican Summer League, players of all levels are intermingled. This means that on any given day Crafort, who had not even cracked single-A, may be hitting off of a pitcher in Double or Triple-A. "The difference is, many big leaguers play in that league…in this league, everybody is on the same level," Crafort said.

One thing Crafort did noticeably struggle with during his time with Peoria was consistency. He started out ten for his first 29, good for a .313 average during his first eight games with his new club. Then things started to drop off. From July 21 until August 6 Crafort collected only five hits in his next 38 at-bats, sending his batting average plummeting down to .214. Curiously, Crafort's power was still apparent despite his overall slump with three of his five hits going for doubles.

Over the next three games, Crafort went 5-for-12, but followed that up with an 0-for-16 spell. He recorded 16 hits in the season's final 13 games to steady his average and keep his confidence afloat. One reason Crafort cited for his hot start and slow finish was the lack of breaking pitches he saw during his first weeks in Peoria. Soon thereafter, Northwest League pitchers began to realize that Crafort could handle a fastball and learned that if they began to mix in breaking balls they would have more success getting him out. This realization coincided with his the first slump. Eventually, though, he began to have more success and his average balanced out.

Since then, Crafort has been working hard to be able to more easily recognize and adjust to the breaking pitch once it leaves the pitcher's hand. In preparation for this season, Crafort spent time during last week's mini-camp with his new team, the Padres' short-season affiliate, the Eugene Emeralds, working with roving hitting instructor and former big league outfielder Rob Deer on fine-tuning what he learned about hitting the breaking ball.

Despite his overall inconsistency last season, Crafort's numbers at home on and on the road were remarkably similar. In 19 home games, Crafort hit .240 with 18 hits and seven runs driven in. In the same of amount of games on road, he also had 18 hits, but drove in five more runs. Crafort attributes this steadiness to his unchanging approach at the plate.

This year marks Crafort's first with the Emeralds. Manager Doug Dascenzo, also in his first year with Eugene, has high hopes for his new right-fielder. "Willy, now, is one hundred percent better than he was a year ago. And the progression he has made is what I like. And I think it's going to continue because of how he has gotten to this point. He's got tremendous power…he's shown a lot more aggressiveness in right field, from a year ago."

In his first game as an Emerald, Crafort showed how much he has grown, notching two hits in five trips, including a two-run home run to right-center field off of Boise's Jayson Ruhlman.

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