Name: Nick Hundley
DOB: September 8, 1983
And the Oregon native took to his lessons well, improving in every facet.
Drafted in the second round of the 2005 MLB Draft, Hundley was touted as a sound defensive catcher. But the opposite proved true. He had trouble blocking balls in the dirt and didn't make much progress in his second season professionally.
After beginning his career in the Northwest League and hitting .250, Hundley moved up to Fort Wayne for a 10-game span to end the year. He started with the Low-A Wizards in 2006 and was moved up after half a season, hitting .274 with eight homers and 44 RBIs in 57 games. He made good on the promotion, batting .278 with 16 extra base hits over 47 games with the Storm.
A patient hitter, Hundley had to improve on his work behind the dish.
Injuries pushed Hundley up a league, allowing him to begin the year in Double-A when a half season of High-A probably would have been wise.
He earned a place on the Texas League postseason All-Star team for his efforts.
The work with the mitt told the real story.
After allowing 18 passed balls in his previous season, Hundley cut that number in half and was much more nimble behind the plate. He improved his footwork and lateral ability to get in front of the ball. Rather than a late reaction, which plagued him in the past, he was side-stepping to allow the ball to hit his chest protector if needed and softening the tendency for the ball to fly to the backstop.
His throwing also improved. His glove to mitt exchange was smoother, his footwork surer and the accuracy of his throws was near pinpoint with less loft than in the past.
"Nick is constantly making progress," former San Antonio and current Portland manager Randy Ready said. "I think he might have been one of the most talked about players in the Texas League all summer long in his quick release, how agile he was looking back there and how comfortable he started working – giving the pitchers confidence in calling their games and hitting their spots and getting the job done."
"Nick Hundley made a lot of improvement," former San Antonio and current Portland pitching coach Glenn Abbott said. "He was a pleasure to be around. He had a smile on his face everyday."
Hundley credited an off-season of working hard on his throwing to the added strength and accuracy. He threw out 29-of-80 baserunners attempting to steal, good for 36.3 percent, during his Double-A tour.
His feel for calling the game also improved. He worked to a pitcher's strengths and didn't vary unless he saw something specific in a hitter. Hundley also called for the inside fastball a lot more – demanding his pitchers use the pitch effectively.
Bringing out the best of the pitching staff was a credit to Hundley and his management of the game. He became a vocal leader and took pride in his work. His desire to be the best and provide the best for his staff was an example of his makeup and work ethic.
"He really took it to heart that the number one priority was catching and putting down the right fingers and number two was my offense," Ready said. "Nick really started separating those two things this year. He really grew a lot this year and made a big jump to be successful at the Double-A level."
Ironically, at times, he will work too hard before the game. With duties that include bullpen sessions and finding time to hit and work on his catching, Hundley will put in too much effort and get fatigued. A coach has to step in on his behalf, allowing someone else to shoulder the day's load.
"When he wasn't catching, he was in the bullpen," Abbott added. "He was always on time. He just enjoyed what he did. Nick and I talked a lot. He made a lot of improvement understanding – I talked to him like I talked to the pitchers. He made a lot of adjustments. He learned to take charge even more; he learned to be more of a leader on the field. It showed with the work he did with the pitchers."
"Even though he did improve his catching, his throwing was still inconsistent and he is going to have to continue to work on that," former Padres minor league field coordinator and current MLB scout Bill Bryk said.
The speed of the game offensively was a challenge for Hundley. He had a small sample of games at High-A and the biggest leap in the minors is considered to be the move up to Double-A. He didn't have the confidence early on at the dish and was no stranger to peaks and valleys in '07.
The first two months of the year saw Hundley hit .230 before he burst onto the Double-A scene by hitting a healthy .273 over the next two months with 13 homers. He struggled down the stretch, batting just .231 the rest of the way.
Finishing the season with a .247 average, the right-handed hitting Hundley tied for fourth in the Texas League with 20 bombs while adding 23 doubles and 72 RBIs.
His swing got a little long at times and he tried to do too much with each pitch – giving max effort – rather than taking an easier swing and making good contact.
"Last year, when he came he struggled a little bit at the beginning but seemed to find his way," former San Antonio and current Fort Wayne hitting coach Tom Tornicasa said. "Having him for half a season last year, it was a little easier for both of us to try and get him back on track.
"He does have a little problem getting jumpy and getting too quick. Nick is one of those guys when that goes bad for him – he goes worse more often than other people. He really needs to concentrate on keeping everything slow. Slow his approach so he can see the ball.
"He got into that period where he was red hot for a while and then cooled off. It took us a couple of weeks to get him back on track."
He has a good eye and could be even more selective at the dish, but believes he can hit most pitches and will chase outside the zone. He is pull-happy and the result is often weak ground outs to the shortstop when he does not go with pitches on the outside corner.
Hundley has to concentrate on hitting his pitch while cutting down on the lift in his swing. He will get uppercut heavy and try and lift balls that need a more level swing with concentration on hitting the gaps. He has the strength and power to hit balls out but will undercut balls – making for routine pop outs or fly outs.
"I think he will hit for some power – he may not hit for high average but he will hit for power in the big leagues," Bryk said.
ETA: Hundley is a step away from aiding the Padres and could be in line for a backup job by 2009. He has improved tenfold behind the plate and should improve offensively as he ages and continues to understand his strike zone.
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