Name: Chad Huffman
DOB: April 29, 1985
A second-round pick in 2006, Huffman blazed through his first professional stop, hitting .343 with nine homers and 27 extra base hits across 54 games. He also led the Northwest League in on-base percentage, was second in slugging and was a postseason All-Star. He was promoted to Fort Wayne at the end of the season and went 3-for-14 over five games.
Skipping Low-A, Huffman moved to Lake Elsinore. He dominated California League pitching, hitting .307 with 36 extra base hits, including 15 homers, while driving in 76 in 84 contests. Promoted to Double-A, Huffman hit seven more dingers and notched 28 RBI, giving him a system-leading 104 RBI on the year.
Huffman was shipped back to Double-A San Antonio for the 2008 campaign. Despite hitting .357 during the month of May, Huffman's season was ordinary. The right-handed hitter batted .284 for the year with 40 extra base hits, although just nine left the yard. He scored 68 runs and notched 58 RBIs and touted a rather pedestrian .419 slugging percentage. Huffman drew 67 walks compared to 83 strikeouts for a .383 on-base percentage. He also hit .376 off left-handed pitching but .261 off right-handers.
The 53rd overall selection struggled at Nelson Wolff Stadium – where the wind blows in routinely from 15-20 mph – where he hit .256 with one homers. On the road, Huffman batted .318 with eight bombs.
The Texas native went on to play in the Arizona Fall League, hitting .208 with 11 extra base hits and 20 RBI in 24 games. He also drew 14 walks compared to 25 strikeouts for a .304 on-base percentage.
Pushed to Triple-A Portland in 2009, many insiders expected a huge season in the hitter-friendly Pacific Coast League. Those numbers did not come to fruition until the final month of the season.
Eighteen of Huffman's 52 extra base hits came over his final 36 games. He netted 34 through his first 99 contests and was hitting .233 on August 1 but swatted .357 down the stretch to up his average to .269 for the year.
Huffman ended the year with 65 runs scored and 68 RBI on a terrible Portland squad. He also drew 57 walks compared to 115 strikeouts for a .361 on-base percentage. Without protection or anyone on base, Huffman's numbers look worse than they were.
"I just think it was a matter of him relaxing a little bit, not trying to do too much," roving infield coordinator Gary Jones, who took over as Portland's manager when Randy Ready moved up, said. "Just having him understand that ‘I can have success at this level. I can have success doing this.' His numbers bared that out. What does he have, 20 home runs with close to 70 RBI? I think in the future that 20 could turn into a bigger number. You are talking about a right-handed bat with power."
"I think as the season went along, he actually kind of slowly figured out that he had to make adjustments mentally, his whole thought process," former Portland and current San Antonio hitting coach Max Venable said. "He has the ability to play. He did give us some pretty good numbers for Triple-A, .268, 20 home runs. That was a pretty good year."
One of the areas where he struggled was against left-handed pitching. As a right-handed hitter, Huffman managed to hit .185 off southpaws in 130 at-bats. By contrast, he swatted .301 off righties.
"His contact has to get better along with better control of pitchers in the strike zone has to be better," former Padres vice president of scouting and player development Grady Fuson said. "The one thing I will really say about him is the kid is a battler, the more you throw at him the more he wants to make it happen. Wherever he has gone, he has never stopped working."
A solid foundation gives him a relatively consistent approach to hitting.
Huffman has a firm understanding of his hitting zone and rarely gets away from that thinking. If the pitch is a strike, but not in his zone, Huffman will allow the pitch to sail by without offering. This can be a blessing as much as a detriment. There are times when Huffman will find himself behind in the count by taking pitches. The slugging outfielder was not a very good hitter when down in the count – a spot he found himself facing 167 times in 2009.
The TCU alumnus does not expand his zone well and his two-strike approach does not change. If the pitch is close, Huffman will not waver by offering his bat. That has led to call third strikes where he let the umpire dictate the situation rather than taking control by battling off those tough pitches.
He has a short, compact stroke that allows him to utilize the entire field. He can pull the inside fastball and goes the other way on outside pitches, taking what the pitcher gives him and hitting where it is pitched.
"I think with Huff, we talked a lot about his thought process," Venable said. "We tried to tell him that ‘you are a fastball hitter. fastball, just off the fastball.' We had to pound that into his head.
"A lot of times his thought process just wasn't quite right during the course of the season. But he got it, and he worked hard. He's another guy, along with Bax (Mike Baxter) and those guys, they're in there every day in the cage working on things, mechanically, and always talking about it about hitting and trying to get better. I think it all paid off. He ended up having a pretty good year."
"He started to understand some things mentally," roving hitting coordinator Tony Muser said. "He wants to yank. He wants to pull. He wants to hit home runs. He started to understand, and I think when he got to the Triple-A level, that there are more pitchers than can present soft to you. They don't give in to you. Pitchers create their success when they get into a fastball count – they get smarter. And here comes the changeup. Here comes the breaking ball.
"He got from a Double-A mode when most pitchers - when they say 50% of the time when they get two balls and one strike here comes a fastball. When they get three balls and one strike, here comes a fastball. When they get two balls and no strikes, here comes a fastball. On the Triple-A level, you get these crafty guys and then you know what, here comes the BP fastball, here comes a mediocre slider, here comes a changeup. He's biting at all these and rollover in pull mode."
With a few minor adjustments, the Padres believe he could be a 30-homer threat that boasts a high on-base percentage. It is one of the reasons he was protected during the off-season.
A lot of people felt he was out-thinking himself by giving pitcher's too much credit. No one, however, could come up with a player that works as hard as Huffman to improve. His intensity and work habits go beyond just arriving to the field early. Huffman studies pitcher's tendencies and habits so he can utilize the knowledge when he steps into the box. His diligent approach has many believing that while it may take time he will continue to make adjustments with positive results.
"He's learned to stay more to center and right side center and just think fastball; but now as the changeup is presented to him, he's got a swing to keep it fair and hurt you with a double down the line or hurt you with a ground ball in the shortstop-third base hole," Muser said. "He's starting to gain knowledge of pitching and I think that's where he's coming from. I think he's changed his direction from pull to center, to right center and engaging the fastball to that part of the field. Now with the changeup and the breaking ball, he's still on it. It's not swing and miss or pull foul."
"I don't know if you can really put a finger on what happened, maybe it was about catching up to the league," Fuson said. "Overall his end numbers, the 20 home runs, were about what we expected and pretty close to what he's done his whole career. You started to see him turn around in July; little by little the walks started to come up, he started to get into better counts and make better contact. For a strike hitter like himself it gives him much better odds for success."
Huffman is a solid defender that uses his smarts to get the job done. He does the little things well – knowing which base to throw to, makes accurate throws, and plays the carom of the wall with sure hands. He does not have exceptional range but has a strong enough arm to curtail a running game.
He can also steal a few bases but gets that from solid jumps. As studious as he is, Huffman understands what pitcher's he can attempt a theft against and uses that information to get quality jumps. He can also move from first to third on a single. Overall, he is a very smart base runner.
"What I saw the last month of the season: number one he works his tail off and I don't think that's anybody's groundwork," Jones said. "He has all the qualities that you need to get better as far as work habits and studying the game and studying pitchers; that kind of thing."
Conclusion: Huffman must get a little more aggressive with two strikes – and even early in the count. There are times when he allows good pitches to skate by, forcing bad counts upon himself. If he can improve in that area, Huffman can be a quality big leaguer that boasts power and on-base skills.
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