Lone Star Dugout Q&A: John Whittleman

After struggling with Single-A Clinton in 2006, third baseman John Whittleman is having little problem dominating the Midwest League this season, as he leads the league in batting average, on base percentage, and slugging percentage. Lone Star Dugout chatted with the native Texan before a recent game.

When the Rangers took Houston native John Whittleman in the second round of the 2005 draft, it was because he was widely regarded as the best pure high school hitter in the state of Texas.

Whittleman appeared to live up to those accolades in his debut with the Rookie League Arizona Rangers in 2005, as he hit .279 with 12 doubles, eight triples, and 35 walks in just 51 games.

A shortstop in high school, Whittleman made the permanent switch to third base at the beginning of the 2006 season. Whittleman, who played the entire season with Single-A Clinton of the Midwest League, struggled both at the plate and in the field for the majority of the year. The Kingwood High School product hit just .227 with nine home runs and 43 RBI in 466 at-bats.

Playing in his second season with the LumberKings, Whittleman currently tops the Midwest League in batting average (.372), on base percentage (.459), and slugging percentage (.694). Scout.com's Dave Sanford caught up with the slugger before a recent game in Burlington, Iowa.

Dave Sanford: You grew up in Texas. Can you talk about what it means to be drafted by the Rangers?

John Whittleman: Being drafted by the Rangers is an honor. I grew up in Houston, so the Astros were always around, but I never really jumped on the Astros bandwagon. I was always an American League kind of kid. I grew up liking the Yankees and the Red Sox and those guys. The Rangers were always kind of a powerhouse hitting team, and I love to hit. It's definitely an honor to be drafted by them.

Sanford: You played in Hawaii Winter Baseball last offseason. Can you talk about that experience?

Whittleman: It was a great experience. Being surrounded by a bunch of great players of higher experience than me, you learn and feed off what they do. Guys like that will make you step your game up and bring your game to the next level. I was fortunate enough to have [Mike] Micucci, who is our head coach here. He was our hitting coach there, so we kind of got a chance to get on the same page. It was a good experience just to be around him and those higher caliber players.

Sanford: I understand you experienced an earthquake while you were there?

Whittleman: It was a scary experience. Our second baseman Jose Vallejo and Micucci were there. It was a crazy experience. John Mayberry and I were staying together. We roomed out there together, and we were on the 31st floor of this building. It was early in the morning and all of the sudden the building started shaking. We were freaking out and Mayberry came running into my room. He thought somebody was robbing us. I was freaking out and it was a crazy experience altogether.

Sanford: Last year in Clinton you struggled a little bit, but you were among the league leaders in walks. Is plate discipline a big part of your game?

Whittleman: Definitely. Nothing against any of the umpires in this league, but as you move up, I think the strike zone gets tighter and umpires get better. That's why they're here. They're training to get moved up. Once you move up as a player, I think the strike zone shrinks. I think plate discipline is a very big thing, but that doesn't take away from your aggressiveness at the same time. If you go up there just free hacking, pitchers have the advantage at that point. But I think if you have good plate discipline and if you know the strike zone decently well, you're going to succeed as you move up.

Sanford: You hit nine home runs last season, but seven came in one month. What would you attribute to that surge?

Whittleman: I think it was just getting to the All Star break and clearing my mind a little bit. You have so much running through your mind as you go struggling into the first half of the season. I think just clearing your mind as a whole and getting that three-day break helps. I actually got the privilege to fly home and get my mind cleared and just hang out with the family a little bit. I got to hit with some of my old buddies and one of my old coaches back home. I kind of got my mind free and just kind of got back to my old ways. I was able to carry that over into the second half.

Sanford: How do you feel your season is going so far?

Whittleman: So far I would say it's been a pretty good success. I got sent back here for a reason and I want to be able to come out here as a dominator of this league. There are a lot of good players in this league and it's pretty much a pitcher's dominated league. As you can tell, it's tough to have a good average in this league. I'm trying to make myself happy too. When you show up to the park and you're having a good day, then that just makes the whole season that much better. I think it's going well so far.

Sanford: Can you talk about your approach at the plate?

Whittleman: I just take what these coaches tell me. They help me a lot. You look for certain pitches. Last year I was one of those guys that sat on the bench and didn't really pay too much attention. I watched the game and rooted guys on, but I didn't really focus in too hard. I got the privilege to go to Hawaii and sit around those higher caliber guys, and they told me to study the pitchers and study what he throws because he's going to throw the same thing to me. I carried that over to this year and I've kind of taken my approach to where I sit on certain pitches in certain at-bats. If they don't throw it to me, I tip my hat to them if they throw it for strikes.

Sanford: How do you feel your defense is progressing?

Whittleman: I feel that it has come a long ways. We're not naïve as athletes. There are reporters out there and people out there that talk trash all the time. I've read stuff saying that I couldn't field a baseball to save my life. You take that personally as a player, but you take it as a challenge. I feel my fielding has come a long ways and it should get better as I move up. I was fortunate enough to have Mike Brumley as a field coordinator and he's taught me a lot as time has gone on. He and Andy Fox, who is now the first base coach for the Marlins. I had them last year as a first-year third baseman, and they've helped my game out a whole lot. I've got Mike Micucci this year and he's just taken my game to another level. I have no doubts that it's just going to get better as I go on. You learn more and more everyday, so it's been good.

Sanford: Is there anything in particular that you're working on defensively?

Whittleman: Definitely. As a third baseman last year, I was unsure of the depth that I should play at. Sometimes I was at five and five and sometimes I was at six and six. That means six steps deep, six steps over. This year I've kind of deepened it up and gone to a new depth. It's basically back to my old ways playing shortstop. I feel comfortable over there and I think that's probably the biggest change that I've made. I've gone to a new area to play in and reading hops and taking different angles to balls. It's helped me out a lot.

Sanford: What would you say your goals are for the rest of the season?

Whittleman: We definitely want to clinch a playoff spot in this first half. We're fortunate enough to be in first place right now and we're playing well as a team. As a player, you want to move up in your career, but with the chemistry that we have on this team, I would not mind staying here. But it's part of the game and you're going to have to get moved up. Guys are going to get moved up when it's unexpected, but our goal is to win a championship this year.

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