The list of minor league accolades and awards that bear Hak-Ju Lee's name year after year drag on but are worth tallying.
2009: TOPPS Short-Season All-Star. 2010: Midwest League Mid-Season All-Star, Futures Game Selection and MiLB.com Organization All-Star. 2011: Florida State League Mid-Season All-Star, Futures Game Selection, FSL Post-Season All-Star and MiLB.com Organization All-Star.
Before the start of the 2012 season, Baseball America said the shortstop, who the Rays acquired in the deal that sent Matt Garza to the Cubs in 2011, was the organization's best defensive infielder and fastest baserunner.
Many agreed, including Biscuits manager Billy Gardner, who has plugged Lee into the leadoff spot of his lineup card every game despite early struggles.
In April, Lee would strike out once every six at-bats. In May, the dubious number was four. The batting average and on-base percentage in the first half were far from indicative of a leadoff hitter: .243, .312, respectively.
Then, things picked up.
In 19 games since the Southern League All-Star break, he has hit .337.
"In the first half of the season I struck out too much," Lee said. "What's been different is that if I strike out now, I don't go back to playing shortstop thinking that, ‘Oh wow, I just struck out.' I focus on hitting when I'm hitting and not when I'm playing shortstop."
Biscuits hitting coach Ozzie Timmons and Rays minor league hitting coordinator Steve Livsey have both said that Lee's numbers have improved because he has learned what type of hitter he is, has learned to recognize off-speed pitches and a lot of plain old hard work in the cage.
"It's been better timing than anything else," Livesey said. "The first part of hitting breaking balls is to recognize them and then you develop plate discipline. He also has not been looking for walks, but taking his walks."
Along the way Lee has set a Biscuits franchise hit-streak record of 21 consecutive games and will look to extend the streak on Thursday on the road versus Jacksonville.
"I feel really good and I don't really think about the hitting streak," the Korean-born player said. "What is important is that I've been working hard every day."
Lee's batting practice vitally consists of high-tee work. His 20 or so swings at the baseball placed high on a tee helps him to get on top of the ball and utilize his speed to beat out groundballs.
"This year I know that high tee is good for me to hit line drives and hard ground balls," he said.
His bunt-single on Monday, which preserved his streak, is more conducive to the type of hitter and player he is projected to be at higher levels.
"That's going to be his calling card as a hitter," Livesey said.
While Lee's bat was expected to come along slowly in his first full-season at the Double- A level, his glove was already "major league ready," according to his manager.
Despite his 18 errors already this season, many agree with Gardner's sentiment. The seemingly daily highlight-reel plays are enough to convince any doubters.
"It's absolutely nothing to be concerned about," said Rays' minor league field coordinator Jim Hoff in regards to the high total of errors. "Sometimes his natural quickness gets in his own way. He tries to be a little too quick at times when he doesn't really have to be."
Lee's strengths at the shortstop position include his powerful arm and quick exchange from glove to bare hand with the ball, according to Hoff, who has been involved with baseball for more than 35 years.
"He's got the chance to be a really good defensive player," Hoff said. "He's got all the defensive ability."
For a player who has had to learn English as a professional, Lee has adapted to the other parts of playing the position — calling pick-offs, cutoff plays and covering steals — fairly well.
"Baseball is a universal language," said his double-play partner Tyler Bortnick.
Along with the hitting streak and fielding, Lee's baserunning has mightily improved at the Double-A level as well.
After being caught stealing seven times in the first half, Lee has adjusted and has not been gunned down yet since the break. He has 28 steals this season after 33 bags between his stints with High-A Charlotte and Montgomery in 2011.
"Before the pitch, I just try to read the pitcher and get a good jump," Lee said. "Every 2-1 or 0-2 count I go. If the pitcher throws a curveball, I'm going."
The highly-touted prospect — after missing out on an invitation to the Southern League's All-Star game this season and instead taking his hitting struggles with him to the infield — said he is ready to put all the tools of his game together and one day soon suit up as a Ray.
"It does take some time but mentally he has really matured as a player. When players go through that at the lower levels, that's a good thing," Hoff said. "When they move up they can say that they've already been through that and know what has to be done."
Will Sammon is the Montgomery Biscuits beat writer for Rays Digest. You can follow him on Twitter at @WillSammon.
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