Cleveland Indians outfield prospect Bradley Zimmer is having himself a fantastic spring.
He’s 6-for-20 with a few walks as of this writing, and he also recorded two tape measure home runs. Despite being a non-roster invitee, he’s certainly making his presence known in Arizona and demonstrating the offensive prowess that made him a top draft pick. All this a year following what proved to be a dreadful first stint in Triple-A Columbus, where he struck out more than 37 percent of the time, slugged only .425 between Columbus and Akron (only .305 after promotion) and looked nothing like the best young player in the Tribe system that he was supposed to be. He even lost his No. 1 Baseball America prospect ranking to Francisco Mejia.
It was a bit disheartening. But in this case, it’s likely there was reason for the struggles. Zimmer was completely reworking his swing. For a young man who has nearly reached the top echelon of this sport, this is an amazing move to undertake. It’s proof not only that baseball is the most difficult of the major sports to master but also that the road success isn’t always smooth.
Zimmer isn’t the only young Indian that struggled through big changes last year in hopes of getting better. Trevor Bauer was dealing with a whole new delivery (or at least a tweaked one) and both he and pitching coach Mickey Callaway have said it was a driving force for his occasional wildness. At his best, he looks like how he did when the Indians won 14 straight. At his worst, he walked five batters and gave up eight runs in 2 and two thirds innings. He had one of the most schizophrenic seasons I’ve seen in a while, ERA leaping from 3.30 in the first half to 5.36 in the second half, and swinging wildly month to month too. Looking back it was plain he was working on something, and intermittently mastering it before losing feel again. It makes the prospect of this season interesting at the least, and downright thrilling at best.
One of the billion old adages around baseball is that it’s a game of adjustments, both in-game and throughout the season. But whereas seeing older players make changes to their stance or swing is part of the eternal battle against time that all players face, seeing two youngsters in Bauer and Zimmer make these ostensibly major changes now is fascinating. Obviously they want to make a lot of money, which would happen if Zimmer's new swing became Donaldson-esque or Bauer's new motion turned him into a young Greg Maddux.
Of course, they’d get paid if these adjustments allowed really just made them able to play any regular amount of major league baseball at all. But they can do that already. I am willing to bet if Zimmer got called up on Opening Day, he'd have a career spanning several years. He had the tools to be a decent glove-first outfielder who could hit a bit. If Jordan Schafer can get six years of playing time somehow and still be signed to a team, I see no reason why Zimmer, who is better, couldn't get a decade and qualify for that pension.
With Bauer, what's so interesting with all his tinkering is how vocal he is about it. As frustrating as it might be for coaches or certain catchers, it's neat to hear him talk about the game in such an advanced scientific manner, and discuss what he's trying to do to players and simply with the ball. He treats baseball like a hobby. Admittedly it's frustrating watching at times, both because of the continued high walk numbers and his hard-headed desire to go upstairs with fastballs, even if that's just what Brian Dozier wants. The theory that it’s harder to get around on and weakens contact, and it's neat to hear about that theory and why it should work. It’s just that reality is a bitch sometimes.
I don't know what it takes to really be good at baseball. I played when I was like 10, and got decent at wiffle ball for a while. But it's truly amazing the quality of pure athlete that can easily be completely devoured by the professional game, while seeming schlubs put together long careers. Zimmer has all the raw tools to stick around for awhile, so does Bauer, but they want to do more than stick around. Sweeping, revolutionary changes like rebuilding a swing or a delivery are huge undertakings, and these tinkerings could lead to brilliance. It’s not just natural talent that leads the way. Surely even Mike Trout is constantly tweaking and fiddling even if we don't hear about it. Because he's actually a robot. And that tinkering is just upgrading firmware, like the “hit fastball up in zone .exe” he had installed a few years back.
But for normal humans. it's encouraging to hear these guys working to be something greater than they already are. Bauer has proven to be a three-ish WAR player, which is a useful commodity in baseball. Ian Kennedy got several Brinks trucks worth of cash (actually more than 80 tons in single dollar bills) for being considerably less than that. But Bauer wants to be something more than Ian Kennedy. I recognize that these guys are top flight athletes in their game but I like that they aren't okay with plateauing. Zimmer's minor league numbers probably would have gotten him to the majors this year, something he may have delayed in this adjustment. He's literally costing himself money. But this is in the pursuit of something more than money. It's not often we are able to get away from merely rooting for laundry,but these are two young players who I am hoping break through to some level of greatness.
Other young guys are probably working just as hard, but I don't hear about that, so I don’t know to care as much. I know these two have goals, and a path to that goal. Whether a new way to throw the ball or a new swing path, they want to baseball better, working for the future at the cost of the now. That’s kind of neat.