Spring Training will begin in less than a month, but sixteen young White Sox hitters already have a tuneup under their belts. In an annual tradition, the best and brightest White Sox position prospects convened at Camelback Ranch in Glendale, Arizona for a hitters' "mini-camp". The camp was heavily attended by members of the White Sox player development staff, including new Director of Player Development Chris Getz, Scouting Director Nick Hostetler, and major league Manager Rick Renteria. But it was White Sox Hitting Coach Todd Steverson who ran the camp and I was fortunate enough to chat with Todd in an exclusive interview for FutureSox.
Rob Young: What was your impression of the new players you may not have seen before at the mini-camp?
Todd Steverson: A lot of them I have seen before, since this is our fourth year doing the camp, many guys have been there multiple times before. The newest guy is obviously Moncada and I was glad he was able to attend and be able to start the relationship up. First off, I am not going to pigeonhole this kid into what he is or what he isn't from three or four days of batting practice. He hadn't done a lot of hitting coming into the camp, but just looking at his pure physicality and movement through batting practice, tee work, and soft toss, he has good hands and a nice approach. Hitting is a lot of timing, so him being a switch-hitter, he has to make sure he can corral his timing from both sides. He has roughly the same move from both sides, but it is tougher for switch-hitters. He obviously had a good year last year, but it was his first full season and he just basically needs to play the game. He's 21 years-old and he needs to learn how to mature within the game.
Rob: What were some of the things you were focused on emphasizing during the camp?
Todd: Every year we start off with a scheduled 30 minute meeting with all the guys and it ends up being about two hours. I want to get their thoughts and experiences and what happened to them last year and them to collaborate as a group about hitting. It can't always just come from the hitting guy. A long long time ago, there wasn't a hitting coach at the minor league level and all you had was your roommate or teammates. I love hitting conversations between players and that is what I try to create while interjecting here and there myself as well as my assistant Greg Sparks and the other coaches. We propose topics and just let them go. During those conversations you may understand a little more about a player because he opens up and talks about himself and you can go forward with a better knowledge of who this guy is. We don't try to cookie-cut our hitters at all, each player is an individual, and if you don't know who the player is its tough to work with him.
As far as drills go, we aren't trying to overextend ourselves, but lets get back into the groove, get your mouth salivating a little bit. Let's take a look at what you have been doing this offseason, as far as it relates to what we left you with last season. We do some defense work also, then we go back into the cage and see if there was something you felt, and we talk about it and work on it and see if we can't resolve some things before Spring Training. Spring Training is not the place to be working on things. You really want to knock out any issues you think you may have coming into Spring Training. I want these guys to come into Spring Training a hell of a lot more confident in their abilities than they might have otherwise been.
Rob: There was a few players in the camp that struggled last season at times, do you approach them any different than the guys coming off better years?
Todd: Yeah, but you know what? Struggling is part of the game. You almost worry about the guys that don't struggle. It may sound crazy, but if a guy has never had adversity in his career, it's coming. This game has taken the best down to their knees and they had to figure out a way to stand back up. That's just part of what we do because we live in an imperfect world as a hitter. The fact is we are always trying to be perfect as hitters but it is a very imperfect thing we do. You really have to be mentally strong, you really have to start to get to know yourself, so you can tell yourself the right things and apply the right approach. That is a lot of what we talk about in that meeting also. Its a never ending story; guys get hot, guys get cold, guys are in the middle. But the big question is, how do you get out of cold faster than staying there for one hundred at bats.
Rob: Getting specific about a guy who struggled last year, I spoke to Adam Engel mid-season about some of his struggles and some adjustments he made to a pre-swing movement he had during the Arizona Fall League that he called inconsistent. Where is Adam at now and how did he look to you in the camp?
Todd: He spoke to me about that and we tried a few things that would help him along to a better simplistic approach that would fit him and still allow him to be successful with his natural ability. Sometimes players get stuck on something and not that its wrong, it just doesn't feel right to them. The hardest part of coaching is I can't feel what he feels. His explanation to me needs to be good enough to where I can help him. I understood what he was talking about, we did a couple things. Not to say that's going to be the end-all, but it gives him a different thought process on what he had been stuck on. I think he appreciated the conversation and understands where we are going with it and if he sticks with it I think he will be successful. We try to give educated suggestions, but at the end of the day, we still want our players to be themselves. We are going to help them as much as we can, and explain to them as much as we can, but I don't want any hitter going up to the plate with just my swing or my thoughts. I need them to go up there with their brain and their own swing. I never want to strip a player of his athleticism. They been pretty good athletes to get here and this game can get really mental. This game can be really cerebral and once you are stuck in your brain you lose some athleticism, so we try to make it simple so the guys can stay athletic with a purpose.
Rob: You had three players from the 2016 draft class who you might have not seen as much previously at your mini-camp: Zack Collins, Alex Call, and Jameson Fisher. What was your impression of that trio?
Todd: I'll start with Fish, he wasn't able to do a whole lot physically, he had something going on so he was mostly working on that. But Fish, Collins, and Call are all nice draft picks. Collins is obviously the most highly touted one, being the first rounder. He has a good head on his shoulders and he wants to learn. He knows the game enough that he knows he needs to learn more about the game. He has had a lot of success at the college level, which is why he got picked where he was. He needs some time to learn how to play the professional game, but he has a leg up already because he is confident in himself. Between him, Call, and Fisher, these are some confident guys. They believe in what do. You can't really instill that in players, you just hope they already have it already, so I'll just say that's a plus on all three of them. I'll take that any day over someone who has a quote-unquote potential perfect approach but doesn't believe in what he does.
Rob: Call was a bit of a surprise to most fans in the 3rd round, but had an impressive debut last year. What does he do well in his swing?
Todd: I think Alex has an exceptional eye and understands the strike zone really well. He has a leg kick that he has incorporated into his approach, which could help him with some pop, it is what it is. At the end of the day its where is his position when he is throwing the barrel and I think he gets himself into a nice position most of the time.
Rob: Tim Anderson isn't a prospect anymore, but he certainly is a big success story of the White Sox system to develop a raw, toolsy hitter to the major league level. What are you working on with Tim and do you attribute his success to adjustments he's been able to make or more just pure talent coming through?
Todd: It's probably a 50/50 factor, because he is such a freak. He has been clobbered by guys around baseball for his lack of on base percentage, but the boy can hit. If you can hit, you can hit! The job is not to go in that box and take four balls its to barrel up a strike and hit it as hard as you can and that's what he does. Would he say and would I say his plate discipline would need to be a bit better? Probably, because these major league pitchers if they find a hole they will work on it. But he has the aptitude level and he's a smart kid to go up then and realize when he's doing himself wrong.
He did do a phenomenal job of coming through our system and in the big leagues. Who knows, people didn't think he was ready when we called him up. But he hit .283 or something like that, 7 or 8 homers, and scored 46 runs in about a half a season [.283, 9 HR's, 57 runs]. For him to do that as a rookie, while playing really good defense, that impressed me. I hadn't seen him on a day-to-day basis. Our conversations are about approach and how you want to get this dude. The fundamental part and the mechanical part has got to go out the window at some point and its about how do I approach this guy. If I get my pitch I need to be ready for it. Then, if you aren't doing so well, why am I doing things that aren't conducive to being productive? I think he understands, "ah I chased that, why did I chase that," and he maybe he won't chase it next time. He is so good with his hands he thinks he can hit anything. You don't ever want to take that away from him, that aggressiveness to the baseball. He just needs to realize, I can hit a lot of pitches, but I probably shouldn't because it doesn't have very good results. Any player that has played this game, including Vlad Guerrero, probably 90-95% of their hits have come off of strikes. You can't pull out a guy out and tell me all he hit was balls out of the zone. Can't do it. I'll go down in flames if anyone worried about me telling guys to be on time and ready for to hit a strike.
Thanks to Todd Steverson for taking the time to chat with me and thanks to the White Sox for arranging it. Stay posted for more FutureSox interviews with players and coaches as the season begins.
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