Late last May, Zach Vincej’s career was on life support. He’d turned 25 years old a few weeks earlier and was playing for the Reds’ Double-A affiliate in Pensacola—or, worse and more accurately, not playing for them.
“I was roled as a utility player,” Vincej recalled in a conversation with me last week. “So I wasn’t getting to play very much, I was getting into games late, not getting to play every day, and it was really hard to find a rhythm.”
Calten Daal, two years Vincej’s junior and with a bit more prospect sheen, might have held onto the starting shortstop gig all season if he’d stayed healthy. A 37th-round pick taking his second tour of the Southern League, Vincej was in danger of falling out of the Reds’ plans altogether. He’d never been considered a good enough hitter to project as a regular, despite his solid glove at short. In 2015, he batted .241/.347/.329, which matched his previous pro track record well and pretty much explains the Vincej the world knew. He’d always been patient, and despite being willing to get deep into counts, he reliably put the ball in play. It just didn’t go anywhere. He hit it on the ground too much and “tried to guide it to right field” when he got to two strikes.
In his limited opportunities, Vincej started 2016 even worse. Through May 23, he had eight walks and just 16 strikeouts in 108 plate appearances, but the contact he was making was barely more valuable than no contact at all. He was batting .202/.276/.223. Vincej is a good teammate and organizational soldier, and he’s a fine fielder, but 25-year-olds slugging .223 at Double-A aren’t long for pro ball.
Vincej was working on something, though. In fact, he was working on several somethings. “I just started working in the cage on trying to attack the ball, backspin the ball, maybe be a little more willing to hunt fastballs,” he told me. “I realized I needed to do more damage, get the head out, and I found a few ways to do that.”
There’s no high-tech twist or secret hitting guru in this story. Vincej says he picked the brain of hitting coach Alex Pelaez and those of roving instructors who would swing through, not just around the time of his transformation, but whenever he could. For the most part, though, his eventual breakout came simply from tinkering in the batting cage.
He made two minor mechanical changes. “I felt a need to find a little more rhythm,” he said. “[In the past] I was a little too still in the box, so I needed a way to get myself moving a bit more. [And then] swing path, it really is so important. Even if you get fooled, to give yourself a chance to bloop the ball over the infielders, or to hit it through the infield.”
I mentioned a transformation. Here it is in a nutshell: Vincej hit .319/.367/.476 from June 1 through the end of his 2016 season. He went to bat 363 times and cracked 36 extra-base hits. Some of that work was done in the hitter-friendly Arizona Fall League, but the majority took place with the Blue Wahoos, playing in a Southern League that had a stark, mysterious power outage last season. Vincej fanned 73 times against 23 walks in that four-month run starting in June, but the strike-zone control he ceded was a hostage worth ransoming. He was driving the ball, and despite the fact that he still lacked over-the-fence power (he hit just six homers in that long hot streak), he was having success.
According to StatCorner, Vincej had a 48.6 percent ground-ball rate in 2014 and a 47.1 percent mark in 2015. In 2016, his ground-ball rate was under 40 percent. He pulled 36 percent of his fly balls too, a roughly league-average number, but also a little more than double the same number for his 2015 campaign.
Vincej is in big-league camp with the Reds this spring and says he’s thrilled to have a chance to watch hitters he admires set up in the box, prepare themselves for certain pitches, and attack the ball. He’s striving to learn from Zack Cozart, another shortstop whose glove carried him to the majors and a guy who also found unexpected offensive success when he shook off the idea that his job was to hit like an undersized shortstop, chopping the ball into the ground and pushing it toward right-center.
He’s still not on the 40-man roster. He wasn’t taken in the Rule 5 draft in December, despite his star turn in the AFL and despite winning the minor-league Gold Glove award at shortstop (and despite the fact that the Padres desperately needed a shortstop and Vincej is from San Diego). Given those facts, I expected to find Vincej a bit hesitant about the realness of his breakout. I even wondered whether I’d find him embittered by the relative lack of buzz his great performance generated, or if he might still be worried about his future in the game. It was just a short interview over the phone, but I got none of that.
“I’m just really excited to have found something that works so well, and that is really going to take me to the next level,” he said, sounding a theme I’d heard earlier in the call. “I can’t wait to keep this going.” The afternoon after speaking to me, he got an at-bat in relief of Cozart, late in a Cactus League game against those Padres, and took Kevin Quackenbush deep to left-center field.
He was letting his swing flow, just the way he did late in 2016. It still isn’t an exceptionally strong swing. The raw bat speed certainly isn’t above average. Still, he got a pitch to handle, used his lower half to get some free and easy movement going, created some loft in his bat path, and got around on the ball. Just watching it made me feel good. For Vincej (who’s had a rough spring training, in the minute and almost meaningless sample of big-league time he’s gotten), it must have felt great.
That’s the real secret here. The newly prevailing approach to hitting is so empowering that it can make a glove-first shortstop with long odds of ever getting full-time big-league work eager to prove he can beat those odds. Using the whole field is great advice, if you’re Tony Gwynn or Mark Grace. Being willing to trade power for contact works in high school, and putting the ball on the ground is helpful if you’re both extremely fast and not good enough to actually hit the ball hard. For most players who reach the big leagues, though, it’s wisest to go up there with a simple and proactive idea in mind: seek damage.
That’s been increasingly clear, and the idea has been increasingly pervasive, over the last few years. However, there have been lingering doubts about just how globally the concept could be applied. Most people still think players with well below-average power should avoid this mindset, and some believe (not entirely without evidence) that the MLB ball has been unintentionally juiced, such that a power-centric approach might be inherently more fruitful at that level and that could be distorting the real value provided by that power. Vincej’s success (and the success of other players like him, doing similar things) puts the lie to that. With hardly any raw power, Vincej nonetheless delivered power by deciding to do so and building a modified swing to suit that purpose.
Deciding to dispense with the unhelpful mentality that hitting is at all defensive or reactive has turned journeymen into $100 million men. It’s turned light-hitting middle infielders and borderline prospect busts into middle-of-the-order mashers. There are already superstars who were simply raised on this way of thinking, but the fun stories remain the guys who find it late and the guys for whom pro baseball can turn from something their grandkids don’t believe they did to something that pays for their grandkids’ braces. And just because they cut it loose and started hitting the ball hard, in the air, to the right part of the field.
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