After starting the season 4-for-22 and going five games without a hit toward the end of April, Jaff Decker has really righted the ship of late. The outfielder had a .923 OPS in the month of May, and an .826 OPS so far in June after going 3-for-5 with a home run last night.
Though there have been some struggles early in the campaign, Decker was pleased with the effort. Through riding out the storm, Decker was hitting .246 with only 40 strikeouts against 27 walks in 179 at bats this season coming into Saturday.
“I am just trying to stay with the plan and keep it going,” Decker said. “The beginning was not how I wanted to start, but I was hitting the ball hard, putting good swings, and getting good at bats. It was just a matter of time until they started finding the holes and some grass out there. It is part of the game and you just have to stick with the plan as much as you can.”
While he has been hotter lately, Decker said that it is not due to any specific alterations.
“I may have been winding out a little bit to try to get my bottom half going a little bit,” Decker said. “Nothing really dramatically changed (from the approach to begin the season). There were no big changes in the swing or the approach, just trying to stick with it.”
As for his approach at the plate, Decker had one of the best mentors that he could find – an MVP.
“I spent a lot time with Cutch (Andrew McCutchen) and Gaby (Sanchez) in spring training and when I was up with the Pirates,” Decker said. “I just try to use the big part of the field. That seems to be working right now. There is a lot more room out there than working the sides of it.”
Decker said that the key to the success it simple – see good pitches and put a good swing on it.
“If I see it and feel like I can put a good swing on it, I am pulling the trigger right now,” Decker said. “I feel like that goes a long way with how I am seeing the ball. It is not cold anymore either, so the ball is traveling a little bit better. The swing feels good and the ball is jumping now.”
Though Decker has only hit three home runs this season, he has added 14 doubles. When Gregory Polanco moved into the leadoff spot, Decker was bumped down to the middle of the order.
Indianapolis hitting coach Mike Pagliarulo has noticed the progress that Decker has made at the plate. He credits the evolution to hard work and comfort.
“He’s really consistent,” Pagliarulo said. “His practice has been much better. He is just getting used to the new environment and a new team. That takes some time. He is a good player and has a great swing. He is feeling more comfortable up there and I look to see him finish very strong.”
The success also earned Decker a promotion to Pittsburgh in early May. Though he went 0-for-3 in the brief stint, his timing could not have been more exciting.
“It was a great experience finally getting up there with the guys,” Decker said. “I spent all spring training with them. It was cool to finally see PNC Park and the first night being up there was Sunday Night Baseball, so it was pretty special.”
Decker said that one of the biggest challenges in the big leagues was that they don’t miss pitches up there like they do at times at Triple-A. He said that there was more excitement than nervousness when his name was called. It is business as usual for him.
With his plate performances being up and down this season, defense is one thing that has been strong all season. Decker has nine outfield assists and several near misses in just 54 games this season.
“I came up with the idea, if you can’t affect the game on offense, try to do it a different way – base running or on defense,” Decker said. “It makes you sleep easier. If you have that tough game at the plate, you can still throw somebody out or make a play on defense to help the team win. I try to impact the game any way that I can.”
As far as his work away from the game, Decker takes his defensive work in batting practice seriously and he said that it makes it “more reactionary” when the lights are on.
“I kind of treat the outfield like playing on the playground a little bit,” Decker said. “I really try to work hard on reading hands in BP, seeing a pull side swing, or a lefty that is not getting the head out. I work really hard on that. It all goes into BP and then, in the game, the ability takes over.”
The aspect of Decker’s game in the field that Pagliarulo is most impressed by is his accuracy on throws. He also noted that nailing a runner is not a small play within a game, it can be a huge momentum boost.
“He’s a great outfielder,” Pagliarulo said. “He throws somebody out every day, it seems. (His arm) is one of the best. It is so accurate. He gets to the ball and guys think that they can run on him. I hope that they keep thinking that they can run on him because he keeps throwing them out. It is fun to see and it saves us from big innings. It keeps us in the game and motivates the whole team.”
Decker is a natural center fielder and played the position all last year. However, he feels like he can play all three if needed. The biggest adjustment for Decker moving to left field was just learning what the ball does with the different angle, including a fade or a hook rather than just carrying back.
Between being a left-handed hitter with some pop and his strong defense, Decker is a candidate to be a solid fourth outfielder for any big league squad. The only question is whether his average will be good enough to keep him in the show.