MORGANTOWN, WV – I had read that Stephen Alemais was a good defender after he was drafted. Most of the reports I saw talked about him as an all-defense, no bat guy who could stick at the shortstop position. That kind of profile isn’t the most exciting, as defense is typically under-rated, and there’s a difference between a Pedro Florimon all defense/no offense guy in the upper levels, and a young guy like Alemais who might have a shot at developing some kind of offense.
Watching Alemais last week, I found the defense to be outstanding. In fact, the reports I saw undersold his defense, or just glossed over how good he was. Alemais looked very smooth, displaying a lot of range to either side, including making plays in the six-hole, or on the other side of the second base bag. He showed off a plus arm, good hands, and has all of the ability to be a plus defender. The video below shows a few plays from one game, but those plays weren’t isolated to that one game. Alemais was making plays like this on a routine basis, in every single game.
The scary thing here is that Alemais hasn’t even shown the best of his abilities. He’s got a lot of range right now, but the Pirates believe he has more range that can be unlocked with an earlier setup position.
“From the fundamental standpoint, believe it or not, he actually has another step of range that he doesn’t know about,” Black Bears manager Wyatt Toregas said. “He gets set up a tick late, which is something we’ll also hit in instructs. It’s crazy to think about, considering he’s making plays on the other side of the bag, deep in the six hole. He has another step of range in both directions if he can get down a split second sooner. He’s in mid-air when the ball is being hit. He’s late, and still has that type of range. It’s really crazy.”
Alemais worked with Pirates Infield Coordinator Gary Green last week, and while there’s not much Green needs to do in this case, the early setup was addressed.
“He told me I’d be surprised how much more range I could have,” Alemais said of his conversations with Green. “We talked about being a step earlier when the ball is crossing the plate. I told him I feel I’m a little late sometimes. He told me I’ve got two more steps in my if I can get down a little earlier. We worked on that, and talked about angles. It’s great to pick his brain when he’s in town. And obviously we’ll work more when we get into instructional leagues. We’ll really try to focus on that this series.”
While the Pirates don’t like to make changes to a prospect right away, this is the type of change that can be applied early if a prospect buys in, and Alemais definitely bought in, saying he wanted to work on it as soon as possible.
“I do it a little bit in batting practice,” Alemais said. “I’m just trying to get the timing down more, doing it now in games. I feel a little uncomfortable, because I haven’t been used to getting down so early. I feel like I’m actually waiting for the ball. During batting practice, we worked on it, and I tend to get to more balls than I would if I was a little later.”
Alemais definitely seems to be a good student of the game, and said he embraces the defensive side of being a shortstop. He already sees the benefits here, and the fact that he’s working on the changes now, rather than instructs, is a reflection on him trying to improve, as the Pirates didn’t make this a priority right away.
“I think you’re able to react a bit quicker, take better angles to different balls that you might miss,” Alemais said on the earlier set position. “They say baseball is a game of inches. You might miss by a step or two. Just getting down quicker may get you that step, and may get you to that ball. I do think it’s important, and it’s something nobody ever brought to my attention. I’m glad that I’m able to know that, because now I know I have a step or two that I can reach to a ball that I want to make a play on.”
One area where the Pirates did want to see some changes right away was with his leadership on the field. Toregas said that he talked with Alemais about running the infield and having more communication. Alemais expanded on that conversation.
“When I first came here, I was more quiet, just trying to learn the ropes,” Alemais said. “I kind of stuck behind [Erik] Forgione a little bit, just trying to see how everything was run. He pulled me into his office one day, and said ‘I want you to start taking charge out there.’ It’s trying to put the outfielders in position, telling the third baseman to watch out for bunts, and taking a little more charge and responsibility at shortstop, trying to help people to get in position to make certain plays for certain hitters.”
Overall, a lot of the defensive work is similar to what the Pirates have gone through with Kevin Newman in the last year, although there’s a key difference between Alemais and Newman.
“Newman has made strides at every part of his game from what I’m hearing,” Toregas said. “Gary Green told me that Newman is just playing on all cylinders in all facets. I don’t want to compare shortstops, but I think Alemais has Newman in the defensive category. I think he’s got him by a step, and I think he’s got a little more arm strength. Get Alemais a little stronger with the bat, and we’ll be in a pretty good spot, shortstop wise.”
That last part is no easy accomplishment. If Alemais were strong with the bat, or if it was easy for him to be stronger with the bat, he would have been taken in the top half of the first round, and maybe even with one of the top picks, rather than going to the Pirates in the third round. That’s part of what makes defense under-rated, even in the game. Will Craig can hit, but has questions about his defense at a premium position, and he was a clear first rounder. Alemais is the exact opposite (as shown in the similar, but opposite titles to the articles), and he’s an easy third rounder.
Part of the struggles might be due to his injury history. Alemais tore his labrum on his non-throwing shoulder during his junior year in high school. He was a good hitter before that, but after the surgery he saw his offense drop off. He showed some promise last year at Tulane, and entered the 2016 season in the discussion as a first rounder if his bat improved. It didn’t improve much, leading to him slipping.
He injured his shoulder again at the beginning of the year, re-aggravating the labrum injury from high school. This time around he didn’t need surgery, instead taking some time off and missing ten games during the college season. That could have prevented him from improving, although there are definitely things for him to work on, aside from the injury.
“I tend to compensate a little bit, trying to pull off my shoulder trying to reach the ball, because I don’t feel like it’s as strong as my right one,” Alemais said of how the shoulder impacts him, while following with his adjustment to pro ball. “Getting adjusted to pro ball, it’s kind of like college, facing every Friday night guy. The Friday night guy is the best pitcher in college. I’m at a stage where I’m thinking too much, and trying to change my swing up every two days. Trying to work through it, and getting adjusted, and trying to get back to how I was when I was hitting well at school, and what worked well for me.”
Pirates’ Hitting Coordinator Larry Sutton was in town on Sunday to see Alemais, and already had some early thoughts, although he won’t be implementing them until instructs.
“I think one of the first things we’ll work on is he’s learning how to finish his swing,” Sutton said. “A lot of kids coming out of the draft, coaches are saying just make contact. So he’s up there just trying to make contact. He’s got a good feel and kind of a skill for making contact. We want to combine that with finishing his swing. In other words, he makes contact, and just releases and starts running. We want him to finish his swing, do like a photo finish, and then start running. That’s going to create a little more production in every area of his offensive game. I’m not saying it’s home runs. Just hard contact. It’s going to help with off-speed pitches, and it’s going to help him leverage hard contact with more fastballs.”
As for whether the left shoulder might be a factor in his swing right now, Sutton said that this was a conversation they needed to have in the future, to see where he’s at.
“It doesn’t look like it inhibits him now,” Sutton said. “To get him to finish his swing actually might help that. Usually what we start doing to get the feel of it, we have them finish with two hands, which keeps them short, compact, and through the ball, and their top hand stays through it finishing with two hands. So you don’t necessarily get this long release, so to speak. Once he gets a feel for that, learning how to finish his swing, if he wants to go back to the release, we’re cool with that. We’re fine, because that’s part of his hitting personality.”
The Pirates also have a philosophy of using their legs to hit, especially on outside pitches. The lack of incorporating the lower half can impact some prospects on outside pitches, with Willy Garcia being one example of a guy who doesn’t incorporate his legs on outside stuff. Alemais is in the same boat right now, just without Garcia’s plus power on the inner half.
“We’re learning how to attack that outer third pitch, or even the outer corner, and learning how to attack it with your legs,” Sutton said. “Just keeping the same hand path is going to possibly alleviate some stress on that shoulder, instead of trying to do it with your upper body and your hands. Doing it correctly can probably help him in the long run.”
The Pirates have a good situation at shortstop right now. Kevin Newman looks to be the starter of the future, and while his defense won’t be as good as Alemais, it will definitely play, and his offense will make up for the downgrade. They also have Cole Tucker right below Newman, with very similar skills and upside. But in the short-season leagues, Alemais and Bristol shortstop Adrian Valerio give a different profile. They’re both excellent defenders, and they both might make it to the majors on their defense alone. If one of them can learn how to hit, then you might have an all-around shortstop who can move Newman or Tucker to second base.
Again, this isn’t easy to do. If it was, Alemais would be in another organization right now. Making sure his shoulder is healthy and strong might be a key factor to improving his offense, but there are definitely some things to change about his swing that could help as well.