BRADENTON, Fla. – A year ago, Kevin Kramer was one of my big breakout picks for the lower levels. I watched him daily at Pirate City during minor league Spring Training, and it seemed like he hit a double off the wall every day. He made consistent hard contact, showing some good power potential from the second base position. Then the season came around, and Kramer did not have the numbers that would qualify as a breakout season.
Kramer posted a .277/.352/.378 line in 513 plate appearances. It wasn’t a horrible result, but he didn’t show the power numbers you’d expect from a guy hitting the ball so hard, and he didn’t put up results that would make you think of his future in Pittsburgh one day.
Those numbers can be deceiving though. I watched Kramer all throughout the year, and one thing remained consistent — he was still crushing the ball from start to finish. There were a lot of hard outs, and a lot of hard hit balls that died out in the Florida heat. The Florida State League is one of the most pitcher friendly leagues in baseball, and to really get an understanding of why, you have to see the action. You can explain all you want about the heat and the humidity and the thick air, but you don’t fully understand the league until you see countless pitches hammered for a guaranteed home run, only to watch them somehow die just shy of the warning track.
Kramer isn’t the only person who has ever been affected by the Florida State League, but from what I saw, he looked a lot better than his numbers indicate. Now, he’s ready to make the jump to Altoona, he’s crushing the ball again in Spring Training, and he’s one of my big breakout picks this year for the entire system, just because I think all of those hard hit balls will start going for hits and home runs in Double-A. Kramer is hoping that will be the result.
“That’s one thing that I’m really looking forward to seeing,” Kramer said. “I felt like last year I would hit a lot of hard, one-hop ground balls, or a lot of line drives at people. … I’m wondering and working towards where I can get to a point where the line drives that I hit are balls that are driven to the gaps. The fly balls that I hit last year are hopefully going over the fence. And the hard ground balls that I hit last year towards an infielder are turning into line drives.”
Kramer isn’t just banking on the same approach working in a new league though. He has been working to drive the ball more, making a few minor swing changes to use leverage and the power that he has, rather than sacrificing his mechanics to try and lift the ball in an unnatural way. He worked with Pirates’ Minor League Hitting Coordinator Larry Sutton, and his former hitting coach Ryan Long on adjustments over the offseason and into camp.
“The swing change that we did make is going to shore up a lot of the mis-hits, and it’s going to put my barrel in a better place, and that’s what I’m seeing so far,” Kramer said. “Being able to drive the ball, while also still hitting line drives.”
The adjustment that was made involves hand placement and maximizing the distance of where the barrel of the bat is going through the zone. If you recall my Stephen Alemais article from a few weeks ago, Alemais was working on a similar approach where he would keep the barrel in the zone longer. He was a bit proactive in this learning, as the Pirates usually teach this approach and make these adjustments after a hitter has been in the system for a bit. That was the case with Kramer.
“Sutt told me that he wasn’t going to teach me this stuff until I got a full season under my belt,” Kramer, the 2015 second round pick, said. “[He wanted] some time and some at-bats under my belt. Until he felt I was at a place where I could receive it, and be able to make a change effectively.”
Kramer has some great contact skills, as shown in his secondary numbers in Bradenton. He only struck out 12.3% of the time, and he walked 9.4% of the time. But one of his issues in the past was that he would be direct to the ball, which led to him being in and out of the zone quickly, and led to his barrel being flat.
“I’ve always been pretty flat barreled to the ball, which creates ground balls and line drives,” Kramer said. “Now it’s just more about — I don’t want to say under it, that’s not what I’m going for — but a little bit refining that. Just being not as direct. Focusing on hitting the bottom part of the ball and trying to backspin it. Honestly, it’s been a great change for me. Something we’re still working on, obviously. Stuff that I will always continue to work on. But that was really it.”
This approach will only help Kramer add some power to his stats this year. I already think a power boost could be coming, just from the league change. His .101 ISO was just slightly lower than the league average .106 ISO in the FSL. By comparison, the Eastern League had a .130 ISO last year. So if Kramer can continue remaining around average for the league, he would see a boost. But I think he has a chance for some above-average power, even if that’s mostly in the form of line drives.
“By no means am I going to try and go up there and hit 50 home runs,” Kramer said. “That’s not my goal this year. I want to drive the ball. I want to be the same player I am, but add another facet to my game. That’s all I’m trying to do this year. If that happens, great, and we’ll work towards it.”
If Kramer breaks out, he wouldn’t be the first infielder to struggle by the numbers in Bradenton, only to have a breakout season in Altoona. The Pirates have seen the same from Adam Frazier, Max Moroff, and Eric Wood in the past. It’s still questionable whether those guys could be starters in the big leagues. Frazier is now a regular off the bench, and could have a shot at showing what he can do as a starter in the future. Moroff has made his MLB debut, and is looking to eventually move into the role of a regular. Wood has shown a lot of power in the past year, along with improved defense at third, but it’s questionable where he ends up.
It’s hard to say what Kramer could become in the future as well. He can play second, third, and a bit of shortstop. He could probably even add the corner outfield spots eventually, if the Pirates wanted to go the super utility route. I think he has a future as a big league player. The 2017 season will go a long way toward determining just how good he could eventually become, and what kind of ceiling he has in the majors.