BRADENTON, Fla. – Stephen Alemais has been rehabbing with the GCL Pirates for the last week, making his return from surgery to repair a torn UCL in his thumb. He will re-join West Virginia at some point during the middle of this week, likely getting back to the level on Wednesday. And the focus for him upon his return will be avoiding the strikeout issues he has shown in the early part of the season.
Alemais had a 24.4% strikeout rate in 131 plate appearances, which is much higher than his 10.7% last year in Morgantown over 168 plate appearances. He did have a similar strikeout rate in West Virginia last year in 42 plate appearances, although this year’s issues have a solution.
Over the offseason, Alemais worked out with Jose Reyes and Carlos Beltran, as I detailed during Spring Training. He received hitting tips from Beltran, aimed at maximizing his power production. Here was a breakdown of what they were working on.
“With Beltran, we worked a lot on driving balls and staying through balls,” Alemais said at the time of his work with Reyes and Beltran. “Instead of hitting and running, how do we extend and use the most power we have in our bodies?”
The mechanical approach that Alemais was taking wasn’t a bad one, and is something the Pirates teach their own hitters. However, the focus at the plate for Alemais this year has gotten away from his strengths. At times he has focused too much on hitting for power, which has led to a .157 ISO — more than triple his production in Morgantown — but also the higher strikeout rate.
Alemais is now working to fix that, changing the approach with his swing and his approach at the plate. The guy he’s now modeling his offensive game after is Adam Frazier, who took a low power approach all the way to a somewhat regular role in the big leagues.
“Speaking to [Pirates’ hitting coordinator Larry] Sutton and a lot of people, we talk a lot about Adam Frazier, who is a guy who is not going to hit 40 home runs down the road, which I’m not going to be a guy who hits 40 home runs in my job,” Alemais said. “They wanted me to get on base, to work more walks, cut down the strike zone. I feel like I’ve tried to leverage power in my swing. I have a couple more home runs than usual, but I’m also striking out more than I usually do. They want me to tone it down and get back to more of a line drive approach.”
When I saw Alemais last week in the GCL, I noticed he had a bit of lift to his swing, which he mentioned will be reduced with the change in approaches. The craze this year has been all about adding lift and leverage to the swing, although this cookie cutter theory doesn’t work for every hitter. In some cases, it takes a guy with good plate patience, and adds a big hole in his swing, which is the case here.
“It’s a thing that I’m working on that I’m not going to try to do,” Alemais said. “That’s why I’ve been striking out so much, because I’ve been trying to create power in my swing. Obviously the results are not what I wanted.”
In reviewing his three home runs this year, Alemais found that it wasn’t even the lift in the swing that was doing the work, but the placement of the pitches.
“We just talk a lot about home runs are going to come,” Alemais said. “A lot of it is going to have to do with placement of the ball. When I think about my three home runs this year, two of them were up and in, and I just happened to be there.”
I’ve always found Alemais to be an extremely smart hitter, with an advanced knowledge of what it takes to be successful at the plate. But there’s knowing what to do, and being able to apply it in the games. The good thing is that Alemais is on the right track for the latter.
“When you learn to accept your role as a player, you’ll move forward,” Alemais said.
Frazier seems to be a perfect model for Alemais. We’ve always seen Frazier as a guy with utility upside, due to a lack of defensive skills that prevent him from maintaining value as a regular starter. Alemais doesn’t have that issue. He’s very strong defensively, and rivals Gift Ngoepe as the best defensive shortstop in the system. If he can get close to what Frazier has done, he would be a future starter.
“They want me to be a guy who gets on base and sets the table, not a guy who is going to drive in 100 runs a year,” Alemais said. “But if I can get 60 runs a year, that’s the type of guy they want. Especially from my position. Catchers and shortstops, their priority is defensively.”
Alemais has taken note of what works for Frazier, noticing that he wasn’t trying to hit for power in the minors, but was still successful at the plate (Frazier’s highest ISO was .093).
“Every level he’s been at, he’s been within himself,” Alemais said of Frazier. “He’s been successful because he doesn’t try to do too much. He’ll hit a couple home runs out, but that’s just because of the pitch location. But it’s not like he tries. That’s why he’s so good at getting on base and hitting the gaps. That’s his game. He’s going to be a guy that gets on base, and they said that’s going to be me.”
Alemais will return to West Virginia this week, and will have about two months remaining in the season to show what he can do at the plate. So far, his average has been down, the power has been up, and the strikeouts have been up. He’s going to want to reverse the average and the strikeout trends, while hoping that there is some power production without having to try for it.