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March 29, 2012 at 8:09 AM

Adjustment for Jerez takes many forms

Williams Jerez (Kelly O'Connor)
FORT MYERS, Fla. – Williams Jerez has made a lot of adjustments on the fly in his life, most of which make the ones that loom in his path to the big leagues seem small by comparison. At 17, the five-year process of emigrating from the Dominican Republic to New York culminated with Jerez, his father and sister leaving his mother behind and starting anew in New York. They knew no one, and Jerez spoke no English. He learned a bit in school, though he struggled to read in a foreign language.

But like so many ballplayers before him, baseball was the constant in a world he barely recognized. His skills were quickly noticed, and before long, professional scouts came calling. A Yankees scout was first on the scene, but Red Sox northeast scout Ray Fagnant wasn’t far behind. The outfielder first met Fagnant at a Perfect Game tournament in 2010.

“When he saw me for the first time in a game, I hit 3 for 4 and he said, ‘you’re looking good,'” Jerez said after wrapping up a day’s work in Fort Myers last week. “He started to talk to me and he said, ‘I’m going to every game, wherever you are.’ ” Fagnant would soon be joined by many more scouts, but Boston was the team that tapped Jerez in the second round of the 2011 MLB Draft and ultimately signed a player with limitless potential.

Now that player is in Fort Myers, where he will likely remain after spring training, with an eye towards coming north to Lowell in June. And though baseball seems to come as easily to Jerez as the smile he wears around the fields behind JetBlue Park, it’s all that surrounds the game that now requires adjustments for the Dominican outfielder.

“My first season was difficult for me because when I came here, I didn’t know much about the process, how they work,” he said.

Though baseball, as he said, is the same baseball, the routine in Fort Myers was yet another adjustment for him to master. In the Dominican Republic, he played baseball all morning and worked on his studies in the afternoon. In high school, he had to balance both, all while fighting allegations that he was misrepresenting his age.

“Some teams started to talk about me, (saying) this guy’s not this age, because they know what I do,” Jerez said. “They tried to do something bad to me, but I was patient because I know who I am and I know my age.”

At 6-foot-4, 190 pounds, Jerez didn’t look like a typical teenager at that time. He said it was his on-field actions—not just his skills, but also his demeanor—that led to the claims. “In high school, you see the kids, they don’t play hard,” he said. “When I went to high school, I played like a professional. Every game, I play hard.”

When it came time to actually become a professional, Jerez learned what those words truly meant. He signed for $443,700 on July 12 and made his debut in the Gulf Coast League four days later. He collected hits in 11 of 12 games during one early-season stretch and had his batting average as high as .340, but eventually he tapered off. He finished the season batting .248 with just six walks in 32 games.

“He came in right away and actually played a lot better than we thought he would, but it caught up with him,” U.L. Washington, hitting coach for the Gulf Coast League Red Sox, said. Like many talented but raw draftees, Jerez used his skills alone to overpower high-school competition, but the jump to professional baseball is steep, and the 19-year-old had more waiting for him than just games.

“Here, they had to do weights, learn English; there’s a lot of things that are new to kids coming into professional baseball, not really knowing what they’re getting into,” Washington said. “There’s no days off in professional baseball, so I imagine he got a little tired. And every day, seeing someone throwing 90 miles per hour with a little late movement on their pitches, taking fly balls, running bases, it tends to get a little overwhelming at times. It usually does. There’s doubt, at times. Am I good enough to be here? That’s not unusual for anybody coming in here for the first time in professional baseball and feeling a little lost.”

Jerez pointed to his plate discipline as an area where he struggled. In batting practice, he’d take cuts at the first ten pitches he saw. “I didn’t have pitch recognition,” he said. But he credits a computer program that players are required to use daily that helps judge the spin of a baseball with improving that aspect of his game. “Now, I use the computer in the game,” he said. “It’s the same thing.”

He’s learned from more than just the computer, of course. He says he’s constantly learning from teammates and coaches, and has modest hopes for this season. He hopes to be relaxed and focused this season at the plate, to wait for his pitch and not try to do too much to it, a far cry from the player who swung at everything last summer.

“Now, I got another mind,” he said with a smile, pointing to the side of his head. “I know now what I have to do, and what I have to do now is easy because they showed me a lot of things that are good for me. They’ve helped me a lot. Now, when I come here, they see that I’m different when I’m on the field. How I work, how I do everything.”

Overall, Washington said Jerez has looked “outstanding” this spring.

“This year, he came in and he’s got a better idea of his swing, what he has to do to get the bat where he wants to get it on certain pitches,” Washington said. “His cage work is a lot better, and he’s gotten a routine. He can take what he does in the cage to (batting practice), and it’s showing up in a game now. It’s just getting your reps and your stamina built up and actually knowing what it takes to get out there and be successful.”

Jon Meoli is a Senior Columnist for SoxProspects.com. Follow him on Twitter @JonMeoli.