March 31, 2016 at 9:00 AM
FORT MYERS, Fla. – Hailed as a steal in the third round of last year’s draft, catcher Austin Rei hardly lived up to expectations in his first taste of professional baseball. The .179 batting average in his initial stint with the organization quickly tempered some of the excitement around his selection. However, Rei is not running away from that poor performance, but is ready to put it firmly in his past, starting with a change he made to his hitting mechanics.
“Obviously, I want to redeem myself for the terrible offensive half-season I had last year,” Rei said plainly following a minor league spring training game.
One reason for optimism is the change Rei made to his hitting mechanics this offseason, removing a leg kick that he began utilizing in college.
“Guys are throwing really hard with a lot of movement, might as well simplify as best you can,” he explained as the reason for the change. “I first started a leg kick my junior year in college, then it carried over [to Lowell]. I think my energy kind of wore down towards the end of last season in pro ball. So I changed it up a little bit, took out the leg kick, and it's much more simple now.”
The early returns on this change were positive. Catchers receive only a couple of at-bats each game in early spring, but in that limited action, he delivered a hard hit back up the middle after falling behind 0-2, demonstrating some of the changes coming to fruition. As our scouting staff wrote, the change helps him get into hitting position quicker.
Rei initially added the leg kick after his breakout sophomore season at the University of Washington, in which he put up a line of .314/.408/.451 in 52 games. His production rates actually improved during his junior season in about half as many games played due to injury, but his strikeout rate increased along with his power output. It is fair to wonder if this swing change had an effect on him at the plate, but he cited a different reason for the change in hitting profile.
“No, sophomore year and junior year were actually very, very different seasons,” the 22-year-old explained. “Sophomore year, we had a lot of power in the middle of our order and I was the guy in the seven-, eight-hole and I'd just get on base for those guys, drive in runs when I could. I had a pretty good batting average there, got on base a lot. But junior year, we lost our two-, three-, four-, five-, six-, nine-hole guys so I had to kind of assume the three-hole role, and add a little power and RBIs.”
In particular, this change in approach showed in his home run rate, as he went from hitting a home run once every 76.5 at-bats to once every 13 at-bats. His overall line improved to .330/.445/.681, with strikeouts being the only rate to get worse.
Despite this strong statistical follow-up to his breakout sophomore year, it was shortened by a torn ligament in his thumb that required surgery. At the time though, Rei was more concerned with helping his team than showcasing his best performance for the upcoming draft.
“It definitely lingered. I came back probably a little bit sooner than any medical staff or doctor wanted me to, but I thought we had a pretty good chance of going further if I was able to come back,” he said.
“I was able to DH eight weeks after the surgery. Then after 12 weeks I was able to catch, so it took a little longer to catch obviously. The glove hand's fairly important when you catch, so it was quite an adjustment. I came back a little early; you get a ball that hurts every now and then.”
He played in only 25 games that final college season as a result. Some analysts speculated that this injury may have affected his draft stock, including Baseball America, who had him as the 68th-best prospect in the draft and one of the best defensive catchers. However, Rei gave little thought returning to school, and has not regretted the decision.
“I love not having to balance baseball and school. I LOVE that now. So probably not,” he said regarding whether he considered waiting a year to go professional in order to improve his draft stock.
With the poor performance after his arrival in Lowell last season, the natural question arose as to whether the injury may have still been affecting him at that time.
So was he fully healthy by the time he got to Lowell? “Yeah. Yeah, absolutely,” he said without hesitation.
Whether injury or other factors, clearly something was not right, as competition in Lowell is generally not seen as better than that in college, where he obviously put up impressive numbers. Furthermore, his defense, which was supposed to be one of his greatest assets, did not meet expectations.
“It was more an off-the-field adjustment than it was on the field,” Rei said of his transition to the professional game. “Obviously, you have the physical aspect: you have the wood bat change, you have different scenery, a different pitching staff. There's that, but there's also the fact that you're not broke, you're on your own with a bunch more responsibilities. It's more emotional and off-the-field adjustments more than anything.”
“I took three years of Spanish in high school, but that only goes so far. It definitely doesn't help you with the Spanish the Dominicans speak,” he said with a chuckle. “There are a lot of age differences. There are the young Latin players then there are the older more American guys. The leadership part, all the catchers that we have do an incredible job of being leaders behind the plate, and I'm trying to see how they do it. The older guys, I'm trying to learn from them as to what works for them, what works for other guys and try to incorporate it.”
In addition to simplifying his swing mechanics, Rei also looked much smoother defensively this spring than he did in Lowell last season. He adeptly handled a wild pitcher during one inning viewed at Fenway South, looking comfortable moving around behind the plate and blocking balls in the dirt. Along with blocking, he has worked hard on the fine art of pitch framing.
“There's a vast amount of drills you can do for receiving. It can be very technical, but you have to be very soft with it,” he explained. “You can't be a stabby guy. You can draw the comparison of trying to catch an egg. You have to have that kind of mentality with it: be soft, be easy. The firmer you get, the more drops you're going to have.”
His arm also looked strong in opportunities viewed this spring too. He threw out one runner trying to steal second in game action, and seemed very confident with it, throwing behind runners to attempt pickoffs a few times.
“I threw a ton [this offseason and spring]; tried to get the footwork to go faster,” he said. “[Catching coordinator Chad Epperson] and Joe Oliver, my manager in Lowell, both of them did a lot of work with me during the season and I would contact them during the offseason to see what they prefer and try to incorporate it into my game.”
So despite the slow start in Lowell and the injury-plagued college season, Rei feels like he’s in a good place now. He is looking better on the field and feeling comfortable about how the last year played out for him.
“It's weird to say ‘what if?’ on these kinds of things,” he said. “If I complain that just makes me look terrible. I'm part of the Boston Red Sox, you can't complain about that. That's one of the best things that could happen. In a way, you could say everything happened for a reason if you want to put it that way. It's worked out pretty damn good so far.”
Matt Huegel is managing editor for SoxProspects.com. Follow him on Twitter @MattHuegel.