DUNEDIN, Fla. – Back in January, new Toronto Blue Jays hitting coach Kevin Seitzer invited Ryan Goins over to his house, put him through a series of specialized drills, made an adjustment with the second baseman’s hands, and reported on the progress to GM Alex Anthopoulos and manager John Gibbons.
“I told Alex and Gib, there’s more in this kid’s tank, I wouldn’t be quick to pull the trigger on a second baseman,” recalls Seitzer. “With the way he plays defence and the runs he saves with his glove, he’s going to be able to contribute with the bat, I believe.”
Two-and-a-half months later, spring training is underway and Goins is the front-runner to open the season at second base, with Maicer Izturis, Chris Getz and Steve Tolleson his primary competition. Really, the job is his to lose, even with free agent Stephen Drew still sitting on the open market, and the hopes riding on the 26-year-old’s streamlined swing are a prime reason for that.
“I love the way it looks,” praises Gibbons. “When he showed up last year he had the high hands and that can screw up your timing, and hitting is all timing. … He’s got good hitting hands, but it was always a timing issue we thought because of the length in his swing.”
Still, by no means do the Blue Jays expect Goins to suddenly become the second coming of Robinson Cano at the plate. Far from it. What they expect is that he’ll be a better hitter than the one who posted a .609 OPS in 34 games last year and struck out in 28 of his 119 at-bats, or 23.5 percent of the time.
How much better he needs to be to justify keeping him in the lineup for his defence is an interesting question. As the projected nine-hole hitter, the Blue Jays don’t need him to carry the offence, but as Gibbons puts it, “he’s got to hold his own … you’ve got to be able to do something.”
Last year the Blue Jays pretty much did nothing at second base, their cumulative .556 OPS easily the worst in the majors, so you can argue that Goins is already an upgrade, especially when you factor in the premium defence.
But in order to really make progress, the Blue Jays will need a realistic gain toward the big-league average of a .708 OPS at the position. Should Goins be able to get there – his career OPS in the minors is .706 – then they really have something.
“I don’t know that there’s a number,” says GM Alex Anthopoulos, “but with Ryan, if he can get his walks up a little bit, make more contact, do some of the little things, make some productive outs, get a guy in, move a guy over, there are still ways to help the team, even if maybe some of the other stats aren’t there for him.”
Goins understands that, saying, “the part of my game that I do best is situational hitting. I need to move runners over, get them in from third, if that’s hitting a groundball to short, getting an RBI while making an out, that’s fine with me, chipping in any way I can, not worrying about my numbers.”
Don’t take that as a sign he’s content.
During his first 10 games in the big-leagues last season, he batted .342 (13-for-38) and in the final 10 he hit .293 (12-for-41). But in the 14 games between he endured a .124 (5-for-40) stretch, and it’s that inconsistency that led Seitzer to suggest the adjustments.
What he noticed was that in bringing his hands up by his head, Goins’ bat was too separated from his body, preventing him from having a quick swing path that stayed inside the ball. Instead, his swing would loop around balls, leaving him prone to hard fastballs and weak contact.
So Seitzer suggested Goins bring his hands in line with his chest, and that he cock his bat for his swing in the arm-pit area, which create a more consistent swing path.
“With the way he has my hands working now, I’m not going to have to be so perfect with my timing,” says Goins. “It helped to show I can catch up to good velocity without having to cheat … it’s going to allow me to see the ball better, I’m not going to have as much movement with my upper body, and that will lead to better plate discipline and hitting the ball harder.
“I’m giving myself more of a chance to be successful.”
The new swing is almost second-nature to him now, but getting to that point wasn’t easy. He and Seitzer clicked instantly because they share the same approach to hitting – look to use the middle of the field – and the results from the coach’s intense and unique drill-work built trust.
“I put him through a whole gamut of stuff,” says Seitzer. “We started by making little tweaks to his mechanics, his approach, his mindset and he was able to repeat it over and over and over. I quickly took him into some game simulated stuff where I stand very close to him throwing overhand to where the ball is exploding on him a little bit.
“Then I’m changing speeds, we did different counts, we did situations, we did two-strike approach and the adjustments he made – I was trying to trick him, I was trying to blow him up, I was trying to get him to panic – I was impressed when we walked away from it.”
After their weekend together in Kansas City, Goins continued to work out on his own at home in Austin, Texas, sending Seitzer videos of his progress once a week. The more he saw, the more faith he had in Goins, and this spring has only added to that perception.
“When he got back here,” says Seitzer, “it was money.”
Goins feels the same way, shutting off the background noise of his detractors to focus on the opportunity before him. Over the winter, he followed the hot stove and read about the Blue Jays’ attempts to acquire a second baseman, but decided to worry only about making himself better.
“When (the swing adjustments) were feeling awkward I kept telling myself to stick with it, don’t go back to what you were doing, grind through the awkwardness,” he says. “Since I’ve been here, I don’t even have to think about what I’m doing. I’m 100 percent confident in what I’m doing.”
The real test of that starts Wednesday, when the Blue Jays open up Grapefruit League play against the host Philadelphia Phillies. Everything looks good in the cage and in live batting practice, but it’s time for the next step.
“Game time will tell if this is all for real or not,” says Seitzer, “but I think he’s a tough enough kid to where he can stay focused and lock in on a plan that he can repeat, and do OK.”
Given Goins’ defence, OK may very well be enough. Anything more would be a bonus.