BRADENTON, Fla. – Throughout the offseason, we kept getting videos and photos sent in from Pirates’ 2016 third round pick Stephen Alemais. The shortstop was working out with Jose Reyes and Carlos Beltran in his first professional offseason, which is a pretty amazing work group for a first-year player.
— Stephen Alemais (@StephenAlemais) December 24, 2016
Alemais is extremely gifted defensively, already ranking as one of the best defensive shortstops in the system, and challenging Gift Ngoepe as the top guy in the system. He looks extremely smooth in the field, and can look like a walking highlight reel at times. The big problem is that his hitting skills are weak, which is the reason he was taken in the third round, rather than the top of the first round. The latter is where you’d expect to see a strong defensive shortstop who can hit.
I ran into Alemais when he arrived at Pirate City for Spring Training, and asked him about the workouts with Reyes and Beltran.
“I’m hoping they were able to teach me how to hit,” he joked.
It wasn’t really a joke though. They spent a lot of time working on his hitting mechanics, with Alemais and Reyes getting instruction from Beltran on how to maximize their power and hitting abilities. It’s hard to think of a better example to follow than Beltran, but will it work?
The First Adjustment in Pro Ball
The Pirates have a no-touch policy when a player arrives in their system. They don’t make adjustments with players until about 3-4 months after getting a chance to know the player and observe them. They have conversations with a player, and figure out what type of hitter they will be, how much the player knows about their own game, and how much they understand about what they need to do to develop their game. For drafted players, they usually start making adjustments around instructs.
The Pirates made a few adjustments with Alemais during instructs. They first wanted him keeping both hands on the bat through his swing, and giving kind of a photo finish with two hands, rather than what he was doing before, which was letting one hand off the bat and finishing his swing with one hand. Having two hands the whole way through forces the barrel of his bat to stay in the zone longer, and getting length after contact.
“We’re basically teaching them foundations before they get to higher levels of off-speed pitches, where it’s important to have the barrel long in the zone,” said Larry Sutton, the Pirates’ Minor League Hitting Coordinator. “Not long to the ball, or short to the ball, but after contact it’s long through the zone. When he first came to us, he kind of had a high finish. So he was in and out of the zone. He took to that drill real quick, stuck with it, liked it, and now it’s become part of his hitting DNA to where, whether he releases with two hands, the principle of it, he’s doing a really good job now.”
Alemais also added a bit of a load to his swing, aimed at getting more power. He’s not looking to be a home run hitter, but hoping for something more than singles. That said, he hit four home runs his first week of instructs, which was a feat so rare for him that his father didn’t even believe it happened when he called to tell the news.
The adjustments so far have been quickly adapted by Alemais. A big reason for that is due to his advanced hitting skills. He’s not necessarily advanced in terms of applying his skills to the game, but he’s very knowledgeable about what he needs to do to hit, and what type of hitter he will eventually become.
“He kind of grew up in the cage with his father,” Sutton said. “So he understands his swing. Not that he understands how to hit at the Major League level. He understands who he is as a hitter, understands how things work, understands the importance of balance, timing, rhythm. And more importantly, he understands the type of hitter that he projects himself to be at the Major League level. In that sense, he’s starting at an advanced level. Not necessarily that he’s going to be able to hit Triple-A next year, but he understands who he is as a hitter.”
Working Out With Reyes and Beltran
Alemais and Reyes had mutual friends, so at the start of the offseason he reached out to him and told Reyes he wanted to work. He got the number for Reyes’ trainer, and they ended up working out together. Reyes worked out with Beltran on Tuesdays and Fridays, and Alemais tagged along.
Growing up in New York, Alemais watched two people: Derek Jeter and Jose Reyes. He was a shortstop, so Reyes was one of his childhood idols.
“For me to work out with someone who I tried to idolize to be like, it’s been amazing,” Alemais said. “Especially since our games are similar. He has a little more speed, but we’re both guys who don’t have a lot of power.”
Reyes is actually going through a transition in his game. He can’t rely on his speed as much as in the past, so he’s focusing more on hitting for power and driving the balls out of the infield. Beltran was helping Reyes with this new approach. It’s the same approach Alemais was focusing on with the Pirates, so the lessons applied to him as well.
“This offseason, he’s not depending on his speed as much anymore, because he doesn’t have it anymore,” Alemais said of Reyes. “With Beltran, we worked a lot on driving balls and staying through balls. Instead of hitting and running, how do we extend and use the most power we have in our bodies? Just learning from him was amazing. I got to learn a lot on the defensive side and base running, because obviously he stole 70-some bags in one year. Just the offensive side and his approach and Beltran’s approach was amazing.”
Alemais has been a contact guy all his life, but has felt he has some power. That’s not to the point of being a home run hitter, but to the point where he could drive the ball more often to the gaps and be more than just a singles hitter.
“Learning from these guys, I’ve never really been swinging as consistently, and I’ve never been swinging [as] correctly,” Alemais said. “Beltran really helped a lot with using my legs. I never really used my legs before. What I did in instructs, I saw an improvement right away. It’s a happy medium.”
The work with Beltran and Reyes was focused around maximizing the power potential you have by using your legs the most and using your backside. They did a lot of drills that focused on incorporating your legs with your upper body.
The Swing Adjustments
The Pirates started adjusting the swing for Alemais during instructs. He took that swing, explained what he was working on with Beltran and Reyes, and they made some suggestions.
“When I sat down with Reyes and Beltran, and just told them what’s been going on with me, he didn’t change my swing at all,” Alemais said. “He just changed the mechanics of my swing, and how to approach different pitches, and how to use my legs in a better place. This is the best I’ve ever felt, the strongest I felt. I’m really excited to get the year going, just to see how the improvement of my offense is going to be.”
The thing about the mechanical focus for Alemais — putting the focus on the legs and how to approach different pitches — is that it’s the same type of instruction he would have received with the Pirates. It’s just that players usually don’t receive that level of instruction until they reach the upper levels. Alemais talked with Sutton about his work with Beltran during the offseason, and about some of the strategies he was employing. He said that Sutton told him he’s now talking about advanced hitting techniques.
Alemais is now ahead of the curve with his learning, focusing on things that are well beyond his current level. A lot of that is due to his advanced understanding of hitting. And it will help adjust how the Pirates teach him going forward.
“Times where he gets the opportunity to get together with a Beltran and a Reyes — especially Beltran, because I played with him and I know the principles that he teaches, which are incredibly solid. So I’m glad he got a chance to get together with him,” Sutton said. “And he talked about the simple principles of hitting. Now we’re able to have a strong foundation of moving [Alemais] forward, one step at a time. We don’t have to start at the very beginning with him, and that’s the great thing with that.”
I could explain the drill that Alemais was working on with Beltran, but it’s best to show them. First, here is Beltran teaching Alemais, which is in Spanish. The translation of the work will be in the video below.
Here is Alemais explaining the work:
I showed that last video to Sutton to get his reaction of what Alemais was working on. He discussed when the Pirates typically do these drills with their prospects.
“We are doing those drills with our young Buccos, but we may not explain it to that extent, because they just don’t understand it yet,” Sutton said. “But they’re already doing the drills, because we’re starting to try and build this foundation that is going to help them when they get to higher levels. It’s great when our young hitters come in and they can understand the principles of why that’s important. And he’s at that point. So when we talk about he’s a little advanced, it’s because he understands the why it’s important piece behind it.”
The Pirates do the same tee drill that Alemais was working on with Beltran, for a lot of the same reasons. The goal is to keep the swing path short to the ball, but stay behind the ball, working with a deeper contact point. This helps with hitting off-speed pitches, and hitting to the opposite field.
“One of the things that we work on, especially with our younger players, it’s a deep tee drill,” Sutton said, explaining the drill. “What that forces you to do, it forces you to stay behind the ball. A lot of young hitters, they’re so used to making contact out in front. We don’t have to teach our hitters how to pull the ball. They wouldn’t be drafted if they didn’t know how to pull the ball. Teaching them how to back the ball up a little bit and use the big part of the field, most hitters aren’t able to do that, especially as they get to higher levels. What that enables hitters to do is be able to be in position to hit off-speed pitches.”
Here is a look at Alemais from the start of Spring Training, with the new swing approach in the cage.
Other Work With Reyes
Along with his hitting, Alemais got some work with Reyes on base running and defense. His fielding is the strongest part of his game, but that doesn’t mean he has nothing to learn from a long-time MLB shortstop like Reyes.
“[We] just [worked on] footwork a little bit,”Alemais said. “He tweaked my footwork a little bit, and how to get in a better position to throw to first. How to be more square to first base. I don’t want to fly open and make throwing errors. It’s just amazing to me, because I grew up watching him, and grew up looking at the way he plays.”
Alemais also got some tips on stealing bases. He’s got some speed, although not nearly as much as Reyes had at the same age. But stolen bases aren’t about speed as much as getting a good read on the pitcher. That is where Alemais got some help.
“There’s a lot of tricks that those guys use on the bases that we don’t see, just because it looks normal,” Alemais said. “When you’re taking a lead, Beltran and Reyes explained how they would usually take a lead on the outside part of the bag, because as a pitcher, you look further [away], especially to a lefty. They’ll take three steps, but when they get back, they’ll get the inside part of the bag, because the bag is yours. So you brush the first baseman off a little bit, you take the same lead, but you look closer. So now it looks like you’re not going anywhere.”
Before we get to the end of this article, let’s take a look at a Reyes and Alemais montage, which was kindly shared with me by Alemais after our discussion of his work.
Looking Ahead to 2017
Teams invest in strong defense/no bat shortstops like Alemais with the hope that something will click and they will learn how to hit enough to be a Major League player. Sometimes they hit enough to be a backup or a depth option. Sometimes they go a step further and they can be a defensive-minded starter. The dream is getting them to the point where the offense doesn’t take away value.
It’s hard to say where Alemais could end up on this spectrum. He’s got an advanced understanding of hitting, and got some great instruction in the last year from the Pirates and from Beltran and Reyes. But that doesn’t always translate over to results on the field.
“I’m just excited, because I learned a lot from two great players, one potential Hall of Famer,” Alemais said. “It’s the best offseason I ever had. Those are guys I can reach out to whenever I need help. Just picking their brain about the game was amazing.”
Sutton said that a lot of guys might have success with this type of approach in the minor leagues, but won’t understand why the approach is important for Pittsburgh at the MLB level. Alemais seems to have that understanding, we’ll before hitters normally understand the lesson in Bradenton or Altoona.
“When a hitter really finally understands the why, not only do they buy in 100%, but now they start creating these consistent routines, where they become their own hitting coach, and that’s the ultimate goal for us,” Sutton said. “But before we send our Buccos up to Pittsburgh, we want them to be their best hitting coach, so that they can make in-game adjustments, pitch-to-pitch adjustments, at-bat to at-bat adjustments. That’s when we have the majority of the players we were going to send up there, they’re able to make pitch-to-pitch adjustments because of the foundations of what they’re buying into before they get there.”
That’s the path Alemais could be headed down this year. He’s advanced enough that it wouldn’t be a surprise to see the Pirates give him a push to Bradenton, giving him a shot to see what his advanced hitting approach can do at a harder level. That would be a good test to see how much of the training from Beltran and Reyes carries over to the field. If he does manage to see his knowledge translate to results, he could become not just one of the top prospects in the system, but one of the top prospects in baseball.