If you’ve followed the minor leagues at all this season, you know all about the Cubs’ Jake Fox, who has batted .409/.485/.841 with 17 home runs and 53 RBIs in 164 at-bats for Triple-A Iowa this season. But that’s just a wordy way of saying he’s been very, very good. In fact, at the time of his big league callup in late May, Fox led all minor league batters in average, on-base percentage and slugging. He still does, despite going just 3-for-13 in four games after being optioned back to Triple-A last week.
But Fox, who turns 27 in about a month, wasn’t sent down because of lack of performance. The righthanded-hitting slugger went 5-for-12 with a pair of doubles in eight games with the Cubs. He even went 5-for-6 as a pinch-hitter.
Fox’s trouble is that he doesn’t have a true defensive home. Selected as a catcher from Michigan in the third round of the 2003 draft, Fox has spent the majority of his minor league time behind the plate or at first base. This season, Chicago fit him in the lineup twice at third base and once in right field. The organization intends to call him back up when they embark on a road trip through American League cities, which begins next week when the Cubs visit Detroit and then the White Sox.
Though he’s been a top performer this season, Fox has not paved a smooth road through the minors. Entering the ’07 season, he had batted a solid .284/.343/.481 in 1,228 at-bats—good, but not overwhelmingly so. Called up and added to the Cubs’ 40-man roster in July of that season, Fox’s option clock began ticking a month later when Chicago sent him back to Iowa.
After clubbing 24 home runs and slugging .511 in the minors in ’07, Fox seemed well on his way to a place in the Cubs’ plans. But then he scuffled out of the gate with Iowa in ’08, batting .222/.242/.479 in 29 games before being banished to Double-A for the balance of the season. He recovered to hit .307/.397/.580 with 25 home runs and 79 RBIs in 288 at-bats with Tennessee, winning the Southern League’s slugging crown in the process.
After the season, Fox filled in for injured Royals catcher Matt Tupman on the Dominican League’s Licey squad. Though he caught just two games in winter ball, Fox did manage to hit a loud .353/.412/.543 with three home runs and 31 RBIs in 30 games.
After the season, Fox had surgery to repair a tear in his abdominal muscle, an injury he played through all during ’08.
So the stage is set for our Q&A with Jake Fox, who was gracious enough to talk with us this morning . . .
With your success this season, it must seem like reporters are coming out of the woodwork. What question do you get asked the most?
"What has attributed the most to your fast start?"
Do you mind answering it one more time?
"Absolutely not. I think the truth is the fact that I really concentrated on becoming a more consistent hitter and not just a slugger. I knew I could hit for power, but what I wanted to do was focus on having good at-bats every day instead of overall numbers. Once I did that, the results took care of themselves."
"In Triple-A last year, when I struggled, I knew I needed to improve—I was good, but not good enough. I had trouble with pitch selection and overall consistency, and they sent me back to Double-A. But then I had a great last month to the season, two good months in winter ball, and then a great spring training. The biggest thing was knowing my strike zone, and trying to work a good count so that I could get a pitch to hit. I tried to concentrate on each at-bat, and not worry about overall numbers."
"I always knew I could hit the ball. The problem was, I was always trying to hit when they weren’t giving me anything to hit. It’d be three pitches, and if the pitcher made a mistake, I’d hit it; if not, I’d walk back to the dugout. I realized that to be the player I wanted to be in big leagues, I’d have to make those changes to my approach. In other words, I had to take a step back to take two steps forward."
"And working with Barbaro Garbey, my Double-A hitting coach last year, he really helped me figure out what we have to do to accomplish my goals. He helped me come up with plans on my own to fix those things that needed to be addressed—which was great for my pro career and helped me turn a corner."
Was it tough being optioned back to Iowa this year, coming off your great winter ball performance, followed by your strong spring training showing?
"It was nothing new for me. It’s been an uphill battle for me my entire career. I’ve constantly been fighting other players for playing time, and just when you think you’re ready, (the organization) knocks you down. Now maybe in those instances, I had too high an opinion of myself. Or maybe the Cubs had a lower opinion. But either way, I’ve felt for the past few years that I’ve been starting at a level lower than where I should be starting."
"In this type of situation, you can do two things: You can take the challenge and run with it, or you can fold. I’m not the type of guy to back down from a challenge, so I want to prove to you that I can do it. That’s been one of my strengths in this game, persistence. I’m not going anywhere."
Do you miss catching on a full time basis?
"Yes and no. It’s a double-edged sword. I love to catch. I love being involved in all the action. But at the same time, I’m loving playing every day, which is something as a catcher you just can’t do. Now, I’m moving all around the field, but I’m playing every day. And I feel that has added to my success, just knowing I’ll have consistent at-bats. There’s no pressure where I feel like I have to perform or else I won’t play."
What have been biggest challenges of learning third base and the corner outfield?
"The most challenging part is feeling uncomfortable. You know, it’s the same game—you catch the ball whenever it’s hit to you and you throw the ball where you need it to go. But the toughest part, especially with third base, is knowing where to play when—just how to handle certain situations."
"Just from playing third base already this year, I’ve found situations where I don’t necessarily know what to do. I find that I’m thinking before each pitch . . . I’m going to do this or I’m going to do that. But still the situation might catch you off guard. I know I can catch the ball—that’s never been an issue, but, for example, how do I handle a difficult bunting situation? It’s the mental aspect of the game, not the physical, that is most challenging."
Do you feel like spending all that time behind the plate as catcher, catching and framing high-velocity pitches, has helped improve your batting eye?
"It definitely helps with knowing the different umpires’ strike zones, but it didn’t help me refine my strike zone. It helped to know what part of the plate I’d have to cover, but I never felt like it helped me see the ball better. The situations are different because the ball comes at you at different angles. When you’re catching, it’s straight on, but when batting you’re looking at the ball sideways."
Do you take comfort in the fact you’re on your third minor league option this season, meaning that if the Cubs don’t keep you next year, you’ll be exposed to waivers and likely claimed?
"No, it doesn’t really come into play because I feel like I still have to play well enough so that another club would want me. I mean, everybody thinks they can play at the big league level. Next year, I’ll know whether other people think I can. I’m still trying to prove that, because whether I think I can play at the next level is irrelevant. It’s whether the Cubs think I can."
There seems to be a lot of Michigan guys in the big leagues right now, especially on Chicago teams—Chirs Getz, Clayton Richard, Bobby Scales. Have you had a chance to catch up with any of them?
"Yeah, I’ve been playing with Bobby all season long, with Iowa and in Chicago. He was at Michigan before me, so we’ve talked mostly about how the school has changed. I played with Rich Hill for a couple of years in the Cubs system, but we’ve talked maybe once (since Hill was traded to the Orioles in the offseason)."
"I never played with Clayton or Chris at Michigan either, so I’m looking forward to seeing them (if the Cubs opt to call up Fox for their American League swing this week). I had a chance to say hi to Chris in spring training, and you know, it’s funny, but Clayton married a girl, Ashley, who I went to school with."
Did you keep track of your standing among the minor league leaders when you were optioned back to Iowa?
"I looked at it like, if I go back to Triple-A, maybe I have a chance to win a PCL championship or a league player of the year award. Either way, it’s good for my career in that both could help me make the big leagues."
. . .
Seven Up, Seven Down
We present the top seven and bottom seven full-season minor league clubs through games of Monday, June 15. The caret (^) indicates a team that did not appear in last week’s ranking.
Why seven teams? It may not be as comforting to us as numbers ending in five or zero, but this way we encompass all the teams playing at the extremes. That is, all the clubs with .700 (or better) winning percentages are included, as are all clubs residing below the .300 line.
|TOP 7 MINOR LEAGUE TEAMS|
|1||Brevard County||40||18||.690||Florida State||HiA||Brewers||W6||7-3|
Dropped Out: Fort Myers, .619; Norfolk, .613.
|BOTTOM 7 MINOR LEAGUE TEAMS|
|West Virginia||24||40||.375||South Atlantic||LoA||Pirates||L3||3-7|
Dropped Out: Nobody.
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