At the big league level, players beg out of the home run derby because they are worried about screwing up their swing. But Carolina-California League all-star home run derby champion Jon Gilmore has no such worries.
"We take thousands of swings during the year, so I don't think 20 swings is going to hurt much," Gilmore said. "It's not your game swing. It's kind of like separating your golf swing from your baseball swing."
Gilmore had to go to a tie-breaking swing off in the first round after he and teammate Justin Greene each finished second in the Carolina League with three home runs. Gilmore advanced to the finals by beating Ronnie Welty two home runs to one, then topped California League derby champion Rich Poythress by hitting four home runs (to Poythress' three) in the finals.
Seeing Gilmore win a home run derby, especially by beating a slugger like Poythress was rather surprising–Gilmore has three home runs this year and 13 in four pro seasons. Gilmore was one of the four players the White Sox's acquired for Javier Vazquez before the 2009 season, but this year the 21-year-old has taken a serious step forward at the plate. Gilmore is hitting .336/.364/.422 this year after adjusting his swing–he has shortened his path to the ball, but his swing now allows him to keep the bat in the zone for longer.
"I'm so much more consistent right now, especially at the plate. Last year I had a lot of things I was working on. This year things are coming together," Gilmore said. "Last year I had five different loads, seven different strides. Now I have had the same stance, load and stride all season."
Quite The Team: Speaking of Greene, he may be the one player in the all-star game who can say he's played on a more talented team.
Greene was teammates at Goose Creek, S.C.'s Stratford High with Justin Smoak and Matt Wieters–who both are already in the big leagues. Fellow Stratford teammate Matt Crim is 4-4, 3.80 at high Class A Myrtle Beach. Catcher John Murrian, a ninth-round pick of the Tigers last year who is playing at high Class A Lakeland, only got to catch when Wieters pitched or got a day off as a designated hitter. Several other players received Division I scholarships. As you would expect, Stratford won the South Carolina 3-A state title in 2005. Greene led off, Smoak hit third and Wieters batted cleanup.
But even with scouts at nearly every one of his high school games, Greene went undrafted out of high school. He also failed to get a scholarship offer.
"It's by far the best team I've ever been a part of," Greene said. "I was the only one to go to a Division II school out of the bunch. I had to walk-on to a D-II school. My coach told me I wasn't good to enough to play for them which was motivation. It took a lot of hard work and some help from my college coaches but I definitely used that in a positive way. I didn't think bad about the situation. It was fuel to the fire."
Greene walked on at Division II Francis-Marion University. It took him a year to convince the Francis-Marion coaching staff that he was worth a scholarship, but once they did he quickly became a fixture in the lineup. Three years later, he was drafted by the White Sox in the 20th round of the 2008 draft.
As a 24-year-old in the Carolina League, Greene will once again have to keep proving that he's better than expected, but as a speedy center fielder with surprising pop (something he showed in hitting three home runs in the pre-game home run derby), Greene is once again at work exceeding expectations. He's hitting .316/.395/.557 as a speedy center fielder for the Winston-Salem Dash.
Three Batters, Three K's: San Jose's Craig Westcott (Giants) earned the start for the California League on the basis of his 5-0, 1.55 record. He lived up to the responsibility by striking out the side in the first, retiring Brandon Short, Oscar Tejeda and Eric Hosmer.
Normally the California League chews up and spits out hitters, but Westcott, a former hitter who didn't really focus on pitching until his senior season in college, has not been phased by the winds and high altitudes of some of the league's parks.
"My dad always says, throw the ball down the middle and see if your stuff works. I've been trying to keep the ball down and let hitters get themselves out," Westcott said.
With the way Westcott has been pitching, he is making a pretty strong argument for a promotion to Double-A. That will come with an extra bonus for him–as a National League pitcher he'd get a chance to hit again.
"I'd love to hit a little bit. My passion is hitting," Westcott said. "Obviously I've got to stop thinking of hitting and focus on pitching."
Unlike most converted hitters, Westcott hasn't had a whole lot of problem developing secondary pitches. He's pitched enough over the years that he's worked on his change-up and breaking balls for quite a while. Westcott throws a sinker, a two-seamer, a curveball, a slider and a change although the curveball is definitely his fifth pitch and his somewhat slider varies between a true slider and a somewhat slurvier pitch.
"I try to mix it up a little bit," he said.
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