PHOENIX—Clemson sluggers Kyle Parker rand Richie Shaffer were critical offensive forces that propelled the 2010 Tigers to the College World Series. The former first-round picks are teammates once again in the Arizona Fall League, sharing time at first base for the Salt River Rafters, and both have made significant changes to the swings since entering pro ball.
Shaffer, one of the top hitters in college baseball in 2012 with a .336/.480/.573 line, 33 extra-base hits and more walks than strikeouts, was selected 25th overall by the Rays. The tall, lean, athletic 6-foot-3 third baseman showed hitting ability, above-average bat speed and 70 grade raw power on the 20-80 scouting scale with a leveraged swing capable of hitting the ball out to all fields.
In college, Shaffer's squared stance was slightly spread with his feet outside his shoulders, and he had a short stride that didn't spend much time in the air. Upon entering pro ball, Shaffer then used a more even weight distribution to his stance and added a large leg kick nearly up to his waist.
"The leg kick is not anything I used in college," Shaffer said. "In the month and a half from when I was drafted to when I played in Hudson Valley, I thought 'I have wanted to try this for forever,' but for whatever reason I never gave myself the opportunity to do it in college. When I first started, I did a lot of research on many of the big league guys that have these big, dramatic leg kicks, like Hanley Ramirez and Jose Bautista, and studied their timing and approaches. When I watched these guys, all these guys have strides parallel up to the ground. It is all feel."
Shaffer signed for $1.71 million at the 2012 signing deadline and hit .308/.406/.487 in a small sample of 138 plate appearances in the New York-Penn League.
The 22-year-old Shaffer used the new stance and stride as he entered his first full professional season in the Florida State League.
"There were times when I was not as consistent against premium velocity because it was too high and the timing was a little bit different," Shaffer said. "I stuck with it and throughout the first month of the season, and I had a down month. I was frustrated and I was working on it but something wasn't feeling right. So, I said 'let's go back to the drawing board to what I had been doing forever, pretty much.' I didn't want to abandon it but I just wanted to create some confidence and stop thinking as much. It was a little bit simpler. It is a more conservative approach."
He then returned to his collegiate stance and stride, posting a league-average line of .254/.308/.399 in the Florida State League with 33 doubles and 11 home runs for Port Charlotte.
After the minor league season ended, Shaffer had nearly a month-long window of time without having to face live pitching before the AFL began to make further adjustments and refine his alternations. He brought his leg kick back, but it is not nearly as high and does not spend as much time in the air as his previous early-season version.
"Once the season ended I got to work at it and tone it down a little, and not make it as dramatic and as high," Shaffer said. "This way I can still get the benefits of using the leg kick without a lot of the inconsistencies that come along with it. That is something I have been working with the hitting coordinators to maximize my potential abilities."
Despite the alterations to Shaffer's lower half, his hands and load have not undergone any adjustments.
"Regardless of what happens with my lower half, my hands have stayed the same," Shaffer said. "I keep my hands in the same place every time. I like to keep them a little higher because my load naturally falls into slot, so if I keep them too low they will go too low. That is how my hands get into the power position."
Shaffer, listed at 6-foot-3, 205 pounds coming out of school, had a lean, rangy frame with significant room to fill out his athletic build. Shaffer put in substantial time to get stronger entering his first pro season.
"I left college at 195 to 200 pounds, but I put on 20 pounds from the time I signed until my first spring training," Shaffer said. "Last offseason I really worked on my legs, not only gaining mass and size but also coordination flexibility and quickness. That was a huge help for me to stay on the field and allowed me to get to this part of the season and still have something left."
Like many naturally lean players in their first full pro season, Shaffer lost weight over his inaugural campaign.
"I came in ready to go at a rock solid 220 pounds," Shaffer said. "I lost a good amount of weight over the season. Unfortunately I am one of the guys who loses weight over the season because I can't get enough calories when I am sweating all day down in Florida."
He played first base his freshman and sophomore year at Clemson but Shaffer, a good athlete with a legitimate plus arm, moved to the hot corner entering his draft-eligible season and faced questions about his ability to stay there long term, but he played there exclusively this year.
He will be splitting his time equally between third and first base in the AFL.
"Versatility is big in the Rays organization and it is something they value tremendously," Shaffer said. "So I am not trying to get pigeon-holed as a third baseman that can't move anywhere because Evan Longoria is pretty good and he just signed for a decade. So I guess I could be a 32-year-old rookie (chuckles). Unless I want to get there before I am ready for a pension I might want to think about being more versatile. But I have worked way too hard to bag it as a third baseman. The more places I can play in the field the more valuable I am to the organization."
Parker played some first base his freshman year at Clemson (2008), the last time he played infield, but has primarily been a corner outfielder in college and as a professional. He has below-average speed and a below-average but accurate arm. Parker, who played 18 games at first in the second half of this season, will see most of his time at there this fall.
"This is the first time in five years I have been over there," Parker said. "It is difficult learning a new position considering the talent on the field but I am getting more comfortable with it. The biggest key for my time in the AFL is getting comfortable at first base. If I can do that then it is a successful fall for me."
Parker, like Shaffer, has substantially altered his swing as a professional. The Rockies 2010 first-round pick (26th overall), Parker had a narrow, upright stance with a medium length stride and a low hand load that was fairly deep as a Tiger.
Parker, a starting quarterback at Clemson and son of a former NFL wide receiver, has advanced a level each year and has dealt with injuries. In 2012, when he hit .308/.415/.562 (52 percent above league average) with 47 extra-base hits in the California League, Parker broke his broke his wrist in the second game of the season when he was hit by a pitch. Parker then tore a ligament in his thumb shortly before he was slated to come to the AFL. This season, the 24-year-old Parker lost time because of a concussion, although the move was largely precautionary, and he played a career-high 123 games, hitting .288/.345/.492 (35 percent above league average) with 49 extra-base hits for the Double-A Tulsa Drillers of the Texas League.
The 6-foot, 210-pound righthanded-hitting Parker, who has plus raw power and natural strength, has struggled against breaking stuff on the outer third of the plate.
"In college, it was success by ability," Parker said. "Then you get to a level where everyone is as good as you and you need to have a consistent swing and the biggest thing for me was that I could always hit a fastball, but I needed to myself into a better position as to where I could still hit even if I was fooled on a pitch. Seeing as many breaking balls has really contributed to how my swing has developed."
Parker has changed to a much squattier, wider stance with a pronounced weight distribution on his back leg. He now employs a high stride that is parallel to the ground. His stance and stride are now reminiscent of former Mets second baseman Edgardo Alfonzo. In college, Parker's stride changed his eye level from his narrow stance, which is especially a problem against breaking balls. But his new setup allows his eye level to remain constant throughout this swing. Parker now starts and loads his hands from a higher point.
A third member of the 2010 Clemson Tigers is playing infield for the Rafters, Diamondbacks lefthanded-hitting second baseman Mike Freeman, 26, who hit .247/.345/.297 in the Southern League.