PHOENIX—It would be impossible to determine which player leads the Arizona Fall League in home runs just by watching the Phoenix Desert Dogs take pregame batting practice.
Athletics outfielder Grant Desme tops the league with 10 homers, accumulated in only 15 games, at the midpoint of the season. His overall numbers—.393/.464/.934—rank in the top four in each of the three slash stats. He also leads the league in RBIs with 23.
The righthanded slugger is content to work on his other hitting skills during batting practice.
“The thing that impresses me is that he does not waver from his work in batting practice every day,” Desert Dog manager Gary Cathcart said. “As a matter of fact, I don’t think he’s hit a home run in batting practice here. He stays within his routine—line drives in the middle of the field and opposite field, getting his hands working, and just feeling a good tempo. He pretty much saves the rest of it for the game.”
Desert Dog hitting coach Brian McArn chimed in on the effectiveness of Desme’s pregame approach, even bestowing on him the degree of “professional hitter.”
“He takes his at-bats with a professional attitude,” said McArn, the A’s Triple-A Sacramento hitting coach. “His batting practices are amazing. He tries to use the whole field. He rarely hits a home run in batting practice . . . just a pleasure to watch.”
Desme’s AFL performance comes after a breakout 2009 season, in what was in essence his first full professional season. The 23-year-old product of Cal Poly hit a combined .288/.365/.568, including eye-popping totals of 31 homers and 40 stolen bases, with low Class A Kane County and high Class A Stockton.
His career got off to a slow start after the A’s grabbed him in the second round of the 2007 draft. Desme totaled only 49 at-bats in his first two seasons due to a succession of injuries (wrist surgery and a shoulder separation), with only three trips to the plate in a lost 2008 campaign.
Desme doesn’t feel that last year was a total loss. He believes that the time away from the game helped him grow as a person.
“I’m very thankful it happened to me,” said Desme, in reference to the separated shoulder that sidelined him for most of 2008. “I think it needed to be. As a person, baseball was really the one and only thing in my life. With the injuries, it kind of put everything in perspective. There are much bigger things in life. Baseball could be taken from you at any moment . . . You step on the field and that could be your last game. There are a lot of other things that matter more . . . baseball’s just a game.”
Desme’s biggest area for improvement at the plate is cutting down on strikeouts. He fanned 148 times in 486 at-bats this year and has been punched out 17 times in 61 AFL at-bats. His strikeout totals could be viewed in two different ways. A pessimist might say that Desme’s numbers are too high for a 23-year-old college product in A ball, while an optimist would point out that it’s not bad for a power hitter in his first full pro season.
Regardless, it’s a facet of his game that Desme knows he needs to improve and he’s using the AFL to make the necessary adjustments.
“That’s something I’m working on and trying to improve,” said Desme, ” . . . just try to find a two-strike approach I’m comfortable with and try to make more contact.”
Cathcart, who managed Double-A New Hampshire in the Blue Jays system, sees a hitter who should be able to make the necessary adjustments as he progresses though the minors.
“I don’t think he has a poor strike zone and he’s not a free swinger,” said Cathcart, “but he does miss a little bit . . . It’s a natural maturation for him. It’s really his first full season.”
McArn concurred, adding, “It’s just a process. He’ll realize what pitchers are trying to do to him.”
Perhaps even more surprising than the home run totals is the number of stolen bases he accumulated this year. He stole a total of 20 bases during his three years in college (one season at San Diego State and two years at Cal Poly), but was a perfect 24-for-24 during his time with Kane County and was caught stealing just five times in his 21 attempts with Stockton.
“That was a pretty big surprise for me,” he said. “It was the first time I had been able to steal. I really had no idea I could put up numbers like that.”
Desme is rated as just an average runner, but according to McArn he had more opportunities to steal this season by getting good jumps and knowing on which pitches he could go.
His performance this fall has not gone unnoticed by the Oakland organization.
“The amazing thing is that he’s playing really good defense,” said Billy Owens, Oakland’s director of player personnel, “he’s running the bases hard, and every last home run has been to every crevice of the ballpark—left, right and center—and none of them has been a wall-scraper.”
In addition to having McArn on the Desert Dog coaching staff, the A’s minor league hitting coordinator Greg Sparks and farm director Keith Lieppman have been keeping close tabs on Desme.
Desme is four home runs away from tying the Arizona Fall League record of 14, set in 2005 by Angels infielder Brandon Wood, but it’s not something that he is worried about right now.
“Records are nice, but I’m here to prepare to go on to the next level,” said Desme.
His AFL teammates from the Athletics don’t let him forget about both the home run record and the numbers he’s putting up this fall.
“Grant Desme is a great person, very humble and a quiet guy,” said fellow Desert Dog outfielder Corey Brown. “He knows it’s there, in the back of his head; he’s a guy that really doesn’t like to look at his numbers and really know exactly what he’s doing.”
That doesn’t stop Desme’s friends from continually reminding him of his accomplishments this fall.
“It’s just one of those things that we joke around about,” added Brown.
• The Dodgers shut down lefthahnder Aaron Miller as planned after three appearances in which the 2009 supplemental first-round pick yielded only one run in 4 1/3 innings. In his brief stint, the Baylor product drew raves from many in the scout section at his games. One scout in particular wondered aloud how Miller had gotten past the first round before being selected with the 36th overall pick. Righthander Kenley Jansen, a converted catcher, replaced him on the Javelinas roster. Jansen, a native of Curacao, made his pitching debut this season with high Class A Inland Empire and struck out 19 batters in 11 2/3 innings. The 22-year-old, who caught for the Dutch in the World Baseball Classic this spring, has a big, strong physique and possesses a fastball that reaches 96-97 mph.
• Other newcomers to the league last week included outfielder Nick Evans (Mets), pitcher Kyle Bellamy (White Sox) and outfielder Darin Mastroianni (Blue Jays). Bellamy, a submarining righthander, was a 2009 fifth-round pick out of Miami.
• The annual Rising Stars Game, scheduled for Saturday, November 7th at 6:15 pm, will be telecast live on MLB Network. To be held at Surprise Stadium, the game showcases the AFL’s top prospects. Rosters will be announced later this week.