A year ago this month, Indians infielder Matt Whitney looked like a colossal bust. The 33rd overall pick in the 2002 draft, who missed all of the 2003 season after breaking his left leg in a spring training basketball mishap, was winding down a 2006 season for high Class A Kinston in which he hit just .206 and endured a painful 0-for-44 slump.
This season, though, the 23-year-old has looked like a player worthy of his draft position. A third baseman his whole career, Whitney broke camp with low Class A Lake County to learn first base and work on his swing. He hit .308/.377/.542 with 16 homers and 64 RBIs in 71 games before a promotion to Kinston in late June, and he’™s only picked up steam.
In his second tour of the Carolina League, Whitney has hit .293/.343/.576 with 14 homers and 43 RBIs through 47 games. To give his turnaround some perspective, consider that it took Whitney 96 games to hit 10 homers and drive in 39 runs for Kinston last season.
With 30 homers between two stops this season, Whitney, who credits Lake County hitting coach Jim Rickon and Kinston hitting coach Jon Nunnally with helping him get back on track, is tied for seventh among all minor leaguers. With 107 RBIs, he is five off the minor league lead.
On the other hand, Whitney leads all minor league first basemen with 20 errors as he adjusts to a new position. David Hall, who covers the Kinston Indians for the Kinston Free Press, sat down with the laid-back Whitney to talk about his resurgence, the rediscovery of his confidence and why it’™s a bad idea to blow up a dugout.
Baseball America: So what happened? What clicked for you?
Matt Whitney: It’™s hard to say. I always go back to saying it’™s been a mental thing from last year. I worked a lot in the offseason, hitting pretty much every day and just working on my swing and talking to guys and seeing what kind of stuff they do to get out of slumps and ride the roller coaster of the year and try to stay on top of everything. I think it helped me just kind of relax and take it into the game. It’™s been pretty good this year.”
BA: You were in that horrible slump last year. What’™s the difference between that point last year and your whole year this year? You’™ve been steady all year.
MW: I think a lot of it goes back to knowing my swing and knowing what I need to do if things start to slide a little bit–just get back to the basics. Jim Rickon and Nunnally here have helped me a lot. They stay on top of me, making sure I get swings every day. And just being able to stay consistent with what I do before the game, I think, has helped.
BA: How is the transition to first base going?
MW: It’™s going pretty well–better than I thought it would. I think coming from one corner to the other corner is easier than, say, coming from an outfield position or something into the infield. But it’™s coming along. I’™m still working on the footwork and the different plays I have to make. But I think it’™s, overall, gone pretty well.
BA: Has it helped you at the plate because it’™s an easier position to play?
MW: Yeah, I think it takes a little pressure off just to be out there. I’™ve just got to make sure I catch the ball and pick it when I need to. I think it’™s helped being able to relax a little bit.”
BA: With what went on with your leg a few years ago, does that make your turnaround even more satisfying?
MW: Yeah, it does. It’™s been a long road coming back from that. Being able to have some success has definitely lifted my spirits a little bit this year–being able to still believe I can make it to the big leagues after what happened.”
BA: There are different versions of what happened to your leg. Would you like to set the record straight once and for all?
MW: Yeah. We were just messing around playing basketball, just shooting around a little bit before we were going out to dinner or something. I ended up slipping and breaking my leg. It was a pretty crazy night. And after that, it took about a year and a half to rehab with (former Indians minor league rehab coordinator) Lee Kuntz, who I owe a lot to–and the Indians for sticking with me and stuff. After a year and a half, finally getting to this point has been pretty rough. But it’™s been good this season.
BA: You’™re a high draft pick, you have the injury and you struggle. Then people basically start ripping you. Does your rebound here help keep that in perspective in terms of knowing what not to pay attention to?
MW: Yeah, I don’™t read much on the Internet or read many articles or anything. I try to just stay away so I can focus on on-the-field stuff. This year, its been easier to not even worry about that stuff just because of the way the year’™s been. So yeah, this year’™s definitely kind of kept me at ease.
BA: People in the organization talk about how you’™ve been the same guy every day, through bad and good. How do you stay so even-keeled?
MW: I don’™t know. It’™s my personality, I guess, or something. I think at least going through what I went through last year, if I have a couple of games where I go 0-for-3 with three Ks or something, I know I can bounce right back. And then this year’™s kind of helped with that. So I think blowing up a dugout after a strikeout or something, it’™s not worth it. You’™re going to get up there again. So I think I’™ve just tried to keep that kind of mentality.
BA: How do you think your injury impacted your maturity?
MW: Oh, a lot. For a whole year and a half, I basically had to sit and watch the game. It’™s something I hadn’™t done, probably, all my life at all. It’™s definitely given me a greater appreciation for the game. I don’™t take much for granted these days. Going back to this season, playing well has kind of solidified that.
BA: That was my next question. With what you went through last year, as you look back on that, how has that impacted your maturity?
MW: It’™s all been pretty big. Going through last year was a struggle, having to get through it. And then coming out this year and having some success has kind of brought my spirits back up and brought my confidence back up as well.
BA: Have you started thinking about whether the Indians will protect you on the 40-man roster?
MW: A little bit. I’™m not sure how that all will take place. We’™ll see how it goes this offseason. It’™d be nice, and I hope it will happen. But if it doesn’™t, we’™ll see what happens.
BA: What are you doing this offseason?
MW: Well, right now I know I’™m going to instructional league to get some more work over at first base. That’™s pretty much the only solid stuff I’™m doing right now. I’™d like to go play somewhere if I could. Other than that, get home and get back in the cage and just work for next season.
BA: Where do you see your ceiling right now? Has it ever changed? I guess at this time last year, you might’™ve had a different answer.
MW: Yeah, it still seems almost far away, still, right now. And even last year, it seemed like it was miles away–never going to happen or what not. But because of the success of this year, I think I’™ve hopefully brought my ceiling up a little higher being able to play first base or even playing third. I still believe that I can compete at the big league level at some point.