Decker Standing Out As TinCaps' Best Hitter
FORT WAYNE, Ind.—The team with the best record in the minor leagues through late July was the newly re-named Fort Wayne TinCaps, playing in the brand new Parkview Field at Harrison Square.
After leading the Midwest League with 45 wins in the first half, the TinCaps got out of the gate quickly in the second half, winning 17 of their first 20 games, despite the promotions of three-fifths of their pitching staff, including Mat Latos, and three of their everyday regulars—third baseman James Darnell, right fielder Sawyer Carroll and first baseman/DH Matt Clark to high Class A Lake Elsinore.
After all of this movement, their best player besides Latos has arguably been left fielder Jaff Decker, the Padres supplemental first-round pick in the 2008 draft.
Decker has been in the top three of both the on-base and slugging percentage leaders in the league all year, despite playing against players frequently three or four years older than him. Not bad for someone that wasn't considered athletic enough to be taken in the first round, though his success has hardly been a surprise to the Padres.
"Offensively there wasn't a whole lot that surprised us, he's a good hitter who we don't expect to see a whole of bumps on his path to the big leagues," said Grady Fuson, the Padres' vice president for scouting and development. "Also, he's been a very good defender for us."
Decker, 19, was a four-year starter at Sunrise Mountain High in Peoria, Arizona, a suburb of Phoenix and the spring training home of the Padres. Despite having career high school numbers that bore more resemblance to a video game than reality, Decker wasn't selected until the 42nd pick overall, mainly because scouts were unsure of how much projection, or athleticism, was in a 5-foot-10, 200-pound high school senior.
"People that have seen him before know he is athletic," said Kent Decker, Jaff's father and a baseball coach for over 20 years in the Phoenix area. "We read those articles all the time and just laugh. He was a quarterback on his high school team and played basketball and hockey in seventh and eighth grades, so he is a good athlete.
"The first time he ever played the outfield was when he was a freshman in high school, until then he always played shortstop. We had some pretty good teams and he made all the plays."
The lefthanded hitting Decker turned down a chance to play at Arizona State, which recruited him as an outfielder and relief pitcher—he threw in the low 90s off the mound in high school. A National Honor Society student, the choice to go to college or begin his professional career was something he had to think about.
"It was a difficult choice because I knew so many of the guys that were going there and really liked Coach (Pat) Murphy," Decker said. "But my goal has always been to become a major league baseball player and although going to ASU would have helped get me there, I thought the Padres were a good fit for what I wanted."
Last year in the Rookie-level Arizona League, Decker had a .523 on-base and a .541 slugging percentage, stole nine out of ten bases while splitting time between center and left field. He reached base an average of 2.27 times per game and hit .522/.645/.870 with runners in scoring position while living at home and playing less than a mile from his house.
"I think I set the AZL record for attendance by all my family members," a laughing Decker said. "I played travel ball at that park and had watched a lot of spring training games there, so I was real comfortable."
A Perfect Fit
While Decker's offensive numbers were impressive, it's his all-around game that has the Padres excited.
"He's not the prototype center fielder that is 6-foot-2 and long and lean, but he has instincts to succeed out there," Fuson said. "He gets great jumps and reads on the ball. The only misnomer about him is everyone just looks at what he can do offensively, and there will be some limitations on him because of his size and body type, but he can play."
Decker's hitting philosophy seems custom made to the "patiently aggressive" approach that San Diego attempts to implement up and down its farm system.
"That goes back to things my dad taught me; a walk is just as good as a hit," Decker said. "You don't have to do it all on your own, but if you do get your pitch, make sure you hit it and don't miss."
Despite his success Decker is determined to prove that he is more than just a hitter.
"I don't just want to become a DH. Conditioning is part of my everyday routine and what I do. I'm not blessed like some guys that can run like deer, but I can move."
Finally, for the record, his name is pronounced "jeff" and not "jaff". Jaff was named after his father's brother who perished in a helicopter accident in the military. His uncle was born on a military base and the nurse accidentally substituted an "a" for what should have been an "e", hence "Jaff".
"He was my Dad's best friend and from what I understand a pretty good athlete," Decker said. "They said he was the last one to leave the field, yard and mats of whatever sport he was playing, a real hard-nosed guy who liked to compete. That is how I hope to be remembered too."
John Conniff is a freelance writer based in Washington, D.C.