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Kinsler's Breakout Defies Even Self-Explanation

Prospect Pulse By John Manuel
May 6, 2004

Ian Kinsler was on the golf course with his agent, former big leaguer Jeff Frye, on his first day off since his promotion to Double-A Frisco.

Frye has seen players get hot before. He just hasn't seen one quite as incendiary as Kinsler.

"I don't know where it's coming from," Frye said with a laugh, "and he doesn't really know either."

Kinsler confirms that he's not doing anything different. The 22-year-old shortstop just thinks he's a better player than he was at this time last year, a better player than he was in a college career that spanned three schools, a better player than when the Rangers drafted him in the 17th round last June.

"This is definitely the best stretch I've ever had," the 6-foot, 182-pounder said. "I mean, I hit over .500 in high school, but that's a little different.

"There really hasn't been any one moment I can put my finger on, or something that clicked. Late last year at (short-season) Spokane, I started seeing the ball real good toward the end of the year. Since then, I've just been really locked in and comfortable at the plate."

That's one way to put it. Kinsler, who vaulted to the No. 1 spot on BA's Prospect Hot Sheet, has performed better than any minor leaguer in 2004. He hit .402-11-52 with 30 doubles in 224 at-bats at low Class A Clinton to start the season, and has continued to put up Nintendo numbers at Frisco in the Double-A Texas League. Promoted after a shoulder injury sidelined Drew Meyer, Kinsler is producing against much tougher competition. He went 2-for-3 Thursday night to raise his average to .474 (18-for-38) with six doubles, five homers and 15 RBIs. For the season, he has a 30-43 walk-strikeout ratio, and he's 17-for-22 overall on stolen bases for good measure.

"There's no way you can expect someone to dominate like that," said John Lombardo, the Rangers' director of minor league operations. "We thought he had the potential to have a very good year, and we were pleased when he spent the whole winter in Arizona to work out. He worked hard with our strength and conditioning coaches to get stronger, and it's paying off."

In fact, Kinsler credits the Rangers organization the most for his development. He had a solid college career, playing as a freshman at Central Arizona Junior College, where he was on the same roster as Arizona's Scott Hairston and Oakland's Rich Harden. Kinsler then transferred for a semester to Arizona State, hitting .230 in 61 at-bats and losing his starting job to Dustin Pedroia, whom the Red Sox drafted in the second round this year. "He's a pretty good player," Kinsler said.

Pedroia's arrival prompted Kinsler, who was drafted twice by the Diamondbacks (29th and 26th rounds in 2000 and 2001), to transfer to Missouri. He hit .335-6-45 for the Tigers, helping them earn a regional bid for the first time since 1996. Despite his track record, Kinsler lasted until the 496th overall pick in 2003. He signed quickly and batted .277-1-15 in 188 at-bats with Spokane in his pro debut.

Nothing in his history indicated the kind of power and performance he has shown this season. Pressed to come up with one cause for his quantum leap, Kinsler points to the instruction he has received since joining Texas' organization.

"I had no idea what was going on when I signed," he said. "I didn't have a very good idea of what pro ball was all about. At the end of the year, the scout that signed me (Mike Grouse) told me they might send me to instructional league, which he said was a good sign.

"I think instructional league is really what helped me the most; I just felt like I got to know myself as a player and got to know my game better. You do that by just getting experience, getting 1,000 swings or however many we got down there."

Kinsler said the most important aspect of instructional league was the repetition and the attention Rangers coaches gave to him. He got positive reinforcement, but he also was told when he wasn't doing a drill right or was losing his swing mechanics. He focused completely on baseball for the first time, and the results have reinforced that approach.

Kinsler has distractions; he's just dealing with them pretty well. His clothes and his stuff remain back in Clinton, Iowa, and he has yet to find an apartment in Frisco, as the Rough Riders have been on an extended road trip. Kinsler said he has been recycling the same eight days' worth of clothing since his June 13 promotion.

He made an immediate impression in Frisco, doubling at San Antonio and being robbed of two other near-homers at the wall. He's hit safely in eight straight Double-A games (10 straight overall), including a current five-game mark with multiple hits. He's homered off a rehabbing Andy Pettitte at Round Rock and blasted two off the Express' top pitching prospect, Ezequiel Astacio.

"He looks like more of a run-production guy, whereas Drew Meyer is kind of a run-creator at the top of the lineup," Frisco manager Tim Ireland said. "Ian absolutely has stepped right in and made the seamless transition, which is probably unusual considering he was coming from a low A league. I've seen a lot of guys make a similar jump and fail over the years.

"I think he's succeeding because his swing is graceful and effortless. It's just a smooth swing, and he hits for power because he lets his swing work for him. Defensively, so far he's shown a real feel for shortstop. He's got good feet and soft hands, and he throws well enough. I think he's going to be here for the duration. He seems pretty legit to me."

Being in Double-A, Kinsler admits he can taste the major leagues. Reaching that level seems more attainable from Frisco than it did from one of the Midwest League's smallest outposts.

"The power numbers are nice, but I'm most pleased that I've been consistent," Kinsler said. "Home runs come from having a consistent approach. My hitting coach at Clinton, Mike Boulanger, was great about keeping after me with my approach. If I was 1-for-3, he was driving me. Before my last at-bat, he'd say, 'I want that other hit.' That's the approach I've taken with me to the plate.

"I just want to keep this streak up," he said, "and see where it takes me."

Putting Himself On The Map

Wednesday night's performance by short-season Aberdeen's Luis Ramirez ranks as one of the best in minor league history, if some of the game's institutions have done their research.

Ramirez, a 6-foot-4, 180-pound Venezuelan righthander, struck out 15 of the 17 batters he faced in five innings for the IronBirds. He allowed one hit and got his first out on a groundout to shortstop. Otherwise, he had one four-whiff inning (dropped third strike and error on first baseman Mike Costello on the throw) and allowed a hit. He struck out 12 straight hitters at one point.

As soon as he exited the game, Jamestown rallied to score five runs in the sixth and beat Aberdeen 6-3 in front of 6,122 fans.

The IronBirds have checked with authorities from Minor League Baseball, Society for American Baseball Research and the New York-Penn League, among others, and they believe the 12 straight whiffs to be a record for professional baseball. The major league record of 10 was set April 22, 1970 by Mets righthander Tom Seaver. The feat has been most recently accomplished in the minor leagues in the 1970s, according to the IronBirds.

Ramirez already has established a track record as a strikeout pitcher. The 22-year-old led the Rookie-level Gulf Coast League last year with 76 strikeouts in 59 innings during a 6-4, 2.12 season. He has 22 whiffs in 10 innings so far this year and has allowed only one run.

Orioles farm director Doc Rogers wasn't at the game, but he read from pitching coach Andre Rabouin's postgame report with pride, because it indicates that Ramirez has picked up on the central tenet of the organization's pitching philosophy--command the fastball first.

"Outstanding, overpowering performance--he dominated and overmatched hitters," Rogers read. "He expanded the strike zone and was in total command with his fastball, which had average velocity and above-average life through the strike zone."

Rogers said Ramirez' fastball command prompted the organization to skip him over Rookie-level Bluefield up to Aberdeen. Ramirez generally throws in the 90-93 mph range with his fastball and also uses a curve. Of his 76 pitches against Jamestown (58 of them for strikes), Ramirez threw 63 fastball and 13 curves. Fifty of his 63 fastballs found the strike zone.

"He basically beat them up with his fastball," Rogers said. "It reminds me of what John Maine did when he was in A ball at Delmarva and Frederick, and what he did in his last start at (Triple-A) Ottawa. John was a one-pitch guy in A ball, pitching off an average fastball that he commanded exceptionally well.

"That's the foundation for everything we're trying to do. We tell our pitchers that the first thing they must do is command the fastball; everything else, every other pitch you can name, stems from that and has to come later."

Rogers said Ramirez will likely remain at Aberdeen this season to further refine his curveball. Once he shows mastery of a second pitch and starts to work on a changeup, Ramirez will be on his way, Rogers said.

"We're not looking for one great outing out of him," Rogers said. "We need to see six or seven or eight or nine good outings. We want to see the consistency."

STRONG BEATS

Rogers gave Class A Frederick, with the minors' worst record at 20-52, an extreme makeover at the Carolina League all-star break. All five current Keys starters were not with the roster at the beginning of the season, with righthander Chris Ray, a third-round pick last year out of William & Mary, the top prospect involved. The Keys have a 5.18 team ERA and have allowed 316 walks in 72 games, more than four per outing. "Our five starters were not pitching with the fastball command we're talking about," Rogers said. "Even Richard Stahl, who was having some success, was working around walks. Now he's got a groin injury, though I'll take a groin over a back or arm injury any day."

The Yankees promoted righthander Matt DeSalvo to Double-A Trenton, heady stuff for a nondrafted free agent signed last year out of Division III Marietta (Ohio). DeSalvo set NCAA records for career victories (53) and strikeouts (603; he also has the single-season D-III mark of 205) in his college career, and he's been able to translate his success to pro ball. He went 6-3, 1.43 at Class A Tampa before his promotion, striking out 80 and walking 30 in 75 innings while allowing just 48 hits. Opponents batted just .177 against him. He lost his first start at Trenton, allowing four runs in seven innings.

"He reminds me a lot of Brad Halsey, who I had last year and now is in the big leagues," Tampa manager Billy Masse said. "He's got a good fastball, not great--it's 90-91 (mph), but he hides it well like Halsey, who's a lefty and has that lefty movement. His changeup is his next-best pitch, like Halsey, and they both are a little short with their breaking balls.

"He's got a quick arm and a little turn of his back to the batter, kind of like Kevin Brown. The ball comes at you quick; guys don't get good swings off him. And DeSalvo is just an amazingly intense competitor. He's all about hating the batter."

Padres righthander Vern Sterry flirted with a perfect game in his first pro start at short-season Eugene, allowing his first hit with one out in the eighth inning when Tri-City's Stephen Ghutzman tripled. Sterry, an eighth-round pick out of North Carolina State, got one more out and finished the night with nine strikeouts and no walks in 7 2/3 frames. He features an 87-89 mph fastball and an above-average changeup.

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