New Approach Has Rockies' Swanner On Right Track

ASHEVILLE, N.C.—"My first year I swung at everything. It was pretty much all-out aggression," Rockies catching prospect Will Swanner said recently as he reflected on changes to his hitting approach during his three-year pro career.

These days, the 20-year-old Swanner has channeled his aggression while adding walks to his offensive repertoire and batting .328/.413/.581 with 14 home runs through 265 at-bats for low Class A Asheville. He ranks third in the South Atlantic League in OPS (.994), average and home run per at-bat ratio (18.9).

"The potential has always been, there but now he is learning how to hit and is becoming a complete hitter," Rockies hitting coordinator Jim Johnson said. "I couldn't ask for more improvement from any individual than what Will Swanner has done each season."

A 15th-round selection in 2010 who signed for $490,000—roughly third-round money—Swanner opened 2011 in extended spring training, then repeated the Rookie-level Pioneer League that summer. He injured his catching hand in the fall, and following surgery doctors didn't clear him to swing until after Christmas or to catch until mid-January. The 6-foot-2, 195-pound Swanner had only a month to train before spring training 2012, saying, "It kind of freaked me out because I didn't know I was going to be ready."

Once the season began, Swanner left no doubt that he was ready for game action.

"I popped out in my first at-bat against West Virginia, but something just clicked," Swanner said. "I was like, 'I got it. It's is finally coming to me. Everything is finally clicking,' and that is when I got locked in."

This offensive transformation is the byproduct of a series of mechanical adjustments as well as Swanner's improved patience at the plate. Fresh out of high school in Carlsbad, Calif., back in 2010 he drew zero walks in 78 plate appearances during his pro debut with Rookie-level Casper. On the flip side, he did mash seven homers in 18 games to validate the power projections heaped on him by amateur scouts.

When he signed, Swanner had a large and aggressive stride that left him susceptible to advanced pitching, but after extensive work with Johnson and other coaches his stride has quieted significantly. His hitting base has widened to reduce head movement and keep his weight back.

"I had a tendency to fly open when I swung," Swanner said, "and the biggest thing I am working on is staying closed."

Like most teenage power hitters, Swanner entered pro ball with a pull-oriented approach, but that approach led to his high strikeout totals.

"The most impressive thing about Will since he entered the organization is that he has grasped the idea of hitting the ball the other way," Johnson said. "As a hitting coordinator, that is one the biggest challenges (to teach) young hitters, but Will has unusual power to center and right field."

The majority of Swanner's 14 home runs this season were hit to center or right field. Johnson said this new approach has enabled Swanner to see the ball longer, thereby improving his previously untamed plate discipline. He now draws walks at a league-average rate, while he has substantially reduced his strikeout rate for a third straight season, down to about 27 percent of plate appearances, which is down from 33 percent in 2011, which is down from 44 percent in 2010.

"When he has been going badly, which has not been often this year, he has swung at some balls in the dirt," Asheville hitting coach Mike Devereaux said.

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While Swanner has made exponential strides with his hitting approach and results the past two years, his defense has not developed as quickly. He possesses all of the physical attributes necessary to be an average defensive catcher—athleticism, developing receiving skills and average arm strength.

Yet Swanner's defensive development has been slowed by a mechanical issue behind the plate. 

"He stands straight up when he is getting ready to throw the ball down to second," Devereaux said. "It is what he needs to work on the most."

Despite quick feet and average arm strength, Swanner's pause before his release the ball increases his pop times by as much as three-tenths of a second, which the young catcher admits is a "long time" in the fast-paced world of basestealing. He has dealt with this issue since high school and understands its importance for his future.

"I would love to stay at catcher and that is the biggest thing for me to stay back there," Swanner said. "I just pause when I get up top, and it really slows down my throwing. It is a daily grind mentally to will myself to throw it to second in a good time and shorten up."

Considering the Rockies' track record with catchers, Swanner is in the right organization to overcome this issue. He receives praise for his makeup and work ethic, and the organization is confident Swanner can become an average defensive backstop because of tenacious work ethic and tutelage from roving catching instructor Marv Foley.

Foley began serving in his current role in 2006, and since then the Rockies have produced three big league catchers, Chris Iannetta, Wilin Rosario and Mike McKenry, which is a high rate for a premium position.

Game-calling has been a strength for Swanner since he entered pro ball, and Tourists manager Joe Mikulik said his blocking has improved this season. If his defense develops as thoroughly as his bat has the past two seasons, then Swanner will have a bright future.

"With his young age, drive for the game and plus power, Will Swanner could be a force in the big leagues," Devereaux said.