Jarred Kelenic’s Sweet Swing Leaves A Strong Impression On The Mariners

Image credit: Jarred Kelenic (Photo by Tony Farlow)

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GREENSBORO, N.C. — Mariners outfielder Jarred Kelenic is as much of a throwback as you’ll find these days. He plays, practices and trains with an extremely high level of intensity, and he maintains his sweet lefthanded swing primarily through feel and without the help of the many technological and analytical aides available.

Given how his career has gone, it’s hard to question his methods.

He was Baseball America’s only unanimous first-team Preseason All-American outfielder before his senior season at Waukesha (Wis.) West HS, then was selected sixth overall by the Mets in June. He followed it up with a strong pro debut that earned him the No. 3 spot among the Appalachian League’s Top 20 prospects.

He made such an impact, in fact, that he was the centerpiece of the winter blockbuster that sent closer Edwin Diaz and second baseman Robinson Cano from the Mariners to the Mets. With the deal’s completion, the Mariners landed a player in Kelenic whom they’d coveted for a long while.

“I know our guys firmly thought that he was probably the best player in the draft,” Mariners farm director Andy McKay said. “Just the conversation about the skill level of this kid who was not going to get to us where we were in the first round. He put on quite a show in his workout at Safeco. It was kind of in passing, because it didn’t appear that it would be realistic that he’d still be on the board when we picked.”

The Mariners challenged Kelenic this spring with an assignment to low Class A West Virginia, the team’s new affiliate in the South Atlantic League, right out of the gate. He’s among the league’s top five in batting average (.345), on-base percentage (.439) slugging percentage (.622) and OPS (1.061), and he already has a 17-game hitting streak on his ledger. He’s failed to get on base in just two of his 31 games.

His spray chart in the early portion of his pro career shows an ability to shoot singles and doubles from line to line, and home run power predominantly skewed toward the pull side of the field.

The swing he uses to wreak that damage has gone largely unchanged from his days as an amateur. Whether he was playing for his high school, USA Baseball’s 18U National Team or as a professional, Kelenic has employed the same smooth lefty stroke that gets his bat on plane quickly and in the zone well through impact.

Perhaps even more impressively, Kelenic maintains that swing almost entirely through feel. That is, he’s not a big user of video or other technological advances that have become mainstream over the last few years. Instead, if he feels something is wrong, he gets in the cage and swings until he can diagnose and fix the problem.

“My swing has been the same ever since I was young,” Kelenic said. “I think that’s for every hitter, because it’s like your personality—it’s a big part of you. For me, it’s just been a lot of individual drills and repetition. Repetition is really huge.”

To that end, Kelenic has been most thankful during his time with the Mariners for the availability of the coaches to throw to him on demand.

“The biggest thing with the Mariners now is that it’s really tailored to you as an individual and a player,” he said. “There’s certain drills that you have to do, and when you want to hit you should be able to hit when you want, because it’s your career and nobody else’s.

“And with the Mariners they’re there whenever you need them, and that’s such a huge thing for me just because I’m somebody who likes to swing a lot to feel my swing, and I feel like I really get that here.”

If he’s slumping, which, judging by the numbers, hasn’t happened often in his pro career, Kelenic will get to the field as early as 1:30 p.m. for extra rounds of batting practice until he can get a handle on what is causing the slump. That’s in addition to the normal BP he’ll take with his teammates a few hours before the game.

“There are people who have what I call swing confidence,” McKay said. “Their confidence is skill-based, meaning they have confidence in their swing, they have confidence in their delivery, they have confidence in the pitches that they throw.

“The best players have self-confidence, and that trumps everything else. And so his ability to trust his swing, whatever his swing may be on any particular night, is the separator for him because he understands that his job is to get the barrel to the ball. It’s not to have a perfect swing, and he knows that regardless of how he feels or who he’s facing he can get the barrel of the bat to the baseball and he’s not looking to perfect his swing on video. Again, that’s not a normal mindset. It’s serving him well right now, and it will continue to serve him well.”

Every hitter’s swing is different, and the way every hitter learns about his swing is different, too. Some players use video, and some players don’t. Some players have private coaches they see in the offseason, while other players are wary of advice coming to them from too many directions at once.

The Mariners have allowed Kelenic to stick to his own methods as he moves up the ladder. After all, that approach is a big part of what has helped him find success at every avenue of his career.

“He’s young and he may evolve into some different things but some guys are very feel-oriented and they’re kinesthetic learners, they’re not visual learners. He feels his body and he sees ball flight,” McKay said. “When he’s hitting the ball on the ground or he’s slicing it or there’s hook to it, he’s able to connect the dots between the ball flight that he’s creating and what he’s feeling with his body and he’s able to make those adjustments pretty quickly.”

Kelenic is roughly a year out from those pre-draft workouts at Safeco Field, when he dazzled the Mariners with a skill set they knew they were unlikely to be able to draft without an unpredicted slide down the board to the 14th pick, where Seattle ultimately selected Stetson righthander Logan Gilbert.

Less than six months later, the blockbuster trade was completed and Kelenic was part of the Mariners’ revitalized farm system. His new team’s view of him is the same as it was before he became a professional.

His ceiling, McKay says, is “as high as any player I’ve ever been around.”

KEEP AN EYE ON: The Rays have gotten strong early returns on righthander Joe Ryan, the team’s 2018 seventh-rounder out of Cal State Stanislaus. Ryan, who pitches for low Class A Bowling Green, leads the Midwest League with 47 strikeouts in 27.2 innings. He’s done so with a fastball that sits around 93 mph and has topped out at 96 mph this season. More importantly, according to one evaluator, the pitch’s rise and run grades out as “elite.”

— This space has already featured one Indians reliever, James Karinchak, making early noise, and now can add lefthander Kyle Nelson to that group. Nelson, according to scouts who have seen him, is similar to big leaguer Brad Hand for the frequency and versatility of his slider, which he’s used to carve up hitters at high Class A Lynchburg and Double-A Akron. Between the levels, Nelson, who was Cleveland’s 15th-rounder out of UC Santa Barbara in 2017, has whiffed 19, walked none and allowed just five hits in 12.1 innings.

— Blue Jays catcher Alejandro Kirk just keeps hitting. After putting together a 1.001 OPS in his first pro season at Rookie-level Bluefield, Kirk is slashing .312/.425/.538 this season and has already earned a promotion to high Class A Dunedin. He has allowed just one passed ball in 441 minor league innings.

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