Image credit: Joel Booker (Photo by Rodger Wood)
ZEBULON, N.C. — Joel Booker announced his presence with authority at the Carolina League all-star game by giving the crowd a fireworks show much earlier than anticipated.
The White Sox prospect took the game’s first pitch—a 90 mph fastball from Red Sox righthander Daniel Gonzalez—and sent it screaming over the left-field fence and into the sweltering night.
That set the tone nicely for Booker, who went 3-for-4 with four RBIs and earned the game’s MVP award. His two-run single in the sixth inning gave the South the margin it needed to eke by the North Division, 7-6.
Booker, a 24-year-old outfielder the White Sox drafted in the 22nd round out of Iowa two years ago, added a little local flavor to the event. He’s a native of Columbus, N.C., about four hours east of Zebulon, and had his dad on hand at the game as well.
He spent the first half of the season with high Class A Winston-Salem and hit .297/.389/.469 with five home runs, 21 RBIs and 14 stolen bases in 19 tries. Those numbers mark a sharp departure from his first try at the level last year, when he produced a .581 OPS in a nearly identical sample size.
The White Sox invited Booker to their winter hitting camp at their spring training home in Glendale, Ariz., where he overhauled his mechanics at the plate from the ground up.
“They just got rid of everything, because I used to wrap (the bat) a lot and my hands were higher,” Booker said. “So they just had me start with my legs, keeping them straight. That way I got the feeling of using my hands and my upper body individually. Then after I got to do that the hands became free and a separate movement, then we integrated the legs. Pretty much quitting wrapping has helped me quite a bit.”
The whole process took a week at the hitters’ camp and a couple more weeks back home, but the results came quickly.
Besides the mechanical changes, Booker also altered the way he approaches each at-bat.
“Early on, I would say I was pulling everything. Now, I’m working in the middle and to the opposite field to the pull-side gap,” he said. “I’m keeping everything in the middle and focusing up the middle. That way, if I’m beat or I’m late I can maybe go opposite-field gap or if I’m early go to the pull-side gap.”
His spray chart this year at mlbfarm.com shows that his home run power is still predominantly to the pull side, but he’s sprayed doubles from line to line. That distribution, coupled with his speed, has made Booker into a much more effective hitter and an increasingly intriguing prospect.
He’s reportedly headed to Double-A Birmingham now, where he’ll try to continue an impressive season that ended with an MVP award and a celebratory Gatorade bath at the Carolina League all-star game.