Clearwater, FL- There’s always one area of a player’s game that he begins the season focused on improving. Sometimes it’s a number of mechanical issues. Sometimes they talk about not getting too emotional when things don’t go right. But Ben Verlander has his eye on one thing he needs to do to be successful this year.
“Just being consistent,” the Lakeland Flying Tigers outfielder said before a game against the Threshers. “I think I’ve proved myself in where I’ve been, so it’s more so just about consistency now. I was before the All-Star break last year, but it’s also something this year that I’d like to be post-break.”
Verlander, 24, spent all of 2015 in High-A Lakeland, playing in 126 games, and finishing with 97 hits, 52 RBI, 5 home runs, and 41 walks. He was also selected to the league All-Star Game. Detroit’s 2013 14th pick out of Old Dominion University began his Tigers career in Short Season A-Ball, in the New York Penn League, playing in 9 games. He split 2014 between there and Low-A Michigan, and was named a NYPL midseason all-star.
He’s begun this season hitting .273/.333/.364 in three games.
In a game of adjustments, Verlander is already feeling at ease.
“I’m more comfortable. I’ve been to every stadium in the league. Last year, I started off really well. I didn’t think the jump was too big. Things were going well. This year it’s just about proving what I can do,” he said.
This spring, he proved something he’d thought about since childhood. He showed his brother, Tigers pitcher Justin, that he could take him deep. At the end of March, the younger Verlander had a shot at his brother, 33, in a minor league intra-squad game and hit a home run that the brothers joked about in the press afterwards. However, this has been a long time coming. A little dream young Ben had against the seemingly always victorious Justin.
“I’ve been competing against him since I started playing sports. I’ve never won in anything; be it basketball, Whiffle ball, video games, whatever it may be, he’d never let me win. Never. So, I always said, since I started playing baseball, ‘If I ever get to face you, I’m going to hit one off you.’ That turned out to be right,” Verlander said.
You can often find him on Twitter joking with his brother and girlfriend, actress Kate Upton. He pokes fun at them and himself.
“I love it. I love the interaction on Instagram and Twitter. I’m enjoying the ride.”
He’s looking at this season without applying added pressure to reach a statistical goal. That’s not the point, he says. There’s a plan, just one that helps him stay the course.
“I set personal goals, like consistency. That’s not something that the outside person can maybe see in the numbers,” he said, “but I know inside the goals I have.”
Game Notes on Flying Tigers: Lefty Tyler Alexander made the start for the Flying Tigers in the series opener against the Tampa Yankees. He started off Jorge Mateo with three quick strikes, including a fastball up in the zone that Mateo couldn’t catch up to, swinging through strike three. Alexander worked quickly and mixed in a commanding fastball with sinking off-speed stuff. His defense got to work and he wasn’t afraid of contact, inducing a grounder for the final out of the first inning. The Tigers scored early to give him slight breathing room. He continued to induce groundball out. He also continued to punch out hitters with his breaking pitches. He’d get Mateo again with an 80 mph pitch that the Tampa shortstop flied out on. This was my first time seeing Alexander and he was impressive with every pitch he tried, keeping Yankees hitters guessing and swinging often… I had a chance to see, and talk to Tigers prospect Christin Stewart in Gulf Coast League last season, and he put together a solid, smart at-bat in the 4th inning of that night’s contest. The outfielder swung at an 86 mph first pitch from Ian Clarkin, but hung back on a pitch that dropped down on the radar to 73 mph for a ball. Clarkin tries to locate a 91 mph fastball at the corner but that missed for a ball. In the 2-2 count, Stewart doubled to right field…the Flying Tigers will return to Tampa in May for a three-game series.
Greg Legg on the Philly Kid with a Dream of Being the Phillies “Future” Closer
In Matt Hockenberry’s Twitter bio, he describes himself in a distinctly Philly way: ‘Temple University alum’ and a pitcher in the Philadelphia Phillies organization who’s ‘Trying to find my way to Citizens Bank Park in the future.’
Hockenberry, 24, was the Phillies 9th round pick in 2014 and went on to finish 2nd in Saves in the South Atlantic League. He closed out 2015 with a seven-game scoreless streak.
Greg Legg, manager of Hockenberry’s current team, High-A Clearwater Threshers, sees in him the kind of devotion it takes to accomplish what he hopes. Upstairs, he’s got it.
“He has a great work ethic,” said Legg. “The way he goes about his business is totally off the charts. It’s what you dream of as a manager. Like, I don’t have to stay on him; he’s going to do what he’s supposed to do.”
While there’s plenty of opportunity for him to get the final out of the game, Legg points out that there are “at least four or five arms” that will be given a chance to do the job. Hockenberry really just has to stand out, in order to prove what he envisions for himself.
“He’s going to tell us and the Phillies how far he goes. It depends on how he pitches,” Legg said. “We’re just going to give him the opportunity and whatever he does is up to him. I know he’s got the mentality to pitch late in the ballgame. He’s got a lot of confidence and he pays attention to detail.”
Legg is also confident that the Philly kid could wind up on the mound in the ninth for the big league club.
“It wouldn’t surprise me if his dreams come true.”
Quick Thoughts on....Charlotte Stone Crabs- The Rays affiliate visited later that week, and Manager Michael Johns spoke at length about pitcher Brent Honeywell and the young players he tries to guide in the social-media era. Johns has been in the Tampa Bay Rays organization for several years, including as manager of the Class-A (Short Season) Bowling Green Hot Rods. He’s seen a lot of guys mature and exceed expectations, including pitcher Jacob Faria. Honeywell, 21, has also proven more than perhaps was expected, after scouts were late to notice him in a community college program before the Rays drafted him in the 2nd round in 2014. Johns returns to manage the team after leading the 2015 team to the FSL Championship. He spoke about the difficulties of helping them to be smart and responsible off the field. You can read that conversation and more with Johns in an upcoming story on Honeywell for Baseball Prospectus.
Also look for a report on Tampa's Jorge Mateo on BP.