CHICAGO -- When it comes to hitting, the most-used buzzwords in the Chicago White Sox system in recent years have been “strike recognition” or “pitch recognition.”
It’s a simple theory really, the idea that the only way to have success at the plate is to swing at pitches you can handle in the strike zone, not those the pitcher wants you to chase.
At the lower levels of the organization, the White Sox now have a prime example of how much that theory can do for a player.
Outfielder Adam Engel, a 19th-round draft pick in 2013, has turned a disciplined approach at the plate into a .397 batting through five weeks in the Arizona Fall League and not only leads the league in batting average, but in OPS as well at 1.175. He has walked 16 times, compared to 10 strikeouts in 63 at-bats.
It is evidence of a sharp jump in development from a player who has mostly dazzled with speed in his two and a half seasons in the organization, but a jump that actually started this past season at Single-A Winston Salem.
“It feels good to have hard work pay off,” Engel said. “I'm a big believer that if you get the right information from the people around you and you really work at it, you give yourself a chance to have success. It's been good to see that success while I've been out here. It's been a confidence builder, and it just confirms that I'm getting the right information. It feels good, and hopefully I can carry this out into next year.”
Any conversation with big league hitting coach Todd Steverson will no doubt circle back to players needing a keen recognition of the strike zone. Not only is that message reaching all levels of the organization, Engel is trying to take it a step further.
“It’s advanced even to the point where I don’t want to just swing at strikes,” Engel said. “I want to swing at pitches I can drive. If that means I have to take a pitch early in the in the at-bat and maybe fall behind a little bit to give myself a chance to see a mistake the pitcher might make later in the at-bat, then that’s what I’ve got to do.”
The White Sox aren’t reinventing the wheel by stressing to players that swinging at strikes has its advantages. The trick is to simplify the message so players not only put it into action, but trust it.
“You know, I think it’s the toughest thing to teach,” said director of player development Nick Capra. “We can give them all the information in the world. I think a lot of it has to do with their DNA, their background. I think a lot of it is knowing your strengths and weaknesses and not worry as much about the pitcher’s strengths. Hit to your strengths.”
Engel has done that and now he will get a chance to show what he can do at an even higher level next year. Capra said the 23-year-old University of Louisville alum will start next season at Double-A Birmingham and bat leadoff.
For an organization that has been known primarily for developing pitchers in recent years, Engel is one more position player on the rise for the White Sox, among a list that includes Micah Johnson, Carlos Sanchez, Trayce Thompson and Tim Anderson.
“Obviously, as everybody knows, it’s been kind of a pitching-oriented organization since I’ve been here, and it’s nice to see some of the position players we have drafted here in the last couple of years come to the forefront,” Capra said. “It gives us the opportunity to develop them and hopefully have the chance to get to the big leagues and hopefully win at that level.”
Engel is ready for the challenge at Double-A.
“Coming from High-A, I’ve never been to Double-A, so I don’t know exactly what the pitching looks like up there,” Engel said. “Coming up here (to the Arizona Fall League) and being able to see these guys and see their stuff, having the ability to compete and have quality at-bats, it’s definitely been a big confidence boost. I think that’s probably the biggest takeaway from this time.”