Stopped by Scott Van Slyke's locker today to ask how he made the transformation from middling prospect to reigning Dodgers Minor League Player of the Year. From talking to various other second- and third-generation players over the years, I know a family baseball legacy can be both a blessing and a curse, but I didn't figure that would be the reason for Van Slyke's sudden change of fortune.
"I started taking a little more pride in the way I played the game,'' he said. "I started to play for myself and not so much for my dad."
Don't misunderstand. Van Slyke and his father, longtime major league outfielder and three-time All-Star Andy Van Slyke, have a perfectly good relationship. Scott says he never felt any undue pressure from his dad, nor did he ever feel like his dad was pushing him toward baseball. To this day, he still calls his father twice a week, often for hitting tips. But there was a long time when he really thought the only reason he was playing baseball was because that is what Andy Van Slyke's son was supposed to do.
"In high school, I played baseball and football, but I loved basketball," Van Slyke said. "It was fun, and I was good at it. But being who I was, I felt pressure to play baseball. That was just something I felt like I should do, so I did it."
But that all began to change, he said, when he hit rock bottom at the start of the 2009 season, which he began at high Single-A for the first time after being promoted there the previous season. Van Slyke was estimating the actual number of at-bats, but he said he went hitless in about his first 25 of them that season. That was what brought about the epiphany.
"(Quitting) definitely crossed my mind at that point,'' he said. "But then I went, like, 18 for my next 21. I started having a little more success. I started to understand how big a role confidence can play in this game. I had always thought that I was a confident guy. But the last couple of years, I have come to really understand how confidence plays a role.''
Van Slyke had struggled from the time the Dodgers drafted him in the 14th round in 2005. But he spent the rest of that 2009 season breaking out, hitting a career-best .294 (with a .373 on-base percentage) at high-A and hitting 42 doubles and 23 homers while driving in 100 RBI. All the while, he discovered that he really does love this game after all.
Since then, he hasn't really looked back. He spent all of last year at Double-A Chattanooga, where he had a career season, hitting .348 with a spectacular .427 on-base percentage, 45 doubles, 20 homers and 92 RBI.
Van Slyke probably will spend this season at Triple-A Albuquerque, where he played a handful of games in 2009 and 2010 but only as a fill-in for somebody who got hurt. The Dodgers have no fewer than 10 outfielders on their 40-man roster, four of whom are locks to make the Opening Day roster and a fifth, Jerry Sands, who is just this side of a lock. So Van Slyke is trying to make the jump all the way from Double-A this spring.
Still, this is his first big league camp after being added to the roster this winter, and although he came over from the minor league side as an extra player for a handful of Cactus League games last year, this will be the first time the coaching staff has gotten an extended look at him for future reference.
One thing that could speed his path to the majors is that he also is getting a lot of work at first base under the watchful eye of minor league infield coordinator Jody Reed. He played a few games there at Chattanooga last year, but only now is really getting a comprehensive course in how to play there.
There is a decent chance, then, that Van Slyke could be the team's Opening Day, everyday left fielder in 2013. So keep your eye on him this summer.