On June 21, Arizona Diamondbacks third baseman Jake Lamb took a golden sombrero against Marco Estrada and the Toronto Blue Jays' bullpen. But Lamb’s story is not about this game. It’s about what happened before and after it.
“Last year, if I went 0-for-4 with four strikeouts, I would have been thinking about it for three days,” Lamb said. “I’d be thinking, 'How am I going to get it back?'
"Now, I just accept that it’s a bad game and I get back to it the next day. I’ve had plenty of bad games, but that’s all they are, one game.”
The scales tip heavily in the 25-year-old Lamb’s favor when you consider the entirety of the sample. Lamb’s whiff-fest interrupted a four-game stretch in which he went 9-for-17 with two home runs and five RBIs. After sitting the day after his four strikeouts, he has followed that by hitting .346 with six home runs and 16 RBIs in 16 games since, including an extra-base hit in eight straight games.
Lamb’s third season can be summed up best with this stat. He has the biggest jump of any hitter in slugging percentage from last season to this season (229 points). He has been alternating with Yoenis Cespedes for the National League lead in hard-hit rate, with only David Ortiz better than them.
Diamondbacks broadcaster Steve Berthiaume recently dubbed Lamb, “The Lambino.” Lamb is hitting .290 with a league-leading .615 slugging percentage, 20 home runs and 61 RBIs and is even co-leading the NL in triples.
“That's crazy," Lamb said. "You might want to check my speed. I’m not the fastest guy.”
Lamb’s transformation from modest hitter to big bopper came about this offseason. Lamb had watched A.J. Pollock hit .315 with 20 home runs in 2015 and wondered how he could take his own .263 batting average and six home runs in 350 at-bats to another level. The two talked about it and from those discussions came a plan that Lamb implemented on his own while training at home in Seattle.
“I lowered my hands [in the stance] and got a leg kick going,” Lamb said. “The main goal was to create a bat path where I’m entering the [hitting] zone earlier and leaving the zone later.”
Lamb worked on this with new Diamondbacks hitting coach Dave Magadan, who fixed an early issue Lamb had syncing his leg kick with his hand movement.
“Once he figured that out,” Magadan said, “it was all she wrote. It wasn’t a one- or two-day thing. It was literally the next swing he took, the adjustment was made.”
The impact of this was two-fold. It made Lamb more potent with his power on the outside pitch. And it completely changed the impact Lamb made when he hit an inside pitch.
“My barrel’s ‘on plane’ and I can handle an inside pitch,” Lamb said. “I’m using my legs and my hips. I’m firing my hips more than I’ve ever done. I’ve always struggled with the inside pitch, but now I’m handling it.”
The comfort zone that Lamb has established at the plate has allowed for a couple of things. One is that he notes that he’s “getting there” with regards to hitting left-handed pitchers, something that has been a bugaboo, but one that Chip Hale has mostly allowed him to play through.
“With left-handed starters, I might get three at-bats and the first two aren’t great, but I pride myself on the adjustments I’m able to make,” he said. “When that third at-bat comes around, I usually have success.”
The other effect of this conversion is that it has made Lamb feel very comfortable late in games. He has 11 game-tying or go-ahead homers, including three in the eighth inning or later.
“There was a game in Houston [May 30] where I ended the game striking out against Luke Gregerson," Lamb said. "He threw me all fastballs when I was looking for slider. A night later, I came up in the ninth inning [down two], he threw me a first-pitch slider and I hit it out to tie the game.
“That’s something I never would have done last year because I didn’t have the confidence and didn’t trust myself. Having a game plan when you step in the box -- if it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work. I’ve seen it happen a lot this year where I had a game plan and I’m successful. I’ve also failed in some of those situations. It’s part of the game. You just have to deal with it.”
Lamb’s development is impressive, though not surprising to those who have had an eye on him the last couple of seasons.
“It’s the maturation of a player,” said one major-league scout. “There’s a presence and a quiet confidence about him. As a scout, I watch guys [when they step] in the batter’s box. There are certain hitters who step in the box at a young age and look like a hitter. He’s always looked like a hitter.
"I can’t say I thought he’d do this from a power perspective. I don’t think he’ll be a perennial 35-to-40 homer guy. But he has the strength to drive the ball to all fields.”
Magadan’s next goal is to help Lamb cut back on his strikeouts, to turn him into a hitter who can hit .315 instead of .290. He thinks his pupil is up for the challenge.
“[What impresses me] is how hard he works and how well he knows his swing,” Magadan said. “When you make a comment about his takeback or leg kick, whatever it is, he’s in tune with what you’re talking about and able to make adjustments right away. He’s got strength he’s got bat speed. He’s a really smart kid who believes in himself. Those are things conducive to having guys improve significantly.”