PORT ANGELES — Numerous Major League Baseball scouts will be in attendance at Civic Field for the West Coast League All-Star Game on Tuesday, seeking the next Mitch Haniger, James Paxton or Marco Gonzales, all recent WCL alumni who are starring for the Seattle Mariners this season.
Pro baseball is in the midst of the launch-angle revolution, a school of thought that focuses on the vertical angle at which the ball leaves a player’s bat after contact.
It’s brought about upward adjustments in hitters’ swings as players attempt to drive the ball farther, which can lead to more powerful hits, more doubles and the ultimate prize — more home runs.
The trend has certainly increased home run hitting in the majors, as an MLB-record 6,105 home runs were hit in 2017, nearly 2,000 more than the 4,186 homers hit in 2014 (a 20-year low).
With hitters swinging for the fences, players are willing to trade strikeouts for home runs and thus are willing to go deeper into counts.
MLB saw 6,776 strikeouts and 6,640 hits in June, the Elias Sports Bureau said earlier this month. That leaves the season totals at 21,090 strikeouts and 20,671 hits about halfway through the season.
Strikeouts had topped hits in a full month for the first time in MLB history in April, when then there were 6,656 strikeouts and 6,360 hits.
Amongst the Port Angeles Lefties, the launch-angle trend is personified by All-Star outfielder Dalton Harum, a long and lanky slugger from Wenatchee and Wenatchee Valley Junior College who will play NCAA baseball at Virginia Tech next year.
Harum wrapped up the spring with 11 homer runs and 54 RBIs, both good for third in the Northwest Athletic Conference, and was sixth in the wood-bat league with a .378 batting average.
He’s continued his strong play this summer, hitting for a high average (third in the WCL at .354 through Friday’s games) tied for second in home runs in the WCL (seven), along with 16 RBIs and an on-base percentage of .444 for Port Angeles.
Harum said the change he made in his swing is less of an uppercut, and more of a jab.
“I made a swing transition in junior college,” Harum said. “I was always a guy who put the ball in play a lot, hit for a high average, but didn’t hit for a ton of pop, some doubles here and there but never any home runs.
“Just the kind of way baseball is going, my JC coach is big into the new-age baseball, the home run/strikeout [mentality] He kind of looked at the strikeout as just another out.
“My swing now, I don’t necessarily try to get under the baseball but to meet it on plane. They say the baseball is traveling at a downward angle I try to meet it at that slight uptick and that’s given me a lot of success I think in utilizing my strength to put the ball over the fence.
“Before I wasn’t giving myself a chance by hitting the ball down and hitting line drives and those don’t give you the chance to hit the ball over the fence. The slight uptick has helped me and simplifying my swing as much as I can. It’s helped me be consistent and on-time.”
With those All-Star statistics comes a tradeoff, as Harum is second in the WCL in strikeouts with 34.
Harum said after striking out his focus turns to the adjustments he can make the next time he’s up at the plate.
“I know I could go 0-for-3 with three strikeouts and that fourth at-bat could come in a tie ballgame and if I put one over the fence it could win the game for my team. Put those in the past when they happened, and they’ve happened quite a bit this year. But I try not to worry about it too much and focus on the next at-bat and what adjustments I can make to not do that again.
Some of the strikeouts can be attributed to being selective at bat.
“I have the pro-style approach, I guess you call it now. Just kind of focusing on my pitch and try not to go away from that. I think that’s a big deal as you go up in higher levels — not swinging at pitchers’ pitches,” Harum said. “I’ve struck out looking quite a bit and I think that’s because I’m always looking for my pitch and when I don’t get it you’ll see me strikeout a bit, and if I do get it I try to do my best not to mis-hit and that’s where my successes come from.
“Pitchers facing a guy who can hit the ball over the fence a lot they will pitch around the zone, so forcing a pitcher to get in the zone is one of my biggest things I’m looking to do.”
Lefties manager Darren Westergard said Harum plays with some moxie after coming from a JUCO background.
“I feel like playing in JUCO kind of gave me that too,” he said. “If you go that route you never know if you’ll make it out and go to a four-year school. Being under that constant tension of trying to perform just put the chip on my shoulder to play as hard as I can.”
And a preseason snub by another WCL team provided Harum with more motivation.
“My pitching coach from junior college [Beau Kearns] is the pitching coach for the Yakima Valley Pippins,” Harum said. “Their head coach [Marcus McKimmy] had some things against me because I was a junior college kid. He didn’t think I was good enough to play for him because I was a JC kid.
“Then as soon as I got this contract offer [with the Lefties] and an offer from Wenatchee, Yakima opened up and wanted to give me a contract, but I wasn’t going somewhere where they didn’t believe in me from the beginning.
“So it was huge that Darren gave me an opportunity from the beginning, he saw something in me and believed in me before anybody else did.”
And a summer in Port Angeles has helped Harum expand his horizons in a new location, which also was a factor in heading all the way across the country to play at Virginia Tech.
“Get out of my comfort zone a little bit, experience a different part of the world and a different level of baseball over there,” Harum said.
Lefties hitting coach Trevor Podratz said he’s had Harum focus on feel at the plate this summer.
“We already have the wheel with Dalton, so there’s no need to reinvent anything, but smooth out the edges. Get him out of his own way and getting him understanding what he’s doing so he doesn’t hurt himself by over-analyzing it.
“Get him from being a one-sided hitter, one-sided I mean hitting to the left side of the ball field, tap into more of his strengths and getting more extension and ultimately making him a more complete hitter because it’s all there. It’s all little, tiny things.”
Podratz said Virginia Tech will continue to assist Harum’s rise as a hitter.
“Dalton has the approach and mentality of a professional hitter,” Podratz said. “And the physicality will continue to come for him as he continues to grow. Virginia Tech will be good for him because they fit his style, their scheme will allow him to continue to grow.”