SURPRISE, Ariz. — What is spring training for, if not a time to dream?
We’ll begin with all the usual provisos: It’s early, it’s spring training, there’s a long way to go and it could mean nothing at all.
But it was impossible to watch Jarred Kelenic on Sunday on a chilly day in Surprise and not dream about what he could mean to the Mariners in 2023.
Two picturesque swings. Two mammoth home runs to right-center. The first one went 428 feet with a 113-mph exit velocity. The second one, 438 feet and 107 mph. All grim-faced business this spring, Kelenic even allowed himself a hint of a smile as he rounded the bases in the second inning.
“Because that was a good swing,’’ he explained. “That was what I was trying to do. When you get what you’re looking for and you put the right swing on it, it’s a good thing.”
No need to regurgitate the statistics that show how hard it has been for Kelenic to do that over the past two years — and has caused many to prematurely write him off as a bust. After an offseason spent revamping his swing and rethinking his approach, there’s no doubt that Kelenic, at the ripe old age of 23, is intent on looking forward, not back.
Talking to Kelenic afterward, you could sense him pushing back against any semblance of hype. He’s been there, done that. There is a definite sense of maturity that he’s exuding, and also an apparent desire to fly under the radar.
Of course, it’s hard to do that when you have a game as loud as Kelenic did in the Mariners’ 8-7 loss to the Royals. Perhaps as encouraging as the two bombs was his third at-bat, in which he fell behind 0-2, took a ball, and lined an off-speed pitch to center at 107 mph. It was an out, but indicative of the kind of improved approach Kelenic is striving for.
“I’m trying to have a mindset of it doesn’t matter what the count is,’’ he said. “I’m just trying to seriously take it one pitch at a time. And then trying to flush the rest. It’s helping me with situations like that. So that the thought of having two strikes doesn’t become overwhelming. And just trying to win that pitch.”
The idea of “winning the pitch” is a mantra Kelenic repeated several times. He’s batted five times this spring over two games, and hit the ball hard in four of them. Five at-bats in the course of a long season is a grain of sand on the beach, but for a guy who has spent the past two seasons constantly trying to dig out of holes, early success is a positive signpost on the long journey ahead.
“Yeah, I feel great,” he said. “I’m in a great spot. It’s day two. But tomorrow, I’ll be in there again. Enjoy this because it was a good day. But then strap it on tomorrow and try to do it again.”
In that final at-bat, Kelenic even had a sequence where he questioned the home-plate umpire about a called strike but didn’t let it upset his rhythm.
“I just asked him if that was the bottom (of the strike zone),’’ he said. “And he hadn’t said anything. I was waiting for his answer. I just never heard anything. So I just tried to reset because the timer (pitch clock) was already ticking. I took my time and then got back in the box and won the next pitch.”
Kelenic appears far more comfortable and balanced at the plate, with an elbow waggle to help with his timing. He is trying to be more athletic in his setup. Another encouraging sign: Both his longballs as well as his line-drive out were to center or right-center, which is his intent.
“Anytime we can stay in the middle of the field, good things happen,’’ Kelenic said. “So the fact I hit three balls in the middle of the field today is a good sign.”
Mariners manager Scott Servais, after issuing all the requisite cautionary notes that boil down to the fact it’s still February, said he definitely notices a difference in Kelenic.
“He’s been in a great frame of mind and believing in the adjustments he has made over the winter,’’ he said. “And it’s great when you get some results early on. … I’m really happy where he’s at. The timing’s there. He’s right on everything. There’s still going to be some bumps in the road along the way, but it doesn’t get much better than what he did today.”
A resurgent Kelenic could be a game changer for the Mariners. After all the speculation that they came through the winter still one bat short, what if that bat is hidden in plain sight? After getting just a .212 average and 190 total bases from their left fielders last year (ranking 27th and 28th in MLB), it’s an area in dire need of improvement.
They brought in veteran AJ Pollock to platoon with Kelenic and take away some of his at-bats against tough lefties. The demise of the shift should also help the left-handed Kelenic — but on Sunday, the balls he hit onto the outfield berm were oblivious to any shift.
One exercise Kelenic adopted during the offseason that he’s carried over into spring is writing down takeaways from each day’s work so as to remember what was helpful and what wasn’t. Asked what he would write down from Sunday, he replied:
“I’ll write down that I won every pitch today. I didn’t really chase. I had a plan coming into the game today and I executed every single pitch. It’s just one of those days. It’s not going to be like that every day. But it was definitely a day where I had a plan, and every single pitch I won.”
If Kelenic has enough days like that, it bodes well for the Mariners’ future.
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