(This story appeared in the print edition of the Union Leader.)
Time was once when Ryan Kalish believed himself something of a slap hitter.
Home runs were few and far between for an athlete built powerfully enough to be offered a football scholarship to Virginia. Doubles weren’t exactly flying off his bat, either. His on-base percentage – .471 at Single-A Lowell in 2007 and .376 at Single-A Greenville in 2008 – seemed to be his ticket to the major leagues.
Not so much anymore. Kalish hit 18 home runs last season in barely 500 at-bats split between Single-A Salem and Double-A Portland, and his .457 slugging percentage ranked him fifth among Red Sox minor leaguers with at least 400 at-bats last season.
“In 2008, I was trying to make contact and flick balls over the infielders’ heads,” Kalish said. “This year, I had more of a mental approach where, ‘If I see this pitch, I’m going to absolutely destroy it,’ and that definitely helps me.”
When Baseball America releases its annual organization ranking in mid-December, Kalish willl almost certainly be among the top five prospects in the Red Sox system. He might even rank ahead of much-hyped first baseman Lars Anderson and fellow power-hitting outfielder Josh Reddick.
Come next spring, Kalish will have a chance to do what Reddick did a year ago. He’ll be under consideration to go to major-league camp in spring training, and he’ll be in position to make the leap to the major leagues if the Red Sox should need an outfielder.
The way Kalish hit with the Mesa Solar Sox in October and November only makes that leap more likely. Arizona Fall League statistics always should be taken with a grain of salt given the irregularity of hitters’ at-bats, but the outfielder hit .301 with a .384 on-base percentage in 73 at-bats this fall.
Reddick, for the sake of comparison, hit .189 in 95 at-bats in the Arizona Fall League a year ago. Aaron Bates, a first baseman who made a brief cameo in the major leagues in July, hit .200 in 25 at-bats in Arizona and struck out 14 times.
“Aaron Bates and Josh Reddick struggled here,” Kalish said by phone a few days before the AFL season ended. “It’s a testament to them that they came back this year – and look at what happened to them in getting to the big leagues. For me, it’s not the success. It’s the experience. They’re both great players, but this helped them get to the big leagues. I’m positive of that.”
Billy McMillon, the Mesa hitting coach who worked with Kalish at Single-A Greenville in 2008, is positive of a couple of other things: Kalish already was well on his way to the major leagues – and he was never, ever a slap hitter.
“In my humble opinion, Kalish overthought things,” McMillon said. “He thought, with the fact that he didn’t have 19 home runs last year, he thought he wasn’t driving the ball, but that doesn’t mean he wasn’t necessarily driving the ball. When he hit 19 or 20 home runs, he thinks he can drive the ball when it’s been there all along. I don’t think anyone would say he was a slap hitter last year. Things just worked out a little bit better in his favor. …
“Could he be a little stronger this year? Perhaps. But I don’t think anyone would think he was a slap hitter. It’s easy to look at home-run totals from one year to the next and say he developed power – well, not necessarily.”
On one hand, Kalish needed to figure that out for himself. On the other hand, though, he needed a little nudging to remember he wasn’t a guy who should be flicking pitches into center field and instead should be driving them up the gap.
“Everybody, especially when they’re young, has a tendency to try to do too much, to press,” McMillon said. “One of the big things I’ve been trying to get him to do is to trust his ability and to trust the work he’s put into it.”
That’s the type of straight talk Kalish wants from his coaches – and that goes for the guys playing with him, too, too.
Kalish became good friends this fall with Florida Marlins prospect Bryan Peterson, an outfielder with the Solar Sox who hit a team-best .379 with 12 extra-base hits in fewer than 100 at-bats. The two bounced ideas off each other pretty much anytime the inclination struck – in the batting cage, during outfield drills, between innings of games. Kalish even credited Peterson with an adjustment motion in the outfield that’s given him a little more oomph behind his throws.
“During the game, I’ll go up to him and ask him, ‘Hey, do you think that was the right play?’” Kalish said. “He’ll tell me straight up there. People are going to be out there trying to help me, but some people fish for compliments, and we’re straight up with each other. He comes up to me and asks if I think that was a strike, maybe, on a pitch he took. I’ll tell him, ‘Yeah, I think it was.’”
There’s a self-confidence in those words that might not have been there for Kalish a year ago – and that self-confidence has pushed him to the brink of the major leagues.