Braves newcomer Jarred Kelenic ‘in a good place’ after tweaking swing late in camp



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CHICAGO — In the last two weeks of spring training, after Atlanta Braves newcomer Jarred Kelenic had gotten comfortable with the team’s hitting coaches through hours of discussions and sessions in the batting cage, and after Kelenic realized that a simpler swing might help get him out of the rut he was in, all the work he put in began to pay off.

He had a handful of hits in the last week of camp, including a triple and a home run, and has carried that momentum into the season. Kelenic hit a team-best .545 (6-for-11) on the opening two-city trip with a double, two RBIs, and as many walks (two) as strikeouts in five games including three starts.

“At the end of spring I was really comfortable with where I was at,” he said. “I’m feeling the same now. It’s just exciting.”

The Braves went 3-2 on the trip against the Philadelphia Phillies and Chicago White Sox, with a Wednesday finale at Chicago postponed by rain and snow and rescheduled for June 27. Kelenic had at least one hit in each of the first four games, and added an eighth-inning pinch-hit walk in his only plate appearance in Tuesday’s 3-2 loss to the White Sox in frigid conditions.

In a 12-4 win at Philadelphia on Saturday, he was 3-for-4 with a pair of run-scoring singles and a walk. Perhaps no one was more pleased for Kelenic than Braves hitting coach Kevin Seitzer, who has enjoyed working with the former top prospect, who was traded to Atlanta from the Seattle Mariners in December and immediately showed an eagerness to work and improve.

“We quieted down all the hand movement,” Seitzer said of their progress at spring training. “Then the last adjustment was him saying, ‘I just want to bang the leg kick.’ He goes, ‘I’m trying to do too much, swinging too hard, my timing is not good.’ He goes, ‘I’ve done this before where I’ve just kind of spread out and gone just a little no-stride.’ Well, his spread-out, no-stride has equated into a real small leg kick, and it’s helped his position on his takes.”

Those takes on some close pitches are a good indication of a hitter seeing the ball well, and Kelenic said cleaning up his swing has indeed allowed him to see it better than he has in a long time.

“It was just kind of a work-in-progress,” he said. “I was trying to simplify things and give myself the best chance to see the baseball. That’s the biggest thing, is trusting your eyes. And I felt like at times when (the swing) was a little bit bigger I couldn’t really trust my eyes, because I didn’t see the ball that well.”

He seems headed in the right direction. Kelenic’s swing percentage is up 5.6 percent from last season, to 52.4, which would be a career-high, and his whiff percentage is down 12.6 percent to 21.2, which would be a career low. It’s only a five-game sample size and too early to make judgments, but it’s promising.

His current strikeout rate would also be a career low and his walk rate a career-high, by a wide measure in both cases.

“His takes have been great, pitch recognition, timing — I mean, it just simplified everything,” Seitzer said. “So, by getting the tension out of his upper body and quieting down his hand load and all the movement that he had with that, he’s in a more balanced position in his setup. I could see it coming. I mean, this is more than I could ever have hoped for in the first (week), him seeing some fruit of his labor to help build that confidence. He’s in a real good place.”

The Braves took on more than $15 million in bad contracts to acquire five years of contractual control of Kelenic, 24, and at the beginning of spring training they announced the left-field job was his, that no platoon would be used. But Kelenic saw that role altered a couple of weeks before the season even began, after the Braves signed veteran Adam Duvall on April 14 and said he would indeed platoon with Kelenic.

So far, as Kelenic himself noted after he and Duvall each had big hits in the first two games, the platoon is working. He and Duvall are hitting a combined .368 with a .429 OBP from the right-field position, and each has made at least one highlight-reel catch or throw.

But it wasn’t losing the full-time left-field job during spring training that inspired Kelenic to get rid of some of the movement in his hands like Seitzer suggested, or why he decided that his leg kick was hindering rather than helping him.

“I was getting frustrated with myself, trying to figure out the timing of my leg kick and stuff like that,” Kelenic said, “and I was just like, you know what, I’m tired of trying to figure that out, I’m just gonna get ready to hit.”

Seitzer knew Kelenic, who hit .297 with 23 extra-base hits including 10 homers and a .914 OPS in his first 45 games last season with Seattle, didn’t need to have a big leg kick or long stride to generate power. This is a kid who hit a 482-foot homer to the second seating deck in center field at Wrigley Field last April. Few balls have ever reached that section.

“Oh, big time,” Seitzer said of his power. “And that’s what he said. He goes, ‘I’ve got power. I don’t have to swing hard in order to drive the ball.’ And what he said was, ‘I’m just going to focus on base hits and not worry about how far it goes, just try and get some base hits.’ Because he wasn’t getting any in spring training. But the at-bats the last week-and-a-half (of camp) were just better, better, better. And I’m like, OK, he’s coming right where I could hope.”

Kelenic knew he was better than what he’d shown early in spring training, and wasn’t too stubborn or afraid to make changes midway through his first camp with a new team. It helped that Seitzer and assistant hitting coach Bobby Magallanes hadn’t forced anything on him or acted hastily.

“It’s been great working with Mags and Seitz,” Kelenic said. “They’ve been super helpful. They’ve been great with the transition, and they’ve been super positive with me, which is a big thing.”

Seitzer, as he always makes it a point to do with hitters new to the team, spent a lot of time talking with Kelenic and understanding him before recommending changes. He said Kelenic has been attentive and responsive.

“He’s awesome,” Seitzer said. “It’s like, he’s had a lot going on, as far as people adjusting his swing and saying, ‘You’ve got to do this, you’ve got to do that.’ And for me it was like, I didn’t like where he was (with his swing) when he got here, but he worked all winter to be ready to come to a new team. And you have to give them some time to prove to themselves that we need to make some tweaks. Build a relationship, build a trust. We had some long talks. I wanted him to know who I was and what my plan was for him, and how I’m going to come alongside you and we’ll have conversations. It’s going to be me asking questions to see what you think and what you feel, and then we’ll make tweaks along the way. And if a tweak that I suggest you don’t like, punt it and go to another one.

“But my whole plan coming in was, to build through spring training. When we got him, he’s got a guy that he hits with; I could have gone and seen him. But my preference, until they’re mine every day, that’s when we can go (to work). Because these guys are so good as far as adjustments that need to be made. Most of them can make them pretty quick. And when I saw who he was from his first year in the minor leagues all the way up until the last couple of years, I’m going, ‘Holy cow, why would he ever change? Why would you change from the monster that you were in the minor leagues?’”

Makeup date in June

The Braves wanted to avoid returning to Chicago to make up one or more games against the White Sox this summer. But after getting enough breaks in a bleak three-day forecast to play the first two games of the series despite frigid and wet conditions, they weren’t as fortunate Wednesday, when a wintry mix of rain and snow began in the morning and was expected to continue throughout the afternoon and into the night, forcing the scheduled early-afternoon series finale to be postponed.

It’ll be made up June 27, tacked on the end of what had been a six-game trip to New York (Yankees) and St. Louis on what had been an off day before a nine-game homestand. The Braves will play 10 games in 10 days from June 21 through 30, and 19 in 20 days beginning June 11. They do have a July 1 off day after the first series in that long homestand.

Spencer Strider, the Braves’ Opening Day starter, was scheduled to make his second start Wednesday, but instead will get the home opener Friday against the Arizona Diamondbacks. The Braves just pushed back their entire rotation, giving them all an extra day of rest. Max Fried will follow Strider on Saturday and Chris Sale makes his first home start for the Braves in Sunday’s series finale against the Diamondbacks.

(Top photo of Jarred Kelenic: Kamil Krzaczynski / USA Today)





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