Resurgent Kelenic finding balance at Tacoma

July 6th, 2021

TACOMA, Wash. -- The pregame routine was the same as it’s always been. An emphasis on driving to the opposite field in batting practice. Meticulously watching each batted ball’s behavior when darting from second base during baserunning drills. Long throws from the outfield on a dime. Laughing with his teammates.

What has changed for Jarred Kelenic is his tone.

There was an air of humility in the voice of Seattle’s top prospect and MLB Pipeline’s No. 4 overall prospect when he spoke with from Triple-A Tacoma’s Cheney Stadium on Monday (shortly before he went 4-for-5 with two doubles in a win over Reno). The supreme confidence is still very much there, but it’s clear that he’s channeling it a little differently these days.

And after 23 disappointing games in his first stint in the big leagues -- which led to his Minor League demotion to Tacoma on June 7 -- this attitude is precisely what he believes will help him eventually return to the Majors.

“Just understanding the controllables, the stuff that I can and can't control,” Kelenic said. “This game is one of the hardest games in the world. And when you're at such a young age, with the best players in the world, you need to learn to not let results make you fluctuate how you feel. You’ve got to stay consistent. ... And as long as you do the things you can control really well, then the rest will all take care of itself.”

Kelenic echoed what Mariners general manager Jerry Dipoto said after the prized prospect was sent down -- that this is more of a mental reset than anything. And it’s clear that the decision was the right one. In 22 games since returning, Kelenic is back to being Kelenic, hitting .278/.362/.589 (.951 OPS) with seven homers, 21 RBIs, 16 strikeouts and 12 walks -- drastically improved production compared to his .096/.185/.193 opening in The Show.

What were his big takeaways from the big leagues?

“It wasn't like anything I hadn't seen before,” Kelenic said. “Everything there -- I've seen the 98 mph fastball, I've seen a wipeout slider, I've seen all that stuff. ... It's just, you're in a place where everyone is extremely, extremely good.”

Kelenic isn’t overhauling his swing. Nothing about this stint is mechanical; it’s psychological. And his new approach is resonating.

“It was never really about his preparation in terms of physically,” said Andy McKay, Mariners director of player development. “It’s preparation in terms of mentally. It’s preparation in terms of keeping a healthy perspective, and in understanding that you really have to chase process. You have to turn off that massive scoreboard, because if you chase that scoreboard, it is going to eat you alive.”

One year ago at this very venue, which served as Seattle’s alternate training site during 2020’s pandemic-impacted season, Kelenic was mired in a mental rut of what he felt was a limited opportunity, a simulated environment that he publicly vocalized lacked challenge.

But now, Kelenic feels that he’s being tested at a far more difficult level. Granted, playing against actual Triple-A opponents, all of whom are driven by being one call away from the Majors, changes the complexion of how he views his gig in Tacoma this year.

“The pitchers don't really want to give me something in the heart of the plate that I can do damage on,” Kelenic said, “but like, that's something that I need. Because in the big leagues, they don't do that anyway. So I need to pick and choose the pitches I'm swinging at and let the rest take care of itself.”

Kelenic noted that the gap from Triple-A to the Majors is wider than at any level, an assertion echoed across baseball. But he is getting the repetition he needs in certain pitch sequences. His weak spots were evident: fastballs on his hands, breaking balls at the bottom or below the strike zone and lefties.

“It was a lot of just on the edges,” Kelenic said. “It never came to the heart of the plate. But here, too, there's pitchers that are throwing a lot of offspeed stuff away, and then pounding me in to get me off of it.”

Including his initial seven-game stint with Tacoma in May, Kelenic is hitting .299/.373/.598 (.971 OPS) with nine homers in 28 games for the Rainiers. That’s the kind of production he and the Mariners had anticipated, and management has suggested that if he keeps up this pace, he should be back in Seattle sooner rather than later.

When might that be? Possibly not long after the All-Star break. The Mariners’ second series of the second half is at hitter-friendly Coors Field, which could be a perfect platform for Kelenic to regain some confidence.

He’ll also be there on Sunday, when he plays in his second SiriusXM All-Star Futures Game alongside fellow outfield prospect Julio Rodríguez, who ranks just behind him as MLB Pipeline’s No. 5 overall prospect. Right-hander Emerson Hancock was also selected for the event but was scratched on Monday due to a minor shoulder injury.

So, at the very least, Kelenic will have a taste of the Majors again this weekend. But he’s not anticipating where and when he might fit in or if he’ll get the call anymore. That draining daydreaming is over.

“You're like, ‘Man, like I can really be there and help the team out,’” Kelenic said. “Whether it's me or whether it's a pitcher, whether it's an infielder, an outfielder -- we all want to be there. And [being sent down] allowed me to just be the player that I am and not worry about anything else.”