Return to roots sets Wade up to blossom

August 20th, 2021

Last winter, made a commitment to himself.

Four days a week, Wade would drive an hour each way from his home outside Baltimore to the University of Maryland, where he played for three seasons before being selected by the Twins in the ninth round of the 2015 Draft. Back at school, Wade worked on his hitting under the tutelage of Maryland assistant coach Matt Swope.

“I think it was driven toward me just wanting to get better for myself,” Wade said. “I definitely didn’t mind the drive, especially with the good work that we put in. It definitely was worth it.”

Those sessions helped lay the foundation for a breakout season for Wade, who has become a key contributor for the first-place Giants this year. Acquired from the Twins in exchange for right-hander Shaun Anderson in February, Wade has posted an .850 OPS with 15 home runs over 69 games this season, settling in as San Francisco’s primary leadoff hitter against right-handed pitching while seeing time at first base and all three outfield spots.

The 27-year-old left-handed hitter never hit more than 11 homers in a single Minor League season with Minnesota, but he’s now averaging a home run for every 14.3 at-bats this year, emerging as one of the biggest surprises on a team full of them.

“We had a pretty clear understanding of his strike zone judgment and his style at the plate,” manager Gabe Kapler said. “Pretty good plate discipline. I think what we didn’t know was that the power was going to show up like it has.”

Wade saw limited big league action with the Twins, but the Giants were drawn to him because of his defensive versatility and his intriguing offensive profile in the Minors, where he posted a .390 on-base percentage and drew more walks (317) than strikeouts (294). While he didn’t have much of a track record of hitting for power prior to this season, Wade decided to focus on trying to drive the ball better this past offseason. Enter Swope, a fellow Terp and former 24th-round Draft pick of the Expos who played in the Minors for one season before eventually returning to his alma mater to join the baseball program in 2013.

Swope built a strong relationship with Wade during the latter’s days at College Park, but this winter marked the first time the two had worked together on hitting since Wade began his pro career. Before implementing any physical changes, Swope said they spent a couple weeks simply working to shift Wade’s mindset at the plate.

“LaMonte, even in college, has an elite eye,” Swope said in a phone interview. “He doesn’t chase pitches. He doesn’t swing at balls. I think he kind of got in this mold or label that he was a good at-bat. He would see a lot of pitches, he would work the count, he had tough at-bats and he would get on base. Really, right from the start, it was like, ‘No, you’re not just a good at-bat. You can hit. You can be dynamic. If you swing at these pitches that you should, that you can drive, you will still walk just as much.’ So really, the first couple of weeks was just getting back in the mode of being aggressive per se and not just taking the first pitch or working the count because that’s what you’re labeled as.”

After poring over video, it became clear to Swope that Wade’s swing was too flat, making it difficult for him to consistently lift the ball to the pull side. Earlier in his career, Wade was more stuck on his back side, so Swope got him out of his crouch and into a more upright position to help him move more efficiently and tap into his athleticism.

“There’s a whole bunch of different ways to hit,” Swope said. “There’s no one way to cookie-cut a guy, but I felt what the Twins wanted LaMonte to do was taking him out of the athleticism that he naturally has. I just kind of said, ‘Hey man, I realize that this is what they’re trying to get you to do, but there’s not very much production that’s coming with that, and you’re frustrated. You’re not comfortable. You’re not as confident as you were when you were here in college. Let’s just get back to some basics to try to get you more athletic.’

“I think his past swings, he was more stuck on his back side. Him being stuck on his back side was causing him to spin and over-rotate a lot. It was causing all types of issues -- pull-side ground balls and flares the other way. We just tried to get him a little stronger in the base and try to get a better forward move so he can start to attack balls more out in front, per se. What we saw with that was his athleticism, his posture and his swing plane automatically started to clean up.”

Wade didn’t have much of an opportunity to show off the changes to Minnesota, as he ended up being traded on the eve of Spring Training. He remains grateful to the Twins, who gave him his first opportunity to play in the Majors in 2019, but he said he was excited to try to open eyes with the Giants.

“I saw it as a new opportunity, a fresh start,” Wade said. “A chance to show a different organization the things that I can do and what I’m capable of. I took that as a challenge.”

Swope, for his part, was also happy to see Wade land with the Giants, who happened to employ his friend Donnie Ecker as one of their three hitting coaches. Swope and Ecker run in similar baseball circles and had previously spoken on Zoom calls to try to pick each other’s brains and learn from each other, so they quickly touched base after the Giants finalized their deal for Wade.

“I waited like two minutes,” Ecker said. “And then once that officially went through and was done the right way, it was really about just getting to work and making sure we knew who’s in his network. One thing we try to do here is if somebody has somebody that’s very important to them, we want to include them and just be as collaborative as possible.”

Once he got to Spring Training, Wade worked with Ecker and the rest of the Giants’ hitting group to continue to build off the progress he made with Swope. Wade’s Cactus League numbers didn’t jump off the page -- he hit .182 with a .633 OPS over 17 games -- but he started to feel more confident in the changes when he started flashing more power during batting practice.

Still, Wade said he didn’t start to feel fully comfortable at the plate until about two months into the regular season. He and Swope still talk or text after virtually every game, keeping Ecker in the loop to ensure that everyone stays on the same page.

“I’m still honestly working on it today,” Wade said. “It’s still not to where it needs to be. It’s still a little inconsistent, but I think that just comes with more reps, and it’ll feel better.”

Wade has come a long way, but the next step for him will be to show that he can hold his own against left-handed pitching. Due to the platoon systems the Giants have in place, Wade primarily starts against righties, limiting his exposure to lefties, who have held him to an .083 clip (2-for-24) this year.

Swope said he’s confident Wade will show he can hit lefties once he gets his timing down, which will only come with more reps. The aptitude and drive are there. All that’s left is to wait for another opportunity to show what he can do.

“I think the simplest way to put it is he has such an appetite and desire to want to continue to improve,” Ecker said. “I’ve said this multiple times, but he trains so hard during the day so that when it’s game time, he can, like, ball out and let it be. I think that’s the commitment. We hear ... 'growth mindset' thrown around, but he lives it, and it’s actionable.”