DUNEDIN, Fla. -- One morning last week, Kevin Kramer explained the thought process that's helped him stand out at the plate in his first big league Spring Training.He's trying to hit the ball hard, with backspin, and drive it to the gaps. The avid golfer likened one part of his
DUNEDIN, Fla. -- One morning last week, Kevin Kramer explained the thought process that's helped him stand out at the plate in his first big league Spring Training.
He's trying to hit the ball hard, with backspin, and drive it to the gaps. The avid golfer likened one part of his approach to his swing on the links: If he makes a mistake, he wants it to be in the air. The idea, he said, is to smash a one-hopper off the outfield wall.
Kramer put those words into action on Sunday afternoon at Dunedin Stadium. The lefty-hitting 24-year-old laced a full-count fastball deep into the right-center-field gap and legged out a triple. He is now 5-for-14 with five walks this spring, and all five hits have gone for extra bases: two doubles, two triples and a home run.
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This is what Kramer, the Pirates' No. 9 prospect, had in mind when he tweaked his swing and adjusted his approach during the 2016 Florida instructional league.
"That was probably the best three weeks of baseball, as far as instruction, that I've ever had in my entire life," Kramer said. "They wanted to see that next step, as did I. In limited time that I've had with it, it's proven to be pretty successful."
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After winning a Florida State League championship with the Bradenton Marauders in 2016, his first full professional season, Kramer reported to Pirate City with a goal in mind. He batted .277 with a .352 on-base percentage over 118 games in a pitcher-friendly ballpark, but he sought more power -- and he wanted to tap into it without sacrificing his natural contact and on-base skills.
"I felt like it was there, the power was there," he said. "It was just a matter of, 'How do we maximize that, and how do we maximize the power potential?'"
This is not just another launch-angle story, though. Kramer worked with hitting coaches Larry Sutton, Ryan Long and Andy Barkett to make a "slight mechanical adjustment" with his hands, he said, creating a better path to the ball. More important was the change in mentality and his focus on punishing the right pitches when ahead in the count.
"It was never a launch-angle thing," Kramer said. "It was never, 'Hey, let's hit the ball as high as possible!' I don't believe in that."
But it's easy to believe in the results. His slugging percentage jumped from .378 in Bradenton to .500 for Double-A Altoona last season. He hit four home runs in his first 176 professional games then slugged six in 53 games with Altoona. His ground-ball rate, according to MLBFarm.com, dropped from 57.9 percent to 39 percent. His fly ball and line-drive rates climbed accordingly.
Unfortunately for Kramer, his breakout season was interrupted by a fractured right hand that sidelined him most of last summer. He made up for that lost time in the Arizona Fall League, and that opportunity allowed him to play shortstop -- his position in college at UCLA -- after spending most of his pro career at second base.
Kramer is working at second and shortstop this spring. He started at shortstop in Pittsburgh's 5-0 win over Toronto on Sunday. The Bucs have moved around Kramer and Kevin Newman, both 2015 Draft picks and double-play partners in the Minors, with an eye on making them more versatile in case a need arises in Pittsburgh.
"It's nice to have that versatility again. I've played all over the field," Kramer said. "It's nice to be able to do both and show them that I can, and they can rely on me if they need me to be that guy."
Adam Berry has covered the Pirates for MLB.com since 2015. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook and read his blog.