Hockey mindset helping Crew prospect grind closer to MLB

August 22nd, 2022

This story was excerpted from Adam McCalvy’s Brewers Beat newsletter. To read the full newsletter, click here. And subscribe to get it regularly in your inbox.

Triple-A hitting coach Al LeBoeuf is a baseball lifer, but what he loves most about the Brewers’ hottest-hitting prospect is that Sal Frelick is a hockey player at heart.

Frelick began the year at High-A Wisconsin and has a chance to finish in the big leagues thanks to a sensational first full season of pro baseball. The Brewers’ first-round Draft pick in 2021 out of Boston College entered Sunday with an .886 OPS between High-A, Double-A Biloxi and Triple-A Nashville, including a .446/.520/.554 slash line since a promotion to the Brewers’ top farm club at the start of August, where LeBoeuf is his hitting coach.

“Here’s why it doesn’t surprise me,” LeBoeuf said via telephone last week while waiting out a rainstorm in Jacksonville, Fla. “This guy has tremendous bat-to-ball skills. This guy can foul pitches off all around the strike zone and live to see another. That’s a tremendous art to have.

“He’s got that hockey mentality. He played hockey, and hockey players are a different breed. They’re grinders, you know what I mean? Every time Sal steps into the batter’s box, it’s a competition with that pitcher. And it shows.”

With LeBoeuf, 62, there’s always a story, and this time he told the tale of another former hockey player. Matt Stairs, the story goes, never picked up a bat in the offseason. He played hockey instead, and turned into a 19-year Major Leaguer (including 2002 with the Brewers) who hit 265 big league home runs.

Prospect watchers have taken note of Frelick’s sensational season. He was surpassed by High-A outfielder Jackson Chourio as Milwaukee’s top-rated prospect, but Frelick is No. 2 in the Brewers' system, according to MLB Pipeline, and No. 49 on the overall Top 100.

The buzz around Frelick is amplified by the Brewers’ center-field situation in the big leagues. Lorenzo Cain was cut loose in June and Tyrone Taylor, while he plays a great center field and has a terrific attitude, has not produced big numbers at the plate. Nor has Jonathan Davis. Milwaukee looked at outfield bats at the Trade Deadline, but it balked at the price and didn’t make a deal.

So the Brewers will have to do with what they have in the system. If there’s a callup, the leading candidates would seem to be Frelick by virtue of his phenomenal play, or speedster Esteury Ruiz, one of the prospects acquired in the Josh Hader trade with San Diego. Both Frelick and Ruiz have center field in their defensive resumes.

Ruiz is on the 40-man roster, while Frelick is not.

Ruiz has briefly played in the big leagues, while Frelick has not.

But if club officials ask his opinion, LeBoeuf will tell them he thinks Frelick could handle yet another jump.

“Time is always good, you know what I mean? But I think Sal might be an exception,” LeBoeuf said. “He has that kind of bat-to-ball skill. There are nuances that he has to learn, like sitting on different pitches, and when he gets something, reacting. Figuring out how pitchers are trying to get him out. Stuff like that.

“But he’s adaptable. He retains information really well and he’s very, very competitive.”

Frelick was promoted to Nashville with a wave of other top prospects, including No. 3 Brewers prospect Joey Wiemer and No. 5 Garrett Mitchell. They joined No. 4 prospect Brice Turang, a shortstop who has been expanding his defensive repertoire to include center field, second base and third base in advance of a potential callup. Brewers manager Craig Counsell was asked about Turang over the weekend at Wrigley Field and said, “Absolutely, Brice is close to impacting this team.”

“I think it’s really good from an organizational standpoint to have all of these kids here,” LeBoeuf said. “When you watch other people have success, sometimes that’s the best formula.”

Here are some of LeBoeuf’s thoughts about those individual players:

  • “Esteury Ruiz, he has unbelievable speed. Good body. The bat works. He knows his game. He bunts for hits. That is a rarity and he’s really good at it. It’s something he practices a lot. He can defend; he’s played left and center predominantly here so far, and he’s a good defender.”
  • “Garrett Mitchell, that’s world-class speed that he’s featuring. I think he needs more at-bats here. The pro game is a lot different than the college game, where you play twice a week. Here you play every day. In the pro game, you have to understand that if you’re hurt, you can still play. If you’re injured, you can’t. You’re not going to feel good all the time. I think he’s getting to that point now where he’s understanding it all.”
  • “I think Brice Turang is doing an unbelievable job here. He’s doing everything he needs to do here. The one thing he’s doing is he’s really handling left-handed pitching. He can play center field, no problem. Shortstop, second, third. He’s as savvy a baseball player as I’ve been around in a long time. He comes from good stock. I think he’ll help us.”
  • “Joey Wiemer is a very energetic type of guy. He’s got a lot of moving parts hitting-wise. I think that’s something that’s going to have to be refined, but if you break down his tool set, he’s got them all. Basically in a nutshell what he does is he speeds the ball up when he hits. In other words, he picks his leg up and he’s got a big forward move, so if he’s facing 98, he sees 98 but he’s trying to hit 101. He has to learn to maintain his center point and do a little more work from behind the ball.”