WASHINGTON -- With the popularity of Statcast™, more players have tried hitting with a higher launch angle, increasing the chances of knocking extra-base hits. Shortstop Wilmer Difo has taken the opposite approach.After Difo popped out often, Nationals manager Dusty Baker suggested Difo keep the ball closer to the ground. His
WASHINGTON -- With the popularity of Statcast™, more players have tried hitting with a higher launch angle, increasing the chances of knocking extra-base hits. Shortstop Wilmer Difo has taken the opposite approach.
After Difo popped out often, Nationals manager Dusty Baker suggested Difo keep the ball closer to the ground. His new approach has helped Difo thrive at the plate while starting most games at shortstop in place of Trea Turner, who fractured his wrist June 29.
Difo is hitting .375 with 10 RBIs in July, production the Nationals need in the absence of their speedster leadoff man. Difo became an even more crucial cog when shortstop Stephen Drew landed on the DL on Saturday.
"[Difo's] staying out of the air and he's hitting the ball the other way," Baker said. "He'll pull it up on occasion. He's been a tough out. He's been a clutch man for us in that No. 2 spot."
Turner was slashing .279/.324/.422 with 35 stolen bases at the time of his injury. Washington faced questions of restoring his offensive production with Drew and Difo as his replacements.
Difo has been a reliable defensive shortstop this season, but is hitting just .260 with three home runs -- two of those coming since July 23. However, he's taken advantage of increased opportunities since Turner's injury, and that's started with keeping the ball closer to the ground: 30 of Difo's 51 batted balls in July (58.8 percent) have been grounders.
Difo's speed certainly helps him reach base as well. He ranks second among shortstops with a sprint speed of 29 feet per second on "max effort" runs according to Statcast™. Turner leads that list with 29.2 feet per second.
Still, the 5-foot-11, 200-pound shortstop has just three stolen bases this season. Difo isn't a leadoff hitter like Turner though, and has fewer opportunities to steal.
"I don't think I've changed anything," Difo said through a translator. "My approach has pretty much remained the same. I've remained very aggressive. If anything, I've choked up on the bat a little bit, and I think that's helped a lot with my bat control."
Difo said he's felt more comfortable as he's received more playing time. He entered Saturday hitting .283 as a starter this season, compared to a .154 as a substitute. Drew is on the DL with a left abdominal strain, so Difo will likely be the team's everyday shortstop until Turner returns.
Baker doesn't know when Turner and Jayson Werth -- the top-of-the-order hitters -- will return, but Difo has helped Washington not miss a beat without its regulars.
If Difo sustains his production, the Nationals will have more weapons to hold their 12 1/2-game lead in the National League East, and he could bolster a strong bench come the postseason.
"I feel very good up there," Difo said. "I've always worked hard to make sure I take good at-bats up at the plate. Sometimes I get a little overly aggressive and chase pitches. For the most part, I've been feeling great and having a great approach."
Kyle Melnick is a reporter for MLB.com based in Washington.