Billy Cook uses kitchen sink approach to hitting in Fall League

October 29th, 2023

MESA, Ariz. -- It can take a village to help a hitter find success.

Orioles No. 29 prospect has not had the Arizona Fall League experience he might have hoped, though he did hit a walk-off home run in the opening week of the season. But something might be clicking now and he has not one, but two, hitting coaches to thank.

Cook hit his second homer in as many days and added a double to drive in three runs in Mesa's 6-4 loss to Peoria during the Arizona Fall League's special doubleheader at Hohokam Stadium, the Spring Training home of the Oakland A's.

The 24-year-old utilityman had been battling through a rough stretch, including an 0-for-11 patch before he homered on Friday, with Dan Puente from the Cubs organization, who is serving as Mesa's hitting coach. At just the right time, Sherman Johnson, who was with Cook as the Double-A Bowie Baysox hitting coach during the 2023 season, came to Arizona to check in on the O's hitting contingent.

"Dan's been here the whole time; he's been great, helping me a lot mentally and approach-wise," said Cook, who now has four homers and 11 RBIs in 15 games this Fall League season. "Sherman came in, it's fun to see him because you've been around him all year in Bowie. He comes in, let's go work 1-on-1 and clean a couple of things up, and the combo of those things works."

Cook had taken a nice step forward during the 2023 season in terms of that overall approach, improving his walk rate and lowering his strikeout rate to help him get to more power, which allowed him to finish with a 20-20 season in his second full year Baltimore selected him in the 10th round of the 2021 Draft out of Pepperdine. But he's felt out of sync here in Arizona as he's struggled to get his timing down, an issue he's continued to work on throughout his pro career to date.

"When I'm not going well, it's usually my timing is off," Cook said. "So I'm either late on the fastball and I can only hit the offspeed or early on the offspeed and can hit the fastball. So it's just timing and being able to hit both pitches. When I'm going really well, I'm comfortable taking borderline pitches. When I'm struggling a little, it's like I can't give them a strike, so I kind of chase to put the ball in play. So timing is the biggest thing and then just the approach, finding my pitch and not swinging at the edges."

In 2022, Cook struck out in nearly 32 percent of his plate appearances. That dropped to around 25 percent in 2023. He's willing to accept a certain amount of swing-and-miss, within reason, wanting to be sure he's not just making contact for contact's sake.

"The biggest thing for me is finding an approach that works for me where I don't just put the ball in play, I still do damage," Cook said. "So being a little more selective with the pitches and knowing when I swing in the zone, I will put it in play, but not sacrificing the hard-hit balls just to put it in play and not strike out."

He definitely didn't sacrifice hard contact in his third-inning home run off of Mariners lefty Peyton Alford. Cook worked a 2-2 count and saw all of Alford's pitches. He had seen a curveball previously and was looking for something up again while guarding against chasing one buried down in the zone.

"He left it up and I just tried to stay middle of the field with it and it ended up being a good one," said Cook, who hit the ball out to center field at 105 mph. "That's pretty much it, pretty simple and that's how I try to keep it."

What hasn't been simple has been Cook's swiss-army knife defensive assignments. During the regular season, Cook played all three outfield spots, second and first base. He's played third in the past, and he's even played both outfield corners and first base this fall. It's been an adjustment, but he now embraces the flexibility.

"At first, it was [hard to prepare] last year when I was just starting to play second," Cook said. "I played a little third and first, it definitely was a big change coming just from the outfield. Now I'm getting more comfortable. DJ (Tim DeJohn), he's our infield coordinator with the O's, he worked with me all year at second and first. He's been great, so he's built my confidence up.

"Now I kind of see myself as a full utility, and not just an outfielder that has to play infield. Being able to do all that, being comfortable… and my teammates are starting to trust me, too, because last year it was, 'Oh, it’s hit to Billy, let's see.' This year, they have more confidence, too. Being able to stay in the lineup while playing different positions, I think that's the most important thing."