José Iglesias sat at home this winter waiting for the call. Then he’d wait some more.
A former All-Star and American League Rookie of the Year runner-up, the 29-year-old shortstop knew he didn’t have a great season at the plate on a 98-loss Tigers team in 2018, but he knew he possessed a solid glove and believed he had a lot of baseball left. All he needed was a chance.
“It was definitely not fun,” Iglesias said. “I was 28, 29 years old, in my prime, having a decent career, so I expected teams to compete.”
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On Feb. 23, with Spring Training already in full swing, Iglesias finally found a job, inking a Minor League deal with the Reds, who viewed him as a bench player, backing up José Peraza at shortstop.
The deal included a March 23 opt-out, which Iglesias could have used to request a release if he felt the opportunity with Cincinnati wasn’t working out. But 24 hours before Iglesias would have had to make a decision, Scooter Gennett suffered a groin strain, opening a starting spot in the infield.
Iglesias had shown the Reds enough during the spring that they named him the starting shortstop, shifting Peraza over to second base in Gennett’s place. Since then, Iglesias has shown what type of contributor he can be both at the plate and on the field, putting together a bounceback season he knew he had in him.
“I’m a very competitive player; I was in a situation that I wasn’t happy about, but I’ve used it as a challenge,” Iglesias said. “I was very excited to go to the ballpark to show and prove where I belong -- on the field. When I first came to Spring Training, I got a great welcome from my teammates and the organization. I’ve felt very comfortable from the get-go, which obviously helps.”
Through 60 games this season, Iglesias is hitting .291/.330/.413 with four home runs and 22 RBIs, playing his typical superb defense at shortstop.
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Iglesias’ average is the highest since he hit .300 during his 2015 All-Star season, while his .743 OPS would be a new career high if he can keep it at that level all season. Why has Iglesias been more successful at the plate after three subpar seasons that saw him hit between .255 and .269 with sub-.700 OPS in each year?
“I think it’s been the aggressiveness,” Reds hitting coach Turner Ward said. “His swing has always been there; the bat speed is elite. Him just kind of having a better idea of what he wants at the plate. He came to a new league and a lot of pitchers he hadn’t seen. Talking a lot about the guys he’s facing and what we’re trying to do and accomplish when at the plate and having a good plan. He’s always got a good plan. To me, that’s No. 1.”
The numbers back that up. Iglesias has swung at the first pitch more than 30 percent of the time this season; he had never done that more than 19 percent of the time in any full season of his career. When he puts the first pitch in play, Iglesias is slashing .400/.423/.560.
“I was a guy that used to take a lot of pitches; I would take the first pitch a lot,” Iglesias said. “You don’t want them to expect that. Turner and I are on the same page, working. We’re ready to go from the beginning. I’m not letting my pitch go by; I’m ready to hit as soon as I see that pitch.”
Iglesias credits Ward with helping him establish a routine, creating a game plan each day for the best way to attack the opposing pitcher. Despite his increased aggressiveness, Iglesias still has the ability to remain patient, confident in his abilities regardless of the count.
“Quite frankly, I feel comfortable doing both; I can see a lot of pitches, I can hit early in the count,” Iglesias said. “I’m OK hitting with two strikes, and I’m OK swinging at the first pitch. I’m at the stage in my career right now at the plate where I have the experience, and I feel very comfortable with any particular count at any time. I’m not afraid to take two strikes, I’m not afraid to swing at a pitch I’m looking for.”
“As a hitting coach, you’re just making options and suggestions,” Ward said. “Those guys are getting in the box and making the difference. He’s been a pleasure to work with, because he’s all about trying to get better and learning and making adaptions and adjustments.”
Manager David Bell has been thrilled with what he’s seen from Iglesias all season, even going so far as to compare him with a former teammate who has received some notable Hall of Fame support in his first two years on the ballot.
“He has the ability to impact a game with his defense; that’s saying a lot,” Bell said. “A long time ago, I played with Omar Vizquel, who was a great defensive player. Later in his career, all the work that he did on his offense started to pay off and he turned himself into a good offensive player. I see some similarities there between the two.”
Iglesias has also mastered his approach against offspeed pitches this season, hitting an impressive .458 against them this season as compared to .313 a year ago.
“I just react; for me, hitting is reaction,” Iglesias said. “When you’re in a good position to hit the ball, you trust your eyes and your hands will do the rest. I’ve been able to put some good at-bats together, and I’m excited to help this team continue to compete. We’re in a good division, which is really fun to be part of. Every at-bat, every pitch matters.”
That might be the biggest change for Iglesias this year. Although Cincinnati enters the week with a 29-35 record, the Reds are eight games behind the first-place Brewers and Cubs -- closer to the top of their division than the second-place clubs in the AL Central, AL West and National League West. They’re also just 6 1/2 games out of an NL Wild Card spot, giving them something meaningful to play for when they take the field each day.
“That’s what you want as a player; you want to go to the ballpark and compete, to play for something -- to win,” Iglesias said. “We’re in last right now, but we don’t feel like a last-place team. We compete every day, and we’ve been playing good baseball all around. It’s a very good division all around, which makes it interesting.”
Gennett is getting closer to a return, which will present Bell with some decisions to make. Derek Dietrich has been swinging a powerful bat, so he and Peraza will likely work in utility roles with Gennett taking over at second base. Iglesias’ defense makes him the frontrunner to remain at shortstop, a scenario few would have envisioned when he first signed on with the Reds in late February.
“I feel I’m in the prime of my career, physically and mentally,” Iglesias said.
“I understand the game better. It’s not that the game comes easier with time, but you understand and mature with your experience. You can turn the page quicker, you know what you need to do to be in a better position to compete.
"How do you eat better? How do you train harder? The experience has made my game more efficient -- you know the league. You know the pitchers, you know the situations. I feel very lucky to get to play here in Cincinnati. I’m very excited for how I feel on and off the field and the way I’ve responded after coming here.”
Mark Feinsand, an executive reporter, originally joined MLB.com as a reporter in 2001.