C.J. Ziegler hit five home runs in the Wingnuts’ first seven games, putting him on pace for 71 over their 100-game season. Such prognostications are usually outlandish, but while Ziegler probably won’t top 70 homers, he has record-setting potential.
Ziegler hit 18 for Wichita last season in 58 games, missing more than a month after he signed with the Mexican League. That put Ziegler on a 31-homer pace if he had played for the Wingnuts the entire season, and that would have broken the American Association record of 27.
While Ziegler backs away from the term "power hitter," he recognizes home-run hitting is his greatest strength and the attribute that could get him another opportunity in Mexico, Japan or affiliated baseball. So he doesn’t shy away from setting goals that no other player in the league has reached.
"Thirty is a great goal to have, whether that be this year or next year or five years down the road," Ziegler said. "It’s something to always work for."
Ziegler doesn’t go to the plate thinking about home runs, but some of his swings — and the long homers they produce — suggest otherwise. Those blasts, though, are often the result of the characteristics that make Ziegler a prolific home run hitter in the first place.
At 6-foot-5, 240 pounds, Ziegler doesn’t need to get every ounce of strength behind his swing to carry a ball over the fence. He’s a right-handed pull hitter who had a .408 on-base percentage in 2012, so he possesses a selectivity that often allows him to wait for the right pitch to hit.
Those "right" pitches often vary. Ziegler struck out 37 times for Wichita last year, an indication of his superior pitch-recognition skills that make most pitches hittable for him. Ziegler developed those skills with two-plus years in the San Francisco Giants organization.
"The guys that I would talk to, like Pablo Sandoval — I wasn’t even in the conversation," Ziegler said. "All I would do is listen to what they’re saying. One big thing that really stood out to me was that even in batting practice, or in the cages, you’re looking for a pitch. It doesn’t have to be a specific spot, but you want to look for a pitch that you can drive every single time."
Ziegler’s home runs come in bunches, a fact that implies he goes long stretches without them. That’s not the case — after a slow start that saw him hit two homers in Wichita’s first 16 games last season, Ziegler never went more than four games without one. His slumps are rare, as his .320 batting average indicates, but he often breaks out of them with a long ball.
"That was one thing my dad always talked to me about, was being consistent," Ziegler said. "Consistency is what a lot of people look at. Being consistent with a lot of things is a huge thing."
Making a change — Thursday’s start was the 2013 home debut for Wichita left-hander Ryan Hinson and his new — and improved on Thursday, anyway — mechanics.
Hinson slowed down his delivery in an attempt to also slow down the rest of his body. After Hinson rotates his hips and is facing first base, he pauses with his right foot on the ground before resuming his delivery.
Thursday, Hinson set a team record with 13 strikeouts, allowing one run and no walks in a 1-0 loss to New Jersey.
"It’s been really beneficial to me because I used to be a guy who didn’t stay back very well," Hinson said. "Now it helps me stay back, it helps me find a timing within my motion. I did it in winter ball and just went out there and practiced it, practiced it. It helps everything work together in a good flow."
Hinson credits leg strength with his ability to keep velocity on his fastball even after he completely stops his motion with his front leg on the ground. He took his cues on changing the motion from Los Angeles Dodgers star lefty Clayton Kershaw, who has similar mechanics.
The hitch in the delivery creates a distraction for hitters that adds to Hinson’s already effective repertoire.
"It’s kind of smoke and mirrors," Hinson said. "But I’ll take smoke and mirrors and those guys being off-balance over giving up (hits) all over the field."
Making a change, Part II — John Rodriguez is batting .382 as Wichita’s designated hitter, but before Friday’s game against New Jersey, he determined that all was not right.
Rodriguez, a left-handed batter, was getting his share of hits to the opposite (left) field, but wasn’t hitting many line drives to the gap in left. Before Friday’s game he worked on that approach with hitting coach Jose Amado, and the result was a homer to left in the Wingnuts’ 10-5 win.
"He worked with (Amado) earlier (Friday), just working off the tee, working the other way," Wingnuts manager Kevin Hooper said. "He wants to get that feel back to where when he’s going well, he’s hitting the ball to left-center field with some authority behind it."