PEORIA, Ariz. – Steven Baron couldn’t help fretting after batting .182 in 45 games last season at Single-A Clinton and getting demoted to short-season Everett.
He was a frightened kid then, unsure of his baseball future.
He’s not scared anymore. The new, improved Baron stepped to the plate in the bottom of the ninth inning of a Cactus League game Saturday with the Seattle Mariners trailing the Texas Rangers, 8-6.
Seattle had runners on first and third with one out and hard-throwing Pedro Strop on the mound.
Baron, 20, took a called strike. He stayed calm. He watched the next three pitches go by, including a wild one that allowed a run to score and moved Michael Saunders to second. With the count 3-1, Strop grooved a fastball. Baron lined a single to right-center to score Saunders and tie the game.
Baron quietly has turned himself into the player the Mariners envisioned when then they took the catcher with the 33rd pick the 2009 draft.
Mariners manager Eric Wedge unleashed a huge grin when asked about Baron.
“He’s had a hell of a camp,” Wedge said. “He’s made as much improvement as anyone. You look at his confidence level. You look at his at-bats. He’s more comfortable behind the plate. Handling late-game situations like this, there’s something to be said for that.”
Baron hit a homer in his first game of the spring. In Cactus League play, he’s hitting .667 in nine at-bats. Then there were the two doubles he ripped off reigning American League Cy Young Award winner Felix Hernandez in a simulated game that had the whole camp talking.
“I feel like if I can hold my own against one of the best pitchers in baseball, I can hold my own in the minor leagues and make some progress,” Baron said.
For the first season and half of his professional career, Baron wasn’t holding his own. He wasn’t even treading water, hitting .179 in 30 games at Single-A Pulaski in 2009 and then getting off to the awful start in Clinton. He was drowning in self-doubt.
“I would go 0-for-4 and then it would pile up,” he said. “My confidence would fall below zero. I would go for 0-for-4 again. I would be like I don’t know what I’m doing. I would call my dad, and say I can’t this do anymore. I can’t play anymore. I want to quit.”
Soon enough, he landed in Everett.
“He had had a tough first half when he showed up,” said Scott Steinmann, who was Everett’s hitting coach last year. “He kind of continued that mental anguish. Once we kind of hit the reset button, then he started to come around and really mature. Every day he started to get better and better. He really grew last year as a person and a player.”
After hitting .169 (11-for-65) in his first 17 games in Everett, he hit .293 (39-for-133) over the final 36 games.
“It took me two and half to three months to figure out my approach and routine,” Baron said. “I finally figured out a little bit. I started doing that and I started having more success.”
The biggest thing Baron needed to do was retool his swing. It looked more like a guy chopping wood than a guy swinging a baseball bat.
“Last year, I only swung with my upper body,” Baron said. “I really had no swing mechanics. This offseason I put in two or three hours a day in the cages, just working on my swing. There was a lot of video work and implementing my lower half more and getting my hips going through.”
Baron began to see results.
“It helped me increase my bat speed, my swing smoothed out, the ball was jumping off my bat,” he said. “I was getting more momentum going forward. Last year there was really no rhythm to my swing.”
The Mariners have noticed the difference.
“It’s a totally different swing,” Mariners director of minor league operations Pedro Grifol said. “He’s made a lot of strides. The sky is the limit for him.”