Speedy outfielder Heath still evolving as a hitter
There’s a certain image that appears in your head when you hear a ballplayer with track-star speed stole 60 bases last season in 105 minor league games, but Kansas City Royals outfielder Nick Heath is bigger than you expect.
A late bloomer with a mother who ran track at a near-worldclass level for Kansas State, Heath’s offensive game has always been built around speed. He graduated high school at 5-foot-7 and 135 pounds, but he’s hardly the runt of the clubhouse at big league camp.
Heath, 26, stands a sculpted 6-foot-1 and weighs 202 pounds.
Physically, he’s much closer to Royals former star center fielder Lorenzo Cain than spark plug Jarrod Dyson. Heath remains a work in progress at the plate. In his first big league camp, he’s in the process of growing beyond his slap-hitting days.
“I think I’m definitely evolving as a hitter,” Heath said. “I’ve got a little more pop. I’ve got a little more drive when I hit baseballs. I’m working on different things in the cages that allow me to stay through balls longer.
“They’re trying to get me to hit the ball in the air just a little bit more because obviously in
the big leagues those ground balls are outs now. So I’m just working on that, working on my swing path, working on everything, but obviously not forgetting my roots as somebody who can run.”
Heath is quick to point out that he and first base coach Rusty Kuntz still regularly work on bunting, even though Heath hasn’t done it much in spring training games. The stolen base has certainly remained a big weapon in his arsenal.
After being added to the 40-man roster this winter, his primary focus at the plate this spring has been to become more selective and disciplined, understanding which pitches he can hit, which he can drive and which he will give him trouble.
Last season, he posted a slash line of .255/.345/ .387 to go along with his minor-league best 60 stolen bases. He also hit 14 doubles and eight triples.
He’s close to the heaviest he’s ever been, but insists he feels faster, stronger and with the added muscle he has noticed he doesn’t have as many aches and pains or bumps and bruises.
“The big thing for me and the big thing they told me coming into this year was ‘We want you to drive the ball. We want you to use every facet of your game. Don’t just use your legs,’” Heath said.
Headed into Tuesday’s games in Arizona, Heath has gone 4-for-24 (.167) with one double and one triple and three stolen bases. He’s already noticed the difference when he has hit the ball on the ground against big league clubs.
Diving stops have been made on those hard-hit balls into the hole on the right side of the infield. Balls hit in the air to the outfield are finding an outfielder’s glove instead of the gap.
It’s all part of his adjustment to the big league game after starting last season in Double-A and finishing in Triple-A.
“He should be a wellrounded player with speed, but he should bring everything else too,” Royals manager Mike Matheny said. “He’s going to still continue to work on the efficiency of his jumps. He’s still going to work no his consistency with his at-bats, but I think he has the potential — I’ve got to be careful saying it publicly — but he’s got the kind of carry on the ball that he’s going to have some surprising power.
Matheny pointed out that doubles off the wall, in the gap or off of pure hustle can bolster a slugging percentage too, homers aren’t necessary. Heath isn’t the type of player who should step in the batter’s box looking to hit home runs, according to Matheny.
For now, they need Heath to use everything he’s got at his disposal to put pressure on the defense.
“Put the ball in play,” Matheny said. “Put together a really tough atbat. Use his speed. Take advantage of what they give you. Think about the bunt. Get guys over. Get them in when they give it to you. Get on base and then cause havoc. That’s the kind of player that he should be, but I think that that’s going to be the platform that he’s going to build on because there is more in there for him.”
Last season, the Royals’ Nick Heath posted a slash line of .255/.345/.387 to go along with his minor-league best 60 stolen bases.
The Royals’ Nick Heath, center, jogs with teammates before a spring training game last week in Peoria, Ariz.