Speedy out­fielder Heath still evolv­ing as a hit­ter

The Kansas City Star - - Sports - BY LYNN WOR­THY lwor­[email protected]­star.com

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.”

GRE­GORY BULL AP

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.

ELAINE THOMP­SON AP

The Roy­als’ Nick Heath, cen­ter, jogs with team­mates be­fore a spring train­ing game last week in Peo­ria, Ariz.

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