Mariners’ Jarred Kelenic comfortable for first time in MLB: ‘My mentality is way different’
After a painful but ultimately necessary start to his big league career, Mariners rookie Jarred Kelenic appears to be settling in and taking steps forward. The .096 average recorded in his first 23 games has been put behind him, but the lessons learned are something that will stick with him forever.
“I’ve never been kicked in the teeth before, especially in baseball,” Kelenic said. “I know that when I look back on my career whenever it comes to an end, I know that this is probably going to be one of the best things that has ever happened to me. It has allowed me to be way more optimistic still to this day. I mean, I went 0 for 4 the other day. When I first came up and I went 0 for 4 it was, the world is ending tomorrow.”
Despite being a top prospect in baseball and a player that the franchise has in large part hung its hopes on and built around, it was a pressure that would have been there regardless. It would have been there because of Kelenic’s own expectations. It’s not hard to believe that he felt the world was ending after an 0-fer day, because that’s what it looked like in May and June – and at times sounded like, with field mics picking up the sound of bats being broken after strikeouts, which were plentiful at the time.
The remedy? A trip away from the spotlight and time to regroup. Results aside, it looks different now. Where before Mariners manager Scott Servais would have to make an effort to try and lighten Kelenic’s mood in the dugout, a more relaxed Kelenic has been seen in the dugout, on the bases and yes, in the batter’s box.
“I feel like I am a completely different person than when I first came up in the aspect that my mentality is way different,” he said. “It’s almost like going through that rough stretch I gained more confidence than I ever had, because when I went through that and I overcame that, especially in my time in Triple-A and having some success in the big leagues, it was a huge barrier I had to get over. And when I got over it, it was all of the weight of the world was off my shoulders.”
That new mentality was put to the test almost from the get-go in his return to the Mariners after the All-Star break last month. After recording hits in his first three games back, Kelenic went through a 1-for-22 stretch with 10 strikeouts. After a three-strikeout night against the Astros on July 26, he could be seen after the Mariners’ 11-8 win on the bench flanked by hitting coaches Tim Laker and Jared DeHart deep in conversation as the rest of the team headed down the steps to the clubhouse.
He wasn’t going to let the extra weight pile on his shoulders again.
“I struck out three times one night,” he remembered. “The next night I come to the field, first at-bat, strikeout. Second at-bat, strikeout, and I’m like, ‘That’s it. I can’t keep doing this. I cannot. It’s not working.’ I went into the cage during the game, I stood more upright and I was having balls from the machine and I was ripping balls off the back of the net, and I was, ‘You know what, I’m just going to try it. I mean, gosh, if I just put the ball in play it’s better than what I have been doing.'”
Kelenic made the mid-game adjustment, standing up straighter in his next at-bat and lacing a bases-loaded, line drive single to left-center off a slider from Lance McCullers.
He found success again the next time he stepped to the plate with a single up the middle off Astros closer Ryan Pressly.
“I kind of just ran with it from there,” he said.
Since making the adjustment at the plate, Kelenic has hit .275 with an OPS of .905, walking five times to seven strikeouts in 11 games. Small sample, yes, but good numbers following a change, which is encouraging.
Jarred Kelenic is heating up. 👀
— MLB Pipeline (@MLBPipeline) August 7, 2021
For Kelenic, the simple process of standing up made total sense to him even if he didn’t initially realize that he had strayed away from the more upright, athletic batting stance he previously had.
“We play this game so much that it is so easy to create bad habits,” he said. “I think that over time I just started crouching a little bit more and more down and didn’t realize it. When you strike out three times in back-to-back nights, it’s hard. It gets to the point where this isn’t working, I have got to find something else.
“We’ve talked about it. I’d be lying to you if JD and Lake (DeHart and Laker) didn’t say, ‘Hey, maybe you should stand more upright.’ In your mind when you do something so many times for so long it just begins to feel comfortable, so when I had been a little more hunched over it just became more comfortable because I had been doing it for so long.”
He had been doing it so long that his original batting stance felt foreign.
“In those two at-bats I remember I was like, ‘I am not comfortable whatsoever here,’ because I wasn’t used to standing more upright,” he said. “But I was committed to just trying to make that change, and when you get two hits in two at-bats, jeez, I will be uncomfortable for the rest of the year if that’s what it takes.”
Thankfully, it hasn’t come to that. Kelenic is once again comfortable at the plate, and for the first time comfortable at the big league level. Even on the current road trip he has found affirmation in his ability to navigate all that is different at the highest level of the game.
“It’s night and day different,” he said from New York during the Mariners’ current series with the Yankees. “I was really interested to see how I was going to react coming into this series especially, because with it just being Yankee Stadium, New York, this is just like the brightest stage. Everyone watches the Yankees. When your heartbeat gets going there are a lot of thoughts that come into your mind and I was just trying to keep it simple. It was no different than if we were playing in Seattle or Texas. That means a lot to me because in a game like this, in a setting like this, it’s easy to get your heart rate up and get amped up, but it’s really crucial that you stay the same and I was happy about myself the entire game I stayed that way.”
That game included a plate appearance against one of baseball’s most intimidating strikeout artists, Aroldis Chapman. Kelenic has seen a steady stream of left-handers with nasty stuff, and he said he was up for the challenge.
“I was really looking forward to it just because it’s Aroldis Chapman,” he said with a smile. “Everyone knows who that is and I was just going to embrace it. If he was going to strike me out on three pitches I just was going to embrace every pitch that guy was going to throw me, but I was 100 percent trying to be aggressive. Granted he walked me, it was a good at-bat and it was fun.”
Had Chapman struck him out, the emotions likely would have been different from what Kelenic experienced his first time up.
“You think about the at-bat, maybe there was a pitch you should have swung at earlier,” he said. “My first at-bat against (Josh) Fleming from Tampa, he strikes me out. He pitched his tail off. He executed everything he was trying to throw and it’s the big leagues, they are going to beat me sometimes. That’s been the adjustment that I had to make, because in the minor leagues the guys had the stuff but sometimes they couldn’t execute their plan and it really came down to if you were going to get yourself out. Here, you can get yourself out, and if they execute their plan you have to find that one mistake they make and that’s when you execute.”
There likely will be more ups and downs as Kelenic continues his rookie journey, but lessons learned early should continue to benefit him. With strikeouts no longer leading to no tomorrow and realizing that there is an entire team of players and coaches to shoulder the entire load, he appears to be on a good path moving forward.
Listen to Shannon Drayer’s full interview with Kelenic in the player below or at this link.