Drayer: Embracing rookie lessons, Mariners’ Kelenic now in a good place

Apr 6, 2022, 12:12 PM | Updated: 4:37 pm

It is very likely that the Mariners’ success in 2022 will be tied to the success of Jarred Kelenic.

Mariners’ Jerry Dipoto details how Jarred Kelenic is evolving his game

Of course it is not all on the 22 year old’s shoulders, but there is no denying he is a key piece of the offense. If he struggles, the Mariners could still survive. But if he thrives, it’s tough to see the team not taking off.

While some may look at this as pressure, it’s worth remembering this is the spot Kelenic has always wanted to be in. The trials and tribulations of his rookie season have not dimmed that desire. He wants to be the guy.

He has lived and breathed baseball his entire life. Rocketing soft baseballs around the living room as toddler. Getting up at 4 a.m. in the morning as a teen to work out because that was the only time he had with homework and practice after school. Then, after taking two weeks off at the end of last season to relax with family, going back to work because “I was hungry to get back after it because there were things I wanted to fix because I demand better of myself coming into the season.”

This is what he does.

The Kelenic we saw this spring is far different than what we saw at the same time last year. No longer is he looking over his shoulder to see if the media noticed him hitting a home run on the practice field. The brashness has been turned down to about a 2 on the scale of 1-10. It doesn’t appear that is because last season humbled him. Rather, he’s comfortable. He’s faced the unknown and was able to prepare accordingly for what lies ahead this year.

This offseason, Kelenic got an incredible assist with his new agency putting him in touch with Mark McGwire. Initially they were sending videos to the man who broke Roger Maris’s longstanding home run record, but after not too long, McGwire asked the agency to give Kelenic his number.

“I started calling him. Our conversations turned into two-, three-hour conversations talking over the phone,” said Kelenic, who still talks with McGwire daily.

Kelenic had dozens of questions for the onetime single-season home run king and former MLB hitting coach, with one in particular that was top of mind.

“That one year, what really clicked for him?” he said, referring to McGwire’s record-breaking 70-homer season in 1998. “He said that year was when he finally learned how to not swing as hard as he could and just let his natural ability and his strength take over and allowed to free up his hands. And all he was thinking about was ‘nice and easy,’ and before you know it he looked up at the scoreboard and he had 70 home runs on the year.”

The story resonated with Kelenic.

“I put in so much work in the gym and I have gotten extremely strong and I can’t try to force it,” he said. “I have got to just let all the work I put in in the weight room, the strength that I have, let my ability take over. When I am mis-hitting balls and they are going out to left field, then I am doing something right.”

In other words, don’t force it. Easier said than done, especially for someone as driven as Kelenic, but he is taking the steps forward to make sure what was seen so many times in at-bats last year during his struggles does not happen again.

The key to accomplishing this?

“I’ve learned to become aware of when I feel like I am trying to do more,” he said.

For Kelenic, it is part of his nature, something he has explored this spring starting on the practice field where he had an eye-opening revelation.

“I like to hit off the velocity machine. Any flaws you have get exposed. There will be times, eight, 10 in a row, and you are just banging balls. Then all of a sudden there will be a streak of five where they are not good. Roll over, jammed, whatever it may be, and I am like ‘What?’ Then I will step out and realize that because I hit 10 in a row, I’m trying to hit one better,” he said, starting to clap for emphasis. “Better than that one (*clap*), better. It’s human nature. You can’t get mad at yourself, but once I am aware of that I can step back and I’m going to try and hit this one softer, and all of a sudden, boom – barrel, barrel, and I just take off.”

From the practice field into a game, Kelenic saw the same response. After striking out in his first at-bat against Dylan Cease of the White Sox in an early Cactus League game, he became aware that he was gearing up too much for the flamethrower.

“I came back to the dugout and I was like, ‘He was throwing 98 mph and I was trying to swing at 198%,'” he mused. “I keep a notebook in the dugout and I write after an at-bat what my thought process was, what I thought they were trying to do and what I could do differently. I just came back to it, I was trying way too hard. I took a step back and my whole goal that next at-bat was ‘We’re going to shorten up the load and we are going to just let the hands work.’ And next at-bat, (*clap*) double off the wall.”

Putting offseason practice into action this spring has been an ongoing discovery for Kelenic, but McGwire’s words appear to have taken root.

“It’s learning how to become aware of when you are trying to do too much,” he said, “and being honest with yourself and being patient with yourself at the same time because I want to be the guy who comes up and has the big hit – everyone wants that. But just being patient and breathing and understanding when you are trying to do too much, that’s kind of where I’m at.”

Kelenic appears to be in a good place. He speaks openly about the struggles of last year – he finished with a .181/.265/.350 slash line, 14 homers and 106 strikeouts to 36 walks in 93 games with the Mariners – which surprisingly are not behind him but rather a part of him.

“Obviously, I failed a lot last year,” he said. “I think the best part about last year, though, is that the immense struggles I had, I came out on the other side. So I know that no matter what I go through moving forward, I came out on the other side of hell… so I know I can get through anything. I know for a fact that it will never get to be that immense again because if it does, then that’s on me because I didn’t apply anything I learned last year.”

Kelenic is learning a lot, and that should not be taken for granted. It would be easy to let struggles and expectations snowball, but he pulled himself out of a gigantic spiral. Kelenic took what had to be a seismically disappointing moment of his life – a tough rookie season in a sport he had rarely failed in – and turned it around. He appears to be moving it forward and letting up rather than trying to swing 198%.

“One of the things I talked about with my mom was she had asked me, ‘Are you excited for this?’ Yeah, I’m really excited, and I would make a joke like, ‘You know, if I hit .182 this year, it’s a step in the right direction’ instead of .181. I would just make the joke because I like to mess around. I try not to take it too seriously. And my mom looked at me, she didn’t laugh, and she goes, ‘You know Jarred, if this year happens like last year, that’s on you.’ And I said, ‘You know what, you are right.’ Because there are so many valuable lessons in that season that I needed to learn, because that’s why it happened.

“Now I just need to apply it and go play.”

More from Seattle Sports Mariners insider Shannon Drayer

Mariners asked Julio Rodríguez to “light it up” — now “it’s on”
Rookie Matt Brash wins final spot in Mariners starting rotation
Mariners even more comfortable with standout bullpen for 2022
New M’s reliever Sergio Romo not shy about passing on his experience
With better secondary pitches, Logan Gilbert keeps raising ceiling

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