Drayer: After start-and-stop debut season with Mariners, Ryon Healy builds new foundation at plate
The 2018 season at the plate was not what Mariners first baseman Ryon Healy envisioned it would be.
Coming off two strong seasons with the Oakland A’s, Healy arrived in Seattle feeling ready to attack the challenge of joining a new club and living up to the expectations that led them to trade for him. But all did not go well from the get-go in his first season with the Mariners, and when all was said and done Healy finished the year with an OPS that was 66 points lower than in his first full big league season.
“I felt like I just battled all season,” Healy said. “I didn’t have any foundation, I felt like I was always searching for something mechanically, never really had something to fall back on.”
The foundation he was searching for something that should have been set in the offseason. Discomfort in his right hand prohibited him from putting in the usual offseason work that sets that foundation, however. Healy estimates he took just 50 to 100 two-handed swings – all with pain – in the offseason before the 2018 season. Shortly after spring training began, he left to have surgery to remove a bone spur from the hand.
His offseason work had been almost nonexistent, and now his camp work was limited to a handful of at-bats at the end of spring training. And the next thing he knew he was in the batters box facing Cleveland’s two-time Cy Young Award winner Corey Kluber on Opening Day at Safeco Field.
“It was just straight battle mode,” he said. “I felt like I never really left that over the course of the season. I felt like every time I took a step forward I took three back.”
One step forward, three steps back
Looking back at 2018, it’s easy to see why Healy felt like that. As if hand surgery wasn’t enough, he missed 16 days after rolling his ankle in the gym in Minnesota only a week after the season began. Another start and stop, another step back. Not at all what he had hoped for, but through the process of failing, Healy in his words began to re-think things, namely the importance of setting the foundation and how it could not be taken for granted.
“The surprising thing is it is a year-to-year thing,” he said. “Despite the thousands of swings you have behind you, it’s such a muscle memory game. When you don’t have the most recent repetitions in your memory bank you forget what it really takes. When you are trying to catch your timing, trying to work on things and then go out into big league game and implement them, it’s really tough. And then failure really changes your perspective of a lot of things.”
Healy’s instinct when he struggled was to reach out to those around him in the Mariners clubhouse. He didn’t have to look far for those with experience or success. What was Mitch Haniger doing? What about Nelson Cruz?
“I think I almost did that to a fault,” said Healy. “Kind of like when you don’t have your own personal foundation, you try to take everyone else’s knowledge to make it your own instead of really realizing and understanding who you are in this game. I feel like there were times when I was talking to guys and asking guys too much what they do and not trying to figure out what I do.”
That realization helped make Healy change his approach to his offseason.
“I felt I really wanted to get down to the root. I really wanted to learn how my body moved and how to put myself into the most productive positions to have a consistent swing path and give myself the best opportunity every at-bat.”
Breaking down to build back up
Healy took the month of October off to rest his body and clear his mind. When he picked up the bat in November he had a plan. He would spend the offseason working with not one, but two hitting coaches. The first, Craig Wallenbrock, is seen by many in the game to be the godfather of the launch angle revolution and is credited with transforming the careers hitters like Justin Turner, Josh Donaldson and Chris Taylor.
“The minute I got home to California I went out and saw him.” Healy said of Wallenbrock. “‘I want you to break me down. I want you to tell me everything you see, give me the crash course and I will digest everything I can.’ A couple of weeks into it I felt like we would make progress on one thing and then he would dissect another thing. It was kind of a piece-by-piece process and I felt like it started from the ground up. I really tried to clean up my lower half, make it more efficient, then up to the upper body and get the swing path going. We talked a lot about angles, making sure my body was getting into a good consistent position on every pitch.”
Healy enlisted the help of another coach, too – someone who worked closely with Wallenbrock. When the Mariners were in Arizona to play the Diamondbacks in August, he sought out D-backs assistant hitting coach Tim Laker to chat. He had met Laker in the offseason of 2017 when he was a groomsman in Laker’s stepson’s wedding. They had talked hitting a little bit then, but Healy was coming off a good season and wasn’t looking for help. This time around it was a different situation.
“He spoke the language that I was trying to learn. So I wanted to just really be around him. I figured I would utilize the relationship I had,” Healy said.
A serendipitous addition
As luck would have it, Healy soon learned that he would be hearing quite a bit of Laker’s language.
“(Laker) called me and said, ‘Hey, I am interviewing for the Mariners hitting coach job!’ I said that would be the dream,” Healy recalled. “So the minute he got hired he actually bent his schedule over backwards for me. I easily had 20-25 hitting sessions with him this offseason and he could watch my swing now and tell me any little thing off or wrong. It’s a nice relationship to have.”
In addition to cage work, Healy and Laker spent time looking at heat charts, going over game planning and engaging in a back and forth about what hitters meetings could look like with Laker as Seattle’s new hitting coach.
“I think we were learning from each other,” said Healy.
The work Healy has put in with Wallenbrock and Laker has left him not just with the foundation that he had been searching for, but a foundation that he understands.
“I feel like every swing I take I know what my body is doing,” he said. “Even on my mishits, that’s probably the most exciting thing for me now is I am not going to be perfect, no one in there is going to be, but I feel when I mishit a ball or my timing is a little off I know what I am doing.
“It’s exciting for me to be able to walk out of the cage and see Tim Laker and say ‘I am losing my lower half a little,’ or ‘I feel like I’m not coming forward enough, my back hip is not firing entirely or I am spinning a little bit.’ There are so many check-marks I can go through and I know what I am doing the minute I miss instead of last year I would feel like every time I got out I was searching for the reason why.”
A new foundation
Healy enters the spring knowing his position at first base is crowded, but he also has confidence in who he is at the plate when he is right. A healthy and full offseason of work with two top hitting coaches in the game right now, a slight mechanical change, better understanding of his mechanics and ultimately a plan leave him in much better position to make the kind of showing he wanted to make a year ago.
“I have goals in mind but I am not sitting here saying I want to hit 50 homers or hit every ball in the air,” he said. “I just want to be able to put a barrel on every single pitch because I think I am that kind of a hitter that can handle any pitch in the zone.
“I didn’t use the other way, right-center, right field last year. That’s where it starts, that’s where my bread and butter is. So if you are late on a fastball, you are still getting hits to right field. Those sliders low and away you can take it to right field. Even if it isn’t a home run to right field, it’s a single, it’s a double. You are driving in runs and you are productive. It’s who I am ready to prove I can be this year.”
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