Colvin Seeks Right Combination

Tyler Colvin (STAFF PHOTO/PAM DAVIS)

KODAK, Tenn. – Be patient. Stay aggressive. Drive the ball. Take a walk. Tyler Colvin has spent his 2008 season in Double-A trying to sort through the assorted contradictions at the plate. His defense has been solid, but the outfielder knows it's his bat that is going to get him to the next level.

Colvin had a directive this season to draw more bases on balls and cut back on strikeouts. In 62 games at Tennessee last summer, Colvin had 54 strikeouts and just five walks.

In the first 60 games for the Smokies this season, Colvin had the same number of strikeouts but had upped his walks to 25.

"One thing I wanted to work on this year was being a little more patient at the plate," Colvin said. "I think it has paid off, but I seem to not be quite as aggressive. I need to find that fine line now between being overaggressive and aggressive so I can start hitting those pitches I need to hit and not bat .230."

Colvin is batting .233 through 72 games, a source of frustration for a 22-year-old player who has hit at every level in his pro career, which began at Class Low-A Boise after he was drafted by the Cubs in the first round (13th overall) in 2006. Colvin hit .291 for Tennessee last summer.

"Early on I was really frustrated because I haven't really had that big struggle yet in professional baseball," Colvin said. "The beginning of the season I was a little frustrated with the batting average, but now I know my role. In the three hole, I have to get those runs in."

Colvin leads the Smokies with 34 RBI and is tied with Doug Deeds and Kyle Reynolds for the team lead in home runs with five.

He also has learned the benefit of getting on base, especially with free-swinging slugger Jake Fox and Deeds batting behind him.

"At some points it's just getting on base so the people behind me can knock me in," said Colvin, who is second on the team in runs scored at 34. "I'm content with taking a walk and being 0 for 0 or going 1 for 3 with a walk and not worrying too much about the average right now."

That approach was on display in a June 5 game against Chattanooga. Colvin worked an 11th inning walk as the leadoff batter and went to second on a sacrifice bunt.

He scored the winning run on a single to right field.

"Ever since I started baseball, I wanted to be that guy who got the winning hit and all that, but in some spots they're not going to pitch to you and that's what I have to learn this year is not get myself out," Colvin said. "I talked about that a lot last year ... This year, I have to take those walks. If I get on first base, maybe I can steal second."

Smokies manager Buddy Bailey noted how selective Colvin was at the plate in that at-bat against the Lookouts.

"The other night when he took that walk, I told him walking up to the clubhouse that's what he needs to be able to do more of: ‘Be patient. Work the count,' " Bailey said. "He fought off a tough pitch or two and then he was still able to stay off a borderline pitch to take a walk. Walks leads to so many other plus offensive categories and the ability to keep an inning going.

"If he goes to the big leagues as long as (Aramis) Ramirez and (Kosuke) Fukudome and the way (Geovany) Soto is hitting and (Derrek) Lee and those guys, they're not going to ask him to be a middle-of-the-order guy and hit home runs. They're going to need him to let those guys drive him in. He needs to be one of the team leaders in runs scored."

With two strikes, Colvin is trying to become even more selective at the plate. That has resulted in him going more with the pitch instead of trying to pull the ball.

This has led to opposite-field hits by the left-handed hitter.

"I am trying to be comfortable with two strikes and cut down on my strikeouts," Colvin said. "You never know what can happen if you put it in play."

That was on display in a May 12 game against Huntsville when Colvin went 4-for-4 with two homers, two doubles and a sacrifice fly that went to the left field wall and was nearly the third homer of the night. The offensive fireworks came against three different pitchers.

"The first (at-bat) set the tempo," Colvin said. "I got into 3-2, 2-2 counts, saw all the pitches. It gave me a lot of confidence."

The patience-aggressive continuum remains a learning process for the young hitter. Colvin was tossed out of a June 15 road game at Mississippi for arguing with the umpire after being called out on strikes. Colvin said he is searching for that balance of knowing when to swing and when to be patient.

"Know the situation," he said. "Nobody out, bottom of the 11th, they're not going to want me to hit the walk-off home run. They're going to try to pick at me a little bit and maybe I'll get myself out. It's knowing the situation. Getting a good count, say 2-0. Now, I can try to drive the ball here."

Colvin also has sought counsel from teammate Sam Fuld, the Smokies' leadoff hitter who was promoted last September for a stint with the Cubs. Colvin pairs with Fuld at batting practice and is often seen talking with him on the field and in the dugout.

Colvin recognizes that baseball is a game best played under control, but he also knows it's one of extremes.

"You're going to get up and down in this game. It's baseball. It's really just learning stuff from everyone," said Colvin, who pointed across the room to Fuld. "I am always talking to Sam Fuld and talking to Matt Craig. They're smart hitters. They know how to go about each situation. I try to learn as much as I can from them.

"I like learning from Sammy. He leads by example. I love how he leads off the game and sets the tempo for the game."

Bailey said Colvin showed some savvy with that decision.

"Sammy is one of the hardest-working and more intelligent players we have in the organization," Bailey said. "Sam is one of, if not the best, defensive outfielders we have in the entire organization. He (Colvin) is a smart guy to pick that guy to be his tutor and learning what he can from him."

Fuld plays center field for Tennessee. He was sent from Triple-A Iowa on May 16 and that moved Colvin to left field. Colvin had been playing center, a position he prefers, but he welcomes the experience on the corners of the grass.

"Honestly, centerfield is the best place to play because you've got so much room to run and make plays," Colvin said. "But the corner, I'm comfortable there. I played left field all through college and last year I got a lot of playing time in right field when I came to Tennessee."

Colvin didn't have to think much about hitting in college, where he batted .356 in his final season and pounded 13 home runs with 70 RBI. That changed in pro ball.

"It's the mental approach," Colvin said of the biggest adjustment from his college days at Clemson to those in the Cubs organization. "In college you didn't need that much because you can cheat with the metal bats. But here you really have to be smart. They know you, and they know exactly what you can do and what you can't do."

Colvin counters the knowledge of the pitchers by keeping his own notebook that outlines every at-bat. There is not much video of opposing pitchers at this level, so Colvin has compiled his own library of sorts.

"I have a little chart I made up and wherever they pitch me, I write it down on the chart," Colvin said. "I know how the pitcher is going to pitch me. Once you go through them a couple of times, they tend to stick with it. If they've gotten you out with a fastball away, they're probably going to go back to it at some point. It's trying to think the way they're thinking."

Colvin keeps the information in the dugout and records it after his at-bats while the pitch sequences are still fresh in his mind. He also will talk to Dennis Lewallyn, the Smokies pitching coach, for additional information – especially when a reliever enters the game.

"Lewallyn has a notebook, too," Colvin said. "He keeps stuff on how hard they throw, what pitches they have. We have some good information in the dugout to keep us on track during a game."

Bailey, whose managing career began in 1983 in the Atlanta Braves' organization, applauded Colvin's approach to seeking knowledge.

"You have to have all the information that you can get to use to your advantage," Bailey said. "That pitcher is trying to make a living. The way he gets to the big leagues is getting the hitters out. The hitters have to make their living by being able to beat the pitcher.

"Whoever wants to spend the most time and educate himself and be the best equipped will have the best chance to have success."

Colvin expected to start the 2008 season in Tennessee. He knew that the paucity of walks last season, especially next to the high number of strikeouts, meant a summer of seasoning with the Smokies. He started in April where he left off in August – too few walks and too many Ks.

"That's what I've had to work on so hard this year," Colvin said. "It started off just like last year but without the hits. I struck out and didn't walk too much, but I've tried to relax and become patient. That's the part I need to work on, the mental approach."

Bailey said that approach takes time, and that Colvin has certainly made progress.

"He had a big rash of strikeouts early, but his last 16 to 20 strikeouts, he's probably pushing 50-50 with the same amount of walks for the last two or three weeks," Bailey said. "There are a lot of things going in the right direction for him."

The message has gotten through to Colvin. To progress to the next level in the Cubs' organization, he has clear directives from the club.

"Plate discipline. Stay focused at the plate. Don't get myself out. Have good at-bats," Colvin said. "Now I have to start getting a little more hits. I think I'm getting there now. I'm not missing those pitches I need to hit. Stay with the approach I have now and I should be fine."

Colvin has tried to learn not to fixate on his batting average, though that can be hard in such a numbers-driven game.

"The numbers aren't there like they were last year, but sometimes the numbers aren't showing exactly how you're doing," Colvin said.

Colvin does have another favorite pastime to help clear his mind. One of the Smokies' batboys led him to a rather-secluded fishing hole – "We're not going to give that (spot) away," Colvin said – where they catch and release Largemouth bass.

"I like to go fishing," he said. "I like to go out in the mornings and relax."

Colvin also has the temperament to handle the game, Bailey said.

"He comes to the field and usually has a smile on his face," Bailey said. "He's still got a lot of kid in him and that's good. A lot of guys when they get in pro ball, they forget what it was like to be a kid. You play with a kid's heart, but you develop your head into a man's head to play this game. He still has a huge kid's heart, which is a beautiful thing.

"We're still working and he's still working on trying to develop his head to be a man's head, so he can understand the whole picture of the game, what he can and can't do. You play to your strengths and practice your weaknesses."

For Colvin, that means drawing more walks – maintaining that patience even on a pitcher's count and fine-tuning his personal strike zone.

"That's the biggest thing," Bailey said. "He's got to get better command of the strike zone. Pitchers can't pitch if they don't have command of the strike zone and it's hard to hit if you don't have command of the strike zone. He's gotten a lot better.

"He understands that he has to have better strike zone knowledge and better command of the strike zone and be willing to take walks and not give up easy outs. I asked him in his own head to try to keep up with … ‘How many times did the pitcher get you out or how many times did you get yourself out?' That's what he has to do."

"Everything starts with the mental approach," Bailey added. "His mental approach is good. Now, he has to relax and trust it."

The indicators are pointing in the right direction for Colvin this summer. His at-bats have been longer as he has worked deeper into counts. He has bounced back from 0-2 counts to draw walks or hit opposite-field line drives. He has 13 doubles and two triples to go with the homers and has plenty of speed on the base paths.

He also hustles down the first base line on every groundball and got a standing ovation this week by avoiding a certain out in a rundown between third and home by forcing three throws and somehow spinning away from the tag to get safely back to third.

"I think right now this is the best approach I've had since I signed," Colvin said.

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