Nick Ahmed walked into Diamondbacks’ clubhouse Saturday less than five minutes before it was closed to the media.
That didn’t leave a lot of time to ask Ahmed why, in his fifth major-league season, he’s suddenly become an offensive force.
Yes, that’s right. The words Nick Ahmed and offensive force in the same sentence.
Consider the numbers. It’s early August and Ahmed already has set career highs for home runs (14), RBIs (53) and doubles (24). While his on-base percentage remains low at .296, his OPS of .747 is 30 points above his previous high, set last season.
It’s enough to ruin his reputation as a great defensive shortstop who can’t hit. So again, why?
“A lot of it is experience, learning the type of hitter I want to be and coming from a lot of failure,” the 28-year-old Ahmed said. “I didn’t learn from it as quickly as I liked, but you continue to learn from the good and the bad.”
One obvious reason for Ahmed’s offensive improvement is his embrace of the launch-angle movement that’s swept through baseball. To put it simply, Ahmed is trying to hit more balls in the air, as evidenced by his ground-ball-to-fly-ball ratio of .065, compared to .091 in 2017, and his 10.9 extra-base-hit percentage, compared to 8.4 last season.
“I’m not trying to lift the ball and hit it really high, but I am trying not to hit the ball on the ground, for sure,” Ahmed said. “Ground balls are outs, especially with the way defensive shifting is happening and how good infielders are, especially in our division. You don’t want to hit the ball to (Colorado’s) Nolan Arenado and (San Francisco’s) Brandon Crawford a lot. You want to hit the ball on a line, and if you miss slightly underneath, you’re going to end up with a home run, hopefully.”
Fourteen so far.
“I feel strongly he is trying to elevate the ball and get some backspin and get some carry,” manager Torey Lovullo said. “The ball is really jumping off his barrel right now.”
But the change of philosophy had to be accompanied by a change in mechanics. Over the winter, Ahmed and his private hitting coach, Pete Fatse, worked on getting his body in a better hitting position – he’s more upright and his lower half is more square – in order to recognize pitches quicker. Before, Ahmed said, he would try to figure out what pitch was being thrown as he was starting his swing.
“Honestly, it’s just putting my body in position to see the ball really well,” Ahmed said. “Once my body is in a good position, I’m able to use the athleticism and strength I have. I’m not trying to force things and manipulate things mechanically. I’m just in a better spot.”
“I think he’s just able to drive the ball better,” infielder Daniel Descalso said. “He’s put himself in a better position to make hard contact and drive the ball with authority pretty much all over the yard. I think he’s found something that’s worked rather than continually trying to find something throughout the year. He’s got a good feeling and he’s been able to stick with it.”
Ahmed always believed he was a better hitter than he had shown throughout his career – “I knew I had the capability to do it” – but any progress he might have been making was compromised by injuries, first a hip injury that limited him to 90 games in 2016 and a fractured hand that cost him all but 53 games last season.
Once his hand healed this offseason, he worked tirelessly on his swing, and his studying habits haven’t changed.
“Nick is constantly going out searching, trying to make something click,” Lovullo said. “… I know he’s tied into our hitting coaches very closely. Every night I’ll see him in the video room.”
Ahmed’s value always has been measured by his glove rather than his bat. By any metric, he’s one of the game’s top defensive shortstops. But that wasn’t good enough for Ahmed. He wanted more. Now, for the first time in his career, his bat is doing some talking as well.
“I feel like he was never satisfied with just being a great defender who was going to put the bat on the ball,” Lovullo said. “He wanted to excel in both areas.
“That’s hard to do. A lot of players kind of sell out to what’s making them successful in the big leagues and they say, ‘OK, big-leaguer, I’m going to stay where I’m at.’ He has a really good mindset that he wants to be great. I think that motivates him every day.”