PORT CHARLOTTE — In the land of “Eat Last” and “If you hear any noise it’s just me and the boys boppin,’ ” both introduced to the Tampa Bay Rays clubhouse this spring by third baseman Evan Longoria, is another slogan, which is actually one word, and it likely won’t appear on any T-shirt or become the theme for the 2014 season.
That word is “consistent,” and it belongs to center fielder Desmond Jennings.
“That’s my word for the year,” he said Friday.
To prove his point, Jennings said “consistent” or “consistency” seven times during a six-minute interview.
“I just want to be more consistent hitting the baseball,” he said.
Sounds easy enough. Even Jennings smiled at the concept.
“Get more hits, get on base more, score more runs, drive in more home runs, steal more bags,” he said. “I feel like if you hit more consistent, you’ll have a better year.”
“I think ‘consistent’ is a really good word, because it’s the consistency not only of repeating his swing, but the consistency of controlling the strike zone, which is extremely important for him,” hitting coach Derek Shelton said. “When we see him control the strike zone is when we see the player everyone envisions him to be.”
Jennings has put all his tools to work since he arrived in the big leagues for good in July 2011. He’s capable of hitting for average, which he did in September when he batted .288. The power is there, as evidenced by his two-homer game against Detroit’s Justin Verlander in 2012. And, of course, he’s a threat to steal every time he is on base.
Problem is, all those tools don’t often show up at the same time.
Part of that is the fact Jennings has played only two full seasons in the big leagues, and both of those years have been interrupted by injuries.
“You can’t artificially create the at-bats he’s gotten. You can’t artificially create the sequence of pitches he’s seeing. It’s just something you have to do,” Shelton said. “The biggest test for him is once he starts to see it is making sure he stays consistent and not make the same mistakes and grow from there, and I think that’s one thing we’re seeing from him.”
The other problem for Jennings is he often expands his strike zone, swinging at balls and taking strikes.
“That’s anybody. If they’re hitting the ball well, they’re probably not swinging at bad pitches,” Jennings said. “I have to be more selective of pitches that I’m swinging at. Have an approach when I get to the plate. Not try to do too much. Do my job and go from there.”
Again, sounds easy.
And Jennings has been able to do just that for extended periods.
“I think when he gets a little impatient. That’s where he loses that. That’s the bane of most hitters,” manager Joe Maddon said. “He’s always capable of being the opposite of that, where he’s really patient and looks pitches over and does not chase. When he arrives at that happy medium, 35 percent or better on-base (percentage) I think he’s capable of that, and when he does that, you’re going to see the base running go right through the roof.”
Maddon said he is leaning toward using Jennings and outfielder David DeJesus as leadoff hitters. Jennings said he expects to hit lower in the order. He batted .289 with a .353 on-base percentage in 12 starts batting seventh in the order. Maddon dropped Jennings down the order to shake him from a slump and it worked.
Jennings was consistent during that stretch. He was consistent in September, when he had a .404 on-base percentage. Credit his 14 walks for that. He also hit three home runs and drove in 13 runs.
Jennings wants to do that again, and he wants to start on Opening Day and keep it going all season. Shelton has seen that approach this spring.
“When he does do it like he did last year in September he puts himself in a whole different category,” Shelton said. “I like the fact he’s using that word consistent, because he has the ability to do that. When he matures and gets at-bats, he will do that.”