July 4, 2016
By Jon Cooper | The Good Word
– It can be easy to lose focus during a major league season simply due to the frequent travel and number of games.
For example, over a nine-day stretch, the Miami Marlins played in four different venues, at four different starting times, never the same time in back-to-back days. That included playing a 4:10 p.m. Saturday game in Atlanta, traveling to Fort Bragg, N.C., for a Sunday night 8:10 p.m. game, then packing up and heading to New York, where they met the Mets on July 4 at 4:10 p.m.
That kind of scheduling over six months creates a stern test of players’ mental endurance and is why when a major leaguer finds a routine that works he sticks with it.
Marlins second baseman and former Yellow Jackets shortstop Derek Dietrich has one and credits it for having easily the best season of his four-year Major League career.
“I’ve really found a routine as far as my preparation, getting ready for the game defensively and offensively that’s been working for me, and that’s really helped keep me consistent on a daily basis and focus on going out there and have competitive at-bats at the plate and play solid defense for our pitchers and just bring the energy,” he said. “So far it’s been going well.”
So well that when Dietrich pulled into Turner Field last week for a four-game set with the Atlanta Braves, nearly two weeks prior to the All-Star Break, he had already tied or surpassed his single-season bests for hits, doubles, triples, and RBIs, was around 50 points better than his previous season-highs for batting average, on-base percentage and OPS (on-base percentage + slugging percentage) and should surpass his season-high for games and home runs.
Being in Miami all season and not seeing New Orleans, home of Miami’s Triple-A affiliate, also has helped.
“It’s always good to be with the guys from day one and go through the grind of the season with them,” who is within 20 games played of matching his career-best 90 set last season. “It builds that team feel and chemistry that you need to win, and I’m happy that I have the opportunity every day to go out there and compete and battle.”
That tenacity and those results aren’t new to Jackets fans.
A three-year starter at Georgia Tech (2008-10), Dietrich was a three-time All-ACC (second-team in 2008 and 2009, first-team in 2010) honoree, a third-team All-American in 2010, and ESPN CoSIDA Academic All-American in 2009 and 2010 and ACC Scholar-Athlete of the Year. He also was considered for the Golden Spikes Award as a junior.
He’s quietly ranked near the top among National League second basemen, heading into July 4th action, in several categories. He’s second in on-base percentage, fourth in batting, OPS, and WAR (Wins Above Replacement), fifth in slugging, and is tied for fourth in fielding percentage.
“Personally, I don’t pay attention to my stats too much,” Dietrich said. “I have an idea, but I judge myself on how well did I compete that night? Were my at-bats quality? Did I play quality defense? Did I make all the routine play? That’s where I try to judge myself because you can kind of get caught up with the numbers.”
He’s similarly excelled — and ignored — the fact that he’s excelled in clutch situations. He’s hitting .298 with runners in scoring position, .320 with runners in scoring position and two out, and .353 with runners at second. When he contributes, good things happen, as he’s batting .346 in games Miami wins vs. .255 in Marlins losses, and he’s done his part to help get the team back on track, batting .327 in games following a loss.
“I’m trying to treat every at-bat the same and really just compete, battle,” he said. “I know the guys in scoring position and two out, those are big situations, but I’m really just trying to bear down the same in each and every at-bat and compete, battle, make it tough on the pitcher and just get a good pitch to hit and try to hit it hard.”
He’ll even trade getting a hit for getting hit.
Dietrich been hit by a major league-high 17 pitches this season, tying the franchise single-season record, set by Carlos Delgado in 2005. His 47 career HBPs are only four off the Marlins’ mark, set by Alex Gonzalez over eight seasons.
While not a sore topic for him, it’s one that become a common one.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he said, with a laugh. “The thing I can say is that when you have a lineup like we do, with the power of Giancarlo Stanton, the way [Marcell] Ozuna’s been hitting the ball, J.B. (Justin Bour), if I can be on base for them when they blast one, that’s another big run. For me, it’s about getting on base and giving our big guys a chance to drive me in. So I’m utilizing it as a weapon to score more runs.”
Of course, Dietrich reaching via HBP is nothing new for Yellow Jackets fans. He took one for the team 43 times in his three seasons on the Flats, leading or tying for the team lead in each of his final two seasons, when he got plunked 16 times and 21 times, respectively. It’s always been a case of grin and bear it.
“Nothing’s easy in this game,” he said. “There’s pain involved, and as long as I don’t have to miss any time due to one…but I can’t control that. I just try to do my best to get on base and score runs and drive guys in. If that happens it happens.
“Honestly, I don’t think I’m on the plate too much,” he added. “If a pitch is inside and it’s coming at me I turn to get out of the way, but I’m never afraid or jumping out of the way. So I don’t think it has to do with being too close to the plate. I just bear down in there and try to get a good pitch and hunt a good pitch. If they hit me, they hit me.”
Dietrich also credits Marlins’ hitting coach Barry Bonds for his success, especially with his mental approach.
He believes good things can continue to happen for him and the Marlins. Heading into play July 4, they were four games over .500 (43-39) and in the thick of the Wild Card race. That’s uncharted waters for Dietrich, whose Marlins teams in the three seasons he has been with them are a combined 210-276 and have never won more than 77 games. Miami’s last .500 season was 2009, and its last playoff berth was 2003.
“This is what we play for,” he said. “It makes it that much better going out every night and competing and being right there at the top and having something that we’re shooting for. Of course, you’re always trying to win but we have a clear-cut goal of staying up there and continuing that through the second half of the season.”
There’s plenty of inspiration for Dietrich. Right at the top was the opportunity to play in MLB’s first ever game on an active military base, when he and the Marlins topped the Braves, 5-2, in the July 3 game played at Fort Bragg. He couldn’t wait to get there while in Atlanta.
“It’s going to be an honor. It’s going to be a special, special game to be able to play and have all the troops there, in a new stadium. That’s going to be cool,” he said while the team was still in Atlanta. “I know we’re all looking forward to it and it’s going to be truly an honor to do that and to give back and play a game on a military site. It’s going to be awesome.”
Then, of course, there’s the afterglow of, and trying to follow in, the footsteps of his hometown Cleveland Cavaliers.
“I’m very proud of the Cleveland Cavaliers, proud to be from Cleveland,” he said. “I was thinking to myself, ‘Being down 3-1, I don’t know if they can do it.’ LeBron did exactly what he said he was going to do. He went on a mission from then on. You could see the determination. So to get that curse off our backs, after 52 years, was awesome, great for the city.
“I got to watch the last game because it was a Sunday game, and we had the early game,” he added. “I had to catch a lot of updates just because we were playing when they were, but I got to see that and the parade. It was special.”