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Tampa Bay Rays: Can Jake Elmore Be Ben Zobrist Lite?

By Robbie Knopf
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There was something different about Jake Elmore when he made his Tampa Bay Rays debut. He was a player who had always possessed strengths: good plate discipline, excellent versatility, and a nice track record of hitting left-handed pitching. However, his flaws seemed apparent as well. Elmore has a .291/.388/.387 line in the minor leagues, quite impressive on the surface, but players with little power often have a tough time in the major leagues. Was he ever going to hit the ball with enough authority for the rest of his game to matter?

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Then Elmore homered in his first at-bat for the Rays, and while he hasn’t homered since, his newfound power has persisted. He now has a .333/.379/.556 line in 29 plate appearances for the Rays, with four of his nine hits going for extra bases. It is a small sample and he could easily fall back to earth. However, we are talking about a player who had averaged an extra-base hit every 22.1 plate appearances in the major leagues and 16.41 in the minors going to an extra-base hit every 7.25 PA’s. If this is an outlier, it is a huge one. And there is reason to believe that at least some part of Elmore’s hot streak since joining the Rays can last. As he told Marc Topkin, he has made an adjustment.

"“When the season started, I was like, ‘You know what, I’m done taking fastballs for strikes,’ ” Elmore said. “I really made it a point. If it’s not painted on the corner, if it’s a good pitch to hit, I’m swinging.”"

One of the greatest advantages of plate discipline is that it can help hitters find mistake pitches that they can drive. For whatever reason, Elmore wasn’t really doing that up until recently–he was simply taking pitches without any goal in mind other than “getting on base.” It is always great to maintain a high OBP, but you are going to see more strikes if pitchers aren’t afraid of you.

When a walk happens from a pitcher who isn’t particularly wild, the reason is often that he is trying to be careful with the hitter at the plate. He know that if he hangs his breaking ball, it will probably end up in the seats or one of the outfield gaps. When you are dealing with a singles hitter, however, there is no need to be that fine. Even if he hits the ball well, he could easily hit into an out and is unlikely to manage anything more than a single, which is barely worse than a walk to begin with.

In 2013, Elmore’s only extended run in the big leagues so far, 49.9% of the pitches he saw were in the zone compared to the MLB average of 44.7%. That was the 15th highest rate among non-pitchers in baseball (although Elmore did pitch once, if you want to get technical). This season, it has been a similar deal as he has seen 51.0% of pitches in the zone compared to the 46.0% average. The scouting report on Elmore is to simply throw him strikes knowing that he will get himself out most of the time. However, he is doing his best to change that.

Elmore’s adjustment has to remind you just a little bit of Ben Zobrist. Zobrist never hit more than 5 home runs in a season in the minor leagues, and he hit to just a .200/.234/.275 line in his first 303 major league plate appearances before breaking out after shifting his approach to tap into his power. However, Zobrist is 6’3″, 210 while Jake Elmore is 5’9″, 185. Zobrist’s minor league numbers were better aside from the similar lack of power. Finally, we still need to see that Elmore’s improvement is real. The odds a million to one that Elmore turns into another Zobrist.

On the other hand, it isn’t as if Elmore needs to break out to that extent. If he turns into a super-utility player that bats towards the bottom of the order or just a useful reserve, the Rays could use a player like that as well. Maybe all Elmore has done is give himself a slightly better chance of leaving his status as a Quad-A player in the dust and carving out a decent major league career. Whatever the case truly is, though, we can say that the Tampa Bay Rays’ Jake Elmore is better than Elmore’s previous iterations and may just have what it takes to establish himself in the majors.

Next: Tampa Bay Rays MiLB Recap: Taylor Guerrieri Perfect in 3 IP

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