The story of the 2013 Dodgers won't be written without Yasiel Puig, who in two days has captured the hearts of Los Angeles. But Puig isn't the only player to come up from the minors and breathe life into the Dodgers this season. Scott Van Slyke came into this season with a purpose, and it's paying off big time for the Dodgers.
Van Slyke has played in just 18 games for the Dodgers, including 13 starts, but he's already second on the team with five home runs. Van Slyke is hitting .250/.304/.635, providing much needed power to a team that has been mostly on-base percentage heavy (.325 as a team, fourth in the National League) yet light on runs scored (3.61 per game, 13th in the NL).
"I shortened up a little bit, but being more aggressive with strikes, being more conscious of swinging at strikes you'll take a lot more pitches that are balls," Van Slyke said. "Even last year in the minor leagues (the high fastball) wasn't a pitch I swinging at, but when I came here I was trying so hard to get hits I was swinging at anything I saw."
The high fastball was his downfall in 2012 in a pair of major league stints with the Dodgers. In limited duty he hit just .167 (9-for-54) with two home runs. He had his moments early, like an RBI single in his first major league at-bat and a pinch-hit three-run home run to beat the Cardinals. But a 6-for-45 (.133) slump after that got him sent down for good. Van Slyke said his plate discipline has improved and helped him in 2013 wait for his pitch and do something with it, which has improved his confidence as well.
"That's a big part of being able to drive the ball. Getting hits, and just swinging at strikes," Van Slyke said. "It's just about having confidence and believing in your abilities. Just looking around the league and seeing guys I played with having success up here."
But the new and improved Van Slyke didn't come without a wake-up call. He was passed over for a September call-up even though he was on the 40-man roster. Then, when the Dodgers acquired Skip Schumaker in a trade with the Cardinals in December, they designated Van Slyke for assignment.
Van Slyke was placed on waivers, and all 29 other major league teams had a chance to add him to their 40-man roster for free. Everyone passed, and he was outrighted to Triple-A.
"It definitely was a kick in my butt. Coming up here I only had like 50 at-bats, I thought that I still had a chance to come back in spring and show them what I had," Van Slyke said. "It definitely made me realize how quickly things can turn around in this game, that you have to be on your A game. You always need to have good at-bats."
Last year Van Slyke was 249 pounds, and this year he's down to 220, and it shows. He embodied the cliche, coming into spring training in the literal best shape of his life.
"Honestly it was some feedback I got from some guys like Josh Bard, guys I played with last year. They saw some things in me they knew I could get better at, and obviously being in better shape helped that," Van Slyke said. "They got me to come into spring training in better shape. Obviously I needed to make the decision myself.
"I remember running around in the outfield at 220 pounds when I was 22, and it felt good being able to move like that. I kind of wanted to get back to that."
Van Slyke began the season in Albuquerque, but he wasn't roaming the outfield. He manned first base for the Isotopes and began the season on fire. He hit .397/.503/.733 with 10 doubles, nine home runs, 32 runs scored and 30 RBI in 34 games in Triple-A before his call-up on May 10.
He has been able to continue crushing the ball with the Dodgers, including a home run in Monday's 2-1 win over the Padres.
"I'm just trying to have good at-bats and hit the ball hard," Van Slyke said.
So far, it's working.