Brewers move ahead with their Rickie Weeks Project
Heading that task force are Dale Sveum, project foreman for offense, and Willie Randolph, project foreman for defense.
Even during a spring training elongated by an additional week, tackling major issues with a player’s swing and fielding would seem to border on mental and physical overload. But Sveum and Randolph are determined to make Weeks into a better major league player, and have a willing pupil in the dedicated second baseman.
“They’re very straightforward,” said Weeks, 26. “That’s what I want. Just tell me.”
Sveum, in his new role as hitting coach, and Randolph, who doubles as bench coach and infield instructor, have been doing exactly that.
Not coincidentally, both coaches are tackling Weeks’ major foible: his tendency to rush things. At the plate, he often gets his bat in and out of the strike zone too fast to assure consistent contact. In the field, he speeds things up to the point of making senseless errors, with both glove and his arm.
Brewer fans who have suffered through Weeks’ inconsistencies know his story by now. Rushed to the big leagues in 2005 after only 215 games in the minors, he was not ready to perform offensively and defensively as one might expect from a player taken second overall out of college in the ’03 draft.
What ensued was on-the-job training at the major-league level, a daunting task for even the most talented of players. Weeks no longer is the disaster in the field he was in making 21 errors in 96 games in ‘05 and 22 in 95 games in ’06, but he still makes folks cringe at times with game-changing mistakes.
Randolph, a six-time all-star during a distinguished 18-year career as a major-league second baseman, sees what Weeks does wrong and addresses each mistake. But the quiet-talking coach also realizes that a young player can drown in instruction if too much is poured on at once.
“We want to take it slow,” said Randolph. “I’ve seen some progress. We’re starting to get a feel for each other. We have plenty of time in spring training to work on what we’ve got in mind.
“We’re trying to get him to slow things down, smooth things out, so the rhythm of the position becomes second-nature to him. He’s very athletic, very energetic. Sometimes at that position there’s a clock that ticks. I think his clock is a little ramped up. But he’s working his butt off and has responded very well.”
Randolph does not pounce on Weeks immediately if he makes an error during a game. On Sunday, he allowed a sharp grounder by Kansas City’s David DeJesus to get by him with two on and no outs, contributing to a seven-run outburst against Yovani Gallardo.
Later in the game, after the smoke had cleared, Randolph sat next to Weeks in the dugout for a calm chat.
“I believe in addressing things that happen during the course of the game at the right time,” said Randolph. “I want him to explain what he felt, and I tell him what I saw. Then we come to a conclusion.
“Rickie knew right away what he did. He got a little flat-footed and reached with two hands instead of one. The response I got from him was right. He knew he messed up and wasn’t happy about it.
“He’s a good student. He’s not one to make excuses. He knows I’m going to be somewhat critical of things but at the same time we’ve got enough time to get to know each other. I don’t want to overwhelm him.”
So, is Weeks going to make as a second baseman in the big leagues?
“I can’t answer that right now,” said Randolph. “I think he has a chance because he’s a good athlete. But will it be now or next year? Sometimes it takes it a while to click for an infielder.
“I hope that it clicks quick because, in my mind, he plays a big part in our success this year up the middle. From his standpoint, I don’t think we can expect miracles overnight. He’s playing a position at a young age, on the job, in the big leagues.
“You have to be careful that you don’t expect way too much. It’s up to him to grasp the concept of what it takes to play the middle infield and I’m hoping and praying that it happens sooner than later.”
Sveum, blunt as always, has put several players up on the rack for overhauls of varying scopes this spring. The tune-up list with Weeks seems alarmingly high for a player with 1,615 major-league at-bats under his belt but Sveum is determined to extract the offensive weapons from Weeks that made him a dynamo in the college ranks and minors.
Sveum’s checklist includes getting Weeks to soften the Gary Sheffield-like “waggle” with the bat as he awaits a pitch, straightening up in the box, lowering his hands a bit, shifting his weight better from back to front and creating more of an arc in his swing.
Other than that, let’s keep everything else the same.
“It’s little baby steps that might not show but he’s had, for him, some major changes that he’s working on,” said Sveum. “Sometimes, it takes a little longer. It sounds like a lot but it’s really little things.”
As for that “waggle,” Sveum said, “He’s understanding that (the bat) has to come to a stop at the right time. He’s been better about it. He has slowed it down some. He’s a little more relaxed now.”
Because Weeks was so quick in and out of the hitting zone with his bat, often with too steep of a downward angle, he had to strike the ball perfectly to make solid contact. By enacting Sveum’s suggestions, Weeks gives himself less room for error.
“When you see how good you can at times be off-balance, imagine how good you can be when you’re balanced,” said Sveum. “When you get fooled, if your bat stays in the strike zone longer, you can still hit the ball.
“When your mechanics are right, you can get five to eight more home runs a year in some of these (smaller) ballparks, just by staying over the ball. It gives you a chance even when you’re fooled.”
While one might worry that Weeks has way too many things to think about as a 92-mph fastball hurtles toward the plate, he has been receptive to the changes. Results have been slow coming—Weeks is batting .167 (3 for 18) in exhibition play—but this goes far beyond checking the air pressure in his tires.
After batting .235 in 2007 and .234 last season, no matter how well he did in other statistical areas, Weeks realizes it’s time to make good on his vast potential.
“I’m just trying to get myself right,” he said. “After the last two years, I’m trying to find my swing. I feel pretty good about it, seeing the ball pretty good, so the sky’s the limit.”
So, the Rickie Weeks Project forges ahead. What the final product will look like is anyone’s guess. But Weeks realizes that Randolph and Sveum have his best interests in mind.
“They’re both good communicators,” said Weeks. “If they weren’t, they wouldn’t be here. There are certain things we’re trying to work on and perfect those so I can get better.
“It’s up to you what you do about it.”