“He was a switch-hitter down there [in the GCL] last year,” said manager Gaylen Pitts, “but he didn’t hit very well. So they put him right-handed and he swung the bat good, and he had a real good swing -- real good swing.”
Based on his offensive output last year, many considered Wilmer Pino a slick glove, but did not think he would hit enough to make the Major Leagues. Now that he has abandoned trying to bat left-handed and returned to his natural side, all bets are off.
“I used to bat both-handed, but I didn’t feel as comfortable batting left-handed as I do batting right-handed,” said Pino through interpreter Polo Burgos. “I asked the Yankees if I could bat righty all the time and they said that they’d think about it. And then they came back and said if I was sure that’s what I wanted to do, then that was okay.”
Pino’s discomfort batting left-handed could have easily contributed to his poor .223 average, with 21 strikeouts, last season. The GCL had so few left-handed pitchers in 2005 that Joel Perez led the GCL Yankees with just 12 at-bats against southpaws. The switch-hitting Pino hit from his weaker side for the majority of his at-bats and his numbers reflected that. Switching to his natural right-handed swing has shown positive results in Staten Island, where Pino was batting .303 after Tuesday’s game.
“I didn’t see him last year when he was a switch hitter,” Pitts said. “But I saw his stats and his stats weren’t very good, so evidently he just didn’t hit very well and he got frustrated with it. So they turned him around to his strong side and he’s done pretty well. If he stays within himself and doesn’t swing at a lot of bad balls, he works the count and he can handle the fastball.”
Taking pitches and working into a fastball count, though, is something Pino must learn. Through the first seven games of the season, Pino has drawn no walks and, because of a sacrifice fly, has a lower on-base percentage than batting average. Pitts admits his young second baseman can get overly aggressive.
“Sometimes, but that’s true of any young Latin player though,” said Pitts. “De La Rossa, all the Latins I’ve seen, they’re going to be over-aggressive. They’re going up there ready to swing. And sometimes they don’t swing at good pitches. I had a bunch of them down in Spring Training and that was the problem, sometimes not making contact because they were swinging at bad balls because they’re overly aggressive.”
The hard-working Pino is aware of that flaw in his game and is determined to correct it.
“I’m working on that,” Pino said. “I know that I’ve been too aggressive at the plate, but that’s my game. But I’m trying to fix that now and trying to get more walks and be more patient at the plate. So I think it’ll be okay in a few months."
“I try to even out my game in all three parts,” continued Pino, “whether it’s running the bases, fielding or hitting. And I focus on whatever I’m doing at the time. If I’m batting, it’s all about batting. If I’m on the field, then it’s all about fielding. If I’m on the bases running, then it’s all running.”
If batting exclusively right-handed helps Pino develop his hitting, those other two parts of his game are strong enough to make him a very exciting prospect. Pino showcased one of those talents on Saturday when he stole second and then third, forcing a throwing error that allowed him to score.
“That was the only run we got over there,” said Pitts. “He can steal a base. Sometimes he has to pick a better time when he’s running [amd] pick a better pitch. But he can definitely read a pitcher. Like the other night [on Sunday], he got picked off first because the guy had a pretty good move and he had too big a lead. And when a guy’s quick to home and has got a good move, you gotta shorten your lead."
“He’s learning and that’s how he learns, though,” Pitts continued. “You can’t ever learn how to steal a base unless you get picked off. The guy is thinking aggressively: you’re not going to be safe there [at first], I’d better get safe there [at second] or get thrown out over there.”
Pino is already a good base stealer because of his speed, but he’s still fine-tuning the art.
“I’m working on selecting better pitches so I can go,” Pino said. “I know that I’ve been caught a few times, but I’ve got to pick my time and try to guess when the right pitch for me to go is. I’m always looking to go to the next bag anyway, so I’ve got to go out there a little more and think about those things.”
The strongest aspect of Pino’s game, though, is his glove.
“He can play second base,” Pitts said. “He does a good job. He turns the double play good. He’s got good hands, good arm.”
“I’m able to reach out to a lot of balls,” Pino said, explaining why he has had such success in the field. “I have to reach to be a fielder, to get to a lot of balls, and that’s the best part about my game.”
Pino improved the weaker areas of his game enough to put together an impressive Spring Training. The hard work paid off as he earned the right to play in Staten Island this year, when he might have been ticketed to return to the GCL.
“I saw him all Extended Spring Training,” Pitts said. “That’s the whole reason he’s here, because I like him."
There’s a lot to like about Pino after the changes he has made. However, he insists that his improvements this spring were not because of anything out of the ordinary.
“That’s my job,” he said. “That’s what I’m here to do. I just work hard, as hard as I can. I work hard everyday.”
As long as Pino maintains that work ethic, he’ll be headed in the right direction.
* Special thanks to Polo Burgos for his help translating.