Whether it has been flipping for reds or hitting a baseball, Peninsula Oilers shortstop Alex Staehely has proven to be a quick study this summer.
Since it’s July on the Kenai Peninsula, we’ll start with the fish story.
Staehely is being hosted by Oilers radio announcer Bob Bird and his wife, Rosemary. Bird took Staehely trout fishing earlier this summer and the two didn’t catch anything.
Earlier this week, with the reds storming the Kenai River, Staehely asked Bird for some advice on flipping for sockeye.
“I told him, ‘You’re probably in over your head,’” Bird said.
Since then, Bird said Staehely has limited out twice on reds.
The 6-foot, 185-pounder from Creighton has been similarly dangerous with a bat in his hands. Through Wednesday, Staehely led the Oilers with a .328 average in league play and had played in all 31 games for the team. He leads the team in runs, hits and doubles.
Not bad for a player who has had the following averages at Creighton: .207 as a junior, .285 as a sophomore and .240 as a freshman. Staehely played over 50 games in each of those seasons.
“I wouldn’t say it has surprised me,” Staehely said of his hitting prowess in Alaska. “For stretches, especially my freshman and sophomore year, I hit .300 or .350 for a certain period of time.”
Oilers assistant Kyle Richardson is the one responsible for bringing Staehely to the Oilers. In 2011, relievers Mark Winkelman and Reese McGraw of Creighton — both also hosted by the Birds — played a big role in the Oilers’ Alaska Baseball League title and runner-up finish in the National Baseball Congress World Series.
Richardson called Creighton looking for another relief pitcher and instead got Staehely. He was told Staehely is a good second baseman and could play some shortstop.
And then there was the hitting. Richardson wasn’t worried for two reasons — Staehely had led Creighton in doubles as a sophomore, and Staehely would work in Alaska under John Stevens, whom Richardson considers one of the best hitting instructors he’s seen in his short time in the game.
“If the guy had done it before, you know he can do it again,” Richardson said of Staehely. “He had led his team in doubles. The fact is he can hit.”
On the first day of practice, the Oilers were worried that they didn’t have a full-time shortstop. Staehely, Josh Miller and Jake Alvarez were all candidates — for a day, at least.
“From the first day of fielding ground balls, he took that job and ran with it,” said Richardson of Staehely, who has started all but two games at short and made just three errors.
Staehely wasn’t the only one to take something and run with it on that first day of grounders. Richardson noted the hunched over, hopping way Staehely fields a ground ball. The assistant nicknamed Staehely “Quasimodo” after the character in the “Hunchback of Notre Dame,” and assistant Dave Stevens has been peppering Staehely with the name ever since.
The hitting also came along quickly.
When Staehely flew to Anchorage, Rosemary Bird was in town and decided to stop in to visit with Staehely while he transferred flights to Kenai.
The early scouting report: “I need to work on my hitting.”
The Oilers’ first exhibition game bore that out, as Staehely went 0 for 5.
After that, some swing adjustments that John Stevens made for Staehely set in and he has been, as Bob Bird might say, “hotter than a pistol” ever since.
Stevens has been teaching hitting for 25 years. He has a master’s in biomechanics. When he saw Staehely’s athletic ability firsthand, he figured that Staehely wouldn’t be tussling with the Mendoza Line in Alaska.
“I can teach a really good athlete how to hit in a week and a half, if they’re willing to listen,” Stevens said.
Stevens said Staehely already had a decent swing when he arrived in Kenai.
“With him, it had more to do with getting good pitches to hit, taking advantage of those times when he does get a good pitch to hit, and trusting himself driving the ball,” Stevens said.
The biggest adjustment Stevens made was to have Staehely use his body more and his hands less in the swing.
“Alex showed up really trying to use his hands and get the club head out, and you do that using your forearms and arm muscles,” Stevens said.
The forearms should play a limited role in the swing. Stevens said tests on elite hitters show the back forearm, or top hand, does not contract until right before contact.
So where do elite hitters get the power from?
“The torso and the legs create the force,” Stevens said. “The hands and arms are along for the ride, and contract when they are supposed to.”
Staehely needed to relax at the plate.
“When I’m superanxious I swing at a pitch I’m not capable of hitting,” Staehely said. “When I’m relaxed at the plate I let the pitch come to me. When I’m trying to do too much is when I hit .207.”
Relaxing has another benefit. Stevens said studies have shown that in activities like kicking and throwing where a maximum amount of velocity and accuracy is desired, the muscles work best when the athletes give 85 to 90 percent effort.
So Stevens told Staehely to give 80 percent.
“I know if I say 90 they’ll give 100 and it won’t be as good,” Stevens said. “There’s a big difference between 80 and 100, but not 90 and 100.”
If all this sounds a little complex to process and bring to the field right away, you don’t know Staehely. He was a first-team Missouri Valley Conference Scholar-Athlete honoree in 2011, and was honorable mention this year. He has a 3.63 GPA in accounting and finance.
Bob Bird said he and Staehely battled it out in a two-hour chess game. Bird added Staehely has a knowledge of swing and classical music, and can play the saxophone and piano.
“He’s quite the intellectual,” Bird said.
Stevens said that intellect carries over into hitting.
“He’s smart,” Stevens said. “He can comprehend a lot very quickly.”
And that’s why Stevens said Staehely is just scratching the surface as a hitter.
“Even with the production we have gotten out of him, he can still be a whole lot better,” Stevens said. “When he fixes certain things in his swing, he’s going to be amazing.”
One area where Stevens would like to see Staehely improve is using the whole field. He said Staehely has been pulling the ball the whole time in Alaska, and added the only hitter in baseball history that has hit for high average while always pulling the ball is Ted Williams.
A common misconception is that players like Staehely that pull the ball foul often have high bat speed.
“If you’ve pulled the ball foul, somewhere along the line you’ve made a mistake — either timing, getting the club head in front of your hands, or you’ve swung at a bad pitch,” Stevens said.
The coach said that Staehely actually has average bat speed, but that means very little. He points out Albert Pujols has below-average bat speed in the major leagues, and has been one of the best hitters over the last 10 years.
“It’s not about how much bat speed you have,” Stevens said. “It’s about the ability to take a good approach and a good swing.”
Staehely said he wants to take what he has learned from Stevens and apply it at Creighton.
“He has a huge amount of knowledge,” Staehely said of Stevens. “I’ve learned a lot working with him in a short time this summer, and you can see that in the results.
“He’s one of the best hitting instructors around.”
All the biomechanics aside, Stevens said the one thing he hopes Staehely gained this summer is confidence. He should now know he’s not a .207 hitter. He possesses the tools to evaluate each at-bat and not let bad at-bats snowball into an avalanche of bad habits.
“The biggest thing he has learned is that he can hit, not that he learned how to hit, but that he learned he had that ability,” Stevens said. “There’s no reason for him to go back to Creighton and be anything else other than a very good hitting shortstop, or a very good hitting second baseman.”