Jose Iglesias has always been Dustin Pedroia’s mentee, from the time the Cuban refugee reported to Red Sox spring training in 2010 and Pedroia had him to his spring training house for dinner two or three times a week.
This past winter, when Iglesias flew to Arizona to train with Pedroia and Andre Ethier, Pedroia noticed a change in the 23-year- old infielder’s approach.
“Iggy’s changed his approach,” Pedoria called back to report. “He’s gotten out of that wide stance and crouch, he’s more upright, he can see the ball much better, freed his hands and is hitting the ball completely differently. I’m telling you, he’s hitting some bombs. He’s so athletic, so deceptively strong, you’re going to see a completely different player.”
It seemingly showed in spring training, although few noticed
He batted .294, but it was, after all, spring training. He got a chance to open the season because of Stephen Drew’s post-concussive symptoms, and while he hit .450/.476/.550 in 20 at-bats, there were infield hits and bunts and when Drew returned, he went back to Pawtucket and fell back into his analytical abyss.
In 33 games at Pawtucket, he batted .202 with an on base percentage of .262, that on the heels of a 25 game, 77 at-bat 2012 major league experience in which he hit .118 with a .200 OBP with 16 strikeouts and 13 total bases. Worse, there were many in the organization that felt Iglesias was acting "entitled" in his apprentice stint in Triple-A, even getting benched by manager Gary DiSarcina for three games. But with Drew dealing with a back injury and Will Middlebrooks similarly struggling to learn pitch recognition—with a .228 on base percentage from Aug. 1, 2012 through now—Iglesias was asked to work at third and second in Pawtucket and recalled to fill a utility role.
And, ZIPS be damned, here he is on June 29, 137 plate appearances into the season, and Iglesias is playing third, short and second, batting .419 with a .467 OBP, .548 slugging, 1.106 OPS, 172 OPS+ and a 2.3 WAR, which is bettered by one shortstop in the American League, J.J. Hardy at 2.4.
Is Iggy Tulo?
Now, is Jose Iglesias the second coming of Troy Tulowitski?
Of course not.
The BABIP and the infield hits will level off, but no past data can absolutely predict where the leveling process will take him. To start with, because of his absurdly quick feet and first step quickness, Iglesias gets out of the box like Larry Lintz.
“Jose’s not that fast, per se,” says one Red Sox official. “For instance, if he were to run the 60, his time would be average, at best. Not that a 60 yard dash time in baseball is relevant.”
Pitcher Andrew Miller ran a 6.4 60 in college, which presumably makes him really good at pitchers’ fundamental practices in spring training. Iglesias’ first step quickness and acceleration allows him to beat out bunts and infield hits like a burner.
What a difference a year makes
But his change in approach is what makes the 23-year old Jose Iglesias so much better than the 22-year old Jose Iglesias.
Want a frame of reference?
Let’s start with Ozzie Smith and Omar Vizquel.
In Ozzie’s first four major league seasons, his OBP was .295, he got it to .330 at the age of 27, and to the HOF.
In Omar's first three seasons his OBP was .273, .295, .302, and he got to .340 at the age of 25. He finished with 2877 hits, and is a near-certainty for Cooperstown.
“If you have the extraordinary hand-eye coordination,” Vizquel said last year, “you can learn to hit.”
“Jose never had a set approach in the minor leagues,” says Victor Rodriguez, who shares hitting coach duties with Greg Colbrunn and had Iglesias in the minors and instructional league. “He was always trying to be someone else. He’d copy someone he’d seen. A-Rod. Or Pedey (Pedroia). He didn’t have his own approach. But he came this spring with one.”
“From the start of spring training, he had a plan and he tried to stick to it,” says Colbrunn. “There were times when he got away from it, but it wasn’t for lack of trying. He’d just never done this before. What is important is that all along, he had Pedroia and David Ortiz at his back. If he got away from his approach, they got on him and put him in his place.” Even this last week, when Iglesias took some “have fun” advice from Fenway icon Kevin Millar and hit several BP pitches into and over The Monster seats, Shane Victorino let him hear about it.
“What’s surprising is how strong Jose really is,” says Pedroia. “He’s put together more than many realize, and he’s got really good bat speed.”
“This last week he hit a ball over the right fielder’s head, a shot,” says Colbrunn. “I didn’t know he could do that. I’ll guess he didn’t know he could, either. So this is all part of a learning process.”
“What a lot of people also don’t realize is how intelligent Jose really is,” says Pedroia. “He’s smart. He gets ideas, and concepts. His English is almost perfect, and he’s great in conversations about the game.”
For example, this is Iglesias’ explanation for what the change in approach has done for him: “Before, when I was spread out and in a crouch, I didn’t see the ball coming out of the pitcher’s hands well. It was if when I started to swing, I had to come up and had no strength.
“Now, this upright approach uses my abilities. What are my strengths? Hand-eye coordination, and being upright allows me to use my hands, which I couldn’t do spread out. My core is really important, but when I was spread out, I was locked in and swinging with my arms. Maybe most important my feet are the most important part of my game. Down in my old approach, my feet were flat. Now they are an important part of my getting my swing started, getting my hips through and using my hands. If I keep my head still, I see the ball a lot better.”
Advised what Iglesias said—in an interview I did for NESN—Pedroia said, “if a hitting coach said that, you’d think he’s really smart. Which Iggy is.”
What will the future bring?
No one knows what the career of Jose Iglesias will be. We do know that he’s adjusted well to third, and to second, and that he may be an elite defender at short, enhanced by the fact that he diligently goes out for the intense infield practice master coach Brian Butterfield leads every day at 3:30 with Pedroia, Drew, Mike Napoli and Iglesias.
He also has regained that joy of playing that he had two years ago.
The Cuban Generation
“We have a lot of fun playing baseball in Cuba,” he says.
After a strikeout, for instance, they not only throw the ball around the infield, but they also throw it around the outfield. They flip bats. They laugh a lot. A year ago, trying to follow protocol while hitting .118, Iglesias was confused. When he went to work with Pedroia and ignored then-Blue Jay shortstop Yunel Escobar, the rival shortstop was insulted and before a game at Fenway Park wore an eyeblack patch under each eye that had a homophobic slur; it wasn’t directed at gays, it was directed at Iglesias.
But all that is past. Joe loves to talk about his days playing on the Cuban junior team with Yasiel Puig. He played in Havana with Leonys Martin of the Rangers. He played with Miguel Alfonso Gonzalez, the Cuban refugee pitcher working out for teams in Mexico and is expecting a deal upwards of $50M.
“This Cuban generation has created a lot of excitement,” says a general manager. “Once they’re 23, they’re not subject to the international signing cap.”
“It’s interesting to hear about Iglesias’ intelligence, because it seems be part of the culture of a lot of these Cuban players,” says Don Mattingly. “Puig is extremely intelligent. He inderstands and picks things up.” Bob Melvin can talk at length about the intelligence of Yoenis Cespedes, and his ability to adjust. Orlando (El Duque) Hernandez is wise and almost mystical.
Don't worry, be happy
This season, Iglesias got to 50 hits in 118 at-bats, the fastest any rookie reached 50 hits since rookie status was established in 1958.
“Iggy’s now beyond worrying about what he’s going to be,” says Butterfield, “and is disciplining himself to worry about every at-bat, every ground ball, every swing in the cage, every ball I hit him, every throw he makes to the second baseman. And he sure is fun.”
Which is what baseball is supposed to be.