SEATTLE – Not even three weeks into his career, Josh Jung has already gone through his first slump and his first adjustment.
And he came out the other end a cleanup hitter.
On Wednesday, a day after he hit a pair of homers and drove in all five of the Rangers’ runs in a shutout win over Seattle, Jung moved to the No. 4 spot in the lineup. It was just his 18th game as a major leaguer. Now, let’s not get carried away and chalk this up to Jungmania; he moved up because Corey Seager was out with a badly bruised forearm after being hit by a pitch Tuesday. Jung will almost certainly slide back to fifth when Seager returns in a day or two.
It still speaks to what the Rangers think of Jung as a hitter.
“He’s got a level of maturity that’s very impressive,” manager Tony Beasley said before Wednesday’s game in which Jung’s first-inning single drove in the Rangers’ only run in a 3-1 loss. “He seems like a high baseball IQ guy, player. He has a feel for his swing patterns, his swing mechanics and how his body works.”
Which is easy to say, and honestly something managers say about most high-profile rookies, but in Jung’s case, he’s already demonstrated the ability to make quick changes due to his understanding of his swing mechanics.
When he got to the majors on Sept. 9, Jung, who calls himself an “on go” hitter for his aggressiveness, bordered on anxiousness. It led to too many swings, particular on pitches below the zone. Strikeouts piled up at an almost alarming rate. Walks were non-existent. It quickly spun into a hitless streak that reached 20 at-bats over the weekend.
Jung started to think there was an issue with his mechanics and sought a fix. But after talking with offensive coordinator Donnie Ecker, it became apparent, the problem didn’t so much start with his mechanics as it did with his vision. He simply needed to look up a little more. His hitting “lane” is at the top of the zone. Trying to hit balls where pitchers pitched them led to him losing the lane and also breaking his upright posture at the plate to try and jump at pitches a little.
“When I first got here, I was trying to hit everything,” Jung said. “I got in a trap of doing that at Triple-A. I was looking internally at mechanics, thinking they were off. But it was my vision. Trying to hit everything drew my eyes lower. It led to me breaking posture. And once you do that, you can’t get to balls up.”
Said Ecker: “He is going through a natural evolution that all hitters go through when they get to the big leagues. I think what he’s learning right now is how to take something away from the opponent and being comfortable paying taxes.”
The “taxes” being a willingness to let strikes at the bottom of the zone – the spot where Jung doesn’t do a lot of damage – get by. Pitchers aren’t landing a bunch of breaking balls in the zone against him. If he was willing to let an occasional strike down there go by, he was more liable to get himself into favorable hitting counts, might take a few walks and might eventually force pitchers to throw balls up in the zone.
That’s exactly what happened Tuesday against reigning AL Cy Young winner Robbie Ray. The Rangers went into the game trying to lay off Ray’s slider below the zone. Leadoff hitter Marcus Semien, teammates with Ray in Toronto in 2021, had spoken about Ray’s tendencies in the pre-series hitters’ meeting and urged teammates to set their sights higher. It dovetailed with what Jung had been trying to do over the last couple of days.
And Jung executed.
In the second inning, Jung laid off a pair of sinkers below the zone, then got an elevated sinker on a full-count that he drove into the left field seats.
In the sixth, he laid off a pair of low sliders, then was able to reach a full count sinker that was up and away for a run-scoring single.
In the eighth, after Ray had departed, he made Seattle pay for intentionally walking Adolis García to face him in the eighth, launching a three-run homer to center off Diego Castillo on a hanging slider up.
When the game was over, he’d become the first Ranger to drive in at least five runs, while accounting for all of the team’s runs in a win.
On Wednesday, in his first at-bat as the No. 4 hitter, he continued. With two outs and Nathaniel Lowe on second, Jung got a first-pitch hanging slider from young Mariners’ star George Kirby. He drove it right back through the middle for a run-scoring single. After an 0-for-20, Jung had responded with six hits in nine at-bats.
He’s setting his sights high. Literally.
And as long as he does that, there is no limit on the damage he can do.
On Twitter: @Evan_P_Grant