Jeff Natale is an unheralded infielder in the Boston Red Sox organization who is nothing short of a machine when it comes to getting on base.
Posting an impressive career .436 OBP, Jeff’s specialty is doing whatever it takes to get on base. This is in large part due to his excellent plate discipline, methodical approach at the plate and fantastic bat. With all these tools it’s no wonder that he has won numerous awards including the 2006 Red Sox Minor League Offensive Player of the Year.
With most of the prospect attention in the Red Sox organization recently going towards Jacoby Ellsbury, Clay Buchholz, Justin Masterson and Lars Anderson over the past couple of seasons, Natale has quietly put together an impressive pro career and is ready to take the next step.
Here’s a look at Jeff Natale’s career numbers:
+------+-----+----------+-----+-----------+----+-----+-----+----+ | YEAR | AGE | TEAM | AB | AVG/OBP | HR | RBI | R | 2B | +------+-----+----------+-----+-----------+----+-----+-----+----+ | 2005 | 22 | LOW (A-) | 41 | .488/.522 | 0 | 9 | 9 | 5 | | | | GRV (A) | 160 | .338/.463 | 2 | 35 | 35 | 19 | | 2006 | 23 | GRV (A) | 175 | .343/.487 | 10 | 41 | 38 | 10 | | | | WIL (A+) | 273 | .278/.419 | 7 | 46 | 46 | 13 | | 2007 | 24 | PRT (AA) | 404 | .270/.417 | 5 | 64 | 66 | 28 | | 2008 | 25 | RSX (RK) | 6 | .167/.333 | 0 | 1 | 2 | 0 | | | | LOW (A-) | 39 | .333/.449 | 1 | 6 | 11 | 6 | | | | PRT (AA) | 29 | .241/.395 | 1 | 4 | 4 | 2 | | | | PAW (AAA)| 82 | .280/.410 | 3 | 11 | 12 | 2 | +------+-----+----------+-----+-----------+----+-----+-----+----+ | 4 Seasons | 358 | .300/.436 | 29 | 217 | 223 | 85 | +------+-----+----------+-----+-----------+----+-----+-----+----+
I had a chance to talk with Jeff over the New Year where we discussed everything from his disciplined approach at the plate to the most thrilling moment of his career.
Matthew Whipps: I have to start out by asking, were you a pretty big Red Sox fan growing up in Connecticut?
Jeff Natale: I wasn’t too much of a Red Sox fan growing up, but that automatically leads people to believe that I was a Yankee fan which isn’t true either. Honestly growing up I was just a big baseball fan. I love the Red Sox/Yankee rivalry but I wasn’t a Yankee or Red Sox fan but more of a baseball fan.
Whipps: So growing up, who were some of your biggest influences in your life both on and off the field?
Natale: On the field, It was Derek Jeter and Nomar (Garciaparra). Watching these guys play growing up was awesome. Every time either of these guys stepped on the field they played (and still play) full tilt, hard every on every play no matter what the situation. Off the field it had to be my dad. He would spend countless hours playing with me, hanging out with me, and being a great dad.
Whipps: As someone who has won quite a few offensive awards, what type of hitter would you describe yourself as?
Natale: I would consider myself a very patient hitter, with a little bit of power to the gaps. I get on base a lot, which some people consider luck and other people consider it to be a good eye. I take a ton of pitches and actually enjoy the challenge of hitting with 2 strikes. Ever since I can remember I absolutely hated to strike out, something that has carried with me up till pro ball today.
Whipps: Anyone who even briefly looks at your career numbers can see that year in and year out you are constantly among the minor league leaders in on base percentage. With this being such an important quality to have as a hitter (getting on base), what do you attribute to your success?
Natale: I would most definitely attribute this to my dad. When I was growing up, even as young as Little League, he would always stress to me “get a good pitch to hit.” Its hard enough to hit when you are just swinging at strikes, so if your swinging at pitches that aren’t strikes, you’re in deep trouble. After reading Ted Williams’ “The Science of Hitting” in high school, it became more and more apparent to me that getting a good pitch to hit was the most important part of hitting.
Whipps: Throughout your career you’ve always seemed to post very low strikeout totals. Do you have a different approach that you take at the plate to adjust for two strikes?
Natale: I think the reason why I don’t strike out too often is because I don’t take a different approach to the plate with 2 strikes. A lot of times when people strike out they chase pitches out of the zone because a lot of people are taught to “expand the zone” with 2 strikes or “you need to protect the plate” with 2 strikes. I hate these philosophies because I feel with 2 strikes, you should take a similar approach as when you have less than 2 strikes (obviously a little different than the approach you take 2-0 or 3-0 or 3-1) but definitely not expanding the zone so that you’ll swing at a pitch out of the strike zone.
Whipps: I was very surprised to see that your numbers were even better on the road last season than at home. This is quite a feat and since we normally don’t see this from hitters, do you have any explanation for it?
Natale: I had a rough time hitting at home last year. I felt very comfortable at the plate on the road and I would always get home and feel a little bit “off” for whatever reason. I don’t know if there’s any good explanation for it.
Whipps: Getting back to the offensive awards you’ve received, how big of a thrill was it to be named the 2006 Red Sox Minor League Offensive Player of the Year?
Natale: That was the biggest thrill of my baseball career so far. I was out to dinner with my parents when Mike Hazen called me to tell me that I had been selected for the award and I couldn’t have been more thrilled. It was a once in a life-time type of award and I’m extremely proud to have been given it.
Whipps: To all those who will never be able to experience it, can you take us to the day where you were honored with that award and introduced in front of a sellout crowd at Fenway?
Natale: I can even really explain the feeling of stepping onto the field with thousands of fans cheering for you. The adrenalin was pumping, I was nervous but really excited, I was thinking “please don’t trip, please don’t do anything dumb” pretty much the entire time.
Whipps: Last April you suffered a pretty bad injury that put you on the sidelines for a couple of months. While your numbers didn’t seem to suffer the rest of the season, do you have any lasting effects as a result?
Natale: The arm is doing great. I had a great group of trainers down in Ft Myers that were working with me every single day from the surgery to the day I was back on the field at full strength. I wasn’t put on the field a minute before I was 100% ready to go, which was frustrating at times, but overall it was the right decision.
Whipps: What can we expect from Jeff Natale as we head into the 2009 season?
Natale: Right now I’m in the best physical shape of my life. I’ve worked really hard this off-season on my arm strength, my overall physical strength, as well as my core strength. Hopefully this hard work will translate into having a really good spring training and then starting out the season on the right foot.
I just wanted to thank Jeff again for taking time out to speak with me here on “The Diamond Cutter.” Jeff was incredibly nice and receptive to the interview which is always great to see from players. Good luck to you Jeff and your future with the Red Sox!