Tony Kemp on Hitting (the Astros Way)

Tony Kemp had barely started his professional career when we ran a Q&A with him in July 2013. Just a month earlier, the 5-foot-6 second baseman had been drafted in the fifth round out of Vanderbilt University. With his position, physical stature, and bat-to-ball skills in mind, the piece was titled Tony Kemp, the Astros Next Altuve.

Four years later, he is well established at the minor-league level and essentially blocked in Houston. Kemp has slashed .309/.368/.423 in 1,164 Triple-A plate appearances, but when your comp is collecting batting titles, cups of coffee are about all you can ask for. Altuve’s understudy has logged just 175 plate appearances over parts of two big-league seasons.

A more extended opportunity seems inevitable. Whether it comes with the Astros or elsewhere, Kemp will have more than his raw ability to thank. The 25-year-old infielder has learned a lot since joining the organization, most notably how to consistently square up baseballs. In short, he’s learned how to hit the Astros way.


Tony Kemp on evolving as a hitter: “Man, a lot has changed for me [since entering pro ball]. How my swing has kind of come to fruition, how I’ve adjusted to each level and what needed to happen — control the strike zone, get my strikeout rate down and my on-base percentage up, hit for a little more power… being able to do those things over the last four years has been something special.

“One thing that’s changed is where I have my hands. They were kind of up and down — they were vertical — and I wanted more ability to manipulate the barrel. By setting my hands at more of an angle — I also raised them a little — as the bat comes through the zone… it’s there longer. It’s not in and out of the zone. As I rotate toward the ball, I have more time and can manipulate the barrel better.

“I changed that in spring training. You’re always kind of skeptical about trying something new, but [minor-league hitting coordinator] Jeff Albert is a guy with a really good track record and he’s shown us a lot of good things. He would toss the ball from the side, and I would have a heavy bat or a PVC pipe, and I would try to meet the ball in the zone. I would do that over and over again. What that does is create muscle memory and help you create plane through the zone for your swing path.

“I like to get in slot and stay in slot. Once I’m in slot… many guys will kind of have the knob pointing toward the catcher’s mask. What that does… all the good hitters do that. If you look at video of Paul Goldschmidt, J.D. Martinez, Nolan Arenado, they do this technique.

“Coming into this year, I think I had 15 or 16 total home runs. This year I hit 10, which was a huge accomplishment. One of the things the Astros wanted me to do was hit for more power. Not that I wanted to actually try to hit the ball over the fence, but creating this angle, and creating this swing path, enabled me to have a better trajectory on the ball, a better launch angle.

“Launch angle is a big thing. Colin Moran is a good example. We got called up to the big leagues a day apart — this was last year — and he kind of struggled. After a month, he said to me, ‘My swing doesn’t play in the big leagues right now.’ He kind of figured out… he went to Jeff Albert and said, ‘I need to switch something.’ By him staying in slot, and on plane, he’s able to just rotate through the zone. If you look at his numbers this year (a .916 OPS in Triple-A), you’ll see he did tremendously well.

“The things they’re teaching here in the organization go beyond what guys in a lot of other organizations are teaching. The Astros have a really good grasp of how to approach hitting. From the Dominican Summer League all the way up to Triple-A and to Houston, the numbers speak for themselves. I think it’s about hitting philosophy and the swing.

“I had no idea I was going to lead Triple-A in hits this year. I feel that, once you’ve done that, you’re ready to prove that you can do the job against big-league pitching. It’s the same thing up there: the guy has to throw the pitch over the plate. The battle isn’t against the name on the back of the jersey, it’s against the baseball that’s coming into the zone. Confidence is everything in this game, and being able to walk up to the plate feeling you have the advantage is huge. What they’re teaching us here helps give you that feeling.”

David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from December 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.

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