Sometimes, you can tell how a baseball player has developed by the subtle change in sound that their bat makes when they make contact with the ball at the plate.
Early on in Luis García’s professional career in the Washington Nationals’ organization, he was more known for being a contact-first hitter.
When he made contact, he would slap his bat at the ball as he found holes in the infield with precision in his swings.
Now, the sound his bat makes is a resounding crack that turns heads in the stands and dugout.
Nationals fans are noticing it more and more as García has an extended chance to impress in the big leagues following the team’s sell-off at the trade deadline last month.
The truth is, the power surge has been happening all season for the young infielder.
At the time of his recall to the majors on July 29th, García was tied with outfielder Daniel Palka, who has a 27-home run major league season under his belt, for the Nationals’ Triple-A affiliate team-lead in home runs at 13, while the infielder’s .599 slugging percentage was well clear of his second-best slugging year of .406 in 2018 between Single-A and High-A.
“I’m very, very happy and excited that it has translated to this level,” García told reporters on Thursday, via the team’s interpreter, Octavio Martinez.
“I started in Triple-A, and I’m seeing the fruit of my labor of the hard work I put in, and I’m seeing it firsthand, so I’m very excited that it’s been going well for me up here.”
Following another double in Sunday’s series finale against the Atlanta Braves, in 60 major league at-bats this year, García has six extra-base hits, just two fewer than he managed all of last year in 134 at-bats during the shortened season due to the pandemic.
Even with an underwhelming .200 batting average and .250 on-base percentage in the majors so far in 2021, he’s still slugging .417, higher than he has in any year in the minors prior to this season.
The average and on-base numbers will correct themselves as he gets consistent playing time and the sample size increases, but the sudden emergence of power looks here to stay.
Part of the reason, García says, that he’s been able to tap into more power this year is being more selective at the plate than in years past.
He knows that, with his bat-to-ball skills, he can make some sort of contact with most pitches in the zone. Now, he’s trying to become more selective and look for pitches to drive.
The other reason is his work over the offseason to use his legs more in his swing.
“The big difference is... he’s really using his legs to hit,” Nationals manager Dave Martinez explained. “As you can see he stayed on a pretty good fastball against [Matt] Moore, and drove it the other way.
“When he’s starting to do that, he’s staying back, he’s getting ready early, and he’s using his lower half, so it’s good to see, he had some good at-bats today.”
With players in the minor leagues, their first battle is grinding to get to the big leagues, and García managed that in 2020. The second battle is being able to adjust to stay there.
So García put in more effort this offseason to improve his power stroke and credits the work with his father back in the Dominican Republic for the results he’s now seeing on the field.
“I worked a lot with my dad this offseason,” García said, whose father, also named Luis García, had a cup of coffee with the Detroit Tigers in 1999 during his 10-year pro baseball career.
“On the low tee, both inside and outside, and also with front toss, both short and long front toss, working on the pitches away, and then with a band tied around my waist with my dad holding it, and taking swings that way as well.”
Inevitably, with a young international prospect beginning to develop at the major league level, García draws comparisons to his fellow countryman, Juan Soto.
If you squint at the right angle, García’s stance at the plate does have a little of the 2020 batting champ in it, but that’s an unfair comparison to put on anyone.
Soto is so special that nobody can live up to that and it diminishes the things that García does well.
“If you look at him, he changed a little bit, before he had his hands exactly like Juan’s,” Martinez explained. “Now, his hands are a little bit down a little bit more, but he’s trying to take the same approach up there, where he’s trying to get the ball up, middle-away, and just stay on the ball and hit the ball to left-center field. But as you can tell, when the ball is in, he’s pretty quick inside as well.
“He’s a young hitter that has a lot of talent and it’s good to see him have some success here.”
It’s easy to forget just how young the 21-year-old is given how long Nationals fans have been hearing about him in the minor leagues and how spoilt this organization has been over the last decade with teenagers who have come up as near-finished articles as players.
As he continues to grow as a ballplayer, it’s tantalizing for the Nats’ front office to imagine what he could become with his contact skills and burgeoning power at the plate.
Barring injury, García is set to play the vast majority of the Nationals’ remaining 50 games.
This is his chance to stake a claim as a cornerstone of the franchise’s retool back to contention and is already beginning to look the part at the plate...