The more the first half of the South Atlantic League season played out, David Chester noticed whenever he stepped into the box, fastballs were coming less frequently.
“It just depends on the day,” he said. “There will be days where you don’t get anything and then there’s days when they’re leaving cookies in there for you.”
Chester had punished so many pitchers who tried to pump heaters past him that eventually he noticed a change in the way they threw to him. It became a waiting game. Eventually, he figured, they had to throw one.
“Some guys try to live off their fastball,” Chester said. “That’s the kind of stuff you’re looking for. Then there are some guys that won’t throw one. It just depends on the guy you’re seeing and what their approach is toward you, and you’ve just got to stay with your approach.”
Brute strength was never something Chester could hide. It was evident when he was coming out of Collinsville (Okla.) High School, when he had Division 1 football programs recruiting him as a tight end.
Ultimately, he signed with a Division 2 school in Arkansas, but baseball was always in the back of his mind. If it wasn’t for a pre-draft workout with the Atlanta Braves, his path would have been completely different.
“They told me I needed to play baseball,” Chester said. “So, I started looking at it and about two weeks before I had to report to summer football, I told them, ‘Hey, I’m not coming. I’m going to go to junior college.’ ”
In 2007, Chester enrolled at Seminole State College in Oklahoma, which had produced big leaguers such as Adam LaRoche and Eric Gagne, then after two seasons, Chester transferred to the University of Pittsburgh, where he hit 31 homers and drove in 123 runs in two seasons.
At 6 feet 5 inches, 255 pounds, the Red Sox knew they were getting a slugger when they took Chester in the 33d round of the 2011 draft. But he was a work in progress.
Since starting this season with the Single A Greenville Drive, he’s flashed the kind of power that puts pitchers on alert. With a team-high 10 home runs and 53 RBIs (fourth most in the SAL), he earned a spot in last week’s South Atlantic League All-Star Game, where he showcased his power with a second-place finish in the home run derby, then went 1 for 2 for the South All-Stars in a 2-1 loss to the North.
“I’m a pretty big swinger,” Chester said. “I like to swing early in the count, if I get a fastball especially, because being a bigger guy, you get a lot of offspeed stuff. Stuff that they’re trying to get you to chase with. When I get a fastball, I’m definitely trying to attack it. That’s what we’re trained to hit. Being a bigger guy, too, that’s what we hit best. When I get my fastball, I really try to attack it.”
Chester’s goal this season has been to become a more complete hitter. His power numbers have always been there. He smacked nine homers in the Gulf Coast League in 2011, and 10 last summer in 50 games between the Single A Lowell Spinners and Salem Red Sox. But he’s never hit better than .249, and his strikeout rate in his first two pro seasons was 21.3 percent.
“I’ve just been trying to be more consistent,” Chester said. “I haven’t been very consistent throughout my career yet. I’ve had some good numbers, just not what I want and I’m still not there yet, but just consistently, day in and day out, just trying to keep the same swing, same mind-set, same approach, and I feel like I’ve done a better job this year on it.”
His strikeout numbers are still high (68 in 263 at-bats), but he has focused on going to the plate with a plan, finding an approach to specific pitchers and sticking with it.
“I kind of get in trouble sometimes chasing bad pitches, but I’ve done a better job this year, I feel like, of not doing that as much,” Chester said. “I mean, if you throw one over the plate that I can handle, I’m going to try to put a good swing on it. I take the approach of, I’m not here to walk. I’ll take my walks when I can, but I’m trying to hit balls in the gap or even over the fence. I’m trying to do something successful that can help out the team, because looking at it my way, I’m not a base stealer, I’m not anything like that. I can’t steal two bases and be right there at third. I’m going to have to try to get a double and score from second on the next guy. That’s what I try to take my approach as.”
Three to watch
Anthony Ranaudo, Portland — With 13 strikeouts in a 2-0 win over the Erie SeaWolves June 13, the hard-throwing righthander matched the Sea Dogs’ record set by Jon Lester in 2005. Ranaudo’s run of seven straight punch-outs was one shy of the Clay Buchholz’s franchise record.
Kyle Stroup, Salem — In his last four starts going into the Carolina League All-Star break, the 23-year-old righthander went 2-1, going 17 innings with 15 strikeouts and a 1.71 ERA. He locked up the Lynchburg Hillcats, striking out five over seven innings in a 4-1 win.
Kendrick Perkins, Lowell — The 21-year-old outfielder’s 4-for-4, three-RBI performance against the Connecticut Tigers was the second four-hit game of his career, and it almost single-handedly secured a 5-1 win for the Spinners, who opened their season this week.Julian Benbow can be reached at email@example.com.