Imagine being a rookie in Major League Baseball. You’ve already been sent down to the minors twice, your batting average is poor and you are asked to make a change in your swing with just more than a month left in the season.
No pressure, though.
Apparently not, because former Long Beach State shortstop Garrett Hampson handled it as well as a manager could ask. He was batting .182 at the end of April 2019 for the Colorado Rockies and was still just above the Mendoza Line at .208 in late August before going on a tear and finishing the season at .247.
Hampson went 28 for 88 (.318) in September with five of his eight home runs. He had four three-hit games in the month. A regular speed merchant, Hampson also had nine of his 15 stolen bases — tied for first in the National League for the month.
Rockies manager Bud Black during a Friday night telephone conversation said Hampson’s ability to pull this off says a lot about his overall makeup as a player. Hampson’s high school coach, Pete Savage, is not surprised because he knows only too well about his former player’s strength of character and love for the game.
From leg kick to toe tap
Hampson was first called up in 2018. He got into 24 games and did well, batting .275 in 40 at-bats. He made the 2019 Opening Day roster, but struggled mightily at the outset and was demoted to Triple A in mid-May and early June with respective batting averages of .194 and .186.
Eventually the swing change came at the behest of the Rockies coaching staff.
“I made some pretty big mechanical adjustments,” Hampson, 25, said Friday afternoon via telephone. “I started using like a toe-tap timing mechanism instead of a leg kick, which I’ve always hit with. But the big leagues, it’s a different ballgame up there. They (coaches) were able to kind of pinpoint what I was missing as far as my weaknesses.”
Garrett Hampson as a freshman at Long Beach State in 2014. (File: Photo by Stephen Carr/SCNG)
Colorado Rockies’ Garrett Hampson is congratulated by teammates in the dugout after hitting a solo home run during the fourth inning of the team’s baseball game against the Los Angeles Dodgers on Friday, Sept. 20, 2019, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)
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Colorado Rockies’ Garrett Hampson is congratulated by teammates in their dugout after hitting a solo home run off Dodgers Hyun-Jin Ryu in the first inning inning of a baseball game in Los Angeles, Sunday, Sept. 22, 2019. (AP Photo/Sam Gangwer )
Colorado Rockies’ Garrett Hampson in action against the Los Angeles Angels in a spring training baseball game Wednesday, March 6, 2019, in Scottsdale, Ariz. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)
Before talking about the crux of the swing change, Black doled out a heck of a compliment to Hampson.
“The belief that we have in him and the belief that I have in him as a player — his will, his work ethic, his desire, his confidence — just really exudes big-leaguer,” Black said.
Black spoke of how difficult it is to do what Hampson did.
“We, being the coaching staff and the hitting coaches, especially, felt as though his leg kick was a little bit too big,” Black said. “Garrett open-mindedly took that coaching and realized that he had to make a slight change in his lower-half mechanics. To do that during a season, it’s awful hard because you’re trying to compete and at the same time make mechanical adjustments on something you’ve been doing a very long time.
“Him being able to shorten that leg kick, get more of a toe tap and to be able to take that into games as he did the last six weeks of the season, speaks volumes about the player.”
Black couldn’t stop himself.
“The swing became more efficient, he was quicker to the ball, I think he was able to recognize the pitches easier, he was able to wait a little big longer,” Black said. “And he didn’t lose any power. A lot of times a big leg kick is for bat speed and power. But he didn’t lose an ounce of that.”
A player with a lesser spirit might have folded. Not Hampson. He said his confidence never wavered much and that he knew he could have success at the big league level. But he acknowledged there was a burden to shoulder because when you are in the majors, you are expected to perform.
“You’re called up to have success right away and if you don’t, you’ve gotta just bounce back like I did,” Hampson said. “I went down a couple of times to figure things out. But I just try not to put too much pressure on myself.
“I know this is the same game. It’s not easy, obviously. It’s great competition. But I think the challenging part of that really excites me and that’s kind of what I feed off of.”
The phrase, “He eats, sleeps and drinks baseball,” certainly seems to apply to Hampson. Savage, Hampson’s coach at Reno High in Nevada, believes that.
“Garrett’s overall makeup as a player is something that I have never experienced as a coach in 30 years,” said Savage, the older brother of UCLA baseball coach John Savage. “He’s most comfortable on a baseball field in the middle of great times, good times, average times, below-average times and bad times. And he’s always the same.
“He’s always willing to make adjustments, he’s always willing to help a teammate.”
Savage gave Hampson perhaps the ultimate praise.
“The analogy I always gave, he always kind of reminded me of Derek Jeter and the way Jeter played the game,” Savage said. “Obviously, Jeter’s accomplished so much, but you could never tell if Jeter was playing the first game of spring training or the seventh game of the World Series.
“Garrett’s makeup is very similar to that. You really can’t tell by his external actions whether he’s hitting .310 or hitting .240.”
What’s the plan?
Hampson got into 105 games with the Rockies in 2019, playing in the field in 98. He played 50 games at second base, 15 at shortstop, 31 in center field and two in left.
Black said he believes Hampson could eventually play one position. But once the 2020 season — so far stymied by COVID-19 — begins, chances are Hampson will again play at multiple positions.
“I think he has a chance to be an everyday player,” Black said. “Now if that means at times he might have to bounce around the diamond, that might happen initially until he settles in. But right now our roster construction, how it is, it suits us and helps him get in the lineup by being versatile.
“By having that ability to play the outfield, to play center, to play left and to play second and short, I mean, when you’re able to play in the middle of the diamond, it just gives us as a coaching staff and me as a manager so much flexibility.”
Black said that wherever Hampson plays, he doesn’t lose anything on defense.
Not surprisingly, Hampson doesn’t care where he plays.
“I’m open to play any position to get me on the field and help the team win,” said Hampson, who played three years for Long Beach State from 2014-16. “I don’t really have a preference of the path that I want to be inserted into the starting lineup. But, yeah, obviously that is the goal. I want to be a starter because everybody wants to play as much as possible and help the team win.”
Hampson made his major league debut on July 21, 2018. He went 1 for 4 with an RBI double in the Rockies’ 6-5 victory at Arizona. It’s a moment Hampson will cherish forever.
“Yeah, luckily my family could all be there and they didn’t miss anything,” said Hampson, whose wife’s name is Gigi; his parents are Chris and Marjie and his older brother is Colton. “It was a surreal moment to not only step on a big league diamond, but to play and get a hit, it was pretty cool.”
That could be the best thing about all of this for Hampson — the joy him making it to “The Show” has brought to his family.
“I think just seeing it all unfold and me being able to live out my dream and play at the highest level, it truly makes them happy,” he said. “They’re my biggest fans, for sure. They read every article, they watch every game. They’re nonstop. And I appreciate all that.”