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OC Register: Angels rookie Matt Thaiss credits revamped swing for making the major leagues

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BOSTON — After his first full season in the minor leagues, Matt Thaiss found his young career heading in the wrong direction.

Jeremy Reed, a year into his job as the Angels’ minor league hitting coordinator, presented Thaiss with a plan to rebuild his swing.

“It was all on Matt at that point,” Reed recalled. “Did he want to make a few adjustments or to continue doing what he was doing? To his credit, he felt it. He knew it. There were some fastballs that beat him a little more than he wanted at the lower levels, so we went to work at that point.”

That work, which was frustrating and slow at times, got Thaiss to the major leagues a season and a half later. Now five weeks into his big-league career, Thaiss is showing the need for more adjustments, but with the core skills the Angels hope can make him a productive everyday player.

“I think Matty has experienced the big leagues in five weeks,” said Reed, now the Angels hitting coach. “He’s faced the biggest arms. He’s struggled with some of the big ones and he’s come back the next day with a clear head and tried to understand how he can attack those guys differently. He’s also had some extreme success at this level. It’s been a very good learning experience for him to know what’s ahead of him.”

Thaiss, 24, has been on a bit of a rollercoaster ride through his first 65 major league plate appearances. Although he doubled in his first plate appearance, he followed that by going 2 for 26, with 14 strikeouts.

Manager Brad Ausmus said Thaiss was like most players, who are a little “wide-eyed” upon reaching the big leagues for the first time. Ausmus said Thaiss was also swinging at too many pitches, losing the discipline that had been one of his best assets on the way to the majors.

“Things kind of move quick when you first get to a new place,” Thaiss said. “Usually a week in or so, you start to get more comfortable, used to the setting, used to the clubhouse, the team, everything.”

Once Thaiss got comfortable, he had a stretch in which he had nine hits, including four homers, in 20 at-bats. He hit two homers, including a walk-off, on July 28.

It is that stretch – one that preceded All-Star pitchers Shane Bieber and Luís Castillo contributing to his ongoing 0-for-14 slump – that provides hope.

His numbers currently add up to a .203 average, but with five homers and a respectable .786 OPS.

“He’s not a scoreboard watcher,” Reed said, referring to how Thaiss has handled the swings of his numbers. “That’s part of the reason that with the early struggles you didn’t see any fear. You see a kid who comes in every day ready for work.”

Reed knows this better than anyone in the Angels’ clubhouse, having coached Thaiss throughout his first full season. Reed was also the one who met with Thaiss, prompting the career-changing swing rebuild in January 2018.

“In 2017, I kind of didn’t have the season I wanted to,” Thaiss said. “There were some problems with my hand load and things like that. It made it tough to drive the ball and make consistent hard contact.”

In 2016, after the Angels had taken Thaiss with the 16th overall pick in the draft, he debuted with an encouraging .292 average and .824 OPS in 297 plate appearances. He struck out in just 10.7 percent of his plate appearances.

As the competition got tougher the following season, Thaiss’ swing didn’t work as well any more. Although his average dropped to only .274, his slugging percentage went from .462 to .395, a number well below expectations for a corner infielder. He also struck out in 17.9 percent of his plate appearances. Thaiss then went to the Arizona Fall League, facing the toughest minor league competition, and he struck out in 30.7 percent of his trips to the plate.

“I knew I needed to fix some things, and (Reed) knew I needed to fix some things,” Thaiss said.

Thaiss had always hit with his hands close to his back shoulder, the bat laying back with the barrel pointed slightly down. As the pitcher delivered, Thaiss would lift the bat and wag it and then whip it through the zone.

The problem with all of that was there was too much motion to get the bat from the starting position to the contact position. And the path of the bat didn’t line up with the path of the pitch, giving him a narrow window to make contact. When he did, he was hitting the top or bottom of the ball too often, resulting in weak contact.

So Thaiss reported to the Angels spring training complex a month before spring training officially began in 2018. Reed and the other minor league hitting coaches, including current assistant big league hitting coach Shawn Wooten, began moving Thaiss’ hands to different spots to try to get his bat into the zone quicker, and on the right path.

When Thaiss first got into spring training games with his hands pushed away from his body more, as he recalls, he struck out 14 times in a row.

“We went through a lot of trial and error,” Thaiss said.

As they found a better position for Thaiss’ hands, and a better angle for his bat, he gradually became more successful. Thaiss showed enough progress to move up to Triple-A in 2018, but it wasn’t until late May of this season at Salt Lake that things really began to click.

Over 31 games, Thaiss hit .288 with nine homers and a .986 OPS. That earned him the call to the big leagues July 3.

Walking into the big leagues is tough enough, but Thaiss also joined a team in the immediate aftermath of the shocking death of Tyler Skaggs on July 1. After some understandable difficulties dealing with all of it, Thaiss settled in.

His hot streak with the bat started just after he made a diving stop at third to preserve the Angels’ combined no-hitter July 12. Thaiss is still just a few months into his life as a third baseman, as the Angels begun experimenting with him across the diamond. He’s started 13 times at third and four times at first since his promotion.

“Any way I can get on the field is a plus,” said Thaiss, who was a catcher in college at Virginia. “I think I’ve become a capable first baseman and I really like where I’ve come from in three years there. At third, it’s still a work in progress, but I’m feeling really comfortable over there.”

The same goes for his feeling at the plate. Thaiss said each day he’s feeling better about being a big-league hitter, even with uneven results. He now hits with his hands farther from his body, and with the barrel of his bat higher. Although Thaiss has endured rough stretches in his first weeks, Reed knows first-hand that Thaiss is willing to adjust however he must.

“He’s a really smart kid,” Reed said. “He studies well. It’s been a good first five weeks for him… I think the best is ahead of him.”


Angels (LHP Dillon Peters, 2-0, 3.20) at Red Sox (TBA), 4:10 p.m., Fox Sports West

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