Feature Photo: Trent Clark, CF, Brewers
Heading in to the 2016 season, Trent Clark had been the example of natural talent. Couple that with a maturity that makes him sound more like a seasoned veteran, and not the 20-year-old fresh off of his first full season in professional baseball, and there should have been little reason to expect him to do anything other than rocket through the Milwaukee Brewers’ farm system.
But Clark did not take off as expected. He struggled mightily for the first time in his career, both in staying healthy and in producing at the plate. However, he has spent this offseason attacking both of these issues.
“I had a full drive back to Texas to think about it.” Clark said in a recent phone interview, citing his return trip from Wisconsin after finishing the year with the Class A Wisconsin Timber Rattlers. “That was the best thing. I spent the drive thinking about what I wanted to accomplish.”
Clark chose baseball at an early age, ditching other sports even though he could already do things like dunk a basketball as an under-six-foot-tall freshman in high school. Chuck Wells, his former coach at Richland Hills High School in Texas has spoken of the intensity of his work ethic, one which has carried over into his professional career.
His first year as a professional after the Brewers drafted him out of Richland Hills with the fifteenth overall pick in the 2015 MLB Draft was a near-cakewalk.
In 200 plate appearances with the Brewers’ Arizona Rookie League affiliate, Clark had an .865 OPS, and demonstrated an approach at the plate that belied his experience, striking out just 36 times while walking 30 times, and posting a solid .309 batting average and an impressive .422 on-base percentage.
He didn’t slow with a promotion to the Brewers’ Helena Rookie League affiliate in the Pioneer League. His numbers there were similar, and going into this past season, there was little reason to think that his ascension through the system wouldn’t continue.
The left-handed center fielder started 2016 in extended spring training because he was still just 19 years old at the time, but by early May, he was with the Timber Rattlers in the Midwest League, and his cruise through the system was moving at its expected clip.
Twelve games in, however, he strained a hamstring and wound up on the disabled list. He went to the disabled list once again in July when he re-aggravated the injury.
The injuries limited his first full season of pro ball to just 59 games, and his offensive numbers plummeted. His OPS dropped to .690, and his strikeout rate nearly doubled, while his slash line dipped to .231/.386/.770. A performance that puts a heavy load on the shoulders of a 19-year-old returning to Texas after the season ended, but his attitude about it is not what would be expected.
“I came out of a year where I struggled for the first time in my life,” Clark said. “I’m really happy that it happened so early in my career. I learned from that.”
Perhaps the byproduct of his long post-season ride home to Texas, Clark went into the offseason with a clear sense for what he needs to do to make the upcoming season more successful, both statistically and in terms of staying healthy.
“Last year, I was more focused on strength – getting faster and stronger.” Clark said. “This year I’m more focused on mobility. Being able to move more freely and establishing total body strength.”
Clark also alluded to a new diet plan for his offseason that the Brewers developed, which, combined with an adjusted approach to his workouts, stands to keep him healthy and on the field. At 6’0’’ and 205 pounds, he still has some room to fill out at just 20 years old, and he is already playing much closer to his listed weight after adding some bulk in the last six months.
Along with the adjustments he has made to his workout and diet regimen, Clark has tweaked his swing from his days as a high schooler. Back then, he developed what looked closer to a grip used on a golf club than a baseball bat, something he said was done in effort to compensate for his lack of stature – citing his 145-pound frame as part of the problem with getting a good grip on the bat and having the feel he wanted. He still uses the same grip because of familiarity, but he’s adjusted his swing as he has gotten bigger. Clark said that the re-created swing now includes a leg kick and some hip slide that he hopes will allow him to get around on inside pitches more readily.
Clark has already seen the benefit of the adjustments to his swing.
“It feels natural and free. Last season I felt so locked up at the plate,” he said.
Clark said he felt like he was going against his plan at the plate last season, and instead of being able to attack pitches inside and looking for chances to hit the ball to both gaps, he was focusing on going the other way.
“If I had a weakness, they were exploiting it.” Clark said. “Mostly I was young and stubborn and trying to do things that are not my strengths, like not worrying about the inside pitch or the opposite field.”
Clark also cited work this offseason with the Brewers’ coaching staff on the mental part of his approach, as well as his swing mechanics.
“If I’m wondering [at the plate], I’m already dead.” Clark said.
As he advances through the minor leagues, Clark knows that he will have to continue to make adjustments in order to both stay healthy and to be successful at the plate.
“The difference in leagues is the way the guys attack.” Clark said, reflecting on his move to full-season professional ball last year. “It’s harder because they know your weaknesses.”
He paused for a moment and then added, “Or it’s easier because you know what they are going to target.”
Clark has the ability to hit for extra bases even without possessing a great deal of power. Despite his struggles with the bat last season, he still smacked 15 doubles, a pair of triples, and maintained a healthy .346 on-base percentage.
Not many baseball players would be so thankful for a bad season. And fewer still can recognize their weaknesses and adjust as quickly as Clark has at such a young age.
But Clark chose baseball early in his life and had seemingly mastered it by the time he was old enough to vote, so he is not likely deterred by one rough season. Injuries and a faulty approach at the plate gave him a dose of reality last year, but he has the right attitude and plan for fixing both of those things.
In the upcoming season, look for Clark to stay healthy and for the adjustments at the plate to bring the first-rounder’s numbers back to the level he displayed in his first year as a pro. Clark has the promise to provide the Brewers with a steady bat at the top of a lineup and sturdy defense in center field, as long as he keeps adjusting as he climbs the system.