PORT ST. LUCIE — As of Friday afternoon Brett Baty I hadn’t heard the compliment that Buck Showalter had paid him a couple of days earlier, when the manager said that watching the defensive improvement of both Baty and Mark Vientos was one of the highlights of spring training for him.
At his locker Baty’s eyes lit up when I told him, and understandably so. The young third baseman has been on a mission to get better with the glove, from being tutored during winter workouts in Texas by Troy Tulowitzki to go to the field early every day here with Vientos to take ground balls and do drills with various coaches.
“We’re out there grinding every day,” Baty said with a smile. “I’m glad somebody’s noticing.”
Not that the 23-year old Baty necessarily needed the positive reinforcement. Doing the work has always been part of his profile, going back to growing up in Austin, Texas as the son of a high school basketball coach who believed there was no substitute for putting in long hours.
“He’s a big believer that hard work beats talent,” Baty said of his father, Clint. “So I definitely like working hard.”
The work is paying off, it seems. A natural with the bat, Baty is unquestionably big-league ready offensively, but there were questions about his defense after his brief stint with the Mets last season that he seems to be answering nicely this spring.
He has made a handful of very good plays with the glove, ranging well to both his left and right while showing off a strong arm in the process.
So while Showalter included Vientos in his praise this week, it’s more significant as it applies to Baty. He’s swung the bat well enough, hitting .375 in Grapefruit League games so far, to put pressure on the Mets to keep him when the season starts.
All along the plan was to have Eduardo Escobar start the season as the everyday third baseman to see if he could pick up where he left off last season, when a late surge salvaged what had been a disappointing season.
Escobar hit .321 with eight home runs in September/October but even with his hot month he hit only .240 for the season, and only .231 against right handed pitching with a .681 OPS.
That’s significant because Baty is a left-handed hitter who could platoon with Escobar at third base and perhaps make the Mets stronger, especially against right-handed pitching.
Whether he has done enough to force the ballclub’s hand remains to be seen, but his defensive improvement makes it harder for the Mets to justify having Baty start the season in Triple-A.
“He’s looked smoother with the glove,” one major-league scout told me. “He seems more confident now. I saw him a little bit when he came up last year and he seemed a little more unsteady, unsure of himself.”
Baty only played 11 games before a broken thumb ended his season, so perhaps he would have gained confidence the more he played. But he went home to Texas for the off-season well aware the Mets thought he needed to improve and says he made it his focus of the winter, working with Tulowitzki, the former Gold Glover for the Colorado Rockies who was in Austin coaching with the U. of Texas team.
“He was really big on the importance of slowing the game down,” Baty said. “Really having that internal clock, knowing how much time you have over there at third base, knowing the speed of the runners, so you don’t speed yourself up and rush yourself.
“That really stuck out to me, and that helped a lot. If you look at all the elite fielders, they always know exactly how much time they have. They’re never rushed.”
While growing up in Texas, Baty said, he always made a point of watching Adrian Beltrea five-time Gold Glover who played for the Rangers from 2011 until he retired after the 2018 season.
“He was great defensively,” said Baty, “and I loved the way he went about his business, how much fun he had while he played.”
Baty watched for more than entertainment. For a long time as a kid he thought basketball would be his calling, in part because of his father, but when he made the varsity baseball team as a freshman at Lake Travis High School, a big school, and played regularly he realized he needed to change his plans.
“I wanted to follow in my father’s footsteps,” he said, “but then I realized, ‘I might have a shot at this and I kind of ran with baseball.’ “
He still played basketball for his dad on teams that he said played deep into the Texas state tournament.
“We had (former NBA center) Otis Thorpe‘s son DJ, and (current NY Jet) Garrett Wilson on the team,” said Baty, who was the same 6-foot-3 then that he is now. “I played the four-spot. I took care of handling the toughest physical matchup so DJ could take care of putting the ball in the hoop.”
In other words, Baty did the dirty work. It seems to be very much in his DNA, as evidenced now by his determination to take hundreds of ground balls a day or whatever it takes to get him to the big leagues to stay.
As it is, the kid is convinced he’s ready.
“Being there last year, I felt like I belonged,” he said. “I only played 11 games but if you take three games out of there I felt like I played really well. I had some tough ABs there in Philadelphia when I felt I got ahead of myself a little bit. But I felt like I put together competitive ABs every night and that was the goal.
“I think the game’s the same (as Triple-A), the speed’s the same. It’s just the surroundings. You’ve just to focus in on every pitch and be consistent up there. I think you can get a little ahead of yourself sometimes if you think about things you can’t control.
“I think everybody should think they can be one of the best players in the game. I think you’re not going to succeed at the highest level if you don’t think so. Going up there with a bunch of confidence and knowing they can’t out you is a big part of it. That and doing the work you need to do. That’s what I believe in.”
It’s a philosophy that has poised him to be a Met, perhaps for a long time. The only question is how soon. If Showalter’s praise is any indication, Baty is significantly closer to getting there than when spring training began.