Everybody in the Alaska Baseball League is working on something, whether it be a new position, perfecting the changeup or driving the ball to the opposite field.
Peninsula Oilers outfielder Jake Sandlin is working on a new mental approach to the game.
Thus far, the approach is paying dividends. Nine games into the Oilers’ season, Sandlin was hitting just .161. And those nine games were all against nonconference competition, which generally is fortunate to play even .500 ball against ABL foes.
But since then, facing mostly ABL pitching, Sandlin had raised his average to .315 heading into Thursday’s game against the Chugiak-Eagle River Chinooks. Also heading into that game, he had at least two hits in four of his last five games.
“I can’t really put it all on one thing,” Sandlin said. “The one thing is I am trying to play the game as calm as possible. I’m trying to think as little as possible.”
Oilers head coach Kyle Richardson notes that some other factors in Sandlin’s surge are getting accustomed to the ABL and getting back in the groove with his swing. Sandlin plays at Division II Georgia College, and Division II schools end their seasons a little earlier. Sandlin’s last game before coming to Alaska was on May 17.
But Sandlin, an outfielder who hit .365 for the Bobcats this season as a redshirt sophomore, said the seeds for his summer success may have been planted late in his college season, when he started experimenting with a calmer approach to the game.
For those who know Sandlin, a more laid-back approach is news, because he is anything but mellow.
“He’s all over the place,” said Oilers pitcher Tyler Gibson, who lives with Sandlin in the host home of Glen Marquis of Kenai. “He has tons of energy.
“He’s a great guy to be around. If you are in a bad mood, he always has something to try and cheer you up.”
But, though he is loath to admit it, Sandlin said he may have learned something by watching his brother, Nick, put together an incredible junior season for Greenbrier High School in Evans, Georgia. Nick went 13-0 with a save this season, and Jake said that 13 wins was the most in the nation for a prep pitcher this season.
“My brother is a lot different from me,” said Jake, the son of John and Daisy of Evans. “He is a fiery competitor, but he is definitely more laid-back.”
So, heaven forbid, is he taking after his little brother?
“I don’t want to say it because he’ll get a big head and he’ll definitely get on me after reading this, but I have learned from watching him,” Jake said.
In all earnestness, Jake said he is extremely proud of his brother, saying, “He’s way better than I am.” On the Georgia College website, he says the highlight of his sporting career was watching 12-year-old Nick hit the home run that won the Dixie Youth National Championship. As the big schools start recruiting Nick, Jake said jealousy is the last thing on his mind.
“I’m proud of what he’s doing,” Jake said. “It’s the highlight of my life. I’m prouder of what he’s doing than of anything I’m doing right now.”
In addition to his brother’s influence, Sandlin also has learned from watching some of his Oilers teammates.
“Some of the guys are pretty laid-back, and coach Richardson is pretty calm,” Sandlin said. “I’ve let some of that rub off on me.”
Gibson said that Sandlin did show patience during his early season struggles.
“He just said, ‘Baseball always pays you back,’” Gibson said. “He said he would start hitting, and he has caught fire. He’s hitting the crap out of the ball.”
Richardson said Sandlin, who has been moved to the leadoff spot, is a good hitter because of his ability to drive the ball to all fields. He said when most hitters try to go to their weak field, the ball merely squirts off their bat. Wherever Sandlin hits the ball, it is hit solidly.
“If you try and get ahead of him by going outside, he’s happy to take his single by going to the opposite direction,” Richardson said. “But if he gets ahead in the count and can turn on the ball, he can take you out of the park.”
Perhaps a measure of Sandlin’s hyperactivity is that despite his effort to stay calm, energy is the first thing that others mention when asked about him.
“He grows on you,” Richardson said. “At the beginning, it’s ‘Who is this kid? What is his deal?’ But then you figure him out. I’m going to miss him after this summer.”
Richardson had Sandlin in mind for the leadoff spot all along, and was happy to put him there once he started hitting.
“Every team needs a spark plug,” Richardson said. “He’s always laughing and talking. With him, there’s never nothing to talk about. Sometimes, it can even be a little much.”
But Richardson said there a few in the clubhouse who can tame Sandlin when he gets too boisterous. His act doesn’t wear thin because it is genuine.
“I don’t try to be anything,” Sandlin said. “I’m past that point in life. I’m not trying to impress people.
“What you see is what you get. I don’t have a filter. Sometimes that’s good and sometimes that’s bad.”
As part of his effort to focus on the game ahead and not games past, Sandlin has even given up his devotion to checking stats.
“I’ve always been a stat rat and my dad’s always been a stat rat,” Sandlin said. “I’m not even keeping up with it. I’m just worried about the next day.”
Alaska has been the perfect place to tinker with his new approach. With all the travel when the team is on the road and outdoors activities to pursue while at home, it’s easy to not dwell on the past.
Sandlin said his desire to play in the ABL was planted by one of his college coaches.
“He’s been all over the world, and he said the one place he wanted to coach was Alaska,” Sandlin said. “He said he wanted to coach in Alaska because of the scenery, because of the tradition and because the talent is top-notch.”
After redshirting, Sandlin played summer ball in Kentucky. Last year, he attended school in summer, but he was thrilled when the opportunity came to play with the Oilers this summer.
“After playing in Kentucky, I told my coach, ‘The next time I go to play summer ball, I want it to be as challenging as it can be,’” Sandlin said.
While he is not worried about individual stats, team stats are another matter. Sandlin’s casual manner of conversation changes the most when he is asked what his goal is for the rest of the summer.
“I would love to win the Alaska Baseball League,” he said. “People remember winners. At the end of the day, that’s what counts — winning.”
As for declaring his new approach a success? That wouldn’t be in keeping with his new approach.