Minor League Look: Kai Gronauer
Kai Gronauer has a lot more riding on him than your average Single-A catcher.
Signed by the Mets in April 2008, the 23 year-old Gronauer spent the previous five years in the German Bundesliga, starring for his hometown Solingen Alligators. The most prolific slugger to come out of Germany, the Mets netted him to a standard six year minor league contract.
Compared to countries such as the Netherlands and Italy, which have produced several promising major league and minor league ballplayers in recent years, Germany is considered a second-tier bastion of baseball talent, even in European terms.
“I think the depth of the players- there’s more well educated players [In America compared to Germany]. I think we in Germany, were at a good level of playing, the depth is just not there. The pro leagues in italy and the Netherlands, they have a little bit more depth. The Germans still need to improve their players.”
Hence, at least to German baseball fans, it is not a stretch to say Gronauer represents Germany itself. However, he embraces the responsibility.
“I want to represent Germany. I’m proud to be German and be the baseball player that made it all the way to Single-A baseball. I’ve always said i don’t want to be a minor league baseball player. I want to reach the highest level.”
Having supplanted Doc Doyle, a fifth round pick just two years ago out of Coastal Carolina, on the organizational depth chart, Gronauer now receives the lion’s share of time behind the plate for the Sand Gnats. After an injury laden 2009 campaign in Savannah, he is hitting .248/.335/.356 through 170 plate-appearances. His promising April (.317/.406/.483), was followed by a disappointing May (.207/.290/.268).
“I’m trying to stick with one approach. I’m trying to hit the ball i want to hit, not letting the pitcher dictate what i should hit. It started off well and I hope i can keep it up. Its’ a long season. There’s a lot of ups and downs.”
Overall thus far, Gronauer’s walk rate (8.8%), has improved nearly four percent (15 BB’s) while simultaneously decreasing his strikeout rate (12.9%), by five percent (22 K’s), compared to last year.
“Sometimes when the other teams sees your drawing a lot of walks”, he says, ” they’re like ‘alright, we gotta pound the strike zone with this kid.’ That’s why i thought the Delmarva [Shorebirds] team did really well. They threw a lot of strikes at me.” So I’m making adjustments but I’m being aggressive. Walking is not going to get me anywhere.”
“I think Kai’s been a lot more aggressive earlier in the count”, says hitting coach Ryan Ellis. “The pitchers we have seen have gone right at him. He’s been a little more aggressive earlier in the count with better pitches to drive. And he’s been doing a good job of doing that.”
Gronauer bats in a slightly crouched stance. Scouts consider his bat speed merely average,and slightly above average at best. After being banged up for much of spring training following his demotion from big league camp, Gronauer has since been working with Ellis on the overall rhythm of his swing and consistency into his load. He feels he is in a much better position to hit the ball before it comes out of the pitcher’s hand now.
His arm and ability to throw out baserunners is considered a plus, but he still needs to work on the fundamentals. “Its’ more the mental stuff”, he says, “working with my pitching staff. I want to improve my pitch selection, call a good game. I want to improve on reading the hitter and running the game.”
“I learned a lot last year. Whenever you see a team first you go with your pitchers strengths but you gotta deal with the other team as well, and finding out what they can do and what they can’t do. I think I learned a lot last year and I’m working on it this year as well. From what I do right now is just basically read the hitters, see what they’re doing in the box, what they change and than work from there.”
In some respects, the transition has been far easier than the prototypical foreign ballplayer. Having been taught British English back home, Gronauer speaks perfect English with no accent. “Everybody basically expected me to speak english. I’m kind of by myself with the Europeans. We have a couple dutch players, one plays in the organization. We haven’t really played together. I’m by myself basically.”
He still keeps in touch with Greg Frady, who is the manager at Georgia State and the head coach of the German national team since 2004, whom Gronauer played under for several years before joining the Mets.
His parents have yet to see him play in the U.S., although his girlfriend plans on visiting him later in the summer.
“They [his parents] are watching my games in Germany. Its’ still a different sport for Germany and all the rules and its kind of difficult for the Germans to pick up, but there getting better and better every year.”
NOTE: This was another great article by MetsToday minor league correspondent Matt Himelfarb. Please direct your comments to Matt.