Angels’ Taylor Ward is an overnight sensation … 4 years in the making – Daily News

With each line drive that Taylor Ward shoots into the gap or over the fence, the story gains momentum.

The Angels’ 28-year-old right fielder has been up and down between the majors and Triple-A since 2018, for most of that time merely hinting at his potential. There was little indication he could do this.

Now, he is the leading breakout star in the entire sport through the first quarter of the 2022 season. Ward leads the majors in batting average (.375), on-base percentage (.488) and slugging percentage (.721). That adds up to a major league-best 1.209 OPS, which is significantly ahead of teammate Mike Trout (1.120).

Ward has hit nine home runs, already one more than his career high.

Ward is the definition of an overnight sensation … that has been four years in the making.

The story of his ascension truly began when he and a former college teammate began using technology and ideas from the Houston Astros to refine his swing. In the years since, there were continued adjustments as he initially “overcooked” the changes. There were tweaks to his timing, his stance and his hand position. There were mental adjustments and, finally, an opportunity to put it all together.

And he has.

“I feel like there’s no pitcher out there that can that can get me out,” Ward said after hitting his second grand slam of the season on Saturday night. “Of course, it’s not the way it is. The game can quickly humble you tomorrow. So kind of turn the page and lock it back in.”

Ward has heard talk about the All-Star Game or even the MVP, but he knows it’s far too early for any of that and “pointless” to think about. He prefers to stay “in my own little bubble. It’s all good there.”

Ward is not alone in the bubble, though.

Trent Woodward is there with him every day, still counseling his friend and checking out videos to maintain the swing refinements they started years ago.

Woodward and Ward were roommates during their time playing together at Fresno State. Woodward was drafted and began his pro career with the Astros, one season before the Angels took Ward in the first round of the 2015 draft.

Woodward didn’t amount to much as a player, lasting just three seasons before hanging up his spikes. But he and Ward shared some of the things the Astros had taught him about the science of hitting.

In the winter of 2017-18, the two friends worked together to use technology to rebuild Ward’s swing.

“Launch angle” became a hot phrase in baseball circles a few years ago, but the term is actually somewhat misleading. The idea is not so much to hit the ball in the air because that’s where the homers and doubles are, although that’s true. The idea is to swing on an upward plane because the pitch is coming on a downward plane.

If the swing path can match the pitch’s path, there’s a better chance they’ll intersect squarely.

Simple as that.

Ward started doing drills with a ball on a tee at the top of the strike zone or hitting high flips, which trained him to turn up his swing path. Ward and Woodward measured the plane, trying to get it consistently in a 5- to 14-degree attack angle.

“We started using different technologies to help him train and Taylor just absolutely loved it,” said Woodward, who now lives in Texas and works in the medical device field. “He kind of took it and ran.”

Ward has continually worked to get the plane of his swing in a place where it produced the optimal path, one that perfectly intersects the pitch.

“When you hit off the tee, the result should be a high line drive, up the middle or to right center,” Ward said. “A high line drive is perfection. That makes a miss a homer.”

Yes, a miss. The average launch angle for a home run is about 29 degrees, which is higher than Ward’s goal. Balls hit with an 8- to 11-degree launch angle – right in the middle of Ward’s optimum approach – had a batting average of .638 last season.

Ward re-worked his swing just before the Angels moved him from catcher to third base in 2018, which relieved him of the mental and physical toll of baseball’s most grueling position. (A year later, they moved him again, to the outfield.)

With a new swing and a new position, Ward lifted his OPS from .757 in 2017 to .977 in 2018.

That was in the minors, though. It didn’t translate to the majors. Not initially, anyway.

Ward had a .578 OPS in his first 40 major league games in 2018. In 2019, he torched Triple-A to the tune of a 1.011 OPS, but he had a .625 mark in just 48 plate appearances in the majors.

One issue was that Ward admittedly took the uppercut swing to an extreme, so he had to dial it back down to find a happy medium. Another was that his mind wasn’t in the same place when he was in the big leagues.

“It was a mindset,” Ward said. “The lights being brighter, the distractions would alter my approach. I was mentally weak.”

The result was the deterioration of one of Ward’s strengths throughout his minor league career: his plate discipline. Ward has walked in 14% and struck out in 17% of his minor league plate appearances. In the major leagues from 2018-21, he walked in 8% and struck out in 28% of his plate appearances.

Angels assistant hitting coach John Mallee has nearly three decades in pro baseball, and he believes that good plate discipline is a natural talent, not something that can be learned. So Ward clearly had the tool in his bag, but he needed to clear his mind to use it.

In spring training 2020, just before the COVID-19 pandemic delayed the regular season, Mallee suggested Ward read Mind Gym: An Athlete’s Guide to Inner Excellence. That book helped Ward shut out all the distractions that were clouding his approach when he stepped into the box in the majors.

“Until you have control of the sixth tool, which is the mind, you can’t get to the other five consistently,” Mallee said.

Ward said he no longer is distracted by thoughts of the last pitch or the umpire or his other at-bats. He’s able to focus entirely on the present moment.

“Every time I go down and come back up, it gets better and better,” Ward said.

It also helped him to simply see more major league pitching over the years, which helped him identify which pitches he could handle and which ones he should take.

“Seeing it and seeing it over and over, you get more used to it,” Ward said. “You get a lot more comfortable. The game slows down. The variation of these guys isn’t that drastic. You almost get to a point where you’ve seen everybody.”

This season his plate discipline has been exceptional. Ward leads the majors in Statcast’s swing-take leaderboard, which assigns run values to swing-take decisions. He has swung at 37% of pitches in the “shadow” of the strike zone, compared with the major league average of 53%. That’s down from 49% last year.

His walk rate is 18% and his strikeout rate is 21%, both better than in any previous stint in the majors.

“His ability to swing at the pitches he wants to is off the charts,” Angels hitting coach Jeremy Reed said.

Ward said that skill went to a new level when he started the season at Double-A in 2018. The Angels had their minor leaguers manually plot the location of the pitches in the strike zone after their at-bats. They were then graded on their swing-take decisions.

In order to transfer that skill to the majors, Ward needed to clear his mind and also clean up one last mechanical issue.

During the 2021 All-Star break, Ward was at home taking batting practice when he changed his hand position slightly. By holding the bat a little closer to his ear, he could take less time getting the barrel into the zone. That allowed for more time to recognize whether the pitch was going to be in a location he wanted.

“Holy crap, this is it,” Ward said, feeling his epiphany was the last piece to optimize his swing.

He hit a homer and had three hits in his first game after the All-Star break. Ward didn’t get much of an opportunity after that, though. He was sent back to Triple-A a few days later, and then he suffered a right adductor strain.

Ward returned to minor league action on Sept. 16 and he produced a 1.197 OPS over 42 plate appearances. He then played two games in the big leagues on the final weekend of the season.

Going into this spring, the Angels quietly considered him higher on their outfield depth chart than touted prospects Jo Adell and Brandon Marsh. At the end of spring training, the Angels released Justin Upton to clear the way for the trio of Ward, Adell and Marsh to play regularly. Once Ward returned from a groin injury that cost him the first week, Manager Joe Maddon said Ward was his everyday right fielder.

With the support of his manager, Ward’s confidence grew. His current stint in the majors has been a pleasant surprise to even the most optimistic Angels fans, but those who have known Ward insist that this is just the natural extension of the kind of player he’s always been.

Jared Walsh, who has played with Ward since A-ball, said his mentality and plate discipline have always given him reason to believe Ward would be successful in the majors.

“I was always kind of amazed at how you couldn’t even tell after the game if he went for 4 for 4 or 0 for 4,” Walsh said. “That’s a skill that I don’t think a ton of people have. It’s the patience, both in his process but also with himself knowing that if I do the right things, eventually it’s going to show up. … Now that he’s in a great spot mechanically, I think it’s just the perfect storm.”

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