How Red Sox’ Alex Verdugo became a better major-leaguer because of veteran teammates like Mitch Moreland, Rich Hill

Alex Verdugo’s inaugural season with the Red Sox ended with the outfielder finishing 12th in American League MVP voting.

Well before that, though, the 24-year-old had gotten off to a rough start with his new team.

After being left off the Sox’ Opening Day lineup last July, Verdugo struggled to the tune of a .231/.286/.231 slash line with no extra-base hits, no RBI, two walks, and sevens strikeouts through his first eight games and 28 plate appearances of the year.

The centerpiece for Boston in the five-player trade with the Dodgers that sent Mookie Betts and David Price to Los Angeles, the former top prospect had grown frustrated with his performance, and he let out that frustration in a demonstrative way; much to the chagrin of his veteran teammates — like Mitch Moreland.

“Every at-bat it felt like I was going into the tunnel and hitting something or throwing a helmet down,” Verdugo said recently on the Baseball Tonight podcast with ESPN’s Buster Olney. “And Mitch kind of made a side comment, like ‘Shoot. Seeing him act like that has got me exhausted.’ Like I’m tiring him out just watching what I’m doing. And I sat back on that. I thought about it, and I went over there and I apologized to the team.

“This anger — this stuff that I show — I want you guys to know that it’s from a good place,” he added while recalling how he apologized. “It’s because I’m a competitor. I’m so used to competing.”

Since being selected by the Dodgers in the second round of the 2014 amateur draft out of Sahuaro High School, the Arizona native has always had a fiery personality.

It’s a personality and a way of going about things that may rub others the wrong way, but Verdugo has managed to succeed at every level he’s played at while still maintaining that boisterous edge to him.

That trend of performing to a high level continued for Verdugo over the summer and into the early stages of the fall. From August 4 through the end of the 2020 season, the left-handed hitter slashed .320/.378/.514 with six home runs, 15 RBI, and four stolen bases over his final 45 games (193 plate appearances) of the year.

“I felt like towards the middle and end of the season, I was a lot better,” said Verdugo. “I was a lot better. I was able to handle it more. It was kind of cool, Jason Varitek got a nice little punching bag right in the tunnel. So we’d go down there and I got a nice little inflatable pitching bag with my Verdugo jersey on it. No. 99.”

Verdugo will look to carry over the individual success he enjoyed in 2020 into 2021 for a Red Sox team that figures to be much more competitive than they were last year.

The 6-foot, 205 pounder is no stranger to playing for a team with postseason aspirations, and one of his former teammates on that particular team — Milton’s own Rich Hill — believes that Verdugo can take that next stop with the Sox.

The 41-year-old Hill, now a member of the Tampa Bay Rays, was Verdugo’s teammate with the Dodgers for parts of the 2017, 2018, and 2019 campaigns.

While the veteran left-hander was one of those who initially took issue with the way Verdugo went about his business upon getting called up by the Dodgers in 2017, he also realized — and still realizes — the potential the young outfielder has to do special things on the field.

“When I heard the trade happened, I had gotten the chance to talk to a few people in Boston and just said, ‘Hey, you guys got a really good player here, and not just any player,'” Hill told Olney. “I think he can be a perennial All-Star and be a standout in Boston because of his ability to put the bat to the ball and consistently create damage with runners on and/or start a rally.

“Again, it’s the way he goes about playing the game,” the former Red Sox hurler added. “I think of players right off the top of my head who play hard. Like a Chase Utley for example, a Clayton Kershaw, a Dustin Pedroia. You look at Jose Abreu with the White Sox. I put Alex in that category. It doesn’t have to be just position players, right? I mentioned a few pitchers because when you go to the game and you buy the ticket, you want to see the intensity and the passion from the player — whether it’s the pitcher or position player.”

Pedroia, who retired from the game of baseball in February after spending 14 big-league seasons with the Sox, was teammates with Hill for parts of the 2010, 2011, 2012, and 2015 seasons.

“Dustin kind of rejuvenated me and got more out of myself when I saw his effort and what he brought on a daily basis and what consistent intensity looked like ,” said Hill. “That was something I saw and was like, ‘Wow, if this guy is showing up at 1 o’clock and he’s ready with a full batting practice uniform on, it wasn’t fake. It was real.’ It was every single day.

“And that’s what Alex has,” he continued. “Alex has that every single day, it’s the same mentality. It’s the passion, the joy, the intensity, the love for the game. However you want to put a title over it, he has that for the game. So he’s going to do fine here in Boston.”

Based off his style of play, Verdugo is someone who feeds the energy of the crowd regardless of which ballpark he is at.

After going through an entire season with no fans in the stands in 2020 due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, Verdugo is relishing the opportunity to play in front of a crowd –albeit a reduced one — at not only Fenway Park, but venues like Yankee Stadium as well in 2021.

“I think the fans are a big part of the game,” he said. “I miss that interaction where they’re talking their smack. They’re letting you have it. Especially when I’m in New York. If I’m in the Yankees’ stadium, I want that, man. I want it. I know you got to be careful what you ask for, but for me, I love it. I really do.”

(Picture of Mitch Moreland and Alex Verdugo: Bryan M. Bennett/Getty Images)

Author: Brendan Campbell

Blogging about the Boston Red Sox since April '17. Also support Tottenham Hotspur.

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