Youth is served with Padres' Decker
Outfield prospect shines at plate despite young age
PEORIA, Ariz. -- It wasn't until the last game of the regular season was over when a reporter approached Jaff Decker and told him he finished the regular season one point shy of a .300 batting average.
Naturally, Decker, a Padres outfield prospect, was a little miffed, especially during the subsequent offseason when a family member used it for a little good-natured ribbing.
"I heard from my dad all the time," Decker said. "He's like, 'How can you not get one more hit?' I wish I had gotten that half a hit or whatever it would have taken. But I'll take .299 and a championship any day over .300 and no championship."
That's a tradeoff Decker, the 42nd overall pick in the 2008 Draft, can certainly live with.
Decker was a member of what many regarded as the top Minor League baseball team in professional baseball in 2009 -- the Class A Fort Wayne TinCaps of the Midwest League, who won 101 games, including the playoffs, for a .678 winning percentage.
Decker, in his first full-season campaign, hit .299 with 16 home runs, 64 RBIs and a .442 on-base percentage. Not bad for a player who turned 20 years old last month and played against foes who were two or three years older than him.
"I think that Jaff might have been the youngest guy in the league," said Mike Wickham, the Padres director of Minor League operations. "His approach, though, is as good if not better than guys 2-3 years older than him."
The TinCaps, despite several player promotions, won the Midwest League championship.
"It was one of the greatest baseball experiences I've ever had," Decker said. "A bunch of great guys ... we had speed, power, played great defense and had great pitching. To win it and share that with those guys, it was one of the greatest accomplishments I had."
The season certainly didn't start as well as it finished for Decker, who missed part of the end of Spring Training and April with the TinCaps after suffering a concussion while he gave chase to a fly ball in Arizona.
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"I dove for a ball against the wall and hit the wall the wrong way," Decker said. "It was early in Spring Training. I think I missed the first week and half [of the regular season]. They wanted me to take it slow. But it was fine. I got back on track fast."
Decker hit .238 in seven games in April for the TinCaps but hit his stride in May (.309) and his consistent play served him well even in the dog days of the season, as Decker would hit .320 in August all while playing more games in one season than he ever had.
"I think I held up pretty well. I think it was 500 at-bats altogether," Decker said. "I thought it was going to be worse than it was, like in July, how you get homesick. But I don't think my play suffered."
Nor did his play suffer in a league where he was consistently facing pitchers who were older than him and, in many cases, had pitched at the college level.
"I've been playing against older guys my entire life," Decker said. "I played on varsity my freshman year. The older guys have more experience than I do. But I look at it as I can learn more from them. I'll talk to the college guys more about how to endure a long season. I had some guys on the team that helped me a lot."
Something else that has helped Decker is living within 10 minutes of the Padres' Spring Training facility in Peoria, Ariz. Decker, a left-handed hitter, attended high school in Peoria at Sunrise Mountain High.
"I got pretty lucky where I don't have to travel the whole nation," he said. "It was really important my first year as well, being able to go to the complex to work out and hit. It's kind of an all-year-round thing for me."
Wickham said Decker will begin the season at Class A Lake Elsinore of the California League, where he'll again be one of the youngest players in the league. As for what the Padres want to see from him in 2010, it's mostly more of the same.
"Hitting lefties, but we feel that is something that will come with experience," Wickham said. "He'll get it. We would like to see him continue to use the whole field and not get into pull-mode.
"He'll get it. He's got a real polished approach. That's what we're trying to teach."
Corey Brock is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.