Hand working to make progress in new role for Salukis

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By Thomas Donley, @TdonleyDE

SIU sophomore Jake Hand is seeing baseball from a new angle, trading the tools of ignorance for the open range of the outfield. 

Hand found out about a week before the start of baseball season that he would primarily be an outfielder. 

Hand had been a catcher since he was in fourth grade, but the arrivals of junior catcher Taylor Martin, a transfer from Walters State Community College and freshman catcher Nick Hutchins allowed the Salukis to move Hand away from the dish defensively. 

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While he was not necessarily excited about the news, Hand has embraced the move, taking extra fly balls before and after practice as often as possible. 

“Pretty much anything that gets me onto the field, I don’t mind,” Hand said. “To be as good an outfielder as I can be, I know I have to work really hard at it, and I like to work hard. That’s something that I really want to do.“ 

Hand’s .885 fielding percentage is the worst on the team. He works with assistant coach Ryan Strain on his defense every day in practice. 

Strain said Hand’s natural athleticism has helped him make the transition. 

“It’s a work in progress, but he’s improving,” Strain said. “It’s not easy, being behind the plate his whole career and going out there trying to judge fly balls, but he’s been working hard at it. He’s getting better each day.” 

Hand has started 26 games this season, fourth most on the team. Eleven of those starts have come in left field, seven in right and eight at designated hitter. 

He is currently batting .247 and is second on the team with 13 RBIs, primarily batting cleanup.

Coach Ken Henderson said Hand does not let his defensive struggles affect his offensive output. 

“He’s made some mistakes out there, as you would expect from a guy who’s transitioning,” Henderson said. “But I don’t think he lets it carry over. I think he’s been frustrated and he wants to be better at it, and that’s why he works at it.” 

Hand played in 44 of SIU’s 57 games as a freshman in 2014, batting .246 with 9 RBIs. 

Although he was behind Arizona Diamondbacks signee Matt Jones on the depth chart at catcher, he hit his way into the lineup. He started 30 games, 21 of them in right field, eight behind the plate and one as designated hitter.  

Henderson said last season that Strain was really pushing to get Hand’s bat into the lineup. The outfield was the only option. 

Once Hand got used to making throws from the outfield, Hand said reading batted balls has presented the biggest challenge for him. 

“The hardest part has been getting good reads on certain balls,” Hand said. “There are easy plays, but then you’ll get a ball hit over your head and you’re trying to catch balls near the fence or sinking liners. I still haven’t gotten used to that.” 

Although Hand is no longer punishing his knees by constantly squatting in a catcher’s stance, his legs have found the outfield to present a different kind of wear and tear.

“You would expect catching to get you a lot more tired with that much squatting,” Hand said. “But I remember the first weekend I played outfield and I had to run back and forth to my position between innings, my legs have never been so tired playing baseball before. I thought they were going to feel good playing outfield, but after that much running they get tired more.”

Thomas Donley can be reached at [email protected] or at 536-3311 ext. 269

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