Hours before first pitch, Jean Segura has already put in enough work to require a change of clothes. Since arriving in Milwaukee last summer as part of the trade that sent Zack Greinke to the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, this has been a signature of the young shortstop. He works, his shirts soaked through, long before the first pitch is thrown each day.
The work ethic has been consistent, dating back to his Brewers debut on Aug. 6 of last year, an 0-for-4 performance against Cincinnati, yet something has changed in the 23-year-old.
Listed at 5-feet, 10-inches –though that might be generous – Segura seemed like he could fit entirely into his locker, soft spoken, somewhat unsure when he arrived in Milwaukee last summer.
Such unsteadiness could be traced to the batter’s box, usually a place of extreme comfort. Segura had hit his entire baseball life, from the age of 17 in the Angels rookie league through Class AA Huntsville for the Brewers. Then, the majors – and things didn’t come as easy.
He admitted he was trying too hard to hit once in Milwaukee, trying to prove he was worth trading a Cy Young winner for.
This year, such sheepishness has disappeared. He has a presence. He seems bigger than even his listed measurements; solid, sure. His general manager and manager see it, his teammates can feel it.
Yes, Segura has developed "it," due in large part to the fact he struggled for a time in 2012.
"In spring training he got comfortable with guys, playing the ball the way he’s been playing, he’s been doing a great job for us," Brewers second baseman Rickie Weeks said. "You really can’t teach experience. The biggest thing for him is knowing he has the confidence in his hitting ability
"He’s going to be a great player for this town and this team for a long time."
Finally caught in front of locker after a long workout, Segura is still catching his breath when he entertains questions from a reporter. He admits he’s found his place, too, in less than a half a season into his major league career.
A lot of that has to do with the organization itself, which called him up after just eight games at Class AA.
"It helped me a little bit because you know you go out there in spring training and you know you’ve got your position," Segura said. "You relax your mind and you don’t worry about doing bad. You know you’re going to be out there every day. It’s a little bit different if you come to the ballpark and you don’t know if you’re going to be there. Now, I feel good, I know I’m going to be there every day and that’s awesome."
"Relax" has been a key word for Segura, almost as much as "experience." He feels no pressure, not in the lineup, not from his teammates, and no longer from himself. Now, it’s just baseball.
"Just go out there and compete and try not to do too much," he said of his daily approach. "When you try to do too much the team doesn’t do well. That’s what it’s about in baseball – if you try to do too much you’re not doing anything. But when you relax, and you focus when you work out, when you focus when you look at this pitcher, recognize your strike zone, recognize the pitching, you’re going to be better. The more games you play in the big leagues you’re going to get better because you know you have the belief you can play every day and the talent to put up the numbers."
The numbers have been extraordinary so far in 2013. In seven games, Segura is hitting .458 with an OPS of 1.250. He is reaching base 50 percent of the time as well. But Segura’s offensive adjustment to major league pitching began last year as the Brewers made a late run at the second National League wildcard. He hit .328 over his final 21 games and then carried that over into winter ball where he won the Dominican Winter League batting title. That carried over into spring training where he continued to turn heads.
"With the experience he had last year, especially offensively coming back at the end of the year and swinging the bat well, the winter ball session, the spring training he’s had, this is a very confident kid," Roenicke said.
It’s not all confidence though, which is where the work – and the study – comes in.
"As a hitter, you learn this game," he said. "If you’ve got four, five years in the big leagues, you’re going to learn what you’re supposed to do. I’m still learning how to hit the ball. I’ve got to hit the ball the other way. When you play every day and when you see pitchers, you figure it out quickly. They’re going to pitch you every time, so you figure it out quickly how you’re going to hit the pitch, how you recognize the pitch, that kind of stuff."
The total package has the Brewers doing cartwheels over the deal that brought Segura to Milwaukee. Could the team have used Greinke during the stretch run? Sure. But now, as Weeks said, the organization may have its shortstop and future top of the order hitter for the next decade.
It’s a sentiment the man currently charged with putting the team together echoed.
"He is probably even better than what we had thought when we made the deal, probably gone beyond the expectations when we made the deal," Brewers general manager Doug Melvin said. "I’m not sure that we really thought he would be a big leaguer at this time.
"We’re pretty fortunate to have him. Some clubs are still looking for shortstops and we have a guy you can build around."
Jim Owczarski is an award-winning sports journalist and comes to Milwaukee by way of the Chicago Sun-Times Media Network.
A three-year Wisconsin resident who has considered Milwaukee a second home for the better part of seven years, he brings to the market experience covering nearly all major and college sports.
To this point in his career, he has been awarded six national Associated Press Sports Editors awards for investigative reporting, feature writing, breaking news and projects. He is also a four-time nominee for the prestigious Peter J. Lisagor Awards for Exemplary Journalism, presented by the Chicago Headline Club, and is a two-time winner for Best Sports Story. He has also won numerous other Illinois Press Association, Illinois Associated Press and Northern Illinois Newspaper Association awards.
Jim's career started in earnest as a North Central College (Naperville, Ill.) senior in 2002 when he received a Richter Fellowship to cover the Chicago White Sox in spring training. He was hired by the Naperville Sun in 2003 and moved on to the Aurora Beacon News in 2007 before joining OnMilwaukee.com.
In that time, he has covered the events, news and personalities that make up the PGA Tour, LPGA Tour, Major League Baseball, the National Football League, the National Hockey League, NCAA football, baseball and men's and women's basketball as well as boxing, mixed martial arts and various U.S. Olympic teams.
Golf aficionados who venture into Illinois have also read Jim in GOLF Chicago Magazine as well as the Chicago District Golfer and Illinois Golfer magazines.