Miguel Vargas had never done anything like this in his entire baseball life.
In each of his Cactus League at bats so far this spring, the Dodgers’ rookie second baseman has walked to the plate, held his upright stance, and swung his bat as he waited for a pitch.
However, at no point did Vargas make a swing, at least not in any game.
“It’s so weird,” the 23-year-old said with a self-mockery last weekend. “I feel so uncomfortable on the board.”
There is a reason behind the apparent spring madness. During the first week of camp, Vargas suffered a hairline crack in his right little finger when he grounded out.
It was not a serious injury. No surgery or even a cast was necessary. His defense has remained untouched and therefore the upcoming big league infielder has still played in exhibition games.
But out of an abundance of caution, the Dodgers blocked Vargas from swinging in one of those live at bats.
“It’s part of what I have to do,” Vargas said. “And whenever I can, I’m ready to swing.”
The Dodgers hope that day will come soon. According to manager Dave Roberts, the team is focusing on Wednesday’s game to clear Vargas for his first real spring swing.
For an acclaimed prospect best known for his bat, it was an odd experience.
However, the longer it goes on, the more the situation has produced some unexpected silver linings.
“He understands the process,” Roberts said. “And I just think the value we’ve had in getting him out there, getting his legs under him and playing some defense has been really helpful.”
The most notable result: Vargas has continued to get on base regularly in recent weeks.
Four times in his 10 at bats, opposing pitchers have walked Vargas – oblivious to his limitations or more focused on their own mechanics and care delivery.
Zack Greinke was an exception on Saturday night, throwing Vargas a 59 mph curveball knowing he wasn’t going to bid for it.
Furthermore, Vargas has made a comical habit of taking four balls and waking up to first base.
“They probably don’t know,” joked Vargas, who walked only twice in 50 at bats in the Dutch big league during his debut season last year. “If they knew, they’d probably use three fields.”
It also has an underlying advantage, allowing Vargas to track a slew of pitches as he prepares for what should be his first full MLB campaign.
“He’s seen so many pitches at the plate,” said Roberts. “I think that’s also a way to help.”
Vargas’ shortened time in the batting cage has also been constructively redistributed.
Because his pitches aren’t hindered by his injured little finger, Vargas has not only been able to continue defensive drills, but has also been able to spend more time fielding grounders around the infield. It’s a potential key development for a player whose defense is in high demand at second base, a position the Dodgers have little depth in the wake of Gavin Lux’s season-ending knee injury.
Finding a defensive fit for Vargas has been challenging for the Dodgers throughout his minor league career. He primarily played third base while in their farm system, and last year experimented in left field as well.
It’s second place where Vargas feels most comfortable.
So far in camp, during games and backfield drills, he’s been prone to countless misspellings, from kicked grounders to foul throws.
“It’s part of the experience,” Roberts said. “But as long as the intention, the way he prepares (don’t change) — there will be growing pains. That is obvious.”
Roberts thinks Vargas has the athletic resources to succeed at second, and he just needs to brush up on his fundamentals, from playing lower on the dirt to drilling more consistent arm motion with his throws to first base.
“There have been some really spectacular plays,” Roberts said, referring to some of Vargas’ diving efforts in his early spring games. “And then there have been some plays that I think he could have made. So I think at this point we expected that. But our expectation is that he expects to get better every day.”
With his broken little finger keeping his daily schedule free, Vargas was often one of the last players to leave the Camelback Ranch backfields each afternoon. Usually that extra work is done under the guidance of infield coaches Dino Ebel and Chris Woodward, and alongside veterans like Miguel Rojas and Mookie Betts.
“I involved a lot of people in the process,” Vargas said. “They helped me a lot.”
The fruits of that work may already be visible.
In a recent extended session with Betts, Vargas fielded almost every grounder nicely, made accurate throws across the diamond from both sides of second base, and seemed more in tune with his body position and footwork.
As it ended, after a smooth double play, Vargas began an underhand somersault to Betts in second, Roberts ran out to greet the rookie, yelling and applauding as if the Dodgers had just won a regular season game.
“That was amazing!” said the manager.
Still, it won’t feel like a normal spring until Vargas can start hacking during games again.
As much as he’s embraced the experiment — “At least I now have excuses if I strike out,” he jokingly said on Saturday — he’s eager to get back to his usual routine on the record.
“I’m just excited to swing,” he said.
When asked what he has learned from his limitations of not swinging, Vargas again offered some humor.
“I mean, it told me if I don’t swing at the ball I’ll probably be first 50% of the time,” he said with a laugh.
But when it was suggested that his on-base percentage would drop when he started swinging again, the confident second baseman was quick to respond – hinting at the hope that his atypical jumping power will eventually help round out his game.
“Maybe not,” he said. “It could go up.”