Power-driven approach led to Casali's best season

Former 'situational hitter' crushed 10 homers in 101 at-bats for Rays in 2015

Power-driven approach led to Casali's best season

ST. PETERSBURG -- Curt Casali's meteoric offensive rise in 2015 seemingly came out of nowhere.

A spray-hitting catcher seemed to morph overnight into a power threat. What a difference an approach can make.

Casali hit 10 home runs in 101 at-bats for the Rays before sustaining a season-ending left-hamstring strain on a home run trot Aug. 25 against the Twins. He hadn't shown such power in the past.

Casali hit seven home runs as a senior at Vanderbilt and just 26 in 958 Minor-League at-bats heading into the 2015 season. According to Rays manager Kevin Cash, the difference literally came down to a decision to swing for the fences.

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"Just watching him in Spring Training and when he first came up, you've got a 6-foot-3, 230-pound guy that looked like he kind of wanted to carve the ball, hit the ball the other way," Cash said. "Have ultra-quality at-bats, and all that."

Cash pointed out Casali changed his approach to where he looks for his pitch and takes a rip when he gets it. The Rays manager credited coaches Derek Shelton and Jamie Nelson for implementing the change.

"They've kind of let him go," Cash said. "Go hit. You can get tied up -- especially a young player -- in trying to do so much, and 'I don't want to swing at a ball out of the zone' and 'I don't want to roll over.' It's kind of like, 'Who cares? Go hit.'

"It's allowed him to be free, and we've seen the power. He's hit some mammoth [blasts]."

Casali said he'd always thought of himself as a "situational hitter, just trying to get the guy over, doubles and things." Now the catcher uses a high leg kick, a more aggressive approach at the plate, and a slightly different grip. And that's "made a world of difference for me in harnessing more power."

Striking out more is an offshoot of taking a bigger cut at the plate, which Casali said he was "not too thrilled" about, but he recognizes the value of the change.

"If I can compensate for [striking out more] by driving the ball and getting guys in, I think it's a fair compromise," Casali said.

Casali said he's "100 percent" healed from his injury.

Casali's 10th home run

"I definitely took a few weeks off doing nothing, as per the request of our trainers," Casali said. "It seemed to have worked. During the season, I tried to get back; pushing it probably didn't help. But at the time, that was my only option, to try and get back before the season ended.

"Getting some rest was what the doctor ordered. I'm feeling awesome right now, working out really hard. I have no limitations, and that's the important thing right now."

Casali began hitting off a tee last week and "easing back into it a little bit." Based on last year's offensive success, he is looking forward to 2016.

"I really am excited," Casali said. "I don't know if I'm excited based on the potential numbers some people project me to have. But I felt really good at the plate last year and in a place I hadn't been in some months."

Casali wants to spend the offseason refining what he implemented last season.

"I think if I can master it a little more and keep getting stronger in the weight room, good things should happen for me," he said.

Casali appears to be the front-runner to start at catcher for Tampa Bay in 2016. He'll likely be competing for the job against Rene Rivera, Luke Maile and newly acquired Hank Conger. The Rays have not anointed any one of the group as the starter.

Rays acquire Conger from Astros

"I don't think anybody should be necessarily handed the position right off the bat unless you're a huge-name guy," Casali said. "I'm looking forward to meeting Hank and hanging out with him and seeing what he's about. And hopefully he's about the winning mentality, because that's what we need and that's what I want to bring to the team most of all should I be on it. I'm really looking forward to getting back to Spring Training."

Bill Chastain is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.