Going into the 2016 season, several of us from Talking Chop made the trek up to Rome to put our eyes on what we expected to be the most interesting Braves affiliate in terms of prospects. Between a stellar rotation and guys like Austin Riley being high on our lists of players to look at, we were pleasantly surprised that two of the players that stood out the most for us were not who we expected. One was Ronald Acuna, who probably has more helium in his stock than anyone in baseball right now. He makes us feel smart until we realize that anyone who actually watches him knows how good he is.
The other player was Ray-Patrick Didder. We saw a player who could flat out fly (there is plus to plus-plus speed in his legs), drove the ball with authority to the gaps, although he isn’t a middle of the order bat, and had great range with a strong arm in the outfield. After a decent first half, he came on even stronger in the second half with a .289/.399/.387 line after the All-Star break, which brought his season totals to .274/.387/.381 with 30 XBHs, 37 steals, 95 runs scored. He also displayed a supernatural ability to get hit by pitches with a staggering 39 HBPs in 2016. There’s also the 20 outfield assists worth mentioning from his arm, as well. While he is already appearing on organizational top prospects lists, if he can continue his production down in Florida for the Fire Frogs, he could easily make his way up even higher.
I reached out to RDP and he very graciously agreed to be interviewed by yours truly. We talked about his path to the pros, the challenges he has faced as he has ascended the minor leagues, and how he approaches the game. Enjoy!
When did you start playing baseball and did you play any other sports growing up?
I started playing baseball when I was 4. I have two older sisters who played softball, so before I even went to practice with a team I would play with them in the yard. I played basketball for like a month when I was 12 and I played soccer for school tournaments but I didn’t like it.
You did not come from a place that is normally known for producing many baseball players. What was organized baseball like in Aruba? Is there a lot of talent there?
Baseball there is tough. You play like 12 games a year, so there is not a lot of baseball there but you will find talented players there. You will find guys who want to play baseball and want to play professional baseball, but you will also find guys who just want to play for the fun of it. There have been a few guys who have been pro players, but the only Aruban baseball player in the big leagues right now is Xander Bogaerts. Bogaerts and I… he is like my big brother. In the offseason, I practice with him all the time, hang out all the time, go out all the time. In the offseason, I am almost always with him.
When did you notice that major league teams were interested in you? What made you decide to sign with the Braves?
It wasn’t until I was like 16 and I did a tryout with I think the Cincinnati Reds. After a week or so, they called me back and offered me a contract, but I didn’t find the contract to be too good so I declined it. I just kept practicing and there were tryouts and tryouts. Teams would be like, “We like you, we will come back and see you,” but they never came back and I never heard from them again.
After that, I went to Curacao to do a showcase for school and there was a Braves scout over there from Curacao. He contacted me a couple of days after the showcase, well, he contacted my dad, and he told him that he was coming to Aruba and asked if he knew a few other guys that were talented. He came down and we did a tryout and he told me to come back to Curacao because the international scout would be there. I got a ticket to Curacao and did a tryout there. After a couple of days, I signed a contract with the Braves.
You were an infielder when you first signed, what caused you to switch to the outfield in 2015 and how hard was that transition?
I remember it was the last of spring, I had a good spring so I was thinking I would break camp with Rome two years ago. Then, when I got to camp and I saw the roster, I saw they had put me in the outfield and I found it strange. After that, the infield instructor came and found me and talked to me and said, “You are going to stay in extended and they are going to make you an outfielder.” It wasn’t tough, but it was hard for me because I grew playing shortstop and only shortstop. They told me that I had a lot of talent and [I had] tools. They were sure I could play outfield. In extended, I just gave it my best and did everything I could. I played outfield for the first time in Danville and I played six games I think in right field and all the rest of the games in center field and I felt great. I didn’t have any problems with reads or any of that.
If you had to pick one aspect about you as a fielder where you particularly excel, what would that be?
I could say speed because it makes my range bigger, but what I am going to say reading the ball. Most of the time, to get a good jump and good read, you have to know where the ball is going. You try to hear the ball off the bat... if it is solid contact you know it’s hard and it’s a good ball so you know when to take off and which route to take. If it’s soft and you don’t hear solid contact, you know that ball might not be over your head or it might be in front of you. That came naturally for me, because I didn’t have any issues in the outfield defensively.
You had an excellent season at Rome where you especially used your speed to your advantage. What is your philosophy as a base runner and what sorts of things do you look for when you are deciding to steal a base?
So, when I have a steal sign... I have a green light. Our first base coach has a stopwatch and he will time the pitcher to the plate and if he is 1.3, 1.28, 1.4 to the plate... that is definitely a stolen base, but if he is like 1.24 or 1.25 it’s harder. When I am trying to steal, I am not thinking about trying to get back to first base. If they pick me off, I am just thinking “second, second, second” and on the first move just go and I think that I am going to get there no matter what. Even if they have a good catcher behind the plate, I am going to beat the throw. If the guy is quick to home plate, I go with the count like if it 1 ball, 2 strikes or a count for off-speed pitches... it just depends.
With left-handed pitchers, I don’t have a problem with them but it is more difficult because sometimes they are readers. When they pick their leg up, they read and if you go to steal they will throw a pick-off. If not, they go to home. I have to work on that, because some pitchers have their decision made but others just read and then go to home or pick-off.
One of the more interesting things about you as a player is that you get hit by a lot of pitches. Is that a function of your approach at the plate or is it also a function of how pitchers try to pitch to you? Also, do you worry about being injured given how often you get hit?
It is kind of both. I can hit a ball to the opposite field better than I can pull the ball, so that is where my power is. That is what I am good at, hitting a ball to right-center. However, there are pitchers that think they have to throw in, but they are in low-A and don’t have their command or control and they will miss. If the ball is close and it is coming on me, I won’t move because it is basically giving me a double. I will get on base from getting hit by a pitch, then I will steal second base. Then, my second and third hitters can hit, so it will be a run for me, an RBI for the other guys, and a run for the team.
Sometimes, a guy will miss up and in and that would be dangerous. If they miss from the like the elbow and below, I don’t have any problems with that. This year, I am going to use the C-flap on the helmet just to be safe. There are some times a pitcher will try to throw a hard fastball up and the ball just keeps sinking in and I think that is dangerous. Some guys think that I am doing it on purpose, it is just that if a pitcher can’t throw a strike and the ball is coming in... I will just stand there and take it, get on base, and help the team win like that.
As a hitter, what was the biggest challenge for you between rookie ball and then your first full season at Rome?
I think it was being consistent. The year before when I was in Danville, I wasn’t consistent. When I found out I was going to Rome, it is a longer season. In Danville, I think I had 200 ABs and I was going to have maybe 500 ABs, so that’s 300 extra at-bats. You have to be consistent, but you can’t get frustrated either because you aren’t getting hits, If you aren’t getting hits, try doing something else. If you are in a slump, try to bunt or if not, just try to put a ball in play. Go back to old basics: see the ball, hit the ball. You can’t go too far up, but you can’t go too low either. You have to be consistent... don’t try to do too much. Know your game and know how you are supposed to play the game.
Your performance ticked up a bit in the second half of last season, was that simply because you had grown more comfortable or did you make any adjustments at the plate?
Again, it was both. You would see these guys before and know how they are going to pitch to you and you know what kind of pitches they have. It is also about adjustments. In the first half, I think I had like 60 strikeouts and no one likes to strike out, so I tried to minimize my strikeouts and in the second half I struck like 40 times. Twenty less strikeouts could mean twenty extra hits. It wasn’t an adjustment to my swing really, it was more in plate discipline. Don’t swing at bad pitches, have a two-strike approach, have an approach every time you go up to home plate, and do everything you can to make contact with the ball because you could always get a hit. With two strikes, they teach us to shorten up a little bit and just put the ball in play and I think that helped me out in the second half.
How was your spring this year? Was this year any different than last year in terms of your experience or level of preparation?
Not really, but one thing I did add this spring was the bunt for a hit. I was working the whole spring on that. The coaches told me you have good speed, but I only had three bunt hits so I needed to work on that. I think I can have 25 bunt singles this year and that will help me get on base, with stolen bases because I will be on base more, and it will help with less strikeouts.
Other than that, I was just working on less strikeouts and more bunts. They told me that that is my game... to put the ball in play, get on base, and steal bases to help the team win.
What is one aspect of your game that you think you need to improve the most going into the season?
Defensively, I just want to do the same thing that I did last year. If runners try to run on you, show them that you can throw them out. You have got to improve each year on something. On offense, it’s just to get on base more and strike out less.
One last question before I let you go. The Rome rotation was pretty famously a close-knit group. Are there any players from that team that you are particularly close to?
Oh yeah... most of them are position [players]. You will find Acuna, Salazar, Riley, Jonathan Morales and I will be there. Most of our pitchers… our rotation from last year with Max Fried, Kolby Allard, and Mike Soroka are skipping high-A and going straight to Double-A. They had a great spring and they deserved it.