TRENTON — When they left for Akron late last month, fresh off a sweep-sealing 14-2 loss to the Altoona Curve, the Thunder appeared to be in the grip of a freefall for the ages. On the surface, there was little — if any — reason to believe the team would snap out of its funk in time to prevent both New Britain and Reading from eclipsing them in the race for the playoffs.
Addison Maruszak, however, found no reason to panic.
“Statistically, it didn’t look good,” he recalled. “If you went to the games, you saw we were a line drive away from having a big inning, scoring a run. There were countless games where we’d have second and third — line drive to the third baseman, makes a great catch. … We were swinging the bat good — we just didn’t get any hits. We kept the same mindset when we won.”
That’s Maruszak in a nutshell. He bypasses the game’s prima facie and instead digs for the deeper nuggets, beyond both box scores and traditional thinking. He’ll talk baseball with you as long you like, and will do so with the aplomb of someone destined to be a dugout lifer.
Moreover, after spending last year as little more than an always-willing utilityman who drew a ton of walks, Maruszak has established himself over the last five months as an everyday shortstop, a threat in the middle of the order and — in a year that placed premiums on both health and versatility — the Thunder’s most valuable player.
That success hasn’t come without a bit of serendipity.
When camp broke in April, Maruszak was slated to join Jose Pirela and Yadil Mujica as part of the team’s extremely malleable bench. When Pirela and Walter Ibarra — the starting shortstop — went on the shelf within the season’s first month, however, Maruszak’s role quickly shifted, and the chance was there to reaffirm his worth to the only organization he’s known.
With three scorching months, it’s obvious he made the most of his opportunity. From May 1 until Aug. 1, when it seemed like he barreled everything thrown his way, Maruszak hit .313/.362/.519 with 16 doubles, a triple, and 12 home runs. The longball total for that period was just four behind Darin Ruf, the league’s MVP and Rookie of the Year.
He finished the season with a .276 average, on-base and slugging percentages of .330 and .457, a team-best 25 doubles, 16 homers, 59 RBIs and just 78 whiffs in 416 at-bats. The home run total stands as the most for an everyday shortstop in franchise history.
That success was forged through hours upon hours of hard work, both the in the cages and in front of a video screen with hitting coach Tom Slater, identifying and removing flaws from his swing.
“I think the biggest thing for Addy is that he’s got more confidence,” Slater explained. “He’s playing more regularly than he was at the beginning of the year. He’s a guy that got a chance to get in the lineup day in and day out. He’s seized that opportunity, and the results have been pretty good.”
Before the injuries to Ibarra and Pirela gave him a chance to re-establish himself at shortstop, Maruszak’s value continued to lie in his versatility. In fact, within the first week of the season, he had already played at each of the four spots on the infield.
That continued the trend from 2011, when he played every infield position besides, ironically, shortstop. He also saw time in the outfield and even made four starts at catcher.
The genesis behind him seeing even limited action as a backstop started years ago, when Jorge Posada – who was doing a little bit of guest instruction with Tino Martinez at the University of South Florida – saw a little bit of his past in Maruszak.
“Tino told him about me in college, and Jorge had been joking with me ever since, saying ‘Oh, you’re going to become a catcher, believe me. That’s what happened to me,’” Maruszak recounted. “I was like ‘OK, yeah, we’ll see,’ and then it happened, and Jorge was like ‘Hey, I told you so.’”
He learned the position during the instructional league after the 2010 season with the goal of making himself even more useful. Playing all first, second, third and shortstop is special enough, he thought, but adding catching to resume would be even more beneficial to his resume and could also help further ingratiate him to the organization’s decision-makers.
“I was pumped for it, because I really wanted to learn. If I could do that, that raises my stock as a player. It’s huge,” he said. “If I can play every position, I can open a roster spot up on a team. … When that came about I was eager to do it.”
He hasn’t been behind the dish this year, but he still carries a catcher’s mitt among in his equipment bag, just in case. And with Jose Gil freshly promoted to Triple-A, Maruszak stands as the team’s emergency backstop should something happen to both J.R. Murphy and Jeff Farnham.
Mark Newman possesses the most influential set of eyes in the organization, and he made clear last week that the Yankees have definitely taken notice of Maruszak’s work ethic, and are certainly aware of the value he provides, both now and well into the future.
“He’s another example of why we should be careful putting limits on human beings’ potential to grow and achieve things,” Newman said. “He’s at our complex in Tampa all the time in the offseason. He works, he catches, he helps, and he catches rehab pitchers.
“He’s a fabulous person. He works incredibly hard and you can’t be any happier than all of us are for Addison for the kind of year he’s had, the contribution he’s made to this team, and for the way he’s pushed his career ahead.”
In a conversation with reporters toward the beginning of this season, well before his bat caught fire, Maruszak was asked if, because of his deep and obvious study of the game, he’d ever considered becoming a coach someday.
He replied that yes, he had, but didn’t want to do so until his playing career was over, “in about 10 years.” As he was walking back from the hallway and into the clubhouse, perhaps realizing he’d undersold his own abilities, he turned back to the media and said “make it 15 years.”
With the way he’s performed this season and the can-do attitude he brings into every challenge he faces, he might be wise to extend that thinking even further.