In his first full season, Inland Empire's Jose Rondon is starting to get noticed for something unexpected: his defense.
"He's always going to be able to hit," 66ers manager Denny Hocking said of the Angels' No. 5 prospect.
Indeed, Rondon is batting .322, fourth among active California Leaguers. But the 20-year-old Venezuelan is also quietly putting together a defensive campaign that ought to end speculation that he won't be able to permanently hold his own at shortstop.
"All it is, really, is working day-to-day on the little things," Rondon said through 66ers trainer Omar Uribe, serving as interpreter. "In a season, it's a daily grind, and I'm practicing the little things every day."
Rondon has a .965 fielding percentage, with 10 errors in 282 chances. He's turned 37 double plays -- only High Desert's Tyler Smith (40) and Stockton's Daniel Robertson (40) have executed more. But these numbers do nothing to convey Rondon's real improvement, which is the way he moves around the ball.
"I spent the last three days talking to a Red Sox scout, and he says he loves [Rondon's] action," said Hocking. "P.J. Forbes, who manages the Rancho Cucamonga Quakes, the Dodgers' affiliate, is somebody I've known a long time -- I played against him in the Arizona Fall League -- and he told me he likes [Rondon's] action."
"I relayed that to him. I said, 'There's people around this league and around baseball who come to watch you play. They like your action. With the work you've done, you've made the defensive side of baseball important.' I try to have him understand that, that good fundamentals on the defensive side of the ball can be important for him."
Getting Rondon to invest in his defense has been a long-term goal for Hocking, who played at shortstop for pieces of 13 seasons in the big leagues.
"I had a chance to see him last year in extended spring training, and this year in Spring Training, and during our Spring Training conversation, I let him know that I'm here to help," Hocking said. "I told him as long as I can earn his trust and he can believe in me and the work we're doing, he was going to get better."
While Rondon has grown, Hocking sees more work to be done.
"For me, I'd like to see him make all the routine plays at shortstop. If he can get better that way, he's going to give himself the opportunity to play the game at a much higher level," the manager said.
"When I say 'better,' for me, 'better' coincides with 'consistent.' I don't need him to make a ton of diving plays in the hole or making spinning plays up the middle. My idea is, I want him to make any play he can get his glove on the ball."
Rondon missed from June 1-23 with a minor hamstring strain, as the Angels wanted to make sure a tweak suffered on the basepaths didn't turn into something more serious. That trip to the disabled list was bookended by four doubles and eight singles over a 10-game span. He has 16 doubles, three triples, and no homers through the end of June.
"I'm focusing more on going gap-to-gap. I'm not really going the power route," Rondon said. "I'm happy with the results so far. I just want to keep doing what I'm doing, and what comes will come."
That jives with Hocking's vision of Rondon as a hitter.
"He's a contact hitter. He has control of the strike zone," Hocking said. "He doesn't have a high walk rate, but that's only because when he swings he usually puts the bat on the ball. He loves hitting behind runners. To me, that's what makes him an ideal No. 2 hitter."
But Rondon is developing into a player who can have a positive day at the ballpark even when he has a lousy game at the plate.
"[Sunday] is a great indication of how he can have a good game," Hocking said. "You look at the box score, you'll see he was 0-for-4 with two strikeouts, but he made five or six nice plays coming in on the ball that were fundamentally sound."
In like a lion...: San Jose's Kendry Flores had an inauspicious beginning to June, but the 22-year-old righty nonetheless saw his ERA dip from 5.94 on May 31 to 4.84 on July 1. In his first start of the month, on June 4, High Desert got to Flores for seven runs -- only two earned -- on nine hits and two walks over 3 2/3 innings. But even in that ugly outing, the Giants' 20th-ranked prospect struck out six.
Over three starts in the rest of the month, he permitted just five runs over 20 2/3 innings while piling up 30 strikeouts. His 85 punchouts on the season are third among active Cal League hurlers.
Making tremors: After going 32-38 to finish the first half of the season in second-to-last place in the South Division, Rancho Cucamonga is off to a 10-1 start to the second half. The Quakes have outscored opponents 73-44 in that span, and they enter July coming off a four-game sweep of the rival 66ers at Inland Empire.
Rancho Cucamonga has continued to benefit from a fine season by top Dodgers prospect Corey Seager, but an eye-opening campaign from Adam Law and the explosive bat of Chris Jacobs have also been major factors.
Law went 6-for-16 (.375) immediately following the break, and Jacobs -- who has 16 dingers on the year -- has gone yard five times since the start of the second half.
Deja Vu: Stockton's Renato Nunez, who's Oakland's No. 6 prospect, has had two two-homer games in the last week. The first came during a 4-for-4 performance on June 25, and he repeated the trick four days later.
Despite six long balls in a 10-game span and 16 on the year, Nunez doesn't even lead the Ports in homers. That honor belongs to Matt Olson, who's pacing the Cal League -- and the entire A's system -- with 23.