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Prospect Q&A: Shaffer set for next big thing

Rays slugger reached Major Leagues in '15, became Internet sensation
February 18, 2016

Richie Shaffer is in a whole different place than he was 18 months ago.

To understand Shaffer's 2015 season, you need to start in 2014. It took until that August for the 24-year-old third baseman to produce a month that could be considered good. He put together a .273/.398/.591 slash line for Double-A Montgomery, improving on his .206/.292/.397 numbers at the start of August.

He carried that momentum into last season, going deep seven times in 39 games for the Biscuits while batting .262. Those statistics were good enough to earn a promotion to Triple-A Durham, where the 2012 first-round pick continued to rake, posting a .937 OPS in 69 games. All told, Shaffer hit a career-high 26 homers and earned his first trip to the big leagues, where he hit four long balls in 31 games for Tampa Bay.

That stint in the Majors gave Shaffer a chance to show off his athleticism, as he saw action at first base, left field and right field in addition to third base. Heading into 2016, he's more confident in where he is now than he was only 18 months ago. Given how much success you had in comparison with 2014, how happy were you with what you accomplished last year?

Shaffer: I was extremely pleased with 2015 in general. I think it was, statistically, my best year. I was happy with a lot of the hard work I've been putting in sort of paying off. I feel that I'm in a good place with my game where I can put myself in a good position to make that jump. What was the difference between the two seasons?

Shaffer: I think it started a little bit past the All-Star break in 2014. I struggled for a good bit of 2014. I think I just put a lot of undue pressure on myself. I just wasn't in a good place with my swing. From the year before, when I was in High-A, I played in Port Charlotte, which is a difficult place to hit, especially for power. In my mind, it didn't give me too much comfort. When I went into the offseason, I felt like I needed to make changes, so I tried to reconstruct my swing into something unnatural from what I had done throughout my whole career.

I tried to do something that wasn't me and it sort of backfired on me pretty quickly. Once I got over that and got back to what I was comfortable with, got back to my sort of natural swing but tweaked it with the help of hitting coaches, that's when I started to see some sort of results, towards the back of 2014. I kind of shot myself in the foot a tiny bit. I tried to be someone I wasn't. The moment I got back to what I was comfortable with and what I had naturally done my whole life is when I started see better results. In the offseason between 2014 and 2015, I really dedicated myself to the weight room and getting more physical and I put on about 20-25 pounds. I saw an instant boost getting into the box and just feeling more physical. When I was a lot stronger and physical, I didn't feel the need to swing so hard. Everything just fell into place after that. That late-season success, how much of a boost did it provide heading into 2015?

Shaffer: I think it was definitely a confidence-booster going into the offseason because I felt like I'm back to what I am and what I know. If I go in here and kill it all offseason and focus on the adjustments I made and focus on getting bigger and stronger and go into the next year and have the ability for the swing and take off. I was hoping that I had done enough to sort of, I know overall my numbers, when you look at them, less-than-desirable numbers on them. I thought I had done enough on the back end of it that I hopefully would not have to repeat. But that wasn't the case.

So I had to start 2015 back in Double-A. I think that was even more motivation to have a little bit of a chip-on-your-shoulder mentality and show everyone those six weeks weren't a fluke. I think that finishing strong at the end of the year was huge for me and I was able to build off that all offseason and go into it confident. The prior offseason went into sort of searching a little bit, like, "Is this going to work?" I was able to go into 2015 with sort of that confidence that this has already worked and I'm just a new and improved version of myself. When you were promoted to Triple-A, you got a chance to play in the state in which you attended high school. What was that experience like?

Shaffer: Durham has got to be the best place in the Minor Leagues to play baseball, I think. I mean, Fourth of July weekend, I think they average 12,000 fans a game. Being close to home, playing in a historic park, playing with a fan base that truly treats you like you're a professional player, it was sort of a perfect storm kind of environment to feel comfortable. I felt like I could focus on going out there and having fun. Playing in Charlotte was awesome, too; I'm from Charlotte. I got to play two- or three-game series in Charlotte, so I got to have my parents and friends see me play. That was awesome, too. What was the callup to the Major Leagues like?

Shaffer: It was awesome. It was everything you could have dreamt about. It was incredible. It was weird, though. I thought that I was gonna get more emotionally strange when I got there. I thought I was going to get overwhelmed emotionally. I think you train for this your whole life and you get to the point where it comes to fruition. I was of the mentality of this felt good, this felt comfortable. I felt like I had earned it the right way. Nothing was ever handed to me because I went through my struggles and I clawed my way back. It was gratifying and a feeling of sort of triumph. You sit there and think this is exactly what you spend your whole life working for. All the blood, sweat and tears come into being in this one moment that you get in the box for the first time. It was kind of funny because I got hit by a pitch, so it was sort of anti-climactic. Your first big league homer on Aug. 4 was something of a sensation, with the video being played all over the internet. What do you remember about it?

Shaffer: That was awesome. That video sort of blew up and became sort of a viral sensation. It was wild. It was a surreal moment because I hit it and I'm rounding first and I'm watching the ball and, usually, you're just running. I'm watching the ball and it goes over [the wall]. I tried to contain myself. I'm smiling ear to ear all the way around the bases, I can't help myself, I'm too pumped and I get into the dugout and I see everyone ignoring me. I was sort of this high of jubilation. I wanted to do something, I didn't want to stand there and be awkward. I was just trying to have a good time and enjoy it and it sort of got a life of its own. You played outfield for the first time at the big league level. What was your comfort level there? Is it something you're working on?

Shaffer: I felt pretty good everywhere. I don't know if I ever played a game in the outfield before the big leagues. We were in Texas, I pinch-hit and they just stuck me out in right field. I was a little uncomfortable, but I just tried to stick it out. You're not going to tell them I'm not [going out there], I wasn't going to let them put someone else in. Sure enough, the ball will always find the new guy: I got a fly ball and a line drive hit at me. After that game, I started taking more reps in the outfield and got in a couple more games and then got optioned down.

Obviously, I'm much more comfortable in the infield, even moreso on the left side. I grew up at shortstop and third. A lot of people forget that I went to the AFLAC All-American Game in high school as a shortstop. I went to college and we had a really big need at first. The left side of the infield is home, but I picked up first base pretty quickly when I went to college. Right now, I feel really comfortable at all four corners. We'll see what happens with that. I saw that you got married this offseason. Bigger thrill -- getting married or that home run?

Shaffer: My wedding day. That was great. That's a setup question. My wedding was perfect. It was a great weekend. My buddies flew in from all over the country. It was pretty awesome to see this collection of guys, teammates I played with in college and high school, guys I played with in the Minor Leagues. It was pretty incredible. They're probably No. 1 and 2, but I gotta give the edge to my wedding. It seems like from your Twitter account, you're a big gamer. What are you playing right now?

Shaffer: I'm a big gamer. Right now, I have an Xbox and a PlayStation. I've been playing a lot of Call of Duty. The past two offseasons, me and a couple of Rays buddies have been playing Destiny all day every day when we're not training.

I became a gamer when I was a little, and baseball is such a game of failure. Even if you're doing well, you're failing constantly. I think I like video games because it neutrals out my level of failure. You don't fail nearly as much. It gives me a sense of relaxation. You mentioned on Twitter meeting your idol, Cal Ripken Jr. How exciting was that?

Shaffer: It was unbelievable. He's a legend, and I think there's a big generational gap between Cal Ripken and the players of today. The records of Cal Ripken, not only do I think they couldn't be broken, but knowing the culture of baseball, it will never happen again. People, they want [their players] playing every day, but they like the fact that they give them a day of rest. It's a little bit of a different game. What he was able to accomplish, I can't even wrap my mind around. I think it's a level of toughness and determination that a lot of players nowadays could benefit from.

Getting to meet him was incredible. He threw out the first pitch that night and two days prior he crashed his bicycle. He hurt his shoulder really bad and had to have labrum surgery, and he threw out the first pitch anyway and you wouldn't have known. The dude's the toughest guy of all-time. He's been an inspiration to me since I was a little kid, to play the game the right way and not take anything for granted.

Robert Emrich is a contributor to Follow him on Twitter @RobertEmrich.