On Monday, Ian Rice was named Hitter of the Week in the Southern League. For the week, the Tennessee Smokies catcher/first baseman hit .613 with 3 home runs and 9 RBI. For the year, Rice is hitting .311 with an amazing .462 OBP to go with those 3 homers and 11 RBI. That continues a trend of wreaking havoc for the last year with his bat while drawing lots of walks. Working primarily behind the plate this year at Tennessee, Rice’s bat and approach have led him to a .988 OPS.
— Tennessee Smokies (@smokiesbaseball) May 8, 2017
Last year, Cubs Insider profiled Rice breaking out at South Bend in early June. He was promoted to Myrtle Beach Shortly after that article, at which point he continued hitting homers for the Pelicans. Rice wound up hitting .265 between South Bend and Myrtle Beach with a combined .380 OBP. He smashed 15 home runs for the year, which was second most in the Cubs minor league system, and also drove in 58 runs in 97 games.
This quick start to May is somewhat of a surprise, though not because he’s hitting. Rather, it is because he was assigned to AA Tennessee. It was expected that Rice would head back to Myrtle Beach to get some more seasoning on his defense, but things changed in the last two weeks in Mesa. Rice made the shorter eastward journey to Kodak, where he now learns under the tutelage of Mark Johnson, Smokies manager and former major league catcher.
Of the 97 games in which Rice appeared in 2016, he played fewer than a third (31) behind the plate. He has already caught 14 games out of Tennessee’s 30 this season, putting him on pace to catch around 70 games. Last year, he only threw out 12 percent of runners stealing (5/37) and this year he has not caught any (0/9). In short, he still has plenty to work on behind the plate.
Then again, it is all about his bat.
Rice brings to the plate three things as a hitter that make him successful
- A short, quick stroke
- Elite pitch-recognition skills
- The ability to lay off pitches and work a walk
In the video below, you see how quickly Rice can get to the ball and thus provide lift from his 6-foot frame.
While Rice is having a nice season to date, there’s no need to rush him to Iowa as Victor Caratini is there doing Victor Caratini things. At 23, Rice’s bat is clearly his calling card, but his defense will determine how fast he makes it to the next level.
As part of an organization that has some redundancy at catcher with Caratini, Myrtle Beach’s PJ Higgins, and 18-year-old Miguel Amaya, Rice is going to have to separate himself from the others. Hitting .600 in a week is a good start.