The ball skids across the grass and shortstop Nick Ahmed, long legs and all, glides toward it. It is a spring morning. There are no base runners. Ahmed gobbles it up and flings it across the diamond. He looks like his old self. He feels like it, too.
“I feel like I’ve got that spring back in my step that I kind of lost,” Ahmed said.
Six months removed from major hip surgery, Ahmed’s recovery could be a significant storyline for the Diamondbacks this season.
When healthy, he has been a difference-making defender and a limited offensive contributor. And in his one full big-league season, in 2015, he demonstrated that despite his offensive shortcomings he still could be a positive contributor; sites that generate Wins Above Replacement values pegged Ahmed, on average, as roughly a 2-win player that year, ranking him right around the middle-third of big-league shortstops.
But with nearly all of Ahmed’s value derived from his defense, even a small drop in his range or quickness could have a significant effect on his overall value. So, barring a big jump in his offensive production, the Diamondbacks will need Ahmed to be the same defender he always was.
Whether he will be might not be fully evident until the regular season begins, but the early signs at Salt River Fields are encouraging.
“I see really no difference,” infield coach Tony Perezchica said. “He’s moving around well. He’s real active in all our drill work. During the games, when I see his first step in any direction, it still looks as quick as what I’ve seen in the past. It’s a good sign.”
“He looks great,” second baseman Brandon Drury said. “I know how hard he worked, the time and effort he put into coming back. He came back, it feels like, very fast. He looks good and I know he feels good.”
Ahmed said there wasn’t one moment when the injury occurred, but rather a gradual degradation of his right hip. It started to bother him hitting but soon enough he felt it when he was running or trying to drive off his right leg. After two cortisone shots proved ineffective, Ahmed headed for surgery – a proposition he admitted was scary for someone whose game revolves around explosive actions.
But he said he’s farther along than the training staff, his surgeon or even he expected at this point.
“I think a lot of guys, especially major joint issues whether it’s shoulder, knee or hip, there’s always a hesitation that you’re not going to be the same,” Ahmed said. “But there are a lot of guys who put in the work and trust the people that know how to take care of them and they not only come back, they come back better than before because they learn so much about themselves and their body and what they need.”
Ahmed counts himself among them, even saying his surgery might have been a “blessing in disguise” in terms of what he’s learned about his body. He said he has transitioned to smarter training methods, functional exercises aimed at allowing his body to move more efficiently.
Ahmed, who finds himself competing for time at shortstop this spring, could fit best as someone who gets the majority of his starts against left-handed pitching, against whom he’s fared far better (.682 OPS) than righties (.562) in his career. That would free up the club to play Chris Owings against right-handed pitching. Ketel Marte, an offseason addition, is also said to be a candidate.
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Ahmed, a career .221 hitter, believes he can improve. He’s focused on trying to slow things down at the plate, on keeping himself under control. He also says he’s trying to work the middle of the field and right-center, an approach he thinks he strayed from at times last season.
“It just gives you more time to stay on offspeed pitches, see the ball better and longer, and get away from being pull happy, which I kind of got to a point last year when I was injured,” he said. “I was trying to get the barrel to the ball so much that I was getting out in front of a lot of pitches.”