PAWTUCKET – Without hesitation, Kyle Weiland knew that if an opposing hitter’s fly ball to center field could be caught, it would.
Che-Hsuan Lin is that reliable.
But when Weiland began the 2011 season with Triple-A Pawtucket, the right-hander was separated from his security blanket, the vacuum cleaner of an outfielder he had played with since 2009.
Much to Weiland’s delight, they were reunited May 21, when Lin was promoted to Pawtucket from Double-A Portland.
“We love him in the outfield,” Weiland said of the 22-year-old Lin, a six-foot, 180-pound prospect out of Taiwan who is widely considered the top defensive outfielder in Boston’s farm system. “The plays he makes, it speaks for itself how good he is out there.”
And while Lin is still learning the English language, more than a few people are willing to rave about Pawtucket’s new center fielder and leadoff hitter – chief among them his current and former manager, PawSox skipper Arnie Beyeler.
“He’s a pretty good player,” said Beyeler, who also managed Lin in Portland last season. “He’s a good defender, he can play all the outfield spots and he’s getting on base, setting the table for guys. He’s a good baserunner, can steal bases. He’s got a lot of ability. As you guys will see, it’s pretty fun to watch him play.”
Beyeler certainly enjoyed watching Lin a season ago, when he racked up 15 outfield assists and was named the Red Sox’s 2010 minor league Defensive Player of the Year, not to mention being rated by Baseball America as the top defensive outfielder and having the best outfield arm in Boston’s farm system.
Five games into his Triple-A career, Lin had reached base safely in each, hitting .421 with a .478 on-base percentage and a .899 on-base plus slugging percentage through 23 plate appearances. This after posting a .268/.373/.706 line with 12 stolen bases in 34 games with the Sea Dogs, for whom he batted .275 with two home runs, 34 RBIs and 26 steals in 119 games last year.
Yet for all the accolades Lin has received for his defense, his offense remains a work in progress.
“I’m focused on hitting right now, trying to get on base as much as I can and finding a good pitch to swing [at],” Lin said through translator Mickey Jiang. “I want to be more aggressive and hit a ball instead of just taking it if it’s right down the middle.”
After watching Lin register a solid .386 OBP last season, Beyeler has noticed an even more patient hitter in 2011.
“It looks like he’s a little more disciplined at the plate,” Beyeler said. “He’s driven some balls, squared some balls up. His approach has gotten a little more disciplined, maybe knowing his strengths a little bit better.”
Lin has quite the baseball résumé for a player who hasn’t yet reached the major leagues. He earned Most Valuable Player honors at the 2008 All-Star Futures Game at Yankee Stadium, represented Taiwan in the 2008 Beijing Olympics and suited up for Chinese Taipei during the 2009 World Baseball Classic.
Each of those achievements came as a member of the Red Sox organization, which signed Lin as an undrafted free agent on June 8, 2007. Several other teams showed interest in Lin’s services, but he chose Boston – and its $400,000 signing bonus – in part because of his familiarity with a Red Sox scout who had watched him play for years.
Weiland has seen plenty of Lin in recent seasons, having played with him at Class A Advanced Salem in 2009 and in Portland last year. Simply mention Lin’s name to Weiland and a brimming smile crosses the pitcher’s face.
“I’m extremely confident having him out there,” Weiland said. “It gives you the freedom to not be so picky, I would say. You don’t try to change your approach as a pitcher, but when you know you have a guy who can track balls down like that, and maybe with a guy on second base he’s going to throw him out or have a really good chance to throw him out at the plate, it helps your confidence.”
The key to Lin’s defensive brilliance stems from his ability to make sharp reads off the bat.
“I just try to get a good first jump and try to catch every ball I can,” Lin said. “I usually get a quick first jump and just try to use my instincts.”
Lin has spent the past four years making adjustments – both mechanical and cultural. Day by day, he believes he’s inching closer toward the player and teammate he desires to be.
“Great teammate,” Weiland said. “His first year, he was pretty quiet because obviously he was learning the new language, but he’s definitely gotten a lot better. It’s easy to communicate with him because if he doesn’t understand you, he’ll say, ‘I don’t understand,’ and you explain it to him and it’s like he stores it in his brain right away. I’m very impressed with how quickly he’s adapted to playing over here.”
Said Lin, “Back in ’07, it was hard for me to get used to the culture, language, food. But as time goes by, I’m getting better and better at talking to my teammates and the coaching staff. I’m working on my English-speaking ability. I feel more comfortable.”
More comfortable than Weiland with Lin patrolling center field? Don’t count on it.
“He brings everything he has, every day,” Weiland said. “Everyone gets tired, it’s a long season, but you know he’s not going to cut corners or give half efforts. He always gives 100 percent, which, if you’re a pitcher, that’s the guy you want in the outfield.”