Lake progressing, but still has big weakness

May, 29, 2014
May 29
1:44
PM CT
Rogers By Jesse Rogers
ESPNChicago.com
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Chicago Cubs outfielder Junior Lake is wrapping up his best month in the major leagues, batting .300 with a .326 on-base percentage, four home runs and 14 RBIs in May.

Is the 24-year-old starting to show signs of becoming a better hitter or is it just short-term success?

[+] EnlargeJunior Lake
Brian D. Kersey/Getty ImagesJunior Lake is batting .300 with four homers and 14 RBIs in May.
Lake is still striking out at an enormous rate (34.2 percent), while walking even less than when he first came up last season (4.4 percent to 5.1). He has shown some positive signs -- he has three three-hit games -- but he's batting just .175 with runners on base this season.

He's just not someone you can trust right now with an every-day major league job. But that doesn't mean it can't come.

Lake has one major offensive weakness.

"We're trying to get him up in the zone," manager Rick Renteria said recently.

Lake can't hit the low pitch, while he consistently drives balls in the upper part of the strike zone. The numbers are alarming. According to ESPN Stats & Information, Lake is hitting .383 this season on at-bats that end with a pitch in the upper half. That's any pitch, fastball or off-speed. He's hitting just .182 on pitches in the lower half ,with a whopping 45 of his 54 total strikeouts coming on those pitches. Those aren't balls in the dirt, they're ones simply in the lower half of the strike zone. Hittable ones.

If you go down even further, to the lower third of the strike zone, Lake is 3-for-52 (.058) this season. Low pitches are his kryptonite.

"I'm trying not to swing at those," Lake said. "Everybody is working with me. I [have] more hits lately, but I'm trying to work up in the zone."

Maybe April was the month pitchers adjusted to him after the hot start to his major league career, when he batted .284 with a respectable .332 on-base last season after being called up from Triple-A in June. He showed flashes of speed and power that haven't always shown up so far this season. It's possible that May was the start of his own adjustments, but right now his miss percentage, chase percentage and strikeout percentage are all up from last season.

"I'm trying not to worry about the strikeouts and just keep working hard," Lake said. "If I work hard I know I'll get better. Everyone is helping me."

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His defense is a another story. It's an adventure whenever a ball is hit in his direction in the outfield. More often than not, Lake, who was primarily an infielder in the minor leagues, will make the catch, but only after twisting, turning and sometimes fighting the sun, as he did in San Francisco where there wasn't a cloud in the sky all week. Then there are the throwing mistakes, both the mental and physical ones. He's repeated a few of them, such as throwing to the wrong base. That will get a coach's ire up as well.

Again, he's not a player you can completely trust right now on a team trying to build itself into a contender. There's little doubt he's working at it, though. On a recent morning he and Renteria were seen going over fielding techniques during batting practice, and he has slowly improved in the finer points of playing outfield.

"I'm getting more comfortable, but I have to learn more," Lake said.

That goes for at the plate and in the field. With less than a full season of at-bats in the major leagues and few career games playing outfield, a definitive analysis on Lake would be a rush to judgment. ESPN.com's prospects expert Keith Law has said Lake would not amount to an every-day player, and he still might be right. But as long as there are some signs of improvement, there's still a chance he will grow into a larger role.

"I know I can do it," Lake said. "I just have to keep working hard and listen to my coaches."

And lay off the low pitches.

Jesse Rogers | email

Chicago Cubs beat reporter
Jesse joined ESPN Chicago in September 2009 and covers the Chicago Cubs for ESPNChicago.com and ESPN Radio 1000.

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