If there’s one common thread shared by the 2017 Brooklyn Cyclones, it is that three Stanford alums make up the active roster. The first of the trio to join the club was Matt Winaker, a fifth round selection in last June’s draft who served as the starting first baseman during the early portion of the season. Reuniting with Winaker in Brooklyn were collegiate teammates Chris Viall and Quinn Brodey.
“Quinn and I were classmates in Stanford the last few years,” Winaker said. “We have a great continuity and have worked together in batting practice groups. It really helps the adjustment. Batting coach Sean Ratliff, who was also a Stanford product is great to work with because he’s been exactly where I have been and knows exactly where I want to go.”
Winaker attended San Ramon Valley High School in Danville, California and had many athletic options at his disposal. Along with his feats on his diamond, Winaker participated on the football team as both a quarterback and a punter and drew mild consideration from various schools to further his football development. But most of those avenues came well after the Cardinal recruited him for baseball.
“I had some football interest, but by that point, I was already committed to Stanford to play baseball, so whatever interest there was, it was fleeting. I ended up moving towards baseball because of the opportunities I had to further my time in the game.”
Solely concentrating on baseball at Stanford, Winaker recorded more walks than strikeouts as a freshman and finished third in on-base percentage and second in RBI. On the surface, the numbers seem to indicate that the efforts came easily within the Pac-12 for Winaker, but he notes that there was an initial learning curve with his surroundings before feeling completely at ease.
“It’s a very fluid process that is representative of the game as a whole,” Winaker explains. “There really isn’t one particular point where I can say that I made it or that I figured it all out. I’m still learning even in pro ball where I’m faced with so many unique opportunities and challenges and learning everything new again.”
All-Pac 12 honors followed for Winaker later in his Stanford career, helping further cement his stature. His most complete season came last season as a junior as he finished in the top 10 in the conference in five different offensive categories. He proved equally adept in the field with 79 consecutive errorless at his position, matching the form of fellow Stanford alum and current team broadcaster J.T. Snow, who won six Gold Gloves as a big league first baseman.
“The things I that have worked on have dated back since high school. It felt like (my junior season) was long overdue because I always knew I was capable. I just never put it together in this fashion. It’s an honor to have been a part of the Stanford Cardinal because of the alumni and learning from the example they set, knowing that we want to follow in their footsteps.”
The process for Winaker continued into his professional career after joining the New York Mets organization. While the setting in Brooklyn proved similar to Stanford, the adjustments Winaker made as a pro were from a mechanical standpoint. Unlike in college where most games take place on weekends, the daily nature of the minor leagues forces players to remain sharp for an extended period and build sound fundamentals.
“The schedule playing every day instead of four times a week is one adjustment,” Winaker said. “What that entails getting your mind and body ready to play is a little bit different. That includes the pregame routine of getting my swing to do what I want it to do and swinging with wooden bats. It’s a lot of little things. Opposing pitchers are coming at us with different approaches, and I have to build up my internal database and see how they attack me and sequence to learn and grow as a hitter.”
Winaker became of the Cyclones’ most reliable hitters during his stint with the club. He recorded a .402 on-base percentage in 71 at-bats taking a measured approach in every plate appearance. His presence helped set an example for the younger hitters in the starting lineup facing New York-Penn League pitching for the first time. Unfortunately for Winaker and the Cyclones, his season ended prematurely after injuring his shoulder in late July. He remained with the club for the remainder of the year, partaking in pregame activities, but did not see any game action.
“We have a great coaching staff with Edgardo Alfonzo, Ratliff, and pitching coach Royce Ring. There are so many opportunities to learn pro ball. I pride myself on bringing it every night and do what I need to do to get ready to play the game. No matter how I feel on a given day, I try to grind things out and add value to our team.”
I’m trying to take a different mental approach of focusing on the present time. If I build on the opportunities that present themselves, daily or weekly, I’ll get where I want to go. There’s no point in me to think too far ahead. It helps you stay positive and not get too full of yourself. In the present moment, there’s no time to focus on past success or failure or future success or failure. There’s only a focus on what needs to be accomplished at that point in time.”