Every day, Casey Grayson talks to the same hitting coach he’s worked with since he was 5 years old.
Grayson has turned to Cory Ludke, his half brother, for advice throughout his career. They spent hours together in the backyard and at batting cages growing up, fixing problems and working to perfect his swing. They still work together during the offseason as Grayson continues his journey in professional baseball. They’re still fixing problems, and working to perfect that left-handed swing.
The coaching doesn’t stop during the season despite the two being separated by about 1,500 miles, the distance between Grayson’s home this summer in State College and Ludke’s home in Houston, Texas.
Daily conversations revolve around Grayson’s swing.
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“He still finds ways to tell me what to do or what to change,” Grayson said.
Grayson has made Ludke proud during his second professional season for the State College Spikes. Grayson started the year on a 23-game on-base streak and put together a 14-game hitting streak before he went 0 for 4 against West Virginia on Thursday night. He’s hovered around the .400 mark, and he was second in the New York-Penn League with a .379 batting average going into Saturday night.
He also led the league in hits and on-base percentage while ranking in the top 5 in runs, doubles and RBIs. Spikes manager Johnny Rodriguez calls Grayson a “poor man’s Matt Adams,” a polished hitter at this level who has yet to unlock his power potential. It’s a problem, Rodriguez said, to address during the offseason.
Grayson has been among the league’s top hitters, but he had yet to hit a home run this season going into Saturday.
“He’s not your natural 4-hole hitter,” Rodriguez said. “He doesn’t hit it 900 feet. He’s just a professional hitter.”
Grayson shared Ludke’s passion for baseball from a young age.
Ludke’s career ended prematurely due to a freak injury suffered during the summer between his freshman and sophomore year of high school. He slid headfirst into home plate during a game and tore his rotator cuff.
“I was a catcher and I could barely throw back to the pitcher,” Ludke said.
Ludke made the transition from player to Grayson’s hitting coach around that time. Ludke would get home from school and Grayson would want to hit a bucket of balls. Grayson was constantly working on something.
Ludke was there to provide guidance until leaving to serve in the Marines from 2002-06. He was part of an infantry battalion in Iraq from the summer of 2004 to the summer of 2005 and didn’t get to call home often. When he did call, Grayson was usually in school or asleep but Ludke asked his mother about his brother’s swing and how he was doing.
Grayson calls that time period the “worst four years of my career.”
“He always reminds me of that whenever he tells me something and I don’t agree,” Grayson said.
Ludke said Grayson wasn’t the same hitter when he returned home. Grayson was trying to pull everything and opposing pitchers threw him a steady dose of outside pitches. They worked together to fix the problem and eventually turned a weakness into a strength.
Grayson learned to go with the pitch, sending outside pitches the other way and pulling inside pitches.
“We worked on hitting opposite field and after that, he just became a completely different hitter,” Ludke said. “He went from batting eighth on his team to being the cleanup hitter his junior and senior year and just everything started coming together once he learned how to deal with the outside pitch and not let it be his nemesis.”
Grayson’s ability to go the opposite way has been crucial to his success this season.
Preparation started with his brother in early or mid-December, slightly sooner than his usual routine in an attempt to get off to a better start after hitting .283 and leading the Appalachian League with 46 RBIs in Johnson City last season.
The two went to the batting cages at Dynamic Sports Training in Houston.
There, Grayson worked on his eye by standing at the plate while pitchers like Trevor Bauer of the Cleveland Indians threw. Grayson could track different pitches — from sliders to curveballs to two-seam fastballs — thrown by experienced pros.
And he’s seen pitches well all season with State College, leading to productive at-bats every night.
“Consistency’s his middle name,” teammate Cole Lankford said. “Whether he’s getting hits, he’s playing solid defense, it doesn’t matter what he’s doing, he’s always doing it with a smile and having fun.”
Rodriguez has been impressed with Grayson’s consistency at the plate, comparing him to the Philipsburg-Osceola graduate Adams, who is in his fourth season with the St. Louis Cardinals.
Rodriguez worked with Adams as the hitting coach for Rookie-level Johnson City in 2009 and as the manager for Single-A Quad Cities in 2010. He watched Adams send base hit after base hit to left-center field and has seen Grayson succeed with the same approach.
Adams had more power, Rodriguez said, something Grayson still needs to develop.
“Eventually look what Matt turned out to be once the power came around,” Rodriguez said.
The manager said Grayson can make adjustments to generate more power in the offseason. Grayson said he’s not concerned with his lack of home runs.
“I think home runs are just products of putting a good swing on it,” Grayson said. “Whether it goes in the gap for a double or it goes over the fence, you just keep swinging the bat well and they’ll come.”
Still, he’s discussed the power issue with his brother, working to improve through their daily conversations.
And he knows his longtime hitting coach will always provide an honest assessment and offer useful advice.
“He always tells me he has the knowledge but didn’t have the skill when he played,” Grayson said. “‘You have the skill, just listen to me.’ It’s kind of worked out that I actually have to listen to him, as much as I don’t want to sometimes. It’s a love-hate relationship.”