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Jonatan Clase brings energy to the Mariners’ future

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70-grade speed and a relentless desire to improve made for an impressive debut year for a player once told he was too small to ever get there

Jonatan Clase at the Peoria Sports Complex, October 2019
Brittney Bush Bollay

With a resurgent farm system, more and more Mariners fans are becoming invested in the minors, but even the most attentive fans could be excused for not knowing the name of DSL centerfielder Jonatan Clase. When baseball’s international signing day rolls around every July 2, some international prospects garner more attention than others: pedigreed prospects who work with some of the most respected trainers, net the largest signing bonuses, have famous lineage, or just stand out in some other way, like 6’7” Pirates shortstop prospect Oneil Cruz. For every six or seven-figure signing bonus, though, are a baker’s dozen of players who sign for much more modest amounts, who don’t have a perennial All-Star father, or haven’t dazzled scouts with a loud power tool or sterling defense at a showcase. For the 17-year-old Clase, who was listed at his signing at five-foot-eight and 150 pounds, his physical stature certainly played a role in him being overlooked by all but a few teams. However, a year into his career as a pro—and twenty pounds of lean muscle heavier and an inch taller at five-foot nine inches (5’9” and a half, he corrects me gently but firmly)—Jonatan Clase is out to prove that despite his shorter stature, his talent is too big to ignore.

“The first thing that I think of when I think of Jonatan Clase is energy,” says Austin Knight, manager of the DSL Mariners. “Just consistent effort and energy.”

He’s not the only one. One scout in the DR said he’s close to putting an 80 grade on Clase’s speed, which DSL hitting coach Rob Benjamin calls “game-changing.” Clase has topped out at 3.7 seconds to first, 3.6 with a bunt, and averages 3.8-3.9 seconds to first (this year, the fastest home-to-first time was Magneuris Sierra’s 3.93). Our own John Trupin found out the hard way how easily Clase can gear up, when he ill-advisedly challenged the speedster to a foot race. Even given a healthy handicap, Jonatan still smoked John:

But it’s more than just speed driving one of Seattle’s most exciting young prospects. Jonatan Clase plays with an infectious energy borne from playing a game he loves “like my life,” a sport he admires for the discipline, dedication, and commitment that the best players show—players whose ranks he wishes to join, and believes he can.

Part of Clase’s drive comes from the fact that no one other than himself ever put pressure on him to become a baseball player. His parents both serve in the military, and his sister Isabel is an accountant. Jonatan, too, has a good head for numbers, he says, but his heart tells him he’s a baseball player. “From when I was young, for as long as I can remember, I wanted to play baseball.” But it took until he was nine years old—late in the baseball-crazed Dominican—for him to start playing officially, and later still for his talent to be recognized by scouts.

In the meantime, there were plenty of doubters about the diminutive Clase. Once after a miserable day at the plate and in the field, a coach told him to go home, find something else to do, because he’d never make it as a baseball player. A ten-year-old Jonatan, despondent, went home in tears and, still crying, told his parents what his coach had said. They responded by pulling him from the team and finding another one for him to play on.

“I am very lucky to have the supportive family I do,” he says. “They believe in me and my ability to achieve my dreams, and have from an early age.”

Clase’s parents might not have gifted their son with elite baseball lineage or a towering physique, but they have given him two other gifts. The first, through their military training, is a preternatural degree of self-discipline, which in professional baseball has translated into a work ethic coaches marvel over. The second is, through their unconditional support, an iron-clad sense of self, a belief in himself that he can achieve whatever he sets out to do. This has led to a player whose work ethic is indefatigable, but who is also willing to take risks: diving for balls, taking an extra base, or poking a toe into social media to try to engage with an English-speaking fanbase. Despite having been in the US for all of a month at the time, Clase wanted to conduct our interview in English.

“You have to try,” he says, “and not be afraid to fail, because otherwise, how can you learn? I am trying day by day to learn.”

Succeed or fail, Clase is not afraid to try, and it’s that spirit that caused the Mariners to choose him as a participant in the High Performance Camp, along with his standout performance in the DSL. In his first pro season, Clase hit .300 and led the team in OBP with .434. The majority of those hits were singles, with only two home runs, but Clase’s 70-grade speed helped him turn doubles into triples; his seven triples ranked fourth in the league. “If he hits a ball and it gets behind an outfielder? It’s a triple, easy,” says Rob Benjamin.

Clase is also a disruptor on the bases, leading the team with 31 stolen bases, good for fifth-best in the DSL. He runs the bases hard, whatever the situation. “He never had an issue with effort on the bases,” says Austin Knight. “Sometimes—especially in their first experience with this much structure, this much routine, this much work, this many games consecutively—it can be like, hey man, don’t forget you gotta run your butt hard to first base no matter what, and he never had an issue with that.”

For Jonatan, structure and routine are familiar friends, and putting in consistent effort in everything he does isn’t going above and beyond, but what he feels like he needs to do to survive. “It’s harder when you are small,” says Clase, who lists Jose Altuve as his favorite player, another small-statured player who defied the odds, who famously refused to quit when he was sent home from an Astros tryout camp. He says he’s inspired by Altuve, but also realistic: “When you are smaller, you have to work harder.”

That discipline extends from his work ethic off the field to in between the lines. In addition to his ability to make consistent contact, Clase’s OBP was boosted by his strong plate discipline; he didn’t strike out often (19.6%) and walked a ton: 17.8%, tied for the fourth-most walks in the league. That’s a skillset Knight believes will transfer to stateside ball. “At least as far as teams we’ve had in the recent past, not many guys do what he did, as far as the walks and strikeouts are concerned, and those guys have had success in the States. I think it’ll translate.”

Ask Jonatan Clase what he’s been working on this year, and he will tell you: he’s trying to slow his heartbeat down in games, to be less anxious to prove himself; to play hard, but play smart. It’s a refrain he’s heard from both his coaches in the DSL, both of whom were impressed by the high energy shown by the young player, but concerned about how to best harness it. “I was afraid he was almost borderline going to be out of control,” says Knight.

“He’s young, he’s so excited, I was thinking he was going to have a hard time controlling the zone and limiting baserunning mistakes and those types of things. And he certainly made his share of mistakes, but in large part it showed me that this kid is young, he’s got a ton of energy, but he’s a good player, he’s able to control that and do what he needs to do. . .he was able, almost as soon as the season started, to slow himself down enough to a point where he was able to perform really well.”

Clase’s speed is his greatest asset, his carrying tool, but it can also be his downfall at times, notes Benjamin; his aggressiveness can cost him on the bases when he’s trying to do to much. But the fearless Clase isn’t afraid to take a hard look at himself when he messes up. “He’d go back and look at film and examine his mistakes, and he’d grow from that,” says Benjamin. “He truly has a growth mindset, he’s process-driven. Every day he got better and constantly showed growth.”

“All he wants to do is work,” says Benjamin. “He wants to try, he wants to fail, he wants to work. He wants to get better every day.”

Clase didn’t earn DSL Player of the Year honors (that went to prized prospect Noelvi Marte), but Clase did win the Mariners’ DSL Weight Room award, given to the player who works the hardest and makes the most gains in the weight room over the course of a season. “He was very motivated to change his body,” says Knight, “and I think that had a huge impact on his offensive success, the consistent pride he took in his body, not only in the weight room, pushing himself in his workouts, but he was also one of the best about going to the training room and preventative care. Pretty impressive, pretty mature.”

Clase doesn’t have a ton of real estate to work with on his frame, so like a tiny-house owner, he has focused on maxing out all available square footage: he’s bulked up his quads as much as he can without sacrificing speed, focusing on explosive movements; he’s built strong shoulders and deltoids, along with long ropes of corded muscle in his forearms, to help him put every ounce of power he can into his swing; and he’s focused on core strength to the point where scientists are still trying to count the cans in his pack. He spent an hour a day in the weight room in the DR, and has been putting in long mornings during the Mariners’ high-performance camp, where he’s been able to focus solely on building strength. The Mariners preach to “control what you can control”, a notion Clase has taken to heart: he cannot control his height or physical stature, but he can put in his time in the weight room; he can listen intently at meetings and internalize the mental skills the Mariners preach; he can commit himself to practicing English. The world outside might tell him he’s too small, but the interior landscape Jonatan Clase has built for himself is without limit.

“He’s the total package,” says Benjamin. “He’s not Noelvi Marte, he’s not 6’3”, he wasn’t that big, physical kid at signing, but he can run, hit, field. He’s got gap to gap power, he can drive the ball. He can cover an incredible amount of ground. The speed is world class.”

Knight, too, sees a bright future for Clase. “The power numbers increased a ton with his weight room work, even with some of the tech—the Blast[motion], the K-Vest readings, the consistent exit velocity was very good. I’m not completely convinced he’s a leadoff/9-hole kind of guy. With age and with more strength and more development, why could he not be a Brett Gardner type, a guy with some serious pop, isn’t a big guy, can run, can play the outfield, and controls the zone very well.”

As for Clase himself, he believes he has the skill to play at the next level. This fall, after he finished a day at camp, he’d grab his bag and stop by the Peoria Sports Complex to watch the day’s AFL game. Like Julio Rodríguez before him, Clase was there to cheer on his teammates (in this case, Julio himself), but also to check out the competition. He is equal parts complimentary and critical; he applauds a stolen base with the rest of the crowd but notes, “I wouldn’t have needed to slide,” pointing out that the player got a late jump, and demonstrating how he times up a pitcher when he wants to steal. He is similarly unimpressed with a diving grab in the outfield, a ball he feels could have been fielded easily with the proper break. Never the loudest guy in the room, Clase is humble, but he also carries a quiet confidence.

“I think he deep down really believes that he’s a good player,” says Knight. “He’s at those games because, I want to learn, but also, I know I can do this and I’m feeling it out, I can play with these guys.”

This year, Clase will have a chance to bring his high-energy style of play to the States full-time. He sits today in the seats at the Peoria Sports Complex, dreaming of the time it will be his turn on the field; maybe his chance will even come this Spring Training, as a late-inning pinch-runner. He is excited to show the Seattle fans what a good teammate he can be, what a competitor he is. Like his inspiration Jose Altuve, he is ready to show that your size does not necessarily limit your impact on the field.

“Although,” he notes of his idol, “I’m taller.”