One of the final remaining high picks from the Bill Bavasi era in Seattle, slugging left-handed hitter Dennis Raben has seen a lot of his time on the field taken away due to injuries. He's produced to the tune of a .306/.382/.581 slash with 43 HR and 102 XBH over his minor league career, but unfortunately that career has spanned just 709 at bats since being drafted in the 2nd round in 2008.
A competitor with drive and passion for the game, Raben recently took a break from his training in Arizona to have an extended talk with SeattleClubhouse's Rick Randall about how he keeps a steady head and his eye on the prize of a baseball career on the field that is constantly being challenged by bad luck with his health.
SeattleClubhouse: I appreciate you taking the time to talk with me today, Dennis.
Dennis Raben: Any time, Rick.
SC: So you are down in Extended Spring Training still right now, correct?
DR: Yes. Down here in Arizona, just trying to get back on the field. Rehabbing and working hard to get back into the swing of things.
SC: What is your focus down there? Everyone knows that you've had a rough go of it as far as injuries are concerned, so are you doing anything specific with the training staff to help on the injury-prevention side of things?
DR: Yeah, I went through some things last year with my knee of course, and I ended up having to cut my season short about half way through the year, then I went and had surgery in the off-season to kind of clean things up. So this year, I met with the staff and we changed our approach a bit. We decided to really stay completely away from some things that we had been doing in the past since my body was so out of alignment and off-track from where we wanted. We're trying to stay away from some of the exercises that used to bother me. So now it's really a matter of building that strength back up -- doing some new things that keep me feeling good and strong -- and just working on getting everything back in alignment where we want it and working hard to get back on the field.
SC: What types of training exercises were bothering you, specifically?
DR: Some of the movements within our performance program in the (Mariners) organization, me and the staff just determined that they were potentially more detrimental than beneficial due to my history. There were just a lot of real explosive movements; specific things that deal with real deep, exploding movement -- such as a jump into a deep lunge -- things that we determined that with the way my knee is and the history with it that it just makes more sense for me to stay away from.
SC: Even though you've missed a lot of time over the years, you've still managed to put up some great numbers and done enough to impress scouts, coaches and fans that follow the minor leagues. Given your strengths as a left-handed power bat and the big league club's weaknesses and difficulty scoring runs, it really seems like a lot of people have remained interested in you since your skillset is such a perfect fit.
DR: Yeah, I know. If I can just get healthy and stay healthy, I have very high expectations for myself and a lot of confidence in myself. I know that if I can get up there (to the big leagues) that I could definitely help the club out.
SC: I promise that we aren't going to focus all on the injury side of things here, I just know that is, unfortunately, a big part of your story to this point.
DR: No problem.
SC: Leading up to the draft back in '08, you were very highly rated, primarily because of your combination of power and patience. Tell me about what has changed in your game or your approach in the years since the draft, if anything.
DR: In the time that I have been healthy and on the field, I honestly haven't changed much with my swing. I have a lot of movement in my set-up and stance and initially they wanted me to tone that down a bit, but basically that is just what makes me feel comfortable and ready to hit so I pretty much stuck with it. So I really haven't changed a whole lot.
SC: It seems that you've been a much more aggressive hitter as you've progressed though. What do you think your experience and your time off has done in terms of your approach since you've turned pro?
DR: I evaluated myself as a ballplayer a lot -- I've had a lot of chances to do that, being down so much -- and I think that my approach has changed a bit just from understanding myself and the game better. I always drew a lot of walks in college, and even my first year in the system in Everett I drew a fair number of walks, but I think at that point I was in the mode that I'd just look in one spot and if it wasn't there I'd be in "take, take, take" mode. But as you advance and as pitchers get better, you aren't going to get nearly as many pitches in those zones. When I realized that if I'm looking for one location then I'm not going to get it. I started being more aggressive in the zone, and, yeah, it's translated into fewer walks, but it's also translated into a higher average, interestingly enough.
SC: And your not expanding the zone, your just attacking hittable pitches more, is that right?
DR: Exactly. I just realized that I can drive the ball more than from that just one zone. I can drive the ball from a much bigger zone than what I used to look at -- I can handle a much bigger zone, and as a result I take fewer walks, but I feel like I'm a better hitter because of being more aggressive.
SC: You were an outfielder in college and have played both first base and the outfield as a pro, but with the string of bad luck that you've had on the injury side of things, is your future at this point primarily going to be confined to first base and designated hitter, or is the club still looking at getting you some time in the outfield to work on that coveted versatility which they preach?
DR: Actually, recently in talking with Jack Howell -- our field coordinator -- and the training staff we addressed this issue. I did feel that they wanted to push me toward first base, but we talked about how much added stress that could put on me. Taking ground balls every day, holding runners on and shuffling off -- all of those little things that go along with playing first base -- and in my opinion those put more stress on my knees than the outfield does. So when I get back into the swing of things, I'm going to be doing more work in the outfield to start, then as I get back to a more comfortable level and we're seeing results then we'll gradually work first base back into the picture.
SC: Explain what the recovery has been like from this latest injury setback if you would.
DR: Well, I had it scoped back in July, but then I went down to Pensacola and saw Dr. James Andrews and had a PRP (platelet rich plasma) injection while I was down there to try and get things moving with the recovery. It was really just a difficult diagnosis, really, trying to figure out exactly what was wrong. With my two previous surgeries I've had with my knee, I was overcompensating and that caused me to get a little locked up and out of alignment in my lower half. Honestly I just found that I needed to hit the refresh button a little and remember how to be an athlete and try and bring that out again.
SC: How hard is that for you, as a known fiery competitor and a guy that doesn't like to lose, to go out and compete and put the worries and thoughts of the injury history and anything nagging you out of your mind?
DR: It's really hard. When you're going good and you're feeling good, you don't really think about anything, you just go out and play and that's where you want to be, just focusing on the field. But with the things that have happened to me and the rehab that I've been through, it's going to be important to me for the rest of my career to focus on my body and make sure that I'm doing the things that I need to do to make sure that I'm as healthy as I can be. It's tough, because rehabbing an injury isn't a fun thing -- especially when you have to go through it as many times as I have -- but I just try and take it day by day, get better, and keep moving forward.
SC: You say it is in your mind when you maybe aren't going well, but looking back at last season, you were tearing the cover off the ball basically up to the point where you came down with the injury. Were you feeling good most of the season until you were shut down end of June?
DR: Yeah, I was feeling real good for the first 40 games or so. My knee started getting a little achy around that time, but it wasn't really anything that was hampering my game at that point. I felt really good with my approach and my swing and my load and everything, but the knee just got progressively worse and worse and, once it started affecting my play, we just had to shut it down.
SC: What is your time table for getting back with a team this season, how is the progression on the rehab going at this point and where does it look like you'll be headed once you leave Arizona?
DR: I'm officially on the DL with Jackson right now, and I was under the impression throughout the spring that once I get ready to go out and start playing that Jackson is where I'll be headed. Things are coming along good. I've made a lot of progress lately, been seeing some live pitching. The next step is getting in on some game action. I see that being some time soon -- we don't really have a precise time table, but we're just working on putting together good days and in my mind I'm shooting for a target date of late May or June 1st to get back with a club.
SC: What have your days been like down in Arizona -- who is running you through the rehab for the most part?
DR: During Spring Training I was working pretty exclusively with Tom Newberg, the Triple-A trainer, and we were getting some really good results. I was kind of stagnant for a while before working with him, wasn't seeing much in terms of results, but when I started working with Tom we started really seeing some progress. When their season started though, of course, he moved on and I started working more with the other trainers that are down here and the performance staff, like Gabe Bourland. We let them know what we were doing before Tom left, and we worked along that same path. I do a lot of work on my own, too. I've been working on my running progression program with Gabe and been doing a lot of my baseball-type work with Gary Wheelock, the rehab coordinator. There are really a lot of guys that have been involved helping me out in the process.
SC: I imagine the only thing that you want right now is to just be playing, injury and pain free. How much does that desire burn in you when you can't be out there playing like you want to be?
DR: Yeah, definitely. When you aren't able to be out there on a regular basis -- can't be hanging with the guys and everything -- you learn to appreciate it more. I learned that when I missed the entire 2009 season with my first big knee injury. That was the first time I realized how much I took it for granted when I was on the field. It really made me appreciate being able to be out there and compete that much more, and I make sure that I cherish every moment that I am out there. It's been a bumpy road, but hopefully I'm not too far away from being back out there and playing.
SC: I assume that you have day-to-day, even station-to-station type goals for yourself at this point during rehab, but during a typical season are you the type of player that is a goal-setter?
DR: I try to not get too caught up with levels and promotions and that type of stuff, I just think that those types of things will take care of themselves as long as I'm taking care of business on the field. But throughout the season when I'm healthy I keep a little notebook and do from Monday through Sunday, every week of the year, covering quality at bats and hits, stuff like that. I review it and break it down, week-to-week, day-to-day, and help set more goals for myself. I think it is a whole lot easier to look at it that way and see where you are as opposed to just saying, "this is what I want to hit this season,". Just take small steps, and when you look back, you can see what all you've accomplished.
SC: Who is your biggest influence or best supporters to keep you focused and driving forward in your career with so many rough patches?
DR: My closest friends, my family and my girlfriend are the three groups of people that keep me going. Those are the three groups that are the closest to me in my life and they support me and keep me motivated. Also seeing guys that I've played with or competed against and seeing them succeed, that motivates me to get out there and work hard to try to achieve my goals, too.
SC: It really seems like the Cape Cod league, prior to your Junior season at Miami, is where you took yourself to the next level as a ballplayer. Was there anything specific that you can recall that a coach did to tweak something in your approach or light a fire in any way that made that experience on the Cape a coming out party of sorts for you?
DR: I definitely think you're right about the Cape. That season was some of the best ball I've played. I was healthy and it was a pretty relaxed atmosphere -- much more like pro ball than the hype of college ball -- guys just going out and having fun and showing off their skills. I honestly think that the wood bat was the biggest thing for me. I never hit .300 in college, and I really think that it's because I just never really felt comfortable hitting with the aluminum bats. I like to feel a bit of weight in the bat head -- I feel like I have a better feel for the control that way. And I think that was the first extended period of time that I ever played with a wood bat, so I think that was the biggest thing. The wood bat and the relaxed atmosphere. That was definitely one of the best times of my life.
SC: The Mariners selected you late out of high school but you obviously passed up signing and went to college. How present were they during your time at Miami -- did they keep tabs on you and did you feel that they were always kind of interested?
DR: Yeah, you know, when I was in high school the area scout down here was Pedro Grifol and I had a really good relationship with him. They drafted me and we kept in touch, I was intereseted, but obviously I wasn't going to sign for a hamburger and a bus ticket, being a late pick. But I wouldn't take anything back from that whole experience -- the college experience, especially being at the University of Miami, and all the people I met, I absolutely loved it. Eventually Mike Tosar became the area guy down there and I heard from my coaches that it seemed like they were interested again. I was hoping when the Mariners 2nd pick was getting close and rolling around that they might pick me, and that's the way it worked out, so I was happy about that.
SC: Well Dennis, I appreciate you taking the time to talk to me about hitting and trainers and the injury bug. I wish you the absolute best in health and success in 2012 and beyond.
DR: Thanks a lot, Rick.