MANCHESTER, N.H. — Tim Tebow’s unglamorous minor-league life included this week an 0-for-4, two-strikeout night Wednesday, followed immediately by a five-hour bus ride and 5 a.m. arrival to his weekend destination.
So it goes for Tebow, the Mets’ celebrity quarterback-turned-outfielder, and his Double-A teammates with the Binghamton Rumble Ponies. The grind is fun, he says, and he loves the competition, the hard work, the difficulty of a sport he picked up again less than two years ago after more than a decade away.
But Tebow, 30, knows his professional baseball experiment can’t last forever. Nobody plays in the minors to stay in the minors. If he is going to make it to The Show — which remains his goal — this season is a critical one.
“It’s a huge year,” Tebow said Thursday. “Especially the second half, it’s very important. It’s something I’m all-in on, working as hard as I can to make as many improvements as I can.”
And here’s the thing: Tebow has quietly had a solid season so far. The progress is tangible.
He was hitting .250 with a .328 OBP and .429 slugging percentage heading into Binghamton’s series with the New Hampshire Fisher Cats, the Blue Jays’ Double-A affiliate. He has four homers, half of his total from last season, and his slash line is even better in May (.280/.345/.540).
That’s above-average offensive production overall and a significant step forward from last year, when he had worse numbers at lower levels.
As one National League executive put it: “He’s legitimately improved, which isn’t nothing.”
Tebow’s improvement stems from a couple of factors. First is the healing of the left ankle injury that plagued him during his 1-for-18, 11-strikeout spring training, described at the time as a sprain but which was in fact a fracture, Tebow said.
“It was worse than we thought,” said Tebow, adding that the injury bothered him into the regular season. “Where that’s frustrating is hitting is so rhythmic and timing and fluid and you want to be able to carry over all these things you are doing. Taking that time off was frustrating.”
The other change was a timing/mechanical one. Luis Rojas, Binghamton’s manager, said Tebow has worked to hit the ball in the air more often. Tebow’s swing is such that if he can catch the ball out front — make contact early — he’ll pull the ball in the air, which is the desired outcome. If he’s late, it’ll be on the ground to the opposite field.
Early this season, Tebow was too late too often. Rojas and the coaching staff taught him to start his motion earlier.
“He was fouling off a couple of pitches that he could really do damage with,” Rojas said.
Tebow’s ground-ball rate this year is 52.5 percent, still high but down from about 61 percent last year. If he can get it in the air more often, it would pair nicely with what Rojas said is an average exit velocity of about 95 mph (well above the major-league average of about 89 mph).
“It’s awesome and it’s encouraging,” Tebow said of his hard contact. “I just have to do that more, right?”
Tebow asked the question with a self-aware laugh, knowing the answer. Hitting the ball hard is only good if you can hit the ball. With a strikeout rate of more than 40 percent, Tebow hasn’t done that enough.
“We want to trim that down,” Rojas said. “Even if it stays a little above average, we want to trade it off with the power numbers that he can put [up with] his raw power.”
It didn’t happen Thursday. He struck out four times in five at-bats. He singled in the ninth, but was thrown out trying to make it a double.
“It’s not really just about the results from night to night,” Tebow said before the game. “It’s more about how I’m feeling, the work, if I’m making strides. I feel like I am, and that’s encouraging.”
Tim Tebow is having the best month of his minor-league career:
Stats entering Thursday night’s game.