When Jaff Decker stepped to the plate at Durham Bulls Athletic Park earlier this summer to screams of “Jaff! Jaff!” by a few dozen enthusiastic kids, he knew something good was about to happen.
“I was trying to tell everybody, ‘This has happened before,’ ” he said. “I don’t know why, and I don’t know who they are, but … it’s pretty cool having 20 people cheering for just you.”
It happened in a game against Scranton/Wilkes-Barre two years ago when he played for the Indianapolis Indians, a Pittsburgh Pirates farm team. But that group of fans chanted his surname, Decker. This group was chanting his first name, Jaff, and pronouncing it wrong (it’s “Jeff”).
Apparently, the good luck charm still worked.
“I was like, ‘Hey, when I was in Scranton I hit a homer,’ and then all of a sudden I hit a homer with them here,” he said, laughing at the memory. “They went crazy.”
The 26-year-old Bulls outfielder, already a veteran of nine seasons and 11 teams in his pro career, has yet to stick in the major leagues — his longest of numerous MLB stints is just 14 games — despite a cannon-like arm and deceptive speed.
His infectious smile, jovial personality and dedication to baseball, however, have made him an instant fan favorite at every stop along the way.
Embracing the little things
Decker’s uncle, born in Germany, was supposed to be called “Jeff.” But his grandfather, in a hurry to return to his military post, signed the birth certificate without proofreading, and the name “Jaff” become a staple of the family for generations to come.
The name is like many of the attributes that have allowed the 5-foot-9, 190-pound outfielder to make it this far into professional baseball: a small, unusual quirk that Decker has grown to embrace.
“I try to work on my baseball quickness, my jumps, my defense, on the bases, any way I can to help me because I’m not that 6-4 frame that everybody likes,” he said. “I work really hard on my jumps — other guys could be faster than me, but I can get a jump to be better stealing a bag. I’ve got shorter legs so I might be able to take a closer turn going first to third or second to home.”
Decker didn’t begin his career as an underdog. He grew up the son of a baseball coach and just down the road from spring training stadiums in Phoenix. He was selected in the first round of the 2008 MLB June Amateur Draft out of high school by the San Diego Padres.
Prior to the 2010 season, Baseball America ranked him among the top 100 prospects in the country.
But then injuries slowed his progress and the Padres traded him to Pittsburgh in 2013. He remained an occasional call-up of the Pirates during the 2014 and 2015 seasons, even appearing in an MLB playoff game, but hit free agency last winter, and he signed with the Rays’ organization.
Decker’s hitting ability has never lived up to the expectations set by the .352 and .299 batting averages of his first two years in the minors. He’s batting a paltry .159 in 51 career MLB games, including .138 (4-for-29) in 10 appearances for Tampa Bay, and sported a mediocre .243 average with 11 home runs in 85 games for the Bulls as of Friday.
Cannon in the outfield
Decker’s fielding has always been a strength.
“If you’re not getting hits that game or impacting the game offensively, you better be doing it defensively,” Decker said. “If I can steal a run, if I’m not scoring one or hitting one in, then I’ve still affected the game somehow.”
Decker regularly plays all three outfield positions and has excelled at each one. In his Triple-A career through the 2015 season, he boasted a 2.0 percent error rate and a 6.1 percent outfield assist rate (making a throw to put an opponent out).
Atlanta Braves utility player Emilio Bonifacio was a victim of Decker’s defensive prowess in a game between Durham and the Gwinnett Braves earlier in August. Bonifacio tagged up and sprinted home after a sacrifice fly by Emerson Landoni — and was promptly thrown out by Decker’s throw from center field straight to Bulls catcher J.P. Arencibia.
Decker, who pitched some growing up, said he can still throw a fastball of 94 to 95 miles per hour and actually did pitch a shutout inning in a Pirates’ blowout loss in July 2015. From the outfield, he uses that arm strength over a much longer distance to catch unsuspecting base runners.
“Normally it’s hard for the center fielder because you’re playing so deep and so far away — you have to throw the ball over the mound and keep the ball down through the cut-off man so the batter running doesn’t go to second base — and he’s accurate as well,” Durham manager Jared Sandberg said. “It’s just a huge benefit to have him roaming the outfield with that arm.”
‘Always going to smile’
On paper, Decker remains a 5-9 minor league journeyman with a mistake of a first name and a career MLB average of .159 — a profile which proven unimpressive to many.
When a Tampa Bay Rays blogger wrote earlier this season of his hopes that Decker can yet become a MLB regular, a commenter sarcastically replied that he still had hopes for the social network MySpace, too.
Then, two days later, the Rays waived Decker, he went unclaimed and he was assigned back to Triple-A for the 11th time in his career.
As he has been so many times before, Decker acknowledged he was disappointed by the demotion. In his first game back with the Bulls, though, he homered over the fence at Norfolk, Va.’s Harbor Park, and he went right back to smiling.
“There’s times when baseball really gives you that punch in the gut, but you’ve got to take it with a grain of salt and have fun every day,” he said. “I enjoy this game and I feel like, if somebody comes and watches me play, even if I have a bad game, they’re going to know that I enjoy getting out here every day.”
Sandberg said that affable attitude from his veteran outfielder is particularly helpful when Decker is giving advice to younger players. “His delivery isn’t demeaning or putting them down; he comes across as making it fun ... and laughing about it,” Sandberg said.
And it’s also immediately evident every night on the field. A YouTube account named “Decker fans,” for example, features a video of his now-famous home run against Scranton/Wilkes Barre, followed by a salute to his cheering section with — as always — a broad grin on his face.
“(I’m) just a guy that came out and worked his butt off and had fun doing it,” Decker said. “I’m always going to smile, and I’m always going to play hard.”