Montgomery, Alabama —— It’s easy to spot Justin Williams every afternoon out at Montgomery Biscuits batting practice: he’s the one out in the outfield relentlessly sprinting down ball after ball, hustling more than you figure anybody would or should in the near-triple-digit heat and brutal humidity under the Alabama sun. This is late July, after all, and you’d figure outfielders would be content to avoid running as much as possible to conserve for night games.
Williams understands that. He just isn’t interested in cutting corners.
“If you want to get better, practice makes perfect,” Williams told Baseball Census before the Biscuits’ home game against Pensacola on Wednesday evening. “If I come out here and take days off, that might translate to the game, you know? Some days, the wind is blowing in hard, and you have to learn how to read the ball off the bat. Other days like today, there’s no wind, so you have to learn how to take that into consideration.”
The Tampa Bay Rays prospect has always been a hard worker with abundant raw talent and athleticism to boot, but it’s been a relatively recent transition to figure out how to apply his work ethic and talent in the right way. To that end, an appearance in the Arizona Fall League last October—where Williams first popped up on Baseball Census’ radar—was formative.
“The AFL definitely helped my career,” Williams acknowledged. “I worked with some good coaches there, Brant Brown and Keith Bodie, on my overall approach and on getting a good pitch to hit. And defensively, they really pressed upon me to shag religiously during batting practice too, so that will translate to the game.”
So when you see Justin Williams sprinting down every single ball hit his way during pre-game batting practice, you suddenly understand why. The Louisiana native’s game isn’t just about hustle, though: there’s a considerable talent base upon which to build here, too. The Tampa Bay Rays are plainly hoping that will turn Williams into an everyday big league outfielder. That’s not an unlikely proposition considering he’s still just 21 years old and succeeding in Double-A, hitting .289/.342/.427/.769 over his first 62 games with Montgomery this season, to go along with 12 doubles, three triples, five home runs, and 20 walks across 239 at-bats.
And this year has posed a significant improvement from his first try at Double-A late last summer—when Justin Williams hit .250/.277/.446/.723 in 39 games with Montgomery—with all of it coming back to his work ethic and intelligent observations as a self-starter.
“The biggest thing for me this year was realizing the guys at this level have a much better idea about what type of player they are,” the outfielder acknowledged. “More so here than before, you really see leadoff guys trying to get on base and draw walks, and you see the three-four-five [in the lineup] guys really trying to drive in runs, and hit doubles and homers. In A-ball guys are still trying to figure things out, but not here. It’s a big difference and you have to match it.”
“Pitchers are a lot smarter here, too,” he continued. “They mix up pitches a lot better, and once they get you out a certain way, they are going to keep doing it until you prove them otherwise. I’ve seen guys throw very good 1-0 breaking balls, and 1-0 changeups, and that’s when it comes back to your approach. That’s the biggest battle as a hitter. Getting an approach, understanding who is on the mound, understanding what they are trying to do to get you out, and then making the adjustment.”
All that said, whether adjustments at the plate or getting in extra work during batting practice in right field, Justin Williams is banking on his soft-spoken maturity to come through in the big leagues. It’s already allowed him to see the bigger picture of his career, through opportunities like winter ball two offseason ago in Australia, and a chance last fall season in Arizona, and it’s also allowed him to fight through brutal heat and humidity in south Alabama this summer by working harder and smarter than most.
“By July, this is when you really start to get comfortable,” he said. “You’ve gone through a couple months of the season, and you’ve been through good and bad phases. You’ve learned what works and what doesn’t work. And right now, it’s all about helping the team win. We’re in a playoff run right now. As long as you stay healthy and take care of your body, this is when you can really get going.”
Williams smiled when asked again about the muggy, humid conditions.
“Yeah, it’ll get tough here in a few weeks, when your body really starts to get fatigued,” he offered, downplaying the already brutal conditions. “But that’s when the mental grind comes in to play.”