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Nats prospect Jake Alu is coming off a breakout year. Can he keep it up?

Jake Alu finished with 20 home runs across Class AA Harrisburg and Class AAA Rochester. (Mike Janes/Four Seam Images/AP)
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Even though Jake Alu — a minor league infielder in the Washington Nationals’ system — prides himself on being a player who can rack up extra-base hits, he has never considered himself a power hitter. His 11 home runs over his first two minor league seasons backed up that claim.

But last season, Alu finished with 20 homers across Class AA Harrisburg and Class AAA Rochester. He wasn’t expecting the sudden jump in power but credited an improved approach at the plate for the spike.

When Alu, 25, started reading his own scouting report last season, he realized his “blue area,” or his weakness, was up in the strike zone on fastballs with high spin rates. He had no trouble making contact with the pitch, but the result often was weak contact, and he couldn’t drive the ball.

“Instead of working on that pitch and trying to hit that, I just didn’t swing at it,” Alu said recently. “And then if a pitcher throws it three times in a row, tip your cap to him. That’s hard enough to do. That’s what I worked on. It’s not very complex. … It’s just putting [the scouting reports] into use and getting your reps out and getting enough at-bats.”

Alu’s height — 5-foot-10 — helped; umpires didn’t typically call strikes on pitches up in the zone. When pitchers tried to beat Alu to spots lower in the zone, he would thrive on their mistakes. That adjustment worked, but after he was called up to Rochester in July, he began to question his approach.

“Things started changing because [Class AAA] pitchers started pitching to my weaknesses rather than their strengths, I noticed,” Alu said. “That was an adjustment on its own, and it kind of drove me away from my approach. It kind of took me back a few steps — I had to regress and kind of see: ‘This is what’s going on; this is what they’re doing. Stick to your approach.’ And then it started turning around again.”

It look Alu about two weeks before he started to regain his plate discipline. In just 59 games with Rochester, he had 11 homers, 45 RBI and a .323 batting average.

So this offseason, he returned to Hamilton, N.J., to work with the trainer who has been with him since high school. Physically, he believes his biggest improvement came ahead of the 2021 season. Alu said his body changed “dramatically” from the start of the canceled 2020 minor league season, which was scrapped amid the coronavirus pandemic, to that point.

“In a normal offseason, you have maybe five-and-a-half months, six months — rarely do you have that much,” said his trainer, Kyle Elder. “But with that extra time, we were able to make sure that there was no hip issues, no core issues. And when the core is sound, now we can really build the legs and build the mid- and upper back and start putting on some useful strength instead of just piling it on and saying, ‘I hope you can still move.’ ”

What Elder didn’t want was for Alu to add unnecessary muscle that might compromise his flexibility, mobility and speed. And he felt Alu’s body was in a great spot before last season’s breakout, though Elder also admitted he wasn’t expecting 20 homers. So this offseason, Elder wanted to work on maintaining Alu’s body while adding a bit more speed and strengthening his right shoulder for another long season.

Alu left his hometown in late January to head to the Nationals’ training facility in West Palm Beach, Fla., arriving ahead of time, taking some grounders on the grass and getting into warmer weather.

Ahead of spring training, Alu — a natural third baseman who plays some second base — finds himself in the mix for a spot on Washington’s Opening Day roster, though his path has gotten crowded. In December, the Nationals agreed to a one-year contract with Jeimer Candelario, who led the majors in doubles two years ago. They re-signed Ildemaro Vargas to a major league deal to serve as a versatile backup infielder. And with former top prospect Carter Kieboom in the mix coming off Tommy John surgery, it is likely that Alu, who was selected in the 24th round of the 2019 draft, opens the year with Rochester.

If he does make the majors, only time will tell if his approach holds up at the next level and he’s able to produce that same power. But Alu hopes to pick up where he left off.

“The power kind of just came for me,” he said. “Hopefully I can build on top of it this season and maybe hit more home runs, maybe hit more doubles. I’m always pushing myself to get better.”