A year without games was the exact thing Ryan Fitzgerald’s baseball career needed.

When the coronavirus pandemic shut down the 2020 minor league baseball season, the Boston Red Sox prospect went home to Chicago. Without the day-to-day grind of a season, Fitzgerald poured his energy into improving his bat speed, and with it, his odds of moving up Boston’s minor league system.

The hard work paid off. At 27, Fitzgerald is having the best season of his career. The Portland Sea Dogs shortstop has a career-high 13 home runs, and his batting average (.271), on-base percentage (.354) and OPS (.879) are on pace to be career highs.

“Going into 2020, I had (worked on bat speed) all offseason,” Fitzgerald said after batting practice Friday. “I had done it going into the 2019 season as well. 2020 was phenomenal being able to train the way I do without having to worry about playing the next day. I really kind of focused on a lot of small things. You could burn yourself out pretty much every day if you don’t have to play the next day.”

In a 5-1 win over Binghamton on Friday night, Fitzgerald doubled off the left-field wall and scored in the seventh inning.

“He’s a guy who really put in work over the pandemic, and it’s helping out his career right now,” said Sea Dogs Manager Corey Wimberly.

Throughout the summer of 2020, Fitzgerald worked out at the Bo Jackson Elite Sports Complex in Bensenville, Illinois. He used force plates to record his bat speed, and wore a K vest and sensors that measured everything his body does when he swings a bat. Fitzgerald analyzed everything. It was all geared to increasing bat speed. Hit the ball harder, and it will travel farther. Simple physics, he said.

“I’m getting data on my body, my bat, and the ball as well,” said Fitzgerald, a left-handed hitter. “I always had pretty good barrel control and barrel accuracy, so I just had to add a little intent to it. I did a lot of bat speed training in the offseason. … I don’t do too much on video. Every now and then, I’ll take a look at it. I’m more of a numbers guy. I know that’s kind of heresy for a lot of hitting coaches who like doing video, which is fine.”

Sea Dogs shortstop Ryan Fitzgerald has a career-high 13 home runs, and his batting average, on-base percentage and OPS are on pace for career highs. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Fitzgerald seemed an unlikely candidate to make it to this level of the minor leagues. Coming out of Creighton University in 2016, he went undrafted. Initial outreach to independent teams went nowhere. We can’t sign you because you have no pro ball experience, Fitzgerald was told, which made him ask how he was supposed to get that experience without getting a shot?

Late in the summer of 2016, while at a showcase tournament with his younger brother, Fitzgerald’s mother struck up a conversation with a college coach who happened to know Greg Tagert, manager of the Gary SouthShore RailCats of the independent American Association. The team needed an infielder.

Fitzgerald took batting practice with Gary that September, and in November was offered an invitation to training camp. He surprised Gary management by making the team.

“They said, ‘You made the team.’ No (kidding), I’m your best player. ‘Well, we were intending on cutting you. We didn’t think you’d make it through spring training,'” Fitzgerald recalled.

“It’s the best time I ever had playing baseball. It’s do or die there. The first day I was there, they said, we don’t care about your development. We’re here to win. If you’re not going to help us win, you’re out. That’s my style. I love that. It’s win at all costs, and everyone is pulling in the same direction.”

Fitzgerald played well enough in Gary to get signed by the Boston Red Sox. He played at the lower Class A level in 2018, then was promoted to high Class A in 2019, a year in which he was named the Red Sox minor league defensive player of the year. In his first year in Double-A, Fitzgerald also has played second base, third base and in the outfield. If the Sea Dogs need a catcher, Fitzgerald is willing to put on the gear.

“For our ballclub right now, he’s the shortstop, but the more and more he shows versatility is beneficial for his career in the future. So we try to get him action all around the diamond all year. That doesn’t help him just here and now, it helps him going forward,” Wimberly said.

Fitzgerald recently returned to Portland after a two-and-a-half week promotion to Worcester, Boston’s Triple-A affiliate. Fitzgerald hit three home runs and drove in nine runs in 13 games with the WooSox. Getting sent back to Portland was a disappointment, but Fitzgerald understood why. In Worcester, he was going to be a role player off the bench. In Portland, Fitzgerald starts and gets the at-bats he needs.

“I get it. Baseball’s a business,” Fitzgerald said. “I’m a guy coming out of indie ball. I’m not a high priority. They haven’t got any financial investment in me. I can only control what I can control, so I’m going to be here and try and win a championship. We’re in the race for that, and that would be awesome.”

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