The jokes have slowed considerably. The playful jabs have begun to subside. Tim Tebow is proving he belongs, and lately he’s doing more than that. He has been performing at a high level this month.
Just ask opposing Double-A managers who raved about the strides the former Heisman Trophy winner has made this year with the Mets’ affiliate in Binghamton. They have cited his improved plate discipline, pitch recognition and opposite-field power.
“He looks like a different guy than last year,” Double-A Hartford manager Warren Schaeffer told The Post in a phone interview.
After quitting football following failed stints with the Broncos and Jets, and signing in September 2016 with the Mets, the doubts were understandable. Tebow, who won two college football national championships at Florida, hadn’t played baseball since his junior year of high school. In 2017, Tebow hit just .226 with eight home runs and a .656 OPS split between Single-A Columbia and Port St. Lucie. At 30 years old, he didn’t exactly distinguish himself during spring training, either.
Though his overall numbers for Binghamton aren’t overly impressive — Tebow had a slash line of .256/.335/.402 with five home runs and 27 RBIs through Monday — his .737 OPS through 224 plate appearances is 81 points better than the mark he posted a year ago. And over his previous 18 games he batted .321 (17-for-53) with an impressive .848 OPS. He hit safely in 11 of his previous 15 games, and had a stellar 315/.362/.481 slash line this month.
“I saw him last year at [Single-A] Columbia. He’s come a really long way,” Schaeffer said. “He’s a tough out right now. We had a really tough time against Tim Tebow. He hits fastballs well. He’s a strong kid. His approach has gotten a lot better. He’s spitting on pitches now he wasn’t early on this year. You can tell he works hard.
“Before, you could beat him with a lot of stuff. You beat him hard in, beat him soft away. He had a quite a few holes [in his swing] earlier on. Now the holes have gotten smaller and smaller.”
John Schneider, the manager of Double-A New Hampshire, said he sees a more fluid swing from Tebow, free and easy rather than the rigid one of a year ago. He’s getting the ball more in the air this year after producing a 61 percent groundball rate a season ago and had 18 extra-base hits to show for the mechanical change. He is striking out more — 82 so far — after fanning 126 times in 430 at-bats a year ago. Tebow homered off Hartford ace southpaw Peter Lambert, an at-bat that stuck with Schaeffer.
“To hold your own after being out of it for however long he had been, you got to give the guy credit,” Schneider said. “Baseball is a hard thing and hitting is a really hard thing. To show improvement and hold his own here in Double-A is pretty impressive.”
Mets reliever Tyler Bashlor, who was just called up from Binghamton, raved about Tebow’s work ethic. He said Tebow was one of the guys always putting in extra time on his swing and described him as a “great teammate” with an “incredible work ethic.”
“He’s there for the right reasons,” Bashlor said. “He’s trying to do what we all strive to do — make it here.”
An opposing scout familiar wth Tebow echoed the Double-A managers, noting improvements he has made.
“He is better,” the scout said, speaking on condition of anonymity. “He has shown the ability to hit the fastball. Not a double-plus fastball, but an average fastball. He has progressed. He still misses a lot of pitches down. The changeup, he doesn’t see at all.’’
The obvious question is: Has Tebow progressed enough to reach Queens as anything other than a cheap publicity stunt for a team playing out the string? A call-up to Triple-A Las Vegas likely would come first. But he’s at least making it a conversation.
“We’ve got guys who’ve been playing five, six, seven years not having the success he’s had at Double-A,” Double-A Harrisburg manager Matt LeCroy said. “A lot of people probably thought he could not do that and now he’s starting to thrive in Double-A.
“If you can play in this league,” the former big leaguer added, “ you can probably give yourself a chance to get up to the major leagues.”
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