Thursday, May 2, 2002
Updated: May 3, 12:57 PM ET
Bad-ball wonders: Vlad, Ichiro hit everything
By by Tim Kurkjian
ESPN The Magazine
Christy Mathewson was once issuing an intentional walk to Honus Wagner, who would have no part of it. The greatest shortstop of all time reached across the plate and lined a single to right field. That was one of the beginnings of a long line of bad-ball hitters in baseball history.
There have been many, too many to name. Wagner, Ducky Medwick, Yogi Berra, Roberto Clemente, Kirby Puckett and Tony Gwynn were all bad-ball hitters. They're also all Hall of Famers or future Hall of Famers. All but Berra won a batting title and all but Clemente were relatively low strikeout guys. They were all capable of expanding the strike zone, sometimes significantly, and hitting the ball with authority to all fields. It's what made them so great and what made them so difficult to pitch to.
"I don't have a strike zone," Puckett once said, "so the pitcher doesn't know where to throw it." Same with Gwynn. He could hit any pitch hard, yet struck out fewer times (434) in his career than Jim Thome has the last three years (527).
Gwynn has given way to the best bad-ball hitters of today -- Montreal's Vladimir Guerrero and Seattle's Ichiro Suzuki, and, emerging this year, the Yankees' Alfonso Soriano. They, too, have what all bad-ball hitters have: tremendous hand-eye coordination, and the ability to swing at a pitch at eye level, or six inches off the plate, and rifle it somewhere. Such aggressiveness shouldn't be mistaken for a lack of plate discipline -- some bad-ball hitters have that, but they choose to swing at that pitch at their shoes because they might hit it for a two-run double.
Bad-ball hitters aren't always low-walk guys, either. Guerrero walked 60 times last season; through Thursday, he has 20 walks and 12 strikeouts, raising his career totals to 254 walks and 373 strikeouts. That's a very low strikeout total, especially for a home run hitter, in today's swing-as-hard-as-you-can-in-case-you-hit-it era. There is a difference between swinging at anything, and swinging at everything.
Guerrero can hit any pitch because he has tremendous hand speed and bat speed, and really long arms.
"He can cover the plate, he can cover the opposite batter's box and he can cover the pitch over his head," said one scout. And he can hit those pitches for home runs. He can take a bastard slider down and away, and scorch it down the right-field line. A lot of players can hit the pitch that's two or three inches off the plate if they're looking in that location, but only guys such as Guerrero can hit that pitch when they're not looking there. "If I were a pitcher," the scout said, laughing, "I'd throw it down the middle to Tony and Vladdy."
The major leagues are loaded with cripple hitters, guys who pound mediocre pitching, who crush mistake pitches, but an even more dangerous hitter can be the one who can hit a pitch hard wherever it's thrown. Bad-ball hitters are so aggressive, sometimes they'll swing at the first pitch that's close. Last year, Guerrerro hit .395 with 14 homers when he put the first pitch in play.
Last season, Ichiro batted .442 when he put the first pitch in play, one reason why he won the AL batting title. He is a classic bad-ball hitter because there isn't a pitch that he has seen, but can't hit. In Japan, he singled on a pitch that bounced before it got to the plate -- the Japanese actually practice hitting a bouncing ball. With his strike zone, and his amazing ability to let his bottom half drift, yet still keep his hands back, no one quite figured out how to pitch him last year. He walked only 30 times, but numerous times he swung at ball four because he could put a pitch in play hard: he, like all bad-ball hitters, agree with the philosophy that a walk is never better than a hit. Ichiro struck out only 53 times last season because pitches that other guys missed, he hit. Consequently, he put 379 groundballs in play last season, and no one else in the American League put more than 270 in play.
Ichiro and Guerrero are more seasoned than Soriano, but the Yankee second baseman is fast developing into a dangerous hitter because of his willingness to swing at a ball out of the strike zone, and hit it hard. The home run that he hit off Curt Schilling in the eighth inning of Game 7 of the 2001 World Series was not a strike; it was down near his shoes. A lot of players wouldn't have swung at it and a lot more who would swing at it would have missed it, or hit some weak groundball. Not Soriano. He hits a lot of bad balls with authority now, which is why he was leading the AL in hits (43) and doubles (15), and is seventh in batting (.347) through Thursday. Teammate Robin Ventura said Soriano reminds him of a young Julio Franco, another bad-ball hitter and former AL batting champion in 1991.
The danger with a young player such as Soriano is that he might not develop plate discipline if he's swinging at everything. It's a legitimate concern. Last year, he walked 29 times and struck out 125. This year, he has four walks and 33 strikeouts in 29 games through Thursday. But with his strength and his ability, the last thing you want him to do is to change his approach, make him take a lot more pitches and take away some of his aggressivness. Sometimes, it's just better to let a guy hack away. Back in the day of Honus Wagner, that's how a lot of hitters became great.
Tim Kurkjian is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine and a regular contributor to Baseball Tonight. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.