Can Erick Aybar adapt to the Angels' leadoff expectations?
TEMPE, Ariz. -- You don't escape poverty in the Dominican Republic and barge into the major leagues at the age of 22 -- particularly when you are 5-foot-7 and weigh 170 pounds -- by sitting back and waiting for things to happen.
Erick Aybar does everything with the aggressiveness of a middleweight prize fighter. His toughness -- he once took a 96 mph fastball off the face in a winter league game and played three days later -- is among the traits that endeared Aybar to his bosses.
Los Angeles Angels
So, why are the Los Angeles Angels asking him to ratchet it down a level or two? A notorious free swinger, Aybar is being told to take more pitches now that he's replacing Chone Figgins as the leadoff hitter. A shortstop with balletic feet and a massive arm, Aybar is being asked to use his head more and his body less.
It's a lot to ask.
"I want to do my job," Aybar said. "I go to my house, I talk to my wife and my mom. My mom told me to stay the same person you are. That helped me a lot. They're ready to give me an opportunity. We'll see."
The Angels set club records in batting average, hits and runs scored last season. They won't be nearly as potent this year if Aybar struggles in his new job. That could spell trouble in an improved division, one filled with to the brim with pitching.
By one measure -- batting average -- Aybar had the greatest offensive season an Angels shortstop has ever had last year.
But base hits are only part of the equation for a leadoff man. Allowing a pitcher to walk you occasionally doesn't hurt. Neither does seeing enough pitches that the guys who hit behind you have an idea of the pitcher's stuff that day.
Aybar hit .312 to Figgins' .298 last year, but he was on base 92 fewer times. He scored 44 fewer runs. Aybar has similar speed, but he won't be able to employ it much if he's not on base. Figgins gradually adapted to a more passive approach at the plate. Aybar has further to go.
"I do think there's more in him as far as working deep counts, understanding hitting with two strikes, not being afraid to get those counts deeper and see more pitches," Angels manager Mike Scioscia said. "But if he does what he did last year, he'll set the table and score a lot of runs."
Aybar's defense poses fewer riddles, but it's far from a finished product.
The Angels think he has the potential to win a Gold Glove this year and to lock up the award for the next 10 years. But he can't do it with range and arm alone. Infield coach Alfredo Griffin knew Aybar still had work to do when he watched him charge a Bengie Molina slow roller as if Ichiro Suzuki had hit it.
Suzuki could circle the bases by the time Molina got halfway to second.
"See, that's the instinct that got him here, but sometimes he has to break it down and take it nice and easy," Griffin said. "It's about controlling his aggressiveness."
When Aybar first got to the big leagues, in 2006, he had a seat right in front of the professor. Orlando Cabrera was the Angels' shortstop. Cabrera has limited range, but he is among the most consistent fielders in the game. There is a reason he keeps getting jobs, even at the age of 35. Cabrera is now with the Cincinnati Reds.
"Orlando's range is not as good as Aybar's, but you see him catch the ball in the hole like Aybar because he knows where the pitch is going to be pitched, he knows where to position himself, he knows how to cheat to get there," Griffin said. "That's the difference. Orlando's got a better head. He's a veteran, and he's played longer."
Aybar grew up in the Dominican town of Bani, the same place that produced Miguel Tejada and Cristian Guzman. His mother worked in a factory and his father worked in construction, when there was work. The Angels don't doubt his willingness to work hard or to listen to instruction. The question is, can he adapt? Or, will he?
"I don't want to change my talent," Aybar said. "I want to be the same person."
Mark Saxon covers the Angels for ESPNLosAngeles.com.