Garciaparra, Soriano see no need to wait for success
There's nothing guys such as Nomar Garciaparra and Alfonso Soriano like more than to swing the bat.
It's often been said that the NFL is a "copycat'' league, where success spawns a legion of imitators. Whenever a new wrinkle is shown to be effective, it's soon copied by teams seeking an edge.
Baseball, too, has become more susceptible to trends, and none is bigger than the current fascination with on-base percentage, particularly in the American League where offense rules.
Two years ago, the Seattle Mariners' patient approach at the plate helped translate into a record-setting 116 regular-season wins. The Oakland A's have won more than 300 games -- and three playoff spots -- in as many years while emphasizing OBP. The new Boston Red Sox adminstration used on-base percentage as its acid test when evaluating players last winter.
Everywhere, it seems, players are being urged to work the count, pile up walks, exhaust pitchers and clog the bases for the potential of big innings.
But there are some glorious exceptions.
If most players are -- to mix in another analogy from another sport -- slowing down the game in a deliberate, four corners-style approach, two holdouts are still running the equivalent of the fast break at the plate.
Let others window-shop as pitchers offer an assortment of choices. Let others deliberate as though they were narrowing down options at a buffet. Garciaparra, a two-time batting champion, and Soriano, whose combination of power and speed brought him to the brink of a 40-40 season a year ago, aren't choosy.
But by deliberately eschewing the trend that emphasizes selectivity, the two are successful.
A year ago, while hitting .310 to go along with 24 homers and 120 RBI, Garciaparra averaged the second-fewest pitches seen (3.06) per plate appearance in the American League. He also was second in highest percentage of swings on the first pitch, offering at just slightly more than half (50.4 percent) of first pitches he saw.
Soriano, in his second full season with the Yankees, wasn't quite so eager to swing at the first pitch as his Boston counterpart. But Soriano rarely met a pitch he didn't like. He was third in the AL in lowest percentage of pitches taken (42.7). And when he did see an appetizing first pitch, he often succeeded, hitting .464 while slugging .825 on the first offering.
Who's got time to sift through a pitcher's entire repertoire of pitches when the first or second pitch looks plenty good enough?
For Soriano, his restlessness may have some cultural roots. Born in the Dominican Republic, where it was once famously said, "Nobody ever walked off the island,'' Soriano saw no need to wait his turn.
"When I was young and I played, I led off a lot,'' he says. "Sometimes I bunted, but not too much. Mostly I was swinging. That's my game, being aggressive at the plate.''
Soriano's great bat speed and strong wrists -- the latter of which have invited comparisons to a young Henry Aaron -- enable him to make contact with almost any fastball of his choosing. Depending on the at-bat or situation, Sorinao is eminently capable of golfing a pitch a couple of inches out of the dirt or hammering pitches up -- or sometimes out -- of the strike zone.
Without success, the Yankees tried to mold him into a more conventionally patient hitter in 2001 only to determine in taking away his natural aggressiveness at the plate, they were robbing him of one of his greatest attributes.
Freed to be himself more last year, Soriano blossomed, enjoying one of the finest seasons for a second baseman in modern history, amassing 209 hits, scoring 128 runs, homering 39 times and knocking in 102 runs -- all from the leadoff spot.
Placed in that context, it didn't seem to matter much to the Yankees that Soriano struck out 157 times or walked just 23 times.
"On any at-bat,'' Soriano says, "it doesn't matter if it's the first one or not, I'm waiting for a pitch in my zone. Then I'll swing.''
Garciaparra is similarly ready to go when he steps into the box. More than half (13) of his 24 homers last season came on the first pitch.
From the time he first played the game, Garciaparra made an obvious realization.
"I believe you have a bat in your hand for a reason,'' he says. "Why take a pitch you like just because it's the first one or second one you see?''
Garciaparra's proficiency at the plate does, however, defy some elementary logic: If pitchers know he's naturally inclined to swing at the first pitch, then why do they give him anything to hit?
But that question misses an essential point. With his quick wrists -- he shares that attribute, too, with Soriano -- there's precious little that Garciaparra can't hit.
"Why,'' asks Garciaparra rhetorically, "would you let a ball you can hit go by just to take a look?''
His unusual success at swinging early and often has basically made him exempt from the organization-wide philosophy the Sox are attempting to instill. While minor-league and major-league coaches instruct hitters to methodically work the count to their advantage, citing the proven methods of Red Sox great Ted Williams, Garciaparra is free to swing as he pleases.
"You don't try to change successful approaches,'' said Red Sox hitting instructor Ron Jackson.
It's ironic that Garciaparra would, in some ways, be such a contrast to Williams, with whom he developed a close bond in the legend's last few years. The two shared a Southern California upbringing, Mexican heritage and places in Red Sox history. But while Williams cited the importance of putting oneself in a hitter's count and making the percentages in the hitter's favor, Garciaparra has favored a less discerning approach in the box.
|No walk in the park|
1. Rey Ordonez
2. Jacque Jones
3. Rocco Baldelli
4. Frank Catalanotto
5. Shea Hillenbrand
6. Garret Anderson
7. Alex Gonzalez
8. Tino Martinez
9. Michael Young
10. Jay Payton
He has, however, adhered to a basic Williams belief: get a good pitch you can hit.
It just so happens that, thanks to extraordinary plate coverage, Garciaparra can hit bad pitches, too. But the idea that he steps into the batter's box with little regard for the situation clearly rankles him. In other words, there's more to it than simply "grip it and rip it.''
"You still have to have good pitch recognition,'' he says. "I'm not just free-swinging all the time.''
Yet when he does attack the first pitch, he meets with astounding success. A career .325 hitter, he's averaged .375 when swinging at the first pitch during the last three seasons.
Oddly, Garciaparra also has been more successful behind in the count, which is contrary to the principles of hitting. When he swings at the second pitch ahead 1-and-0, he hits just .213; when he's behind 0-and-1, he hits .302.
While Garciaparra is deeper into his career and less likely to adjust, Soriano occasionally expresses pangs of guilt over his ultra-aggressive approach.
"I want to be more selective, too,'' he admits. "I'm still aggressive all the time, (but) it's very important to take a walk. I want the pitcher to be saying to himself, 'Sori's a better hitter now. He won't swing at the ball in the dirt or over his head. He won't swing at a bad pitch now.' ''
But just as likely, pitchers know he and Garciaparra can if they want to. And with more success than virtually anyone else in the game.Sean McAdam of the Providence (R.I.) Journal covers baseball for ESPN.com.