High-scoring teams take cue from their hitters atop order
By Peter Gammons Special to ESPN.com
June 4Brandon Inge was forever tagged as "useful." He could catch and really throw, play center, left, short, and third, and pretty much be the best defender the Tigers put in the field.
The problem line: .215, .266, .265, .340. His on-base percentages in his first four big-league seasons.
Fast forward to 2005, and going into Detroit's game Saturday against the Orioles, Inge was batting .324 with a .403 on-base percentage, .446 slugging, and .849 OPS. For all of us who turn to Baseball Prospectus' VORP (quantity and quality of a player's performance), he is the second most productive third baseman next to Alex Rodriguez.
And he is doing it out of the leadoff position. "This is the most fun I've ever had," says Inge. "There is no question that if one works at it enough, one can learn and improve plate discipline."
Players like to talk about how the player hitting behind him is the key to his success, but it may not be a stretch to suggest that more important is the player or players in front of him. The pitcher is working out of the stretch. Some infielder is holding the bag. If the runner is on first with less than two out, the middle infielders are cheating.
When I went out into the field, I felt free. I could go back to playing the way I loved to play. And gradually I was able to concentrate on hitting again. I don't think I ever could have developed as a hitter with all the responsibilities behind the plate. ”
— Brandon Inge
While the leadoff hitter is the leadoff hitter only once a game, the leadoff position is vitally important. Going into Saturday, the top three run-scoring teams were Boston, Texas and Baltimore, who had, respectively, .400, .350 (.427 with David Dellucci in the one hole) and .439 on-base percentages in the leadoff spot. Milwaukee, Arizona, Seattle and the White Sox have been offensive surprises, partly thanks to, again respectively, Brady Clark (.403), Craig Counsell (.429), Ichiro Suzuki and Tadahito Iguchi (.380) getting on base at the top of the order.
A look at some of the most inconsistent offensive teams and their leadoff hitters' on-base percentages: Cleveland (.262), Houston (.294), Florida (.305), the Mets (.302), Atlanta (.289), Colorado (.298), and Anaheim (.307). The biggest problem with the Marlins is that Juan Pierre is not getting on base and Luis Castillo isn't playing consistently with his .400 on base, and in Anaheim, with no disrespect to Orlando Cabrera, what David Eckstein did to start them up is privately appreciated by everyone on the Angels' staff.
While teams are looking at leadoff hitters in the first round of Tuesday's draft -- Arizona's Trevor Crowe, Oregon State's Jacoby Ellsbury, Texas A&M's Cliff Pennington -- what Inge, Johnny Damon and others like Cesar Izturis have shown is that plate discipline and getting on base can be learned.
"I knew what they wanted me to do in front of Melvin Mora and Miggy [Tejada]," says Orioles second baseman Brian Roberts. "Once I knew I was going to play last season, I relaxed and concentrated on getting on base." Roberts, whose on-base percentage was .284, .308 and .337 in parts of his first three seasons, was .326 at the All-Star break, .366 afterward, and this season has been right near the .440 mark. He, in Tejada's words, "is probably the MVP at this point."
Izturis was .253, .282 and .330; this season he's .387. Dellucci was a career .328. Counsell the last four years was .359, .348, .328 and .330 before Bob Melvin told him he needed him to get on base leading off.
"Dave did a lot of work looking at tapes and studying pitchers and figured it out," Rangers manager Buck Showalter says. "Look, there are only about 10 pitchers in our entire league who get hitters out in the strike zone. The rest get hitters out of the zone. He studied video, studied and learned to lay off pitches out of the zone."
Damon gets gaudy run and RBI (95 in 2004) totals for a leadoff hitter, which obviously is due in part to the depth of Boston's order and the power of David Ortiz and Manny Ramirez. But if one watches Boston every day, one realizes that Damon is one of the best leadoff hitters in the game, the team's most under-appreciated player and the man who determines the tempo of the offense. Terry Francona calls him "unbelievably tough," his teammates know that for all the rock star persona, he is intrepid. His at-bats are battles. He gets on base 40 percent of the time and he gets extra-base hits.
"When I came up in Kansas City and had all the comparisons to great players like George Brett, I didn't really know what I was doing," says the 31-year-old Damon. "But gradually, when I went to Oakland, I started playing on teams where winning was the thing, and the A's and Red Sox expected me to get on base. I learned." Where, in his first three years, Damon averaged a .330 on-base percentage, the last two years he's been .380 and .400.
"It is a state of mind," says Damon. "There's a responsibility, but I love it." It's going to make him a lot of money after this season, and the Red Sox know replacing a middle outfielder who is a premier offensive player at a vital position in the order will be extremely difficult should Damon find the five- or six-year deal Scott Boras has promised.
Inge was an All-American shortstop at Virginia Commonwealth, and anyone who saw him play behind Mark Mulder in the Cape Cod League believes he could have been an everyday big league shortstop. But because of his arm and live feet, the Tigers drafted him in the second round in 1998 and made him a catcher. Then before the 2004 season, Detroit signed Pudge Rodriguez. "I thought," says Inge, "that it was one of the worst days of my life. As it turned out, it changed my career.
"I had so much to learn as a catcher that all my concentration went into catching and calling games," says Inge. "Then when I went out into the field, I felt free. I could dive for balls. I could go back to playing the way I loved to play. And gradually I was able to concentrate on hitting again. I don't think I ever could have developed as a hitter with all the responsibilities behind the plate."
Then this spring, as he took the third base job, Mick Kelleher told him to try batting leadoff. "He told me that I'm a good two-strike hitter, so take a couple of pitches and let the hitters behind me see what the pitcher's got. I took three balls, then two strikes, and it felt natural. I really believe that one can learn to take pitches, be patient and get on base. Yes, it's a state of mind, but it's really important that one not be afraid to hit with two strikes. Up to two strikes, I try to hit like Darin Erstad, who I respect as much as anyone in the game, then at two strikes I do what I have to do."
"That's a huge key," says Red Sox hitting instructor Mike Barnett, "because not being afraid of hitting with two strikes is a key to plate discipline." Ask Barnett, and he'll tell you that Orlando Hudson and Russell Adams can both be very good major league leadoff hitters.
This summer, the number 26 will be retired in Fenway Park and put up on the roof with 1, 4, 8, 9 and 27. Wade Boggs, speaking of someone ahead of his time, and completely unafraid to hit with two strikes. "He'd get to two strikes," Ray Miller said, "and he'd start fouling off pitch after pitch. He looked like a guy sorting through the mail looking for a check."
"If a hitter realizes that only 10 pitchers in a league get guys out with pitches in the strike zone," says Showalter, "isn't afraid of getting deep in counts and is willing to work, discipline can be learned."
Sweeney deal? For half the price
Even when Vladimir Guerrero returns, the Angels are top-heavy with left-handed hitters. But the feeling through the organization is that unless the Royals take back half of the contract, GM Bill Stoneman will not trade two prospects for Mike Sweeney. "It's not a Stoneman move," says one Angel. It was suggested that with Ervin Santana waiting to pitch every fifth day, Stoneman should move Jarrod Washburn's salary and grab Sweeney. But Stoneman refuses to give up any pitching, especially since Santana is their only major league-ready inventory. They would love second baseman Placido Polanco, as would several teams, but the Phillies' asking price is high. Heck, the Phillies are right in it.
• Dallas McPherson has begun to emerge. "All it took was a little adjustment," says the 24-year-old slugger. "He had gotten too closed, wasn't seeing the ball and couldn't get to some pitches," hitting coach Mickey Hatcher said. "He opened up a little, and he's really made progress."
Back where he belonged
There were those who wanted Ryan Dempster in the Cubs' closer role from the first day of spring training, but when Mark Prior and Kerry Wood had their physical problems, Dempster started. Now he's the man with the slider and the great makeup at the back end of the bullpen. The Cubs hope Wood will be back by the end of the month, Prior sometime later. There had been some thought to bringing up Rich Hill, who has 104 strikeouts in 64 1/3 innings between Double-A and Triple-A. But the former Michigan lefty from Milton, Mass., is still raw. Speaking of the Cubs' system, they think their entire Double-A outfield of Matt Murton, Felix Pie and Adam Greenberg is major league, and Pie (leadoff) and Murton might be looking at Wrigley in September.
Fishing for a first baseman Kevin Millar took off Saturday, hitting two homers to double his season total to four, but despite the fact that Boston pitching is down near the bottom of the AL, speculation has been rampant about the Red Sox acquiring a first baseman. Actually, Boston did make an offer on a first baseman, but it was a young one -- Arizona's Conor Jackson, described by one scout as "the right-handed Lance Berkman." Boston offered a 3-for-1, but the Diamondbacks won't even talk about Jackson.
Red Sox people say they will not trade shortstop prospect Hanley Ramirez. "He will electrify Fenway," one Boston executive says. "His speed around the bases is a thing of beauty, and he's going to drive a lot of balls down the right-field line and run. He's special."
• Usually when pitchers go from the National League to the American, people worry about the impact of the tougher lineups. But this has suited Matt Clement. "I really like the fact that all I have to do every day is concentrate on pitching," says the 6-0 Clement. "I don't have to worry about hitting, or holding a bat, or running the bases. Jason Varitek has helped me immensely, but so has concentrating on pitching." Cubs folks feel that not having to run the bases is good for Clement, who is asthmatic.
This and that
• "One of the signings of the year was Iguchi for $2 million, compared to the Mets giving Kaz Matsui the same as Hideki Matsui (actually, $7 million vs. $8 million per) and now trying to dump him," says one GM.
• Billy Beane says any talk of Eric Chavez being traded "is ficton not true. I have him for a long time, and I want him here to be the foundation for Bobby Crosby, Nick Swisher and the rest of our kids." The A's general manager is not pleased that Octavio Dotel turned down the recommendations of four doctors who said he didn't need surgery, but Dotel is gone forever from Oakland. The Huston Street Era as closer has begun.
• Washington keeps asking for Preston Wilson, but the Nats have the players -- Ryan Church, Zach Day, and minor-league pitcher Mike Hinckley -- to make the deal and the Rockies cannot pay all of the contract. Teams are beginning to call on Jason Jennings (Boston, for one) and Joe Kennedy (Oakland, among others), but not only has Todd Helton not discussed being traded, but Rockies GM Dan O'Dowd says, "he says that he'd like to lead this team back to being a winner."
• Royals GM Allard Baird on Buddy Bell: "He was in the big leagues, he knows what it's like to have talent, struggle and become a great player. And he loves players." Says Showalter: "They hired the right man. They're getting better. Let me tell you, [Andrew] Sisco is going to be special. He can be a great closer." Baird says that former Rangers left-hander J.P Howell and former No. 1 Kyle Snyder will soon be up and in the Kansas City rotation.
• One scout says "Greg Maddux is an intellectual freak. He didn't top 84 in Los Angeles and dominated."
• But the scouting reports on one-time Dodgers phenom Edwin Jackson in Las Vegas are not good. "He doesn't get swings and misses and seems to have lost his confidence," says one scout. "He's not the same guy." For those who point to GM Paul DePodesta's moves as the reason for the Dodgers' slide, the fact is that they have gone backward because going into Saturday their starting pitchers were 16-22, 4.84, and Brad Penny is their only credible starter since the first of May.