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Speedy Andres Torres fast becoming invaluable to Giants


ATLANTA -- About an hour after the Giants' workout had ended on Saturday, two team buses had come and gone and now a cab driver waiting for Andres Torres was getting impatient.

The team had flown across the country that morning and been taken straight from the airport to Turner Field for some light hitting on the off-day before Sunday's Game 3. While his teammates had all departed for the hotel, Torres was still in uniform, having just completed extra work in the batting cage.

Now Torres -- the Giants' 32-year-old center fielder and switch-hitting leadoff hitter who emerged from the obscurity of a journeyman's career to lead his team and rank 10th in the National League with 67 extra-base hits -- was talking hitting in a side room off the visitors' clubhouse.

"Talking" isn't quite accurate. A conversation with Torres -- about hitting, at least -- is a kinetic experience. He's obsessive about the topic. Few of his sentences run through to completion, as he trips over himself in excitement.

Torres began the conversation on a couch, only to stand up minutes later to demonstrate a swing. Wide base, rotation, connection, 90 degrees. That's the angle your torso should make with the side of the plate when you make contact, he said -- 90, perfectly perpendicular.

When Torres was ready to sit down again, he opted for an overturned storage bin that offered more height, in case he might need to spring up again to demonstrate something else. He would.

Part of the excitement for Torres is that hitting is still a process of discovery. He only grew serious about baseball when he was 18 and though he made the major leagues at age 24, he batted just .210 in 89 games with the Tigers and Rangers from 2002 to '05 and didn't return to the big leagues until 2009 with the Giants.

"I'm still learning things, to be honest with you," said Torres, who contributed a single, walk and steal in San Francisco's Game 3 win. "I wasn't born to play baseball."

Before 2010 he had never played more than 75 games or had 200 plate appearances in a single season, but an injury to Aaron Rowand gave him the chance to be in the daily lineup. This year, Torres played 139 games and had 570 plate appearances, batting .268 with a .343 on-base percentage and .479 slugging percentage, hitting 43 doubles (fourth in the NL), eight triples and 16 home runs, scoring 84 runs and leading the team with 26 stolen bases. Each of those numbers would have been better had he not missed 10 games with appendicitis.

"Once he got his opportunity, he ran with it," manager Bruce Bochy said. "And, I mean, he didn't stop. He started the season as a fourth or fifth outfielder, and once he got some playing time, he just got locked in at the plate and started swinging well and kept swinging well."

Importantly for the Giants, he established himself as their everyday leadoff hitter -- "something we sorely needed," general manager Brian Sabean said. And now for the first time in Torres' career that has included six organizations, he may have found stability. As long as he stays healthy, Sabean said of the arbitration-eligible outfielder, "He's certainly in our plans as we go forward."

A key point in his story -- and one that may also explain his frenetic manner of describing his hitting and his obsessive desire to work out -- is that he was diagnosed with ADHD while with the Tigers in 2002. At first he ignored it.

"They gave me a prescription, but I never took it like I was supposed to because I didn't know what was ADD," he said.

Soon after Torres returned to the Tigers organization in 2007, he went on a 1-for-34 stretch at Double-A, prompting one of his coaches to suggest he begin taking his long-ignored medication. Nearly 30 and in the minors, Torres realized it was worth giving it a shot. He saw immediate improvement in his consistency and production and has been granted a Therapeutic Use Exemption from Major League Baseball to use Focalin for his ADHD.

"The medication made me focus," he said. "When I go hit, I've got so many things on my mind that it's hard for me to focus."

His remedy, it seems, is to keep working, working, working -- almost to his detriment.

"I've been backing him off," San Francisco hitting coach Hensley Meulens said, "and telling him, 'You're not taking a thousand swings today. Take 30 or 40 and then get out.' Ever since we did that, he's calmed down. He's a workaholic. He's learning how to do the right amount of work."

Born and raised in Puerto Rico, Torres didn't play much baseball growing up, just a league that had a game once a week when he was nine or 10. Track was his first love, and he showed promise, running the 100 meters in 10.37 seconds. That speed -- and his play when he turned to baseball as a high school senior -- caught the attention of a couple of scouts, Jose Oquendo, now the Cardinals' third-base coach, and Edwin Rodriguez, now the Marlins' interim manager. They handed Torres their business cards, planting the seed in his mind that he could be a professional ballplayer.

He enrolled at Miami-Dade College, whose baseball program has produced Mike Piazza and Placido Polanco, among others.

"I used to worry about just speed," Torres said of his early career. "But this game is not speed. I had to get mechanics and coordination."

The raw talent was sufficient that the Tigers selected him in the fourth round of the 1998 draft. For his first six years of pro ball, most of which was spent in the minors, he never hit more than four home runs or slugged as high as .400.

"He was more of a slap guy, maybe trying to get a bunt down to get on base," said Giants outfielder Cody Ross, who was also a teammate of Torres' in Detroit's minor league system. "I think he figured something out. He started using a bigger bat, using his hands to drop the barrel on the ball and getting some backspin to really drive the ball."

On Saturday night he handed his batting practice bat to a visitor. At 37 1/2 ounces, the maple Max Bat could have a second life as a telephone pole. In a game he usually uses one that's 35 inches, 33 ounces. Torres is only 5'10" but he's jacked. His arms and shoulders define definition. He's a solid 190 pounds, he said, because he trains as a sprinter would, doing maximum-weight lifts and working on his explosion through power cleans, snatches, jerks and squats.

Torres began swinging a heavier bat in 2005 on the advice of Alfonso Soriano. He's always watching and talking to other about hitting.

"He's always checking the computer to watch at-bats of [Albert] Pujols, [Ryan] Howard, Ichiro [Suzuki]," says San Francisco third baseman Pablo Sandoval. "And my at-bats too."

Torres' favorite is Pujols. He is in such awe of Pujols' swing that he'll not only watch his at-bats but go online and use Google to find out more. In early 2008 he found some flipbooks breaking down the Cardinals first baseman's swing frame by frame and out of the blue called the website's creator, a St. Louis area suburban dad named Chris O'Leary who has read voraciously about hitting but has no professional background, and said, "Hey, I read your stuff. It really made a lot of sense. Tell me more about this connection thing."

Though his cell phone number is listed on his website, O'Leary was stunned to receive a call, particularly from a ballplayer -- especially this one. "As soon as I got off the phone with him, I Googled him just to see what was up," O'Leary said. "I had never heard of him."

Connection is a hitting term for the idea that the hands should rotate in sync with the back shoulder on a swing, to generate power from the whole body. Pujols is perhaps the most perfect practitioner of this. As O'Leary explains, the hitting cue thrown around many commentators and instructors -- extension -- is often used incorrectly, as extension is not the cause of a good swing but the effect.

Torres found a sympathetic ear in O'Leary and the two have traded a few dozen calls, texts and email over the past two years, even working out together in Puerto Rico in Jan. 2009.

"The biggest thing is he's very open-minded," O'Leary said. "To a degree some of that is he's from outside the system. He's not afraid to question the dogma."

Torres cautions against assigning too much credit to any one instructor, not in denial of their influence but because he is perhaps too appreciative of the support he's received from everyone along the way.

But it's clear a few people have helped more than others, including Rudy Jaramillo when Torres was in the Rangers' organization, Meulens with the Giants and even O'Leary.

"He has evolved as a hitter, seeking help from a lot of folks, including outside the organization," said Sabean.

Sabean also noted how important Torres' outfield defense is in the spacious outfields of the NL West. Torres has settled in center for now but played at least 37 games at each outfield position this year, leading the NL with a combined outfield Ultimate Zone Rating of 21.5, meaning he saved that many runs more than the average player.

"The guy's lightning fast," Ross said. "I move more toward the line because I know he can cover a lot of the gap."

The former track star already covered a lot of ground in his baseball career, from slap-hitting journeyman to everyday-playing leadoff hitter for a playoff team. It seems he's only just now hitting his stride.