The Hardest Things to Find
JAVIER BAEZ, a 21-year-old shortstop prospect with the Cubs and a veritable demolition man with the bat, was taking batting practice this spring with his usual ferocity. "He swings," Chicago president Theo Epstein observed, "with very violent intentions." One pitch Baez harmed flew an estimated 450 feet to left centerfield.
"Anybody can do that," veteran catcher George Kottaras shouted to the kid. "Why don't you hit one over the batter's eye?"
The batter's eye on this practice field in Mesa, Ariz., was a tall, screened fence in centerfield. To clear it requires a blast that remains roughly 50 feet above ground level after traveling more than 400 feet from home plate. Thus challenged, Baez bludgeoned the next four pitches well out of the park. The first just missed clearing the batter's eye to the left. The second just missed clearing it to the right. The third and fourth both sailed over the giant fencing.
March 31, 2014
A few days later third baseman Kris Bryant, 22, another Cubs prospect and the second pick in the draft nine months ago, took his first at bat in a major league uniform in a spring game at Cubs Park. The 6'5" Bryant worked the count full, fouled off two pitches, then smashed a hanging slider 420 feet to centerfield for a home run—just to the left of the batter's eye.
The Cubs may be headed for a fifth straight losing season, but on a clear day like the ones in Arizona you can see all the way to their future, if not where those home runs are landing. Chicago owns an abundance of one of the game's incredibly shrinking resources: righthanded power. The pure mashability displayed by Baez and Bryant has become increasingly harder to find on every level, from amateurs all the way to the majors.
Slugging percentage by big league righthanded hitters last season fell to its lowest level since 1992 (.394). Only seven righthanded batters hit 30 home runs, also a 21-year low for a full season. Only six righthanded batters drove in 100 runs, the fewest since 1988 and a fraction of the record 32 players who did so in '96. The decline is particularly acute in the National League. Only one NL righthanded hitter, Paul Goldschmidt of Arizona, hit 30 home runs last season, marking the fourth time since 1950 that so few players from that side of the plate had cleared the 30-homer threshold.
Righthanded power has become so hard to find that in October, the White Sox shelled out $68 million over six years to Cuban free-agent first baseman Jose Abreu, though as one major league hitting coach said, "I hope he hits 15 to 20 [homers] because I didn't see it. We saw him in the WBC. I saw a long, slow swing. He's got holes and can be pitched to."
THE SCARCITY of righthanded power also is why Diamondbacks general manager Kevin Towers traded a 25-year-old everyday centerfielder, Adam Eaton, and a 22-year-old lefthander who is a former first-round pick, Tyler Skaggs, in a three-team deal this winter to get Mark Trumbo, 28, from the Angels. Trumbo is a marginal outfielder with a .299 career on-base percentage, but he hit between 29 and 34 home runs for the past three seasons.
"A lot of that trade came from discussions I was having with Ray Montgomery, our scouting director," Towers says. "I asked him, 'What are you seeing down there [in college and at high school showcases]?' And he says, 'There's no power. And specifically, righthanded power. You just don't see it.' I started looking at free agents over the last couple of years. Of the everyday players, how many were legitimate middle-of-the-order righthanded power guys? They're just not there.
"People say about Trumbo, 'He doesn't have a high on-base. He strikes out.' O.K., but how many guys can you almost write down for 30 bombs and to drive in 100? As long as you have guys who can do the other things, you need the guy who can put crooked numbers on the scoreboard. Now we've got two of them. I don't think there's anybody in baseball with two righthanded hitters like we have. Pujols and Trout, maybe."
The achievements of Tigers slugger Miguel Cabrera and Mike Trout—and before his foot injury last year, Albert Pujols, Trout's Angels teammate—are all the more extraordinary because they're happening in such a pitching-dominant era. Cabrera, the 2012 Triple Crown winner, has hit at least .330 with 44 home runs each of the past two seasons, becoming the first righthanded hitter to go back-to-back with such numbers since Jimmie Foxx from 1932 to '34 and the only righthanded hitter to do it even once over the past seven years. Trout hit 27 home runs last season after hitting 30 at age 20 the previous year, a show of might that foreshadows massive power numbers as he ages. Only five other players have hit 30 homers at age 20, and except for Tony Conigliaro, whose career was cut short by a beaning, they all hit at least 42 homers in a season and more than 500 in their career (Mel Ott, Ted Williams, Frank Robinson and Alex Rodriguez).
FEW EXPECTED Trout to be in such powerful company when the Angels drafted him in 2009. Baseball America ranked him 22nd among draft prospects that year, though when it compared him with an Aaron it meant Rowand, the former dirt-dog outfielder, not Hank. It wrote, "Trout's bat is not a sure thing, but he has a chance to be a solid-average hitter with average or better power. Like Rowand, Trout is a grinder who always plays the game hard."
Cabrera is the only righthanded hitter with a better slugging percentage over the past two years than Trout, and Trout has done his damage while rarely pulling the ball. He has hit 42 of his 62 career home runs up the middle. Last year only four of his bombs were to leftfield. "I think about hitting the ball hard to right center, almost above the second baseman's head," Trout says.
Why can't baseball find more righthanded sluggers like Trout? A sampling of managers, scouts and executives turned up these reasons:
• PEDs. The five seasons in history with the most righthanded 30-home-run hitters occurred between 1996 and 2001. Some of those sluggers helped drive the game to new heights of popularity and rewrote the record book, only to be linked later to PEDS, including Rodriguez, Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa, Jose Canseco, Manny Ramirez, Miguel Tejada and Matt Williams. Steroid testing with penalties began in 2004, helping send the game into an era of serious statistical correction. There were more righthanded 30-home-run hitters in 1950 (10)—when there were only 16 teams and a 154-game schedule—than the seven from last year.
Says Epstein, "You just can't look at numbers the same. One hundred RBIs is the equivalent of 85 now."
• Pitching. It's better than ever, and easier to find. Says Mets special assistant J.P. Ricciardi, "Over the past 20 years I've probably seen four or five [amateur] hitters I got really excited about. It's the opposite with pitchers. You see them all the time."
The amateur player-development market is being driven by the radar gun, which has become ubiquitous even at Little League games. It takes a trained eye to appreciate the subtle shades between a skilled hitter or defender, and one worthy of the major leagues. But any coach, parent or child understands that the most basic way to catch the eye of a scout or college coach is to throw 90 mph on the mound—and major league bullpens are now teeming with flamethrowers, most of whom are righthanded (chart, previous page). "I would bet that a lot of these tall power pitchers we're seeing probably would have been power-hitting outfielders in another era," says Padres GM Josh Byrnes.
• Fewer good righthanded hitters overall. Last season only 65 played enough to qualify for the batting championship, the fewest in the 16 years with 30 teams. The emphasis on platoon baseball and matchup bullpens seems to be driving the number down, but you don't see the same diminution with lefthanded hitters. There were 49 everyday lefthanded hitters last year—the fifth-highest total in the past 16 years.
• Injuries. Some of the top righthanded power hitters in the game have not stayed healthy in recent seasons. Among the walking wounded: Pujols, Troy Tulowitzki, Ryan Braun, Jose Bautista, Matt Kemp, Hanley Ramirez and Ryan Zimmerman.
• Coaching. Make that overcoaching. The explosion in travel baseball has ignited a growth industry of private coaches and academies, with an emphasis on the mechanics of the swing. "The hitters you see in the draft look like clones," complains one talent evaluator.
Says Dodgers manager Don Mattingly, "The mechanics of hitting have changed. We got away from Charley Lau and Walt Hriniak and those [teachers] who kept the bat in the strike zone—the Cabreras and [Robinson] Canos of the world hit for average and power because they keep the bat in the zone. The mechanics have definitely changed."
One of those changes: Most young hitters now subscribe to the theory of "keeping your hands inside the ball," a style that can limit the ability to pull even inside fastballs. As a result, home runs to the pull field—generally the easiest place to go deep—are becoming more scarce. The percentage of home runs to leftfield by righthanded hitters has dropped from 61% in 2003 to 50% in '13.
• College baseball. In 2011 the NCAA mandated the use of less-lively nonwood bats. Since then the college game has resembled what it looked like in the wood-bat era, before 1973. In 1998, with the lively bat, there were 62 home runs at the College World Series. In the three seasons with the less lively bats there have been 22 home runs combined at the CWS, including just three last year, the fewest since 1966.
"College recruiters want guys who can handle the bat, bunt, run, play defense, hit the ball in the gaps," Towers says. "[Power hitting] is not really being taught anymore. There are very few freaks in college with today's bats who can hit 30. You can go to college games now and not see anybody hit one out in batting practice."
If you took every major league righthanded hitter who was drafted out of college and added up all those who drove in 100 runs last year, you would arrive at just one: Goldschmidt.
THE STEROID ERA distorted power as an unlimited resource. Righthanded power generally has been a rare commodity since Rogers Hornsby and Tillie Walker helped announce the end of the Deadball era in 1922 by becoming the first righties to club 30 homers. The Royals haven't produced a homegrown, 30-homer righthanded slugger since Bo Jackson in 1989, the Tigers since Lance Parrish in '84 and the Padres since Dave Winfield in 1979. Even the Bronx Bombers themselves, the Yankees, have not developed one since Joe DiMaggio in 1950 (excluding Alfonso Soriano, who was signed in 1998 out of pro ball in Japan).
With the Cubs, for whom patience is as virtuous as ivy, you have to go back to Ernie Banks in 1968 to find a homegrown righthanded hitter with that kind of pop. Now Chicago may be sitting on two of them. Chicago drafted Baez out of Arlington Country Day School in Jacksonville, with the ninth pick in 2011. Baez bashes with a very unclonelike swing, which he cranks up with a Gary Sheffield--style waggle before unleashing destructive bat speed. "The name you always hear when it comes to bat speed is Sheffield," Byrnes says, invoking the All-Star who used a ferocious righthanded hack to hit 509 home runs in a 22-year career. "This time the comparison is legit. I haven't seen bat speed like this since Sheffield."
Says Baez, "That's my swing since I was a kid. It's all-out. It's just something that's natural to me. I had a high school coach who one time told me, 'You should not swing that hard all the time.' But I can't do it another way. This is how I swing."
No righthanded hitter in affiliated minor league ball hit more home runs last year than Baez, who hit 37 between A ball and Double A, including four in one game. "He thinks he can hit every pitch out of the ballpark," Epstein said. "He's a very dangerous man."
Bryant hit 31 home runs last year at the University of San Diego with a more traditional approach. The bent knees, wide base and low hands in his stance recall McGwire. In their early predraft meetings last year Cubs officials liked Bryant but initially not enough to consider taking him with the second pick. He soon moved up their board.
"The more we saw him, the more we loved his game power," Epstein says. "He has an advanced approach and understands what pitchers are trying to do to him. He swings under control and can generate as much backspin as anybody I've ever seen. He hits these high, lofted fly balls that just keep going."
Says Bryant, "I really didn't work on the backspin. I've just always been able to do it. I guess it plays to my strength, just being taller."
Baez is scheduled to begin the season in Triple A. If he dominates there the way he did in Double A last year (20 homers in 54 games), the Cubs won't hesitate to bring him to the big leagues this year, even if it is to play second base or third. Bryant is on track to follow a path the Rays used for former college slugger Evan Longoria: a high draft pick out of college who starts his first full pro season in Double A, finishes in Triple A and becomes a franchise fixture the following April. "Only the elite guys [in college] are hitting home runs," Epstein says. "The guys who can hit for power in college are a pretty safe bet to do it in the pros. Nobody else was close to Bryant."
Never in their checkered history have the Cubs lost more games in a three-year span than their 288 defeats from 2011 to '13. Now their turnaround depends largely on having found a recherché commodity in the game. Last year across the major leagues, all affiliated minor leagues and Division I college baseball, only 18 righthanded hitters hit 30 home runs. The Cubs have two of those rare gems. More power to them.
Asked what he sees in high school baseball, one scouting director said, "There's no power."
Right Limits Might
One reason for the scarcity of righthanded power: The game is experiencing a serious righthanded heat wave. Of the 679 pitchers who appeared in a game last season, 29.2% were lefthanded—but southpaws accounted for a far lower share of hurlers bringing elite velocity.
PITCHERS WITH AVERAGE FASTBALL OF AT LEAST 95.0 MPH IN 2013
[The following text appears within a chart. Please see hardcopy or PDF for actual chart.]
DATA FROM FANGRAPHS.COM
Number of hitters who slugged .500 or better in 2013, the fewest since 1992.
Number of righthanded hitters who qualified for the batting title in 2013, the fewest in the 16 seasons played with 30 teams.
Percentage of the 4,661 home runs hit in 2013 that came off righthanded bats, the lowest percentage since 2002.
Righthanded Batting Champs
It's not news that Miguel Cabrera is a unique offensive talent. But viewed solely in terms of handedness, the streak of three straight American League batting titles he's carrying into this season is nearly unparalleled. Since 1901, 64.5% of the 10,948 men to step to the plate in the AL have been purely righthanded hitters. But of the 113 AL batting titles in that span, only 42 (37.2%) have been won by righthanders—and other than Cabrera only one of these hitters has three-peated as champ. To find Cabrera's equal you have to go back to Nap Lajoie, who won the first four AL crowns, beginning in '01.