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Tuesday, June 16, 2009
Examining Ibanez's career year at 37

By Jayson Stark
ESPN.com

PHILADELPHIA -- He has spent the past week thrashing his way through a storm he never saw coming.

One day, Raul Ibanez was one of the best stories in baseball, a guy who could never crack a lineup in his 20s, then escaped that witness-protection program also known as the Seattle Mariners to become an MVP candidate in Philadelphia at age 37.

And then, just as this inspirational tale was gathering steam, the hurricane crashed through his door.

Raul Ibanez
Raul Ibanez, who has never played in an All-Star Game, is the leading vote-getter among all National League outfielders.

Then Raul Ibanez found out that guys like him aren't allowed to merely have great seasons anymore. There had to be some sinister reason. There had to be some conspiracy theory. There had to be somebody out there, throwing around that "S" word, even though there wasn't an iota of evidence.

"I was devastated," the Phillies left fielder told ESPN.com this week. "Everything I've stood for, and everything I've stood against -- in an instant, the perception of that could be changed."

Well, it could, we guess. But should it? Ask yourself this: Is that really mandatory, just because of the age we live in?

"You know, I understand [the questions], I guess," said Allard Baird, Ibanez's onetime GM in Kansas City and now a Red Sox assistant. "These fans have been let down so many times that the first thing that comes to mind when a guy has a season like this is, it seems like kind of an oddity, so there must be a reason. But knowing Raul, knowing the person he is, knowing the player he is, knowing the approach he's always had, I'd find that very hard to believe."

We could spend the rest of this column examining blogdom, journalism and ethics in modern communications. Instead, we thought we'd examine another obscure topic connected to Ibanez's story:

Baseball.

Yeah, we know it's a goofy idea. But we thought we'd try something nobody ever seems to think of these days: studying whether there are actual baseball reasons that a man like this could have a season like this, even at age 37. So here goes:

Life begins at 37

First, a little history lesson: It is possible to have a big year, even a career year, in your late 30s. And guess what? It's always been possible.

Hank Aaron reached career highs in both home runs (47) and slugging (.669) the year he turned 37. Ted Williams slugged .731 the year he turned 39, barely missing his all-time full-season high (which was .735, at age 22).

Hal McRae set career highs in home runs (27) and slugging (.542) in 1982, the year he turned 37 in July. Carlton Fisk hit 37 homers, his most ever, at age 37, in 1985.

Ken Griffey Sr.'s highest slugging percentage (.492) came in 1986, the year he hit 36. Rico Carty's 31 homers in 1978 were the most in his career, at age 39.

Darrell Evans' 40 home runs and .519 slugging percentage in 1985 (in the midst of turning 38) were just off his career bests. Hank Sauer's 41 homers in 1954, at 37, were the most he ever hit. Even Ty Cobb tied his high in homers (12) in 1925, the year he turned 38, and slugged .598, only 23 points shy of his career high. Get the picture?

None of this happened in the past 15 years, you'll notice. It went on over a period of six decades, starting in the mid-1920s. So seasons like this happen -- and they always have -- for players who take care of themselves and work at their craft.

Ibanez's take: "You know, I asked Edgar Martinez once, 'Why does everybody talk about age 35 like I'm going to die?'" Ibanez said. "And he told me he thought [his] prime was from 36 to 39. He said that was when he felt like his knowledge, combined with his physical skills, enabled him to replicate his swing and figure stuff out in the batter's box. And that's when he felt was his best time. He told me that decline at 35 was 'for people who don't work as hard as us.'"

Breaking down the numbers

First off, it's not as if Ibanez has never done anything like this before. You only have to go back to 2006, when he had 20 homers and 70 RBIs at the All-Star break, to find a start that's comparable. And as SI.com's Joe Posnanski pointed out last week, Ibanez has had 50- to 55-game stretches that resembled this one in every season since 2002.

Second, you'd be surprised by how similar Ibanez's numbers this year are to many of his stats from previous years. See for yourself:

• Pitches per plate appearance: 3.87 this year, .3.89 last year, 3.89 in '07.
• Road batting average: .314 this year, .309 last year, .306 in '07.
• Road on-base percentage: .347 this year, .362 last year, .356 in '07.
• Ground-ball/fly-ball ratio: 0.70 this year, .0.70 last year, 0.75 in '07.
• Batting average on balls in play: .318 this year, .325 last year, .321 in '07.

So what's changed? All his home numbers (goodbye, Safeco Field). And his slugging across the board. And the number of fly balls now leaving the park. And some subtle changes that only surface when you look at more sophisticated data.

There would appear to be reasonable baseball explanations for all those differences. So let's take a look.

A tale of two ballparks

You don't need a master's degree from M.I.T. to break down some of this data. On the one hand, you have Citizens Bank Park. During 2006-08, it was the third-best home run park in the National League for left-handed hitters, according to Baseball Info Solutions.

On the other hand, you have Ibanez's previous home in Seattle, Safeco Field. Over the same period, it was the fifth-hardest ballpark in the American League for a left-handed hitter to go deep.

So this will shock you: Ibanez 's home stat line has high-jumped from a .276 batting average, .353 on-base percentage and .497 slugging percentage last year in Safeco to .333/.421/.696.

"He's been much more aggressive this year hitting balls all over the field," said one scout, "because it's obvious he feels he can drive the ball and hit it over the fence in any part of the park."

Ibanez's take: "It's made a big difference. Mentally, playing in a park like [Philadelphia], you know you never have to try to crush a ball. And when you hit a ball deep, the ball doesn't hang in the air as much. And it goes in the gap, as opposed to getting caught … as opposed to [in Seattle] hitting two balls in the gap and you know you've hit them well. And it's not just that they're not home runs. But first and second, two outs, 3-2 count, you hit a ball in the gap, and nobody scores, and you're out. So you don't want to focus on things you can't control. But you can't help but sometimes notice stuff like that. But here [in Philly], it's the opposite."

The inside story

OK, to sum up that last section … Seattle: hard place to hit a home run. Philadelphia: much easier place to hit a home run. So that helps explain this next Raul Ibanez stat:

Percent of fly balls leaving the park: 11.0 percent in 2007, 11.0 percent in 2008, 25.6 percent in 2009.

That's one dramatic, eye-popping change in home run rates. But it isn't only about switching ballparks, because his power numbers are up on the road, too.

"He's handling the ball [inside] better than he ever has," said one scout. "When you pitch him in, he can turn on it and hit the ball out of the park in right field, which he didn't do a lot earlier in his career."

The numbers from our friends at Inside Edge bear that out. Ibanez is on pace to hit 13 homers this year on inside pitches, as many as he hit in the previous two seasons combined. And his slugging percentage on pitches inside is .660, compared with .430 in 2008 and .438 in '07.

"The one thing that stands out for me right now," Baird said, "is that his hips and hands are so in sync. He's so quick inside. Boy, is he quick inside. You can't sneak the ball by him."

The top of the zone

One of the other big changes the folks at Inside Edge helped us pinpoint in Ibanez this year is his ability to drive pitches up in the strike zone.

According to their data, 12 of his 22 homers (55 percent) have come on pitches up in the zone. Compare that to last year (35 percent) and 2007 (48 percent).

Meanwhile, his slugging percentage on high pitches is .859 this year, versus .493 last year and .699 the year before. And that's no coincidence.

"From day one, that's all he's been doing, is working on that," said Phillies hitting coach Milt Thompson. "It was something he said he wanted to work on over the winter. And ever since we've been together, he's been doing it."

That work began in the offseason in Ibanez's home batting cage. He refined the approach during a winter visit to Rangers hitting guru Rudy Jaramillo. And Ibanez works on it daily with a drill off the high batting tee.

But even though he is handling those high pitches better, he's still better than ever on pitches that are middle and down. Slugging percentage on low pitches: .521 this year, up from .462 last year. On pitches at medium height: .661 this year, up from .485.

Ibanez's take: Ibanez attributed his improvement on pitches up in the zone to both "an approach change and a mechanical change." One of his missions last winter, he said, was to "try to cover the zone better, from the top of the zone to the bottom." And it's worked, he said, because "when you're more loose and whipping, you can hit those balls up better."

Around the next curve

The other subtle change we unearthed from Inside Edge's data was how well Ibanez is handling the curveball this season. He already has as many hits off curves (11) as he had all last season. And his batting average on at-bats ending in curveballs is .355, way up from .196 last year.

That adjustment hasn't had any impact on his power. Only one of his 22 home runs has come off a curve ball. But again, his improvement in this area isn't some freak, random statistical development. It was all part of Raul Ibanez's grand offseason design.

Ibanez's take: "I have a batting cage at home, and I have a really good curveball machine. And I set them up to [be] almost unhittable. I try to start it unhittable and then back it off from there. … I try to set up the machine to my weaknesses and try to really work on where I know those weaknesses might be. Every year, I try to be honest with myself. I say … what do I need to do better?"

The supporting cast

No man is an island. And every hitter is a product, to some extent, of the hitters around him. So here's another simple concept:

Ibanez's 2008 Mariners finished next-to-last in the American League in runs scored, homers and OPS. His 2009 Phillies, on the other hand, rank first in the NL in runs, homers and OPS. And friends, that sure isn't hurting him.

But the impact of that supporting cast goes beyond the sheer accumulation of runners on base ahead of him, the protection behind him and the pitches he sees.

Ibanez's take: "Obviously, hitting in this lineup, you get pitches to hit and you know there are going to be guys on base all the time. But it's also watching the guys ahead of you get great at-bats. It gives you that little sense of urgency to say, 'He just had a great at-bat. Now I need to have a great at-bat.' But also, you collect a lot of information. Having all these great left-handed hitters in the lineup, you get to watch these guys first and how they get pitched."

The power of the mind

Phillies manager Charlie Manuel has seen a few billion hitters step into the old batter's box. So when he says his new leftfielder reminds him of one of those hitters, you pay attention.

"He's a very similar hitter to Chase [Utley]," the manager said. "Actually, Raul smiles a little more than Chase, but they're very similar in this way: They don't give any at-bats away."

It would be tough for any man to be as relentless as Utley. But Ibanez's numbers late in games tell us he definitely isn't letting his mind wander. He's hitting .444 in the seventh inning, .308 in the eighth, .346 in the ninth and .500 in extra innings. And 11 of his 22 homers have come from the seventh inning on.

"The thing I've seen," Thompson said, "is, if you get him out one way in a game and then you try that way again, that ain't gonna work. That's from years of playing, knowing what you can do, knowing what you can't do and making adjustments."

Ibanez's take: "To me, the mental part of the game is the easy part. Not that it's easy, really. But when you don't play for the first 3½ years of your career, and you're non-tendered and you're designated for assignment twice, you don't take anything for granted."

The long and winding road

In the last sentence of that quote, Raul Ibanez alluded to the unlikely story of his life. Let's just say his path to stardom wasn't reminiscent of, say, Albert Pujols.

A mere eight years ago, he was non-tendered by the Mariners. Then twice in the first nine weeks of the 2001 season, he was designated for assignment by the Royals, and no team in baseball even put in a waiver claim. He was 29 at that point, in his sixth big league season, and barely had 500 career at-bats.

That was the bottom of the canyon. He then began the slow climb that led him to this time and place. But even though he became an increasingly accomplished hitter in his 30s, you never heard a single aspersion cast his way. And that helps explain why people around the game have roared to his defense in the past week.

Ibanez I feel like the guys who were cheating helped make a lot of us guys who weren't cheating better because you had to get in the gym and work to keep up.

-- Raul Ibanez

"For anybody to think this guy isn't for real, that's ridiculous," said a scout who has seen Ibanez's whole career. "He's never given any signs of that. And his work ethic is so good. I don't think people realize how hard he's worked, and how many adjustments he's made over the course of his career."

It's also hard to ignore that Ibanez has been as vocal as anyone in the game about the importance of being a role model and doing things "the right way."

"The way I look at it," he said this week, "your body can't hold up when you're cheating. … So I always thought, 'I'm going to outlast them.'"

He delved into biometrics, active-resistance therapy and muscle-activation techniques. He spent time with noted sports psychologist Harvey Dorfman. He read a book about how Navy SEALs survive Hell Week. He tries to pattern himself, he says, after people like Michael Phelps, a guy "spending seven hours a day in the pool while everyone else is spending five." Clearly, Raul Ibanez is a man determined to outwork the rest of the planet.

"I feel like the guys who were cheating helped make a lot of us guys who weren't cheating better," Ibanez said, "because you had to get in the gym and work to keep up."

He hasn't just kept up. He's made himself one of the best hitters in baseball. So we understand why people ask questions in the times we live in. But we also wonder why there has to be a conspiracy theory behind everybody who manages to defy our preconceived norms. Fifty years ago, did Ted Williams have to deal with these questions?

"Tim Maxey, who's a strength coach with the Indians now, sent me a great text [message] this week," Ibanez said. "It said, 'Character is who you are. Reputation is what others think. Focus on your character.' So I'm thinking about one of the lessons I learned from Harvey [Dorfman]. I'm not worrying about what other people think.

"The way I look at it," said Raul Ibanez, "is, this is a test."

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His new book, "Worth The Wait: Tales of the 2008 Phillies," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores and online. Click here to order a copy.