Monday, March 8, 2010 Updated: March 9, 3:30 PM ET
Turning patience into power
By Ramona Shelburne ESPNLosAngeles.com
TEMPE, Ariz. -- It's usually a look. Something between a grimace and an angry frown. Slamming the ball into your glove is a dead giveaway.
Bobby Abreu has hit 256 home runs, walked 1,254 times and never had an on-base percentage under .369 during a full major league season.
Bobby Abreu's got you.
The scoreboard might say he has two strikes. The pitcher might be ahead in the count. But when he sees that look, Abreu's in charge.
Patience is usually regarded as a passive trait. Abreu has made it powerful.
"You can see it on their face sometimes. I take a lot of pitches. I hit whatever I want to hit, not what they want me to hit.
"They get a little irritated. You see some guys give you that look like, 'Swing the bat.'
"But I don't care what they do. I have my plan; it doesn't matter what they do. If they get mad, they lose their concentration. They make mistakes, then you take advantage of that."
As he's talking, everything he says makes perfect sense. Simple, even though you know instinctively that only a handful of men who have played this game at this level have ever had such a crystalline understanding and ability to play this way.
Go in to every at-bat with a plan. See as many pitches as you can. Hit what you want to hit. Be comfortable with two strikes; the pitcher's still got to make a good pitch to get you out. The pressure is on him, not you. Foul it off if it's not what you want to hit. The more pitches you see, the more knowledge you have.
Abreu makes it look simple, too. He's hit .299 in 14 seasons in the majors, stroked 2,111 hits and 256 home runs, walked 1,254 times and never had an on-base percentage under .369 during a full major league season.
He's done it by being one of the most patient, disciplined hitters in baseball. Last season he led the American League in percent of pitches taken (67.5 percent).
In his career, he's swung at the first pitch in only 479 of his 8,417 plate appearances (5.7 percent). He's swung at the second pitch only 995 times (11.3 percent).
In the hands of a lesser hitter, that patience could be an invitation for a pitcher to attack and intimidate. But it works for the sweet-swinging Venezuelan, because he's able to hit or foul off just about any pitch.
"Every time that I go to home plate, I'm the one controlling the at-bat," he explains.
"I'm not going to hit what they want me to hit. I hit whatever I want to hit. I pick what pitch I'm going to hit.
"It's hard to explain, but I recognize the strike zone very well. I just know when it's a ball or a strike, so sometimes I just foul it off if it's close and I want to take the at-bat another way."
What about with two strikes? Presumably, when the pitcher is in control of the at-bat and the hitters' focus has shifted toward making contact and not striking out?
"I'm not afraid to hit with two strikes," he says, his tone going from playful to serious. "I don't care if I get two strikes. I just feel -- I'm not even sure how to explain it. But I feel more confident with two strikes."
Teammate Joe Saunders said he thinks Abreu actually prefers to hit from behind in the count.
"It's almost like he wants to get to two strikes. It's amazing," Saunders said. "The first couple strikes, you can pretty much throw a nice little batting-practice fastball and 99 percent of the time he's going to take it.
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"You know you can at least get strike one on the guy, but you also know the next two strikes are going to be battles."
Throw any pitch you want. Abreu will only hit it if it's what he's looking for. If it's too close to take, he'll flick his wrists and foul it off. If it's a ball, he'll watch it sail by.
Teammate Torii Hunter said Abreu has changed the way he thinks about hitting.
"It's like this: It's hard for a pitcher to make his pitch. And even if he does make his pitch, you can either hit it or foul it off," Hunter said. "Once you do that, now what is he going to do? Now what's he going to throw?"
Hunter gets excited as he's explaining. It makes so much sense he seems disappointed not to have played and learned and talked to Abreu earlier in his career.
"He's definitely taught me something," Hunter said. "Last year, my on-base percentage was the highest of my whole career. Even my minor league career. I was just swinging at better pitches, because I saw more pitches.
"Working the pitchers, working the count. Then I get behind. Then I got 'em."
Put that way, it seems contradictory. Get behind in the count, "then I got 'em."
This is where the look comes in. The one when Abreu fouls off the pitcher's best stuff eight times in a row, smiles back through the box as if to say "Is that all you got?" and watches as the pitcher starts slamming the ball into his glove and trying to conceal his annoyance.
I'll let Abreu explain:
It's 1-2, there's no one on base. What's in your head?
"Well he's probably going to come out with some breaking pitch, and if not, he'll try and sneak a fastball inside. So I'm looking for a fastball and I react with a breaking pitch.
"You have to wait until he throws a strike, because in that count they're going to waste a pitch or two. If it's a breaking ball, out of the zone, I'll take it. Then it's 2-and-2. If it's close, I can foul it off."
So you just like to mess with guys? Getting in a pitcher's head and frustrating him by taking a million pitches?
"Yes, that's my game. I like to see pitches. I like to see what they have. How's the curveball, how's the change-up, how's the fastball? I don't care if it's 97 miles an hour. I don't care, I just want to see it. I don't go by what people say. They might say a guy is throwing 100; I want to see it.
"That's why I take a lot of pitches. I want to see it. Then I know what I want to hit."
You sound like a dangerous base-stealer, like when everyone on the field knows they'll run at some point, but you never know when.
"Exactly. It's like, they know I'm going to take pitches. But then they think, 'If I just throw him a fastball down the middle he might take a big hack and hit it. So let me start with a curveball.' Then I take it and it's 1-0. It's a mind game."
Abreu is deadly serious during that part of the conversation, then laughs at the end.
He's been at this a while.
"Hitting is not easy," he said. "I don't want to sound cocky. But you work, you work, you work. Every day you work. But you have to work smart. Work with a plan.
"Don't just exaggerate the work, try to hit a whole bucket just to show you're working hard. You have to work hard, but you also have to learn how to work. Sometimes it takes a long time to learn that, but when you do, that's when things go good for you. I'm not perfect, but I'm a perfectionist."
He wasn't born this way. He learned.
"Ozzie Guillen taught me a lot," Abreu said. "When I first started playing professionally in Venezuela, he came up to me and said, 'How do you hit?'
"I was like, 'Well, I just go up there, I see it and I hit it.'"
In Venezuela, Guillen is somewhat of a legend. To an 18-year-old Abreu, he was larger than life. Later that winter, he could barely even talk when Guillen invited him to his house to talk baseball.
"I think all I could say was, 'Hi, I'm Bobby. I'm a big fan of you,'" he said, laughing. "Then we started talking about hitting and he says to me, 'You know, you have to have a plan. You have to go up there and just look for one pitch. You should see pitches, work the counts.' Since that conversation, I've been doing that."
The thing is, a lot of baseball players have had a mentor offer that kind of advice. Patience, working counts, discipline; those are all common buzzwords in the batting cage.
There are very few hitters who can actually master that art.
"It's pretty amazing what he can do with the bat," said the Angels' young third baseman Brandon Wood, whose locker has strategically been placed next to Abreu's.
"His eye is so good. He just watches every pitch all the way into the glove and knows exactly where it's coming out of the hand. I was lucky enough last year when I came up to have my locker next to his. So I watched him. Watched everything he did.
"And I swear, there have been times where he'll take a first-pitch strike 15 at-bats in a row. That's just how confident he is in his swing and his strike zone. But you just don't see someone like him, who can go 0-and-1 15 times in a row and end up turning it into a good at-bat."
Abreu turns it into a good at-bat because he doesn't see 0-and-1 as falling behind. Not even 0-and-2 scares him.
Because at some point, he'll see the look. The one when both the pitcher and Abreu realize he's always been in control of the at-bat.
Then he's got 'em.
Ramona Shelburne is a writer and columnist for ESPNLosAngeles.com.