Monday, February 27, 2012
Mark Teixeira shifting his perspective
By Wallace Matthews ESPNNewYork.com
TAMPA -- The Shift has caused a shift in Mark Teixeira's thinking, and a change in his approach.
It's "not necessarily" in his head, he says, that whenever he looks out at the infield from the left-handed batter's box, he sees three infielders where there is supposed to be just two, or that in 2011, he may have led the league in groundouts to right field.
"It's just a fact of life," Teixeira says, a fact that is causing him to try all sorts of things he had never seriously considered before, such as bunting up the third-base line, or, as he did Monday in batting practice, making a conscious effort to dump the ball into short left field rather than lose it in the right-field seats.
Mark Teixeira finds Yankee Stadium's short right-field porch very tempting -- but he'd like to foil The Shift now and again, too.
The truth is, something is in Teixeira's head, whether it is the frustrating human wall of infielders known as The Shift or the tantalizingly close right-field fence at Yankee Stadium.
And whether through stubbornness or greed, even Teixeira admits that in his three years as a Yankee he has gone a little pull-crazy and that it has worked to his detriment.
"I got into a thing where I was always trying to pull the ball," he said, "but now I have to go back to using the whole field a little better."
It was not an easy decision to come to for this prideful hitter who defines himself by the big-boy stats, the home run and the RBI, and there is no guarantee it will work and no reason to think he won't abandon it after a couple of weeks, the way Derek Jeter last year gave up on trying not to stride.
But there is one number that has driven Mark Teixeira crazy all winter -- .248, his final batting average for 2011, 35 points lower than his career batting average -- and for now, he says he has adopted a new hitting mantra.
"One hit a week," he said. "That's kind of my motto this year. Instead of coming around the ball and hitting a line drive to the second baseman, maybe I can take a nice soft line drive to left-center and get a single. If I can do that once a week? That's the difference between hitting .240 and .280 or .290."
By most conventional yardsticks, Teixeira was a very productive hitter for the Yankees in 2011 -- 39 home runs, 111 RBIs and .494 slugging percentage, third-highest on the team behind Curtis Granderson and Robinson Cano.
But there is no doubt that Teixeira was frustrated, again and again, by seeing solidly hit balls -- ones that would normally fall in -- safely disappear into the glove of a second baseman playing on the right-field grass.
"I don't even want to start," Teixeira said when asked how many hits he thought The Shift cost him last year. "The one that really gets me upset is when I hit a line drive that might even be a double and the second baseman's diving and catching the ball. That's crazy to me."
So, after a year of banging his head against that wall of humanity, Teixeira said he got smart this offseason. A winter juicing -- fresh fruit and vegetable juicing, that is -- peeled 15 pounds off what had already been a muscular frame.
He did sprinting workouts designed to add a step to his speed down the line. Instead of trying to pull everything while hitting left-handed, where most of his power comes from, he worked on pushing the ball toward left field.
If it sounds counterproductive to Teixeira's job description, it probably is. But Teixeira said he will know when to go soft and when to go hard.
"It's really picking your spots," he said. "There are certain times I'm going to be trying to drive the ball, hit the ball out of the ballpark, which is most of the time. But if we're struggling and there's a pitcher out there throwing a shutout, why not take single? It's gonna be a work in progress."
Kevin Long leaned on Teixeira all last season to try hitting the ball the other way, a pitch Teixeira resisted on the grounds it would reduce his power and make him, in his words, "a slap hitter." But he admitted to me this week that the .248 really bugs him, not so much because it's an unsightly number but because it's an indication that he wasn't doing everything he could to help the team win.
"It doesn't look good, but it's not just a pride thing," he said. "I know that by getting on base more, it's going to help the team out. I could score more runs. I can extend innings. So it's not just a personal thing with me. It's about winning games."
Already, the Yankees have dealt Teixeira a blow by dropping him in the batting order from third to fifth, giving Cano the spot traditionally reserved for the best hitter in the lineup.
And Joe Girardi has publicly endorsed the new Teixeira approach, saying, "In this game, if the other team is going to give you something, you take it."
But you wonder how long Teixeira is going to stick with trying to poke the ball the other way, especially if, as happened several times during batting practice on Monday, his efforts result in easy ground balls to the shortstop.
That is not the player Mark Teixeira envisions himself to be, nor is it the player the Yankees signed in 2009 for eight years and $180 million.
Asked what stat he valued the most as the true measure of a hitter, Teixeira said this: "Oh, no question, it's the RBI. At the end of the day I'm a middle-of-the-order hitter, whether I'm hitting third, fourth or fifth. It doesn't matter where you hit, you gotta drive in runs if you're a player like me. That, and one extra single a week."
A glance at the back of Mark Teixeira's baseball card tells you the HRs and RBIs will be the easy part.
The one extra single? That may wind up driving him as crazy as The Shift.