Sunday, May 10, 2009

Ping-pong tested hands and eyes

It all comes back to the ping-pong.

Dustin Pedroia swings as hard as anyone in baseball – and gets better results than anyone in baseball – because he can see the ball hit his bat as well as anyone in baseball.

“He just has unbelievable hand-eye coordination to be able to swing the way that he does and still make quality contact almost every at-bat,” shortstop Jed Lowrie said earlier this season. “His hand-eye coordination, it’s some of the best I’ve ever seen.”

And that all comes back to the ping-pong.

Pedroia grew up in a house with a tiny ping-pong table – “You know the regular-sized ones? I had just a half-sized one” – and waged regular battles with his mother, a former college tennis player who’s the source of the second baseman’s well-chronicled competitiveness. It wasn’t until he was 13 or 14 years old that he beat her for the first time.

“Now I beat her all the time,” Pedroia said with a wide smile. “She gets pissed.”

Pedroia even played a little tennis himself. He was never a power player, of course, but “I can get to everything. I just make somebody mess up – that was my big thing. ‘I’m going to hit it back over until you hit it in the net or hit it long.’”

Now, though, he doesn’t worry too much about tennis – and only occasionally does he still play ping-pong.

But the hand-eye coordination that served him so well in racket sports has made him one of the most unique hitters baseball has ever seen. Every one of his 165 pounds is behind every swing he takes. He swings the bat as hard as anyone in the game.
“I’ve always swung hard,” he said. “I take the mentality of, ‘If it’s there and you can hit it, you might as well take a full swing at it.’”

That’s not an approach that works for players without his elite hand-eye coordination. The brotherhood of all-or-nothing swingers is a small one; slugger Vladmir Guerrero and former National League batting champion Freddy Sanchez are two of the few who come immediately to mind.

But for a guy who doesn’t stand 6-foot-4 like Mike Lowell or weigh 200 pounds like Jason Bay, any other approach wouldn’t cut it – and Pedroia gets all far more often than he gets nothing.

“He has an uncanny knack for finding the barrel and getting the barrel to the baseball regardless of the situation or the pitch,” Bay said. “It’s not something you’d teach most people because there’s only a handful of guys … that can do that.”
Said Lowell, “You look a guy like Vlad – he swings as hard as anyone, but he maintains his balance as well. Some guys can do it; I just think most people can’t without losing your balance or pulling your head. That’s what surprises people – that (Pedroia) can do it and stay balanced and hit tough pitches.”

As evidence: Pedroia struck out in an incredible 7.2 percent of his plate appearances a year ago, the fifth-lowest total in baseball. Lowell was second-lowest among Red Sox regulars, and he struck out 13 percent of the time. (The league average was 17 percent.)

So far this season, Pedroia is striking out exactly 7.8 percent of the time – still well under half the league average.

He’s also poised to do something only eight other players in baseball history have done – hit 50 doubles in back-to-back seasons. He hit 54 doubles a season ago; as recently as Thursday, he was on pace for 50-plus this season.

Despite the effort behind his swing, he’s always hit more doubles than home runs. He holds the single-season Pac-10 record for doubles in a season (34 in fewer than 300 at-bats at Arizona State in 2003) but hit just 14 home runs in his three-year college career; he hit 39 doubles and just 10 home runs in 627 at-bats at Triple-A Pawtucket.

That, again, is a byproduct of his size. He’s not a power hitter; as far as he can remember, he’s never hit an opposite-field home run in his life. When he squares up on a hanging breaking ball away and hits it as hard as he can to right field, it sometimes barely gets to the warning track.

But if it gets up the gap and one-hops the fence, he’ll usually end up standing on second base.

“It’s not necessarily that I try to do that,” he said. “I try to drive the ball, and my power is doubles. I’m never going to hit 30 home runs. I’m probably never going to hit 25. Hitting doubles, that’s part of my game.”

His game earned him Rookie of the Year and Most Valuable Player honors in back-to-back seasons. So far this season, he’s hitting .336 with nine doubles and an Opening Day home run.

His swing isn’t conventional. It’s not something that would work for everybody. There’s a reason that it took a lifetime of ping-pong to develop the hand-eye coordination to make it work.

But it’s as productive as any swing in the major leagues right now.

“It’s not going to end up on a poster, and it’s not like, ‘Hey, teach your kids that this is what you want to do,’” Bay said. “But, ultimately, as I was told when I first got in this game: If you can stand on your head and … hit .300, go ahead. Nobody cares as long as the results are there.”

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