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Swing man

Pedroia's approach unique - and uniquely successful

By Adam Kilgore
Globe Staff / September 12, 2008
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Even before Tony Gwynn watched Dustin Pedroia swing for the first time, he had his doubts. Gwynn had just become the baseball coach at San Diego State before the 2003 season, and he prepared for a series against Arizona State. The scouting reports trumpeted Pedroia, a sophomore shortstop, as the Sun Devil most necessary to fear. Gwynn kept asking his assistants, "This guy is 5-8, and he's supposed to be the best guy on this team?"

Gwynn studied Pedroia swinging before the game on the day the series started, and what he saw reinforced his comfort. Pedroia's left foot jutted toward third base when he strode at the pitch. He whipped his bat with such ferocity he nearly fell over. He finished each swing with an uppercut flourish.

"Oh, man, he's going to get overmatched swinging that hard," Gwynn thought. "There's no way, man."

Pedroia led off the game with a single, then stole second. He drilled a home run in his next at-bat. The onslaught continued for three games. Gwynn's pitchers couldn't stop Pedroia, and the greatest hitter of his generation never saw it coming.

"I'm pretty open-minded as a hitter," Gwynn said last week in a telephone interview. "Seeing the success he had kept my mind open."

From the time players touch a bat for the first time, they are told to swing nice and easy, under control. Pedroia has made himself the leading hitter in the American League, the spark plug of the Red Sox, and a front-line MVP candidate by violating one of baseball's most conventional edicts: He swings for the downs each time his bat - the size and model of which he prefers to keep private - leaves his shoulder.

Countless sluggers have sacrificed contact to clobber home runs with a furious swing, but Pedroia's vicious cuts produce staggering consistency. He whiffs on 7.8 percent of the pitches at which he swings, the best rate in the league. He strikes out only once every 14 plate appearances. He's hitting .328. He hits the ball to right and left with equal proficiency. No less an expert than Gwynn struggles to explain how.

"That's a good question," Gwynn said, chuckling. "I know if I went up swinging that hard, I know I would get myself in trouble. The only thing that you don't associate with the things he's doing is swinging hard."

Impure and simple

Pedroia's swing works, ultimately, because of his unique concoction of skill and confidence. He insists it is an accident. He signed up for Little League, picked up a bat, and swung naturally. It worked. He kept swinging the same way. It kept working. Nothing else mattered to him.

"I've swung like this, dude, since I was like 10," Pedroia said. "I didn't really develop it; that's just what it was. I've hit like this my whole life. There's nothing real complicated about it. I just try to see the ball and hit it. If I get a hit, I get a hit. If I get out, I get out. There's no secret about it."

The perceived reasons his swing shouldn't work, his coaches said, are either visual deceptions or offset by his hand-eye coordination and ability to strike the ball with the barrel of his bat, "a special knack for getting it on the fat part," said Pat Murphy, his coach at Arizona State.

His swing appears long and loopy because of what Red Sox hitting coach Dave Magadan calls "bat lag," the concept that helps make Pedroia such a consistent and successful hitter. Pedroia begins his swing by shifting his hands forward, allowing the bat head to trail behind, always making sure his hands lead the way and remain inside the ball. The result: Pedroia's bat reaches the hitting zone quickly but stays there for a relatively long time.

"If it's a late-breaking slider, or if it's a split that's got late action, he puts himself in pretty good position to make an adjustment almost mid-swing," Magadan said. "A lot of guys can't do that. It gives him time to kind of read the pitch. Once he reads the pitch, then he finishes through the baseball. He buys himself a little more time with the bat lag.

"People talk about, he's got a big swing, all of this stuff. I don't think he's got a big swing. He's very direct and short to the baseball. His violence and the bigness people see in his swing is really mostly after the contact."

Pedroia may seem ready to tip over when reaching for an outside pitch, but only after his follow-through. At the moment his bat hits the ball, Pedoria is balanced "95 percent of the time," Magadan said.

While Pedroia won Gwynn's approval over the course of a few innings, he's yet to convert everyone. Kansas City Royals Hall of Famer George Brett, when asked in July if he likes watching Pedroia hit, offered a stinging assessment.

"No," he answered. "Swings too hard for a second baseman, in my opinion. I think he's having a very good year. I just think he swings too hard. Just hit line drives, gap to gap, and don't swing from your [rear] on every pitch."

At Arizona State, Murphy tried to "tone down" Pedroia's swing and suggested that he close his front foot, stepping more directly toward the mound. Pedroia looked at him blankly, brow furrowed. "Coach," he said, "I square it up every time." He placated Murphy and had little success. Pedroia changed back to his method after a few batting practice sessions.

"You had to let him be Pedro," Murphy said. "There's only one of him. He literally attacks the ball with his entire body."

Firm conviction

Pedroia's unwavering conviction - "You can call it cocky," Murphy said, "or delusional" - blazed his path to the major leagues. It also allows him to look around, see no one else who swings quite like him, and never change a thing, anyway.

"I don't really care," Pedroia said. "Just because somebody swings one way and I swing another way doesn't mean he's better than me or I'm better than him. That's just how I do it, and that's how he does it."

He bristled at the perception that he has a long swing, which followed him to the majors. "People think I have a big swing because one person wrote an article about it before I got to the big leagues," Pedroia said. "That's upsetting. And it causes people to talk about it when it doesn't need to be talked about. I just think it's stupid. Does my swing get hits? Yes."

Opposing coaches once greeted Pedroia with the same skepticism as Gwynn. At first glance, Tampa Bay Rays pitching coach Jim Hickey assumed that with such a hard swing and such a small stature, Pedroia could be retired with a variety of pitches. As Hickey continued scrutinizing tape, he was stunned - Pedroia's swing, hard as it was, could cover the entire plate.

"He's got a little bit of a bigger swing - not necessarily a longer swing, but a violent swing," Hickey said. "It probably appears bigger than it is because of the physical size of the player. But on their team, he may be the absolute most difficult guy to prepare for, just because of the lack of holes.

"There's a number of guys you feel like you can do one or two specific things and be OK. Really, as I go over Pedroia - and I do a lot of research into it, believe me - he's probably the most difficult one there is. What you're hoping with that guy is to hold him to singles. There's just not a lot you can do with the guy."

At Arizona State, Pedroia developed his penchant for lashing the ball all over the field. Shortly after he arrived, Murphy pulled him aside. "You're 5-2, 143 pounds," Murphy told him. "Never hit the ball in center field. Never make an out to center field." Pedroia listened, always shooting the ball in gaps and down the lines.

"Corner hitting for all midgets and jockeys is what we'll call it," Murphy said.

"I can't think of anybody" who swings like Pedroia, Gwynn said. "There's not a guy, even when he was in college, that I remember being that aggressive. It was like he was trying to go deep every time. I just can't remember a guy like that. What it tells me is he's extremely confident in whatever his little keys are. In the big leagues, that's what it's all about, believing in what you do."

Well, that and one other thing.

"He don't get cheated," Gwynn said.

Adam Kilgore can be reached at akilgore@globe.com.

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