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All-fields hitters becoming endangered species in majors

| Thursday, June 27, 2013, 11:00 p.m.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Pirates center fielder Andrew McCutchen bats against the Dodgers on Sunday, June 16, 2013, at PNC Park.

Lorenzo McCutchen saw his young son possessed a baseball gift, and he wanted to hone it. He invented an unusual eye-hand coordination drill, wrapping fish corks in athletic tape and placing a broomstick in the hand of his son, Andrew.

The drill was practiced over and over, Lorenzo flicking the corks, which fluttered in the Florida breeze, toward his son.

“When it's real windy, it would go in all kinds of directions,” Andrew McCutchen said. “We used to do that a lot, a whole lot. It's just one of those things to help your hand-eye, being able to hit it with it moving in all kinds of directions. If you can do that, you should be able to hit a ball with a bigger bat.”

McCutchen said the drill helped him become the type of hitter he is today: one who keeps his strikeout totals low while scattering hits to every part of the field. He is the type of high-contact, low-strikeout, all-fields hitter that has become an endangered species.

So in an era where power numbers have been reduced, when defenses are shifting more often, why doesn't the game see a return of all-fields hitters? Simply, it is a skill in decline, Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said.

“The way it's trended the last 10 years, the ability to handle the barrel and be proficient … it's more of a dinosaur than anything,” he said. “People pull the ball now. The ability to hit the ball the other way has really trended down.”

Now consider McCutchen:

• His strikeout rate this season, 14.4 percent, is well below the major league average of 19.9 percent. Major league batters set a record for most strikeouts in April this season.

• He led baseball with 194 hits last season, hitting .327. Batting average in the game has been in decline for more than a decade.

• The right-hander has more combined career hits to center and right (372) than to left field (338). Of the 400 major league batters with the most plate appearances this season, 100 should see defensive shifts because of their extreme pull-side tendencies, Baseball Info Solutions founder John Dewan said.

Hurdle believes the decline in the ability to hit to all fields is rooted at the amateur level.

“The aluminum bat is probably one of the single biggest reasons why people don't handle the bat like we used to be taught to handle a bat,” Hurdle said. “The sweet spot on a wood bat is three inches long and it's about a quarter-inch wide. The sweet spot on an aluminum bat is about an inch-and-a-half wide and about six inches long. You can cheat. You can get out there and hook. You don't have to worry about getting jammed as much.”

It's also a conscious choice.

Pirates third baseman Pedro Alvarez often is shifted upon by opponents because of his pull-heavy approach. Despite enjoying a higher average to the opposite field — he has a career .337 batting average on balls to left field and .234 to right — Alvarez refuses to alter his approach. He says he doesn't want defenses to dictate his approach.

There are examples of all-fields hitters in today's game: Giants third baseman Pablo Sandoval, Yankees second baseman Robinson Cano and outfielder Ichiro Suzuki, and the Nationals' Bryce Harper. They are just more difficult to find.

While McCutchen's dad tossed corks, Harper's father honed his son's eye-hand coordination while playing soft toss with bottle caps. In his young career, Harper, who bats left-handed, has as many hits to center (67) and he does right field (67) and just 12 fewer to left field (55), proving he is not just a power hitter.

In an age of video scouting and volumes of data on every pitcher, Harper uses a simple approach.

“If I see a good pitch I can drive, I try to hit it. If I don't, then I try to take it,” Harper said. “I try to make everything as (simple) as I can. I try not to think as much as a lot of other guys.”

Of course, few players are as gifted Harper or McCutchen.

“It's trusting your hands, knowing that you can hit the ball to all parts of the field regardless of where it is pitched, even when you're late,” McCutchen said. “Everyone is not that gifted to where they can use all parts of the field. It's just the way it is.”

Travis Sawchik is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at tsawchik@tribweb.com or via Twitter @Sawchik_Trib.

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