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Anderson's Sock Exchange a Big Hit

Baseball: Angel outfielder has sacrificed power for average the last two seasons, and the organization is pleased with the results.

March 11, 1998|JOHN WEYLER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

TEMPE, Ariz. — A burning question during an uncommonly cool spring: Is Rod Carew turning Garret Anderson into a Punch-and-Judy hitter?

Which prompts another question: Would this be a bad thing?

The answer in both cases: apparently not.

Anderson batted .303, drove in 92 runs and scored 76 last season, leading the team in average, in hits with 189, and in doubles with 36. And teammates see a lot more Punch than Judy in those kinds of numbers.

Pitcher Chuck Finley hears the first question while pulling on a layer of sanitary socks and pulls out his best Louisiana drawl, "Why don't y'all go ask Wade Boggs how come he don't hit more jacks?"

Manager Terry Collins puts it this way: "Sure, power is nice, but would I rather he hit 20 homers and drove in 85 runs? Look, if he can put up the same numbers this year he did last season, we're going to be a very good team."

There's no denying Anderson's effectiveness last year, but there is cause to wonder where the power went.

Anderson looked more like the next Ken Griffey Jr. than another Boggs in July 1995 when he took over as king of the sports-segment highlight show a month after the Angels called him up from the minors. He homered in four of five games between July 14-18 and finished the month with a .410 batting average, seven homers and 31 RBIs in 25 games.

He ended up with 16 homers in 106 games in 1995.

Then he hit 12 in 150 games in '96 and eight in 154 games last year.

No American League left fielder who played more than 100 games last season had fewer home runs. But only two--Cleveland's Albert Belle and Detroit's Bob Higginson--had more RBIs.

The answer, Anderson says, is simple. All you need is to understand that testosterone oozes from the game's every tradition.

"The first thing every pitcher wants to know about a rookie is, 'Can this kid hit my fastball?' " Anderson said. "So they were pumping fastballs at me and I hardly ever saw off-speed pitches. They kept throwing them and I kept hitting them. But by '96 and '97, I wasn't seeing too many fastballs anymore.

"I've never considered myself a home run hitter and whoever did, that's their opinion. I don't see many pitches I can pull anymore, so now it's adjustment time. I have to do the things that will help the team win. There were a lot of times last year when I drove in the winning run and if I'd been selfish and tried to hit a home run, chances are those things wouldn't have gotten done."

Anderson, 25, isn't timid about pointing out that his spot in the lineup--usually fifth or sixth--also has played a significant role in his diminishing power numbers. With the weaker part of the lineup behind him, pitchers were careful not to make a mistake to Anderson.

This year, he was hoping to look up and see power-hitting catcher Todd Greene in the on-deck circle, but that plan has been put on hold because Greene's surgically repaired shoulder has failed to respond favorably this spring. Greene probably will sit out at least the first month of the season.

"It's not meant as a knock on anyone hitting behind me, but if I was hitting second or third with a legit power hitter behind me, I think I'd be seeing a lot better pitches to hit," he said. "Why I'm not hitting there, well, that's not my business to decide."

If you had a player who hit .303 with runners in scoring position and produced 92 runs out of the No. 5 or 6 spots, would you be inclined to move him up?

"I've been around a lot of teams with guys who could drive in 90 runs without hitting for power," Collins said. "But that's because they were hitting third or fourth and there were always guys on base ahead of them. This guy drove in 92 runs hitting where he does, that's impressive. I mean that's really an asset."

Carew, cast as the malevolent mentor who preaches line drives to left when our hero could be shooting for the stars over the right-field fence, manages a smile and explains the situation as he sees it.

"Garret's not a home-run hitter," Carew said. "He's a Wally Joyner, a J.T. Snow. He hits balls in the gaps. That's the kind of hitter he is. I think he'll develop into more of a power hitter with time, but we've changed nothing mechanically about his swing. In fact, we work a lot on getting him to drive the ball more. And I always tell him, 'If there's an occasion when you get a ball you feel you can pop, go ahead and air it out.'

"I'm not at all concerned about his power. We would much rather have him be a consistent hitter who drives in 90-95 runs than an inconsistent 20-homer guy. I mean, I think he'll probably hit 15 to 20 home runs this year, but the key is, he'll do it without trying to hit them."

Collins, too, thinks the pendulum is about to start swinging back into Anderson's power zone.

"I don't think it's that he never sees any fastballs," Collins said. "It's the location of the fastballs he gets. They're not challenging him. But the more he shows people he can get base hits to left, the more guys are going to start trying to sneak something in on him and he'll get more pitches he can drive."

Then maybe he'll have the 92 RBIs and hit 20 "jacks."

And maybe there will be one fewer stupid question for Finley to bear while he's putting on his socks.

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