Alex Rios looks in the direction of his typical batted ball this spring.
Whether he's been successful so far is debatable.
The numbers don't indicate it yet. He's hitting .214/.258/.250 over 31 plate appearances. Then again, Paul Konerko has him beat by only 15 points of OPS, and spring training stats pretty much don't matter.
What about the way Rios has gone about it? Well, he has used center or right field more than half the time. That's a start, at least if you can count on him building on that base. Jeff Manto has faith, and says he's seeing what he needs to see so far:
But hitting coach Jeff Manto believes Rios will produce if he continues to use the entire field. So when Rios makes an out to the right side of the field, Manto doesn’t mind.
"I really do like what I’m seeing,’’ Manto said Sunday. "He’s taken to it, and he understands that’s where he can get some big hits for us. He understands that he needs to use the big part of the field. If he continues this approach, I’m anticipating some good things.’’
This is true to some extent. However, as Rios proved just last year, all opposite field usage is not created equal.
I went through the spring training game logs and tallied the directions of his 24 balls in play. The general count is below:
(Note: Two of the flies to right were actually popouts to first, but I wanted to separate the flies from the grounders.)
In a way, that's progress. But when it comes to his batted ball patterns, it looks an awful lot like what he did last July:
And in that July, he hit .163/.183/.200 over 82 plate appearances. His .383 OPS was the worst single monthly OPS by any White Sox regular last year ... or the last 20 years. You have to go back to Scott Fletcher, who hit .152/.209/.165 over 87 PA in May of 1991, to find somebody who contributed so little to the White Sox over so many plate appearances in any month.
(To be fair to Rios, Darren Lewis probably has him beat when adjusting for league and year. He hit .143/.231/.171 over 85 PA in July of 1996, but the average league OPS was 70 points higher compared to the AL in 2011. That's what a 2-for-46 slump will do to you.)
Rios gets into the ruts where all his grounders go to the left side, and the bulk of his flies go the opposite way. It's technically using "the whole field," but it's troublesome nevertheless, and for a few reasons.
The biggest reason is that it's a recipe for a low BABIP. The majority of the grounders are tapped off the end of the bat, and his opposite-field batted balls are almost all high fly balls. He doesn't stay on top of the ball -- he pulls off a little bit, his bat head drops and basically slides underneath the ball as it goes through the zone, which results in a lot of routine flies or pop-ups (he had the highest infield fly rate of his career last year). Sure enough, his July BABIP was .191, and it's hard to argue he lacked luck.
Not many hitters can make this approach work. Sure, Joe Mauer has the same distinct split in his ground/air balls, but when he's healthy, a lot of those opposite-field batted balls are well-struck line drives. The way Rios employs this strategy, he more closely resembles an end-of-the-road Darin Erstad, or Jordan Danks.
Danks' approach hasn't been able to get him to the major leagues. It lacks too little power for the batting average, as most of his flies soar to opposite field. And Rios might have less opposite-field oomph than Danks. All of his 13 homers last year landed between the left-field foul pole and the left-field power alley. In fact, if you look at all 37 of his White Sox homers, this was the only one hit right of the 400 sign:
That's all the way back on Opening Day of 2010, and it still qualifies as "dead center" on the video description, for what it's worth.
The other problem with using the field in this way is that it masks ineffectiveness. Rios' July was worse than any month Adam Dunn had, but it didn't get nearly the attention because he only struck out 12 times. Plus, in any given game he might use both sides of the field, giving the impression that he's more balanced than he actually is.
As always, blog entries in March must be qualified with "it's only spring training." Rios and Manto could be working on an exaggerated, habit-breaking method that prohibits him from lifting balls to left. As the regular season draws closer, he could settle into a more versatile setup that lets him turn on inside pitches with authority.
Given his history, though, the Sox have to be vigilant with Rios. Robin Ventura plans to use him front and center in the No. 3 spot, and in his current form, that's only going to hamper the Sox in their quest for a hot start. If Rios is pulling grounders and pushing flies when the season starts, they better be ready to pull the plug by the two-week mark, if not sooner.