Don Mattingly was 18 years old in 1979. He’d signed with the Yankees that June and played 53 games in Oneonta, N.Y., and when he hit 3 homers and by his admission “hit a lot of balls down the left field line” the powers that be in the organization worried that he wouldn’t hit for enough power to play first base or left field in the Yankee tradition.
They knew Mattingly was ambidextrous, that as a high school quarterback in Evansville, Ind. he threw with his left hand when he rolled out to the left and with his right hand when he rolled out to the right. So they talked about making him a second baseman. A righthanded second baseman.
This, of course, was long before analytics and the realization that power can be a developed art. Mattingly’s New York-Penn League numbers were actually spectacular, especially for an 18-year old who had just graduated from high school. In 53 games he’d batted .349 with a .444 on base percentage, .488 slug and .943 OPS. OK, he hit three homers, but he also had 30 walks and six strikeouts, with what some consider to be a leading predictor of future hitting—more extra base hits and more walks than strikeouts–30 walks, 15 extra base hits, 6 strikeouts.
When the New York-Penn League season was over, Mattingly reported to the Instructional League, donned his righthanded glove and went out to work at second base. A couple of days into the experiment, former allstar and batting champion Mickey Vernon walked over to him and said, ‘get rid of that glove. You’ll hit plenty. You won’t ever be a second baseman. So get rid of that glove—right now.”
Mattingly tucked the glove away. Three years later he reached triple-A, and for the first time hit 10 home runs. Three years after that, he was the American League’s Most Valuable Player with 35 homers, 86 extra base hits, 56 walks, 31 strikeouts. “There was nothing mystical about it,” he says. “I figured out how to pull when I needed to pull. For a lot of hitters, especially those who know how to use the whole field, that’s a learned art.”
For Mattingly, it was the beginning of a run in which he hit 35, 31 and 30 homers. In one stretch he homered in eight consecutive games. But in time, his career was shortened because of a congenital back problem, a problem that would cause him to occasionally have to stay home from school and lie on the floor. That injury cost him the Hall of Fame, but he still finished with a .307 average, 684 extra base hits, 588 walks and 444 strikeouts.
“It comes down to learning how to look for pitches in counts, and knowing what pitchers may or may not throw, or how they want to get you out,” Mattingly says, or in Barry Bonds’ case, figuring out how each opposing pitcher wanted to get him out.
“There’s a learning process to figuring how to pull without cheating and flying open,” says Mattingly. “You get bigger and stronger. That’s part of it. But you also learn about hitting from going up there every day. I had used the whole field my whole life, and when I got to pro ball, it was necessary to make some mental changes.”
Understand, Mattingly learned his style playing whiffle ball with his older brothers in front of his parents’ house in Evansville. There was a tree in the front yard, and the idea was to hit the whiffle ball over the roof. To do so, as a lefthanded batter, he had to hit the ball to the equivalent of left field to avoid the tree. He hit a ton of whiffle balls over the roof, because he learned to make the adjustment to go that way when he was ten.
Over the years, Don Mattingly has seen a lot of hitters make those adjustments. “I remember seeing Garret Anderson and Jim Edmonds when they were young and see them hitting balls down the left field line,” he says. “I’d seen that, done that, and watching them I believed they’d be really good hitters, which they were. I’m sure they worried about it when they were just getting started.”
In five years and more than 2200 minor league plate appearances in his pro career, Garret Anderson hit a total of 22 homers; in 2000-2003, Anderson hit between 28 and 35 homers each season.
In his first four pro seasons, Edmonds hit 0, 1, 3, 2 homers a season and a total of 29 in his first six pro years. In 2004, he hit 42 homers for the Cardinals, and with a career total of 393 topped Jim Rice and, in reality, is an undervalued Hall of Fame candidate.
Todd Helton played two years in the Cape Cod League and did not hit a homer, signed as the 9th pick in the nation and hit one homer in 227 at bats his first pro season. He didn’t hit double figures in homers until he got to the majors. Ryne Sandberg hit 25 in four minor league seasons, seven and eight his first two years in the big leagues, then took off as the 1984 MVP for the Cubs, crediting manager Jim Frey “for teaching me how to hit in different counts and look for pitches when I was 2-and-0 and 3-and-1.”
Carl Yastrzemski never hit more than 20 homers until his seventh major league season, when he hit 42, was MVP, and hit 40 three times in four years in The Pitchers Era. Rogers Hornsby hit four in 1915, and didn’t break double figures until 1921. Kirby Puckett did not hit a homer in his 1984 rookie season, four in 691 at bats in ’85, then in ’86 hit 31 en route to Cooperstown. Jeff Bagwell hit six homers in 859 minor league games (despite prodigious high school and college power) and hit 40 thrice in Houston, with 441 for his career before a congenital arthritic condition in his right shoulder ended his run.
With the help of the esteemed Elliott Kalb of MLB Network, there are seven players who never hit 15 or more in the minors and had 50+ seasons in the majors: Sammy Sosa, Babe Ruth, Jimmie Foxx, Junior Griffey, Ralph Kiner, Willie Mays and Brady Anderson.
There are 17 that had 40+ major league home run seasons that never had 15+ minor league seasons: Shawn Green, Ted Kluszewski, Bagwell, Rafael Palmeiro, Vinny Castilla, Miguel Cabrera, Richard Hidalgo, Jason Giambi, Josh Hamilton, Edmonds, Gil Hodges, Hornsby, Roy Campanella, Todd Hundley, Cy Williams, Sandberg, Ellis Burks.
George Brett signed as a second round pick in 1971. In his first full major league season, 1974, he hit two homers. Then 11. Then 7. In 1980, at 27, he hit 24 homers and struck out 22 times, and when he homered into the seventh row of the third deck at Yankee Stadium off Hall of Famer Goose Gossage to clinch the playoffs, he’d played 17 post-season games and hit seven homers, and in the 1985 ALCS Toronto manager Bobby Cox walked him intentionally with the bases loaded.
This May 30, the Royals brought George back to help some of their struggling young hitters, especially Eric Hosmer. Two years ago, Hosmer looked to be a rising superstar, with 19 homers in 128 games. But from the start of the 2012 season up to that May 30 date, Hosmer had hit 15 in 199 games, and in that time his on base percentage had been .309. Was he thinking too much? Worried about hitting for power as the big bonus boy?
“Probably a combination,” says the 23 year old. George and (regular hitting coach) Pedro Grifol are a perfect mix,” says Hosmer. “I just had to get my thinking and my focus straight. “What George emphasized, other than how much fun he has around the game and how fearlessly he played, was to think about counts. Think about getting one pitch I’m looking for each at-bat and don’t miss it. Don’t think about just trying to make contact, think about doing damage. He talked a lot about the individual battle with each pitcher, and how if the pitcher gets me out to know I can get back at him and beat him next time up, because there’s another chance.
“He got me looking to do damage in no strike and one strike counts. There’s so much of the mental side that goes into an approach, into actually doing damage, and George and Pedro really cleared my head.” In 62 games since Brett and Grifol began their stint together, through Thursday, Hosmer had 11 homers in 62 games and batted .316 with a .350 on base percentage and .512 slugging percentage. His home run per at-bat rate was more than cut in half from the 2012-May, 2013 time.
This is important to the surging Royals, because not only is Hosmer a franchise face, he is a franchise person. One of his teammates at Plantation, Fla. HS was shortstop Deven Marrero, an underclassman when Hosmer was a senior. When it was time for Marrero to go to college, he wanted out of the state of Florida and wanted to go to Arizona State, where Hosmer has signed a letter of intent before getting $6M from the Royals. Unfortunately, ASU had no scholarships, so Hosmer took care of Marrero’s tuition from his own signing bonus. After Marrero’s junior year at ASU, he was the first pick of the Red Sox in the 2012 draft and is considered one of their best prospects.
Atlanta’s allstar first baseman Freddie Freeman is another example. He did hit 23 homers last season, but admits “I started thinking about home runs and got pull conscious.” He also batted .259 with a .340 OBP and .456 slug. “We have a lot of power up and down the lineup,” says Freeman, “so this year I wanted to get back to who I am–left-center, up the middle. I realize I only have 13 homers, but I feel right now the best is to think ‘middle, middle, middle.”
His line: .311/.389/.474. “As I get older, I’ll be able to hit more off counts and look to drive balls without getting pull conscious.” He agrees with Mattingly that one has to learn how to pull, and if you ask his hitting coach, Greg Walker, Freeman is a sure bet to be a 30 home run hitter, when he is ready.
“There are always going to be these stories,” says Mattingly. “The most important thing is the pure art of hitting. Learning to pull and eventually hit for power comes later.”
So if you’re looking at the Eastern League and concerned about the power of the Pirates Gregory Polanco or Red Sox third baseman Garin Cecchini’s home runs, worry not. Power is, often, the last thing that comes.