Sunday, October 12, 2008

If you've been watching Ryan Howard, the lefthanded cleanup hitter for the Philadelphia Phillies, you've likely noticed the Howard Shift. If there are no baserunners on second and third, most teams, trying to defend against his awesome power as a pull hitter, will move the third baseman to shortstop, the shortstop to second, the second baseman to short right field and the leftfielder to left-center. In the end, of course, there's only so much defending you can do against a guy like Ryan Howard. He hit it out of the park 48 times this year, the most in baseball.
I've often wondered why Howard, maybe once every other game or so, doesn't just slap an outside pitch down the third-base line for a standup double and put himself in position to be knocked in by the next guy. If he did that often enough, teams wouldn't be able to use the Howard Shift, which he has cited as something that has killed his batting average. The other day I was talking to Larry Jones, father of Chipper Jones of the Atlanta Braves, who led all of baseball with a .364 batting average this year. Larry Jones is Chipper's main hitting instructor and has been all his life. He's also a keen 10-handicap golfer, and I'll get to the golf part of this discussion soon enough.
"Howard could do that, but the Phillies don't pay him to slap the ball down the line," Jones said. "They pay him to hit it out of the yard and score one, two, three or four runs on a single swing of the bat. They figure he wins them more games doing that than anything else. In baseball, every player has a role to play, and his role is to hit it out of the park."
Joe DiMaggio faced a similar shift for much of his career. I once asked Fay Vincent, the former baseball commissioner who knew DiMaggio, why DiMaggio never bunted for lead-off singles, just to get on base. Of course, DiMaggio, unlike Howard, ran the bases well. He could steal second and score from there. But he wasn't going to play small ball, and Vincent was able to summarize the reason why in a single word: "Pride." Larry Jones figured there was a lot of that in Howard, too.
So I asked Jones the question I had been leading up to: What if Tiger Woods were playing Major League Baseball and he hit exactly as Ryan Howard does? Tiger Woods, who as a golfer has one ball flight for the cool wind of a British Open and another for the muggy air of a PGA Championship. Who hits slices, hooks, line drives and high pops on command. What would Tiger do if he faced the Tiger Shift every day?
Jones didn't hesitate. "He'd learn to hit to all fields," he said. In fact, you could guess, like Chipper Jones, that he would be a switch-hitter with almost equal ability on both sides of the plate. "You can see in Tiger that he takes a lot of pride in being a complete golfer," Jones said. And as a complete baseball player, he wouldn't be able to give up a third of the field.
Earl Woods used to say that Tiger could have been a world-class athlete in a variety of sports, most particularly the high hurdles. Looking at him, especially in his last days as an amateur, you can imagine that. Seeing how he's handled his professional career, you can also imagine how he would have approached a baseball career.

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