The culture shift was completed at 8:41 p.m. PDT last Friday night when Red Sox righthander Josh Beckett laid a tantalizing 3-and-0 fastball over the middle of the plate for Vladimir Guerrero, and Guerrero ducked his head to make the pitch appear higher than it actually was. In the Angels' dugout centerfielder Torii Hunter asked the question that almost certainly was on every one of Guerrero's old hitting instructors' minds: "What the hell is going on?" Here was the most notorious free swinger of his generation doing something that many coaches and teammates had never seen him do before—trying to work a walk.
For the past five years the Angels had been a team whose personality was colored by Guerrero, entertainingly and effectively aggressive yet bordering on reckless. Hitters who swung at pitches off their shoe tops were accepted, even admired, so long as they made contact. Not coincidentally, perhaps, over the past five years the Angels were knocked out of the playoffs in the first round three times by the more discriminating Red Sox. But this season Guerrero missed 62 games, and a new role model emerged in the clubhouse, one who showed that it's cool to take and take and take again.
Bobby Abreu swung at 32.9% of the pitches thrown to him this season, the second-lowest rate in the majors, according to the website fangraphs.com. Early in the season Angels hitting instructor Mickey Hatcher overheard players on the bench asking, "Damn, how can he just take two strikes right down the middle?" Eventually they asked that question to Abreu's face. It turns out he had some sound reasons—he wanted to gauge the spin of breaking balls, track the movement of fastballs, wear out opposing pitchers, give pitchers on his own team a chance to rest, give hitters on his team a blueprint to study and, of course, reach base on his usual four out of 10 plate appearances or so. "When you play the game the way it should be played, guys follow you," Abreu says. "This year they followed."
Last season the Angels swung at 47.2% of pitches thrown to them, the fourth-highest rate in the majors. This year they hacked at the seventh-lowest rate. They went from 18th to third in on-base percentage. First baseman Kendry Morales saw his on-base percentage jump 82 points, outfielder Juan Rivera 50 points, shortstop Erick Aybar 39 points, infielder Maicer Izturis 30 points, third baseman Chone Figgins 28 points and Hunter 22 points. "We've changed because of Bobby," Hunter says. "He has a seven- or eight-pitch at bat, and when you're up next, it's like, Man, I can't just go up there now and swing at the first pitch. There's been a domino effect."
Hunter believes it started in spring training, when he and Abreu spent an hour chatting in the batting cage, and Abreu told him, "You'll have a better chance getting hits if you swing at strikes." It was simple advice, but for the Angels, not necessarily that easy to follow. Abreu had to pull Morales and Rivera aside and ask them what they were thinking when they swung at first pitches out of the zone. He had to remind Izturis, Aybar and Figgins to follow each other's at bats because pitchers generally approach them the same way. He analyzed situations from the bench, sometimes narrating entire games, pretending he was a broadcaster by using the knob of his bat as a microphone.
Over the years Hatcher had hammered many of Abreu's points—"If there are runners at second and third, and you take a 3-and-2 pitch six inches off the plate, you help the next guy," Hatcher told his hitters in spring training, "and if the guy in front of you does the same, he helps you"—but Abreu was operating with one crucial advantage: in a heavily Latino clubhouse he speaks Spanish.
Abreu grew up in Venezuela, and when he first reported to the Houston Astros' academy there in the late 1980s, he was 14 years old, weighed 127 pounds and liked to hack as much as Guerrero. "Every young Latin player is a free swinger," said Andres Reiner, who ran the academy. "Bobby was no different." Abreu remembers the day he started to refine his game: May 1, 1997, Astros versus Expos at Olympic Stadium, and Craig Biggio led off the fourth inning with a double off Pedro Martinez. Abreu, batting second, followed with a fly ball to left on a 1-and-2 count. After the inning, Biggio approached Abreu—then in his first full season in the bigs—and told him that he should have been more selective, at least hit a ground ball to the right side. "Since then," Abreu says, "it's been automatic."
Abreu has knocked in at least 100 runs in seven straight seasons, played in at least 150 games for 12 straight years and never had an on-base percentage less than .369 in any of those dozen seasons, but last winter the Yankees declined to extend his contract, and no one else seemed to want him, not at market value at least. Teams were concerned that, at 35, his already declining power and defense would be further diminished. While temperamental outfielder Milton Bradley quickly commanded a three-year, $30 million contract from the Cubs, Abreu went two months without an offer, wondering (rather seriously) if he needed to generate controversy to drum up interest. "The guy who wasn't bothering anybody wasn't getting a job," he says.
The Angels were desperate for a slugger with discipline, having lost free agent Mark Teixeira, by far the most selective hitter in their lineup. They finally signed Abreu in February to a one-year, $5 million deal that was seven years and $175 million less than the Yankees gave Teixeira (who, granted, is seven years younger). Abreu told his agents, "I'll show everybody what they missed out on." Now, the season's biggest bargain and its biggest bonus baby are going up against each other—and their former teams—in the American League Championship Series, which starts on Friday in New York.
The Angels have bounced the Yankees from the playoffs twice in this decade, in 2002 and '05, but they could never get past Boston. They finally outlasted the Red Sox by blending the styles of their two veteran cornerstones. In Game 1 Abreu walked four times. In Game 2, after taking that meaty fastball from Beckett, Guerrero drew the walk that sparked a three-run rally. And in Game 3, facing a two-run deficit with two outs in the ninth inning, Abreu and Guerrero delivered run-scoring hits against closer Jonathan Papelbon to complete the sweep. Abreu finished the series with a .556 batting average and a .692 on-base percentage.