||05-07-2006 02:15 PM
NY Times Article - Sounds Familar
Playing the Waiting Game
By TYLER KEPNER
Published: May 7, 2006
ARLINGTON, Tex., May 6 — As the director for video operations for the Yankees, Charlie Wonsowicz has a camera trained on home plate at Yankee Stadium, zooming in from a perch above the top deck.
When a Yankee strikes out looking, the hitting coach Don Mattingly will sometimes ask Wonsowicz for a replay from the overhead angle. When Jason Giambi is the hitter, Wonsowicz knows the answer in advance.
"There's really never any doubt," Wonsowicz said. "If he lays off it, it's almost 100 percent a ball. If there's a question, it's a question of black or nonblack. It's never on the plate."
The black is the sliver of a border around the plate. That may be all that separates Giambi from having a flawless definition of the strike zone.
No player in the majors takes as many pitches as Giambi. He leads the American League in walks and on-base percentage and was named player of the month for April, and his extraordinary discipline at the plate is the main reason why.
Through Friday, according to Stats Inc., Giambi had taken 72.4 percent of the 515 pitches thrown to him this season. The next closest player was Bobby Abreu of Philadelphia, at 68.3 percent.
"A lot of people would say, in certain situations, we need you to swing the bat," Giambi said. "But my theory is, no, I'm helping the team more by taking my walks because I'm putting that guy behind me in a better position to hit."
Giambi is 2 for 14 in the first five games of the Yankees' current trip. But he has drawn seven walks, and five figured in scoring rallies. The Yankees have won four of the games.
With 34 walks in the Yankees' first 28 games, Giambi is on pace for 197. The record for walks in a season is 232, by Barry Bonds in 2004. More than half of those were intentional. Giambi has not been intentionally walked since last July.
"The number of walks he gets, being the power hitter he is — and when I say walks, they're not the kind of walks a power hitter gets because they don't want to pitch to him," Manager Joe Torre said. "They're trying to get him out, and he's able to fight his way on."
Tampa Bay Manager Joe Maddon compared Giambi to Bonds in his refusal to expand the strike zone.
"If he's hot, I'm O.K. with him walking," Maddon said. "This year, right now, he's getting back to being the guy we had seen three years ago, when he was really good."
Part of Giambi's strength comes from knowing his limitations. Unlike, say, Vladimir Guerrero, Giambi cannot swing at anything and make solid contact. And because he is slow, he knows it would be pointless to simply put the ball in play.
"My two weapons are hitting the ball hard and taking my walks," he said.
Giambi has always been this way, stubbornly adhering to a simple idea, imparted by his father, John, and borrowed from the great Ted Williams: You are a better hitter when you swing at good pitches. Giambi's rigid adherence has sustained him through a complicated major league career.
For many fans, Giambi will probably never shake the stigma of being a reported steroid user, before and after he joined the Yankees from Oakland in December 2001. But his fundamental approach to hitting has little to do with muscles.
"He never swung at bad pitches, even when he was a 17-, 18-year-old guy," said Yankees pitcher Aaron Small, Giambi's teammate at South Hills High School in West Covina, Calif. "Everybody around our district knew he was a good hitter, so I think there was some fear factor there, guys not wanting to throw to him. He had to learn to lay off bad pitches, because he was getting a lot of them.
"But he's just gotten better over the years as far as his eye. It's incredible watching the pitches he doesn't swing at. You don't know how he does it."
Mattingly said what amazed him most was how soon Giambi determined where a pitch would end up. Many hitters identify a pitch in the split-second after a pitcher releases it. But Giambi can often read the location even earlier. If the pitch will be a ball, Giambi may not start his stride.
"He gives up on the ball so early, it's almost like instantly when that guy lets it go, he can tell it's a ball," Mattingly said. "You see him just give up quick. I could never do it. Not even close. I'd pick it up, but I wouldn't give up on it like that."
Giambi said he had always been able to memorize a pitcher's movements. In an interview, he casually mentioned the way Josh Towers, a Toronto Blue Jays pitcher, threw his curveball. Then Giambi moved his hand to other angles, showing how pitchers can telegraph location.
"I get on deck and I start looking at guys' release points," Giambi said. "You can pick things up from the side. I can tell you without even looking at the catcher, from his release point, if that's a ball or a strike."
Armed with that information, Giambi comes to the plate to play "the game within the game," one of his favorite phrases. Some hitters, like Derek Jeter, never guess what a pitcher will throw, looking fastball all the time and reacting to anything else. Not Giambi.
Because he cannot reach as many balls, Giambi guesses until he has two strikes. He described a typical at-bat, choosing a situation in which Jeter is on first with one out, with Alex Rodriguez on deck:
"What's this guy going to do?" Giambi said. "More than likely, he'll try to throw me an off-speed pitch I can hook into the hole and try to roll into a double play. If you're going to sit on changeup, make him throw it for a strike, get it up in the zone.
"Boom, first-pitch sinker, that's a ball, 1-0. Alex is hitting behind me, so more than likely he's going to throw me a 'get me over' curveball or changeup to try to get me to chase. So, 1-0, I can't hit that changeup down and away, you give it to him for a strike.
"More than likely, on 1-1, he's going to try to keep me from leaning over the plate and come inside with a fastball to try to back me off. Well, that's the one I've got to be ready to hit, because if he makes a mistake on the inner half, that's where I want it. That's the ball that I can lean on, and if I have to hit it through the shift or get it up in the air to right field, that's my pitch.
"But if he misses — a lot of times it's up and in — boom, you take it and now it's 2-1. Well, 9 times out of 10, he's going to go changeup down and away again, or he's going to throw me a hard sinker down and away and try to get me to roll into the shift."
And so on. Giambi offered no conclusion to the imaginary at-bat, but he could have. He has always visualized his at-bats.
As a child, Giambi said, he would daydream about the perfect pitch and where he would hit it. Certain pitches he would drive through the middle. Others he would launch into the right-field upper deck.
Even now, his mental game directs him. Giambi probably takes fewer swings before a game than any other Yankee, often skipping batting practice to sharpen his skills in a cage under the stands. If he feels ready after five swings, that is all he will take.
"I know if I get myself in a good mind-set, that's where I need to be," Giambi said. "I don't need a million swings to get where I need to go."
But if he ever wanted to take a million swings, it helps to own a hitting academy. Last year, Giambi quietly purchased a batting-cage facility in Henderson, Nev., where he lives in the off-season. The owner was moving and planned to close it; the children who hit there urged Giambi to buy it.
The 17,000-square-foot warehouse has 12 cages and attracts major leaguers in the area to work out. Giambi said he chose to the name the center Hitman after Mattingly, who was sometimes called that when he played.
Another former player, Mike Easler, is an instructor, along with Bill Madlock, the four-time National League batting champion. But Giambi gives lessons, too.
"The kids have a ball," he said. "It's a lot of fun, getting to talk with them and spending some time with them."
Giambi as a mentor might have seemed unlikely a year ago, in the aftermath of the steroid controversy and a 2004 season ruined by a pituitary tumor. His career seemed to be in the balance. But Giambi, as usual, was content to wait. Patience paid off again.