Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Sizemore Growing Into Role as Everyday Player

2010 was supposed to be Scott Sizemore's coming out party. The fates however, had other plans. During the off season, Sizemore broke his ankle, and though he was ready to play on opening day, he was nowhere near ready for the challenge of the Major Leagues. Instead of heading into the season, and the greatest challenge of his professional career with a full off season of preparation, he was going in cold.

For an accomplished MLB veteran, such a return would be easier to make. They have a better idea of what to expect, they're better acclimated to the stresses of a Major League season. Sizemore however was essentially running in blind. It sure showed. On offense Sizemore struggled to make contact, on defense he looked slow, and unsure of himself. He was sent down after his disappointing start but caught fire in AAA, earning a pair of callups that helped him build some confidence through the season.

"Fortunately last year I got a call up for about 8 or 9 days in July, and then I got called up again in September and I played pretty well at the end. It was just a matter of calming down and playing the game like I know I know how to."

A particularly strong September gave him a chance to end the season on a positive note and leave the Tigers coaching staff with a positive impression of his skills. Still, he headed into spring training this year facing an uphill battle. Will Rhymes, who had played well during his time with the team in 2010 had the inside track on the job and did nothing to lose it during the spring, hitting over .300 while playing his typical solid defense.

Sizemore played ok during the spring, but he was far from great. Rhymes on the other hand hit .300 and realistically the job was his to lose, and he did nothing to that end. That doesn't mean it wasn't hard on Sizemore though, "Of course, you can't say you're not disappointed when you don't make the team out of spring training. With that being said you can understand what they're thinking and they're point of view on the decision."

"[Leyland] said I didn't do anything wrong to be sent down or anything like that, he just said that Will had hit well enough - .300 over 150 at-bats - so they were going to give him a chance out of spring. You know, you can't really argue with that. You've just got to go down, get your work in, plug away, and hopefully get another chance to come up here and show what you can do."

Unfortunately for Rhymes, the season got off to a dreadful start and he was sent down after posting a .556 OPS in 81 plate appearances. Once again, Sizemore was ready and waiting, with a stunning .408 batting average serving as a shining beacon of that readiness. In explaining his hot start to 2011, Sizemore states, "I had time to work out this off season, I got a lot stronger in the off season. And of course there's the mental aspect, being ready to play, every at-bat, every pitch, not getting down on yourself. It was all a little overwhelming the first time through."

That preparedness has certainly paid early dividends in 2011 and he's sporting a robust .406 OBP so far this year, bolstered by a bevy of walks that have helped offset a still alarming strikeout ratio. Despite the strikeouts though, the OBP is ultimately what the Tigers coaching staff is looking for. Someone who can get on base in front of the middle of the order. So far, so good.

None of which means his strikeout rates shouldn't be of concern. If he can't limit the K rate to around 25%, the 'law of BABIP' means that he'll struggle to hit for a respectable average. When I asked about his alarming swing-and-miss rates, Sizemore had this to say;

"I think it's just - not timidness - but not being aggressive enough, not swinging early in the count sometimes. I'm a patient hitter, I'm not a guy that's going to be aggressive and try to hack away, I'm going to try and get my pitch and put a good swing on it. Sometimes I'll get a lot of walks because of that, sometimes I'll strikeout more because of that. And of course I had that streak where I had three strikeout, two strikeouts, two strikeouts - for maybe three games in a row. Sometimes you just don't get your pitches, sometimes the pitchers just get nasty on you. You can't do anything about it, they're painting on the black and mixing pitches well. So sometimes you just need to tip your caps and give the pitcher credit because they're pretty good out there too."

The point that Sizemore inadvertently makes here is a good one and worthy of at least a brief note. While people tend to notice and lament strikeouts, getting too caught up in them can be problematic. Any hitter needs to limit their strikeouts in order to post a respectable batting average, but provided their striking out because they're seeing a lot of pitches, and also drawing a lot of walks as a result, that's ok. As long as they're providing enough power, and getting on base, you can live with strikeouts.

Beyond the strikeouts, the one persistent issue that has dogged Sizemore throughout his professional career has been his defense. The simple truth is that not every player is blessed with the tools necessary to be a great defender. That's especially true in the infield where sheer instincts play such a vital role. You can teach a player footwork, you can try and improve their agility and quickness, but ultimately, the great ones just have a sort of intrinsic muscle memory that helps them.

That's probably something that Sizemore lacks, which isn't to say he isn't doing everything in his power to get better. During the off season he worked at his friends baseball academy, RBA West, in Richmond Virginia on his defense.

"He's there helping me with my hitting, hitting me ground balls. Trying to simplify things and get back to basics, be overall more solid defensively, and of course I'm still trying to do that. The thing that makes great defenders is making every play they should and that's what I'm striving for."

"Defense has always been, not my downfall, but a weakness in my game. I've always kind of been known as a hitter.  I just continue to work at it, continue to evolve my game and take it to the next level. Raf [Rafael Belliard] our infield instructor is good about getting out there early with me and getting my reps in."

Sizemore is now 26. Not necessarily a seasoned veteran, but he's not a gun shy rookie anymore either, and he seems to have a much better grasp of where he at. He no longer seems overwhelmed by the moment, he's no longer timid on his surgically repaired ankle. Still, he'll need to prove himself now because the Tigers have proven they won't tolerate inadequacy from their youngsters for long if someone else is playing well in the Minors. 

Corey Ettinger is a Senior Writer for Baseball Digest. He also provides extensive analysis of the American League Central Division at his own blog, AL Central In Focus. Be sure to follow me on Twitter @Coreyettinger for the latest updates, random thoughts and general tomfoolery. 

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