Aug. 21, 2006
By John Weisman, SI.com Inside Baseball - How does a guy post better numbers in the major leagues than he did in the minors? How does a guy acquired in a giveaway trade end up carrying the offense of a postseason contender?
The guy in question is left fielder Andre Ethier, and he's one of the nicest mysteries a team could have right now.
Acquired last winter when the Los Angeles Dodgers decided to make Milton Bradley someone else's problem, and called up on May 2 only when the Dodgers couldn't seem to keep anybody healthy, Ethier has become not only a leading candidate for Rookie of the Year but also, arguably, the team's top offensive player.
In 321 plate appearances, Ethier, 24, has an on-base percentage of .383 and a slugging percentage of .545. Among players with 300 plate appearances, his .928 on-base plus slugging percentage (OPS) is 13th in the NL, leads the Dodgers (including the more renowned Nomar Garciaparra) and outdistances all other rookies in the league by nearly 100 points.
"He's been outstanding since the day he came through the door," Dodgers manager Grady Little said.
There's no mystery about what Ethier's strengths are. People have been admiring his swing and work habits since the Oakland A's drafted him out of Arizona State. Teammate Olmedo Saenz, the best bat off the Dodgers' bench, said that Ethier has "great coverage of home plate."
What's confounding is how Ethier went from an .882 OPS for Midland in the AA Texas League last year to an even higher OPS two levels above.
"You always try to better yourself and keep progressing," he said. "You hope that you don't peak at your talent level." Sure, you try, you hope. But still: tougher competition, better stats. You do the math, and the math comes out wrong.
While Ethier can't solve for X, he can provide more of the why. For one thing, though everyone talks about the grind of a major league schedule, in some ways it's a picnic compared with the minors. Ethier said that his shortest bus ride in the Texas League was six hours and that he got fewer days off then.
"Teams really got to know me," Ethier added. "There are only eight teams in that league, eight teams for 140 games."
In his nascent MLB career, Ethier has batted against 18 teams, racking up no more than 40 plate appearances against any of them. He broke in as a reserve, got a little more playing time on a platoon basis and only became an every-day starter just before another Dodgers phenom, Matt Kemp, returned to the minors last month.
"I don't know how I would have reacted if they had thrown me in there every day [from the start]," Ethier said.
Ethier batted .324 in May, .344 in June, .362 in July and .375 through the first 12 days of August, his season average rising to .350 and putting him in position for a remarkable achievement. According to baseball researcher Mike Carminati, only eight rookies have batted .350 or better since 1901, and only one (Ichiro Suzuki in 2001) since 1930.
But now that Ethier is playing every day, teams are getting to know him more, and the day-to-day exertion is piling up. That has Little on his guard.
"We're kind of watching him a little more regularly lately," said Little, who on Monday left Ethier out of the starting lineup for the first time since June 28.
Little added that Ethier doesn't appear to be tiring so far, and his 1 for 13 over a recent four-game stretch is too small a sample to indicate otherwise. There are other reasons to fear for the robust brew of Ethier's stats, however. His batting average on balls in play is .396 -- the highest in baseball among batters with 300 plate appearances or more.
What this means is that either Ethier possesses a preternatural ability to hit 'em where they ain't, or the 6-foot-1 208-pounder has gotten more than his share of luck at the outset of his career. That's not to say that Ethier hasn't hit into any hard outs -- just that more frustration could come his way.
There's also the potential effect of increased pressure to deal with. Thanks in no small part to Ethier, who OPSed .979 as the Dodgers won 17 of 18 games to vault from last place to first in their division, every game down the stretch will be huge for Los Angeles. Every at-bat has more people paying attention, more consequences.
For example, on Aug. 10, another beautiful night in Los Angeles that belied the tension in the air, Ethier came up with the score 2-2 in the bottom of the eighth inning against the Colorado Rockies. Though the Dodgers' 11-game winning streak had ended the night before, the team still needed a victory to reach first place. The left-handed Ethier -- who boasts an OPS of .947 against same-side pitching -- blasted a go-ahead home run well beyond the center-field wall off Colorado southpaw Ray King.
Reflecting on the at-bat, Ethier indicated that he doesn't have a fear of failure, that he only thinks about how much he can succeed. Moreover, he has embraced the responsibility thrust upon him and the Dodgers' other rookie regular, catcher Russell Martin.
"I feel that any guy who follows baseball knows that me, Russell Martin, that's who they're going to go with," Ethier said. "This is kind of our team, what was decided after the trading deadline was over with. You've just got to keep plugging away."
In other words, no mystery. Sure, Ethier's stats might eventually fall in line with a more normal career trajectory. The alternative ending is that Ethier's performance is just now beginning to match his ability.
Whatever the reckoning, Ethier has become a player to be reckoned with.
"Nothing he does surprises me, to tell you the truth," Little said.