Sunday, May 13, 2001

Casey hitting his stride

First baseman shows maturity at the plate

By Chris Haft
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        To measure Sean Casey's progress this year, don't examine what he has done. Look at what he hasn't done.

        No more fretting about a hitless performance. No more self-imposed pressure about today's game or the next one. Fewer struggles with the inside pitches that once entangled him.

        This all comes from maturity. The Reds are witnessing the development and growth of their first baseman.

        “You can't teach experience,” said Casey, who's beginning his fourth full season. “I'm more comfortable with my role on the team. I've learned from my failures and successes.”

        Casey had plenty of both last year, which has provided his foundation for this season — and perhaps for the rest of his career.

        Slowed at the start of 2000 by a broken thumb, he hit .351 after June 1 to finish with a .315 average, 20 homers and 85 RBI. His prodigious September (.378, 10 homers, 32 RBI) has propelled him smoothly into this season.

        Through Friday, Casey led the Reds with a .324 average, six homers and 30 RBI. His .574 slugging percentage exceeded any he has ever recorded, and his .398 on-base percentage was .001 short of the year-end figure from his breakout 1999 season.

        “I think when I struggled last year, I was trying to look ahead — "Today has to be a big day; I've gotta go 4-for-4 and get my average up,'” Casey said. “I finally lost that mentality and realized I had to go day-by-day. It's a long season. Every at-bat's a battle. The fewer I give away, the better year I'll have. That's my mentality now.”

        “You look at what he did last year, struggling like he did, and the huge comeback he had at the end. That's impressive,” said Houston Astros first baseman Jeff Bagwell, a four-time All-Star. “It's no fun, but it makes you better mentally to do stuff like that.”

        Casey's statistics aren't astounding. He ranks among the National League's top 10 in only one major offensive category, RBI (sixth entering the weekend). But he has played at an All-Star level without injured center fielder Ken Griffey Jr. in the lineup to relieve his offensive burden. He has thrived in the cleanup spot despite having four different teammates batting third, which might affect the approach of some No.4 hitters. His increased polish and confidence are evident.

        “He's getting better every day,” Reds hitting coach Ken Griffey Sr. said. “Casey believes that if you give him a bat, he has a chance.”

        An apparently meaningless ninth-inning single in an 8-2 loss to San Diego on May6 served as an example of Casey's discipline. He was 0-for-3, the score was lopsided and the warm afternoon was draining. But Casey fouled off several two-strike pitches and lined a single to center field off Padres reliever David Lee.

        That made a definite impression on San Diego's Tony Gwynn, the eight-time batting champion.

        “You're going to have some success against most good hitters, but sooner or later they're going to get you,” Gwynn said. “That at-bat, he battled and battled and fought off tough pitches until he got something he could handle and hit it right back up the box.”

        Said Casey, “Maybe years ago, you give away that at-bat. Those are the times when you have to grind it out. It's only one at-bat, but the next thing you know, if you have 20 games like that, that's 20 at-bats you give away. Over the course of the year that's a lot of at-bats. It's more of a mental thing t otry to lock yourself in every at-bat and stay focused.”

        Since Casey's first professional season, when he hit two homers in 207 at-bats for Single-A Watertown in the Cleveland Indians organization, his few detractors have criticized him for not hitting more home runs. He's currently on pace to finish with a career-high 29 — an above-average total, but hardly McGwiresque.

        Yet Casey is only 26 and has appeared in just 416 major-league games. Power rarely emerges immediately. Bagwell, for example, hit 15, 18 and 20 homers in his first three seasons. Since then, he has averaged 37 per year.

        “It takes time to learn how to hit, learn situations and how to take chances,” Bagwell said.

        Besides, Bagwell pointed out, Casey is such a proficient all-around hitter that he doesn't need to hit bushels of homers to be effective.

        “That is the most overrated stat in all of baseball,” Bagwell said. Referring to the famous home-run totals of Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa, he added, “I'm not taking anything away from 70 and 66 and 62, because those guys also produced 150 RBI while they were doing that. But there were guys, especially in the '80s, who hit 30 home runs and driving in 70. What does that do?

        “"Case' is the kind of guy who might not hit 30 or 40 home runs right now, but he's getting that two-run single when the team needs it. That's all that matters — getting guys across home plate.”

        Gwynn agreed that observers should appreciate Casey for what he is, not what he could or should do.

        “I think he's a good hitter now. But a lot of people tend to expect too much,” the 20-year veteran said. “A lot of times we put these guys on pedestals early on. Really, you should let them go out there and establish themselves. That's what all the good hitters have ever done.”

        Casey has done something else common to all good hitters: Adjust. Aware that opponents try to jam him — “I guess you'd say the "book' on him is to throw him hard and inside,” said Reds catcher Kelly Stinnett, who spent the previous three seasons with Arizona — Casey has worked on a counterattack.

        “He has learned how to hit the inside pitch, or foul it off to give himself a chance to get another pitch,” Griffey Sr. said. “He's gotten to the point where if somebody comes inside, he doesn't worry about it anymore. He used to worry about it because he'd "roll over' on it — turn his wrist over and hit it straight into the ground. He's learning to go through the ball and drive it.”

        This, too, reflects Casey's maturity.

        “I think it's about patience,” he said. “You have to get a pitch you can do something with. It's about learning when a pitch is a strike and when it's not a strike.

        “If a guy can throw me three pitches on the inside part of the black (border of home plate), nobody's going to hit that. So I'll gladly take a seat. Because he beat me. But I don't think there are many pitchers who can do that. And I don't know if there are many pitchers who can do that three times on the outside corner.”

        The older, wiser Sean Casey knows his limits. That doesn't mean he'll accept them.

        “I'm having a pretty good start, but I'm not satisfied,” he said. “I don't think I'll ever be. That's the one thing that drives me every day. You can always be better.”


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