Aybar works way into offensive prowess
Angels' defensive standout sports team-high average
ANAHEIM -- Erick Aybar entered the 2009 season with the label of a classic great-fielding shortstop with plenty of speed to burn and a rocket arm, but with a bat that left something to be desired.
After all, he entered the season as one of the game's rangiest defenders, but had a career .262 batting average and a .298 on-base percentage while also struggling at the plate in the 2008 postseason with two hits in 18 at-bats as the Angels fell to the Red Sox in four games.But the label was a bit unfair, considering Aybar was a .312 hitter in the Minors and his batting average in the Majors improved to a respectable .277 last season. Aybar, though, made it a point to work on his offense this season, and it certainly paid off as the speedy switch-hitter led the team with a .312 average to go along with a much-improved .353 on-base percentage. The change didn't come overnight, however, as Aybar spent much of the season working to get better at the plate. "I've been coming to the ballpark earlier," Aybar explained. "I've been getting a lot of advice from Bobby Abreu, Torii Hunter and [hitting coach] Mickey Hatcher. And I've been watching a lot of videos from the opposing pitchers, and that's been paying on off for me." It further paid off in Game 2 of the American League Division Series on Friday night, when he roped a crucial two-run triple in the seventh inning off Josh Beckett to help lead the Angels to a 2-0 series lead. Aybar has made the Red Sox pay this postseason with three hits in seven at-bats after taking criticism last year, along with second baseman Howard Kendrick, for failing to produce in the postseason.
Aybar's '09 stats
The middle-infield duo combined for four hits in 35 at-bats in the postseason for a .114 batting average, but it's certainly changed this postseason, as the two have already matched those four hits in 12 at-bats for a .333 average.Hatcher said he's already noticed a big difference in those two as the experience last season helped them want to get better this time around. "I think a lot of it has to do with maturity," Hatcher said. "I think those guys really believe they can play. Being a young guy on a championship-caliber team is tough. It's not about developing anymore, you have to play winning baseball." Aybar has certainly been helping the Angels play winning baseball with his glove this season, as he's rated as one of the game's top shortstops by just about every standard out there -- he finished the season tied for seventh in the Majors in fielding percentage and also finished sixth in the Majors in the advanced defensive metric, "ultimate zone rating."
So, Aybar not only has the range to get balls most defenders cannot, he also rarely makes a mistake with his soft hands and strong arm.And his impressive work at shortstop this year hasn't gone unnoticed by Angels manager Mike Scioscia. "You look at what he's done defensively, I think he deserves a Gold Glove," Scioscia said. "He and Chone on the left side of the infield have been terrific, Gold Glove caliber." It's a sentiment echoed by the pitching staff as well as the Angels pitchers know that a ground ball to the left side is usually an out with the rangy and athletic Aybar and Figgins scooping up nearly everything in sight.
"When a ball's hit to the left side of the infield, I'm OK with that," right-hander John Lackey said, grinning. "We've got a lot of talent over there with Figgy and Aybar."And perhaps the most impressive thing about Aybar's transformation into a complete player is that he's still only 25 years old, and he just completed his first full season as the team's everyday shortstop. "He's feeling comfortable playing at the big league level every day," Scisocia said. "Offensively, he's comfortable when to freelance and be creative and when to have an at-bat where he's working the counts. He's done a good job of that."
Rhett Bollinger is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.