Ethier rides power surge to success
Dodgers outfielder shows physical, mental growth to coaches
LOS ANGELES -- It was late August 2008. Jeff Kent had just been injured and Dodgers manager Joe Torre told his nucleus of young players that the team was now theirs.
Andre Ethier led the response. While Manny Ramirez took the spotlight, it was Ethier hitting a ridiculous .462 last September.
And with Ramirez having lost his power this summer, it is Ethier who is the most productive of the Dodgers, having leaped past All-Star catcher Russell Martin and former top pick James Loney, and now he's vying with Matt Kemp as the club's most valuable position player.
He's also earned primetime coverage with an MLB-best five walk-off hits, three of them home runs. He figures to be the first Dodgers outfielder with a 30-homer, 100-RBI season since Shawn Green in 2002. He's been named National League Player of the Week twice.
"He's been really clutch for the team," said pitcher Chad Billingsley. "He's had all of those game-winning hits. He's been able to rise to the occasion."
And it's hard for anyone to know how good he will get, because his home run and RBI totals increase each season -- 11-55 in '06, 13-64 in '07, 20-77 in '08 and a team-high 27-87 with five weeks to play in '09.
"I still think he's got some more [untapped ability] once he gets the hitting zone figured out," Torre said.
On a team where the iconic manager is clearly the primary leader, Ethier is emerging as the player his club relies on the most.
"You always want to be a leader and contribute and be part of a team," said Ethier. "You don't always have to be vocal. Maybe you do the little things -- show up on time, go about your business in a professional manner. When you have leaders on a team you look up to, that spreads throughout the clubhouse. A bad leader spreads too. Good ones are out in front. You want guys to lead the right way and be the right examples on and off the field."
Arizona State University baseball coach Pat Murphy sees what the scouts missed on Ethier, who wasn't drafted out of high school because he lacked power and running speed.
"The thing people don't know about Andre, he's not a kid who just tries to fit in, he tries to excel," said Murphy. "This kid is very, very driven. He wants to be a major, Major Leaguer."
Ethier never hit more than 18 home runs in any of his three full Minor League seasons with the Oakland A's, one of which was shortened by a fractured vertebrae. His last season in the A's organization, he was named the 2005 Texas League Player of the Year. That caught the eye of Dodgers scout Al LaMacchia, who recommended the Dodgers ask for Ethier in return when the A's were willing to take Milton Bradley.
Ethier spent one month at Triple-A after his acquisition, was promoted in May when Ricky Ledee was injured, and has been an improving Major Leaguer ever since.
"He's become a lot more polished than when I first saw him," said teammate Juan Pierre, who lost his starting job to Ethier last spring.
"He always would put together a good at-bat, but he hit a lot of balls with topspin in '07. I don't know what changed or what happened, but now those balls are way out. He's learned to hit with backspin. Now he hits for power and average, when a lot of power hitters are happy to hit .240. He's able to do both. Of course, he's strong as an ox. Some guys, as their body develops, they get power they didn't used to have. He's gone through 20 [home runs] and 25 and hopefully he'll get 30 this year and you could see him get into the 40s."
Kemp said the young Dodgers have essentially played together as a unit since the Minor Leagues and "we know each other's games."
"When one of us is getting away from our game, he can ask one of us what's wrong," he said. "'Dre is always working on his game. He's always in the cage. There's where his success comes from and it shows."
Ethier said he's not sure where the power is coming from, but offers a couple of possible explanations -- a swing adjustment and physical maturity.
The swing adjustment: the release of his top hand on the follow through.
"I did it on and off last year, but I've worked a lot with Donnie [Mattingly, Dodgers hitting coach] this year developing this type of swing," said Ethier. "I used to be two hands all the way through. This way, I'm not tied up and my swing is looser and I can reach for balls in front that I couldn't do when keeping both hands on the bat throughout the swing."
The maturity, he said, comes from growing into his body.
"You get stronger over time," he said. "Different people reach peak strength at different ages. I still feel like I'm maturing in my 6'2" frame and I'm learning how to use it."
There's physical maturity. Then, there's emotional maturity. On the latter, Ethier's coaches suggest he's still a work in progress.
"There are still periods where he gets a little lost, but they are shorter," said Torre. "It comes with frustration. His expectations are so high. He reminds me of Paul O'Neill. High expectations and there's nothing wrong with that."
Mattingly believes Ethier's emotions worsened a midseason slump that saw his average plunge from .327 in early May to .247 in early July.
"For a six-week stretch, it was almost like he disconnected and couldn't get it back," said Mattingly. "I think he's gotten better at getting it back faster. He still gets mad. That's okay, as long as you then let it go and get focused back on the next task. What you don't want him to do is disconnect. You can't let one at-bat ruin your whole day. You've still got the rest of the game to play."
OK, the busted bats and slammed helmets can send bystanders ducking for cover. But the outbursts are less frequent and the celebrations more enjoyable.
Ethier said he learned to "work for it" from his parents. He learned "to be tough" and "how to win" from Murphy at ASU, after spending a year playing junior college ball because there was no room for him as a freshman at ASU.
After his first year at Chandler-Gilbert Community College, he was drafted by the A's in the 37th round, but didn't sign, instead choosing to go back to ASU where he was a teammate and friend of Dustin Pedroia. He earned All-Pac-10 honors twice and was drafted again by the A's, this time in the second round, signing for a $680,000 bonus.
"I bettered myself by 35 rounds by going to ASU and not signing," he said. "I put myself in a better position."
He gives the Oakland A's system credit for "developing me as a hitter."
"They want guys to drive the ball," he said. "You hear about the walks, but it's more about being selective and looking for a pitch to drive. They allowed me to understand the game and slow it down."
He made an impact as soon as the big league staff saw him. He was sent from Minor League camp to be an extra player for a Spring Training game, which he entered late and tripled off the wall.
"That's a good-looking swing and a good-looking kid," said Ken Macha, who was then managing the A's. "He's the kind of kid you can see getting a lot of attention someday."
For all the right reasons.
Ken Gurnick is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.