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May 8, 2007 at 4:15 PM

Let’s talk about Sexson

OK, I did what you folks have been pushing me to do the past two days. Had a nice, engaging conversation with Richie Sexson and the people around him to figure out what’s been going on. That was this afternoon, before he stepped up in the first inning and swatted a three-run homer to left field off Tigers pitcher Jeremy Bonderman. Those were the first runs Bonderman has given up all season in the first inning. The three RBI also doubled Sexson’s May output to six. So, off to a good start. Hopefully, Horacio Ramirez doesn’t do with this 3-0 lead what he did with a 5-0 advantage in Boston last week…too late, he already did. We’re now 3-3 after three innings.
Sexson is batting cleanup tonight. Mike Hargrove is giving Jose Guillen a rest, so Ben Broussard in playing right field, batting fifth, Adrian Beltre up to sixth, Kenji Johjima back down to seventh and Raul Ibanez down to No. 3. Not every day a manager moves a guy hitting .147 into the cleanup spot, but frankly, Sexson is no easy case to figure out.
The one thing I can tell you, from the way Sexson sounds and what others around him say, this isn’t the case of an arrogant player who doesn’t care. Believe me, he wasn’t arrogant about it when we spoke. He’s trying to stay positive, knows what people expect and is trying to stay as focused as he can.
His explanation for the slump?
“I’m hitting the ball good,” he said. “That’s just the weird part of this game. Once you hit it, you can’t control where it goes. You see guys bleeding the infield for hits, blooping them over the second baseman for hits. I haven’t gotten those. I’ve been hitting the ball good, hard on the ground. I had a couple of balls yesterday that could have been home runs but the wind took them down. You can’t control it.”
Sexson insists he isn’t letting this slump, at 3-for-26 in May heading into tonight, hasn’t been eating him up inside. He’s working hard not to let it, figuring it won’t do himself or the team any good.
“As long as I feel good, which I do. I feel good and I’m hitting the ball good, which is all I can do.”
I’ll have to admit, I was skeptical at first. It’s seems like every time I look up, Sexson is staring at a called strike and staring down the umpire. He insists, by the way, that he isn’t arguing with the calls, merely asking the umps where the strikes were so he’ll know better for next time. Regardless, though, this team won’t go anywhere with him hitting .150 this season (he cringed when I mentioned that figure, almost like he was embarassed). He is getting paid to do a lot more of what he did last night than what’s taken place the past few weeks. So, I decided to do a little research.
Turns out, Sexson is telling the truth. He really has been squaring up on the ball.
Looking at the games played in May so far, Sexson has been making solid contact. In just about every game, he has grounded out hard to the shortstop, forcing the fielder to make some good plays. He hit three fly balls against the Yankees, two of them a very long way. There have been six flyouts in the seven May games. Seven groundouts to the shortstop and another to third base. Two of his three hits — a double and a single — were straightaway to center field. Yes, he still struck out once per game over that stretch. But that’s never going to change all that much.
What could change is Sexson doing a little more with the hittable pitches he does see. He insists he is putting most of those balls in play hard, but a look at what’s happened shows that isn’t always the case.
The one thing you notice from glancing at the stats is that Sexson is almost always behind early in the count. In the seven games in May, he has been 0-2 on seven occasions, 1-2 on four occasions and has taken a first-pitch ball in only 10 of 30 plate appearances. That’s a whole lot of times he is either getting behind in the count or swinging into outs.
Of the six 2-1 counts Sexson has found himself in, he has fouled off the ensuing pitch four times. On the two other occasions, he grounded out.
In six other at-bats, he has fouled off the second pitch. Hitters usually swing early in a count when something hittable is sent their way. They usually see something hittable in a 2-1 count as well. Sexson’s results might suggest he is missing some hittable pitches.
M’s hitting coach Jeff Pentland believes this is part of the reason Sexson hasn’t put up the numbers he usually reaches later on in a season.
“His basic swing is fine,” Pentland said. “There are some pitches he’s not getting to that he normally does. And that kind of irritates him. Especially, the balls away. We’ve tried to move him up a little closer (to the plate) just to make him a little more comfortable.”
Hargrove is reluctant to move Sexson out of the middle of the order. He sees the same thing Sexson says is happening — figures that Sexson is hitting the ball hard and not catching any breaks. The manager keeps waiting for the momentum to swing Sexson’s way. He’d like to see some of Sexson’s 35 annual home runs come a lot earlier on in the season. We’re still not in August yet. Hargrove figures that since the approach is there and Sexson is hitting enough balls hard, it could do more harm than good to shuffle him around in the order.
He’d rather ride this slump out a little longer and see if it breaks. As long as the basic approach is there and Sexson is hitting more balls hard than he misses when he does get his pitches, things could start to turn. We’ll see.
One thing I do know is that Pentland and company want Sexson more aggressive in his approach. They don’t mind a patient team approach to hitting, but some guys are better off swinging if they’re down two strikes all the time. Sexson has done a little of both tonight. He fell behind 0-2 on Bonderman before blasting the next pitch into the bullpen. (Sexson did work a lot on his two-strike hitting this past spring). Sexson then walked his next time up.
We’ll see if this all pans out in the end. No, a .147 average is not acceptable for any clean-up hitter and it isn’t simply a byproduct of all his hits being caught. Sexson needs to do more with the hittable pitches he sees and could also use a little luck in making sure the balls do drop in rather than being caught when he does put them in-play. Hopefully, it won’t take until August to see this start happening. But I found this entire exercise rather interesting. Hope you did as well.
Here are the lineups:
DETROIT
C Ivan Rodriguez
2B Placido Polanco
DH Gary Sheffield
RF Magglio Ordonez
SS Carlos Guillen
1B Sean Casey
LF Craig Monroe
CF Omar Infante
3B Brandon Inge
RHP Jeremy Bonderman
CF Inchiro
DH Jose Vidro
LF Raul Ibanez
1B Richie Sexson
RF Ben Broussard
3B Adrian Beltre
C Kenji Johjima
SS Yuniesky Betancourt
2B Jose Lopez
LHP Horacio Ramirez

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