January 17, 2005


The King of Contact (Buster Olney, January 17, 2005, ESPN The Magazine)

Mark Loretta once neatly fit the hit-and-run prototype. He makes contact, striking out only once every 10 at-bats or so; he is a right-handed hitter with an opposite field stroke that enables him to slam the ball through the first-base hole; he is not distracted by movement on the bases.

And, in the first seasons of his career, Loretta was not regarded as a high-caliber hitter, making it easier for managers to ask him to hit-and-run. If he grounded out while advancing the runner, well, no big deal. There were better hitters to follow.

The label of Loretta as a contact hitter stuck. "If anything, that hindered me early in my career," he said last week. "It typecast me ... as someone who just put the ball in play. The last two or three years, I've really tried to expand that."

He has, in a big way. Loretta racked up 65 extra-base hits in 2004 -- 47 doubles, two triples and 16 home runs -- and batted .335. He drove in 76 runs, scored 108 runs, both career-highs. But along with the increased run production, Loretta has maintained his reputation as an expert at the hit-and-run play: As the pitcher begins his delivery, the runners break, the infielders move to cover bases -- and the batter rips the ball through the holes created by the runner's movement.

"He just killed us with that," said one National League executive. "Seemed like every time you were looking up, he was hitting the ball to right field, moving the runners. Just killed us."

Said an NL scout: "Nobody executes that as good as he does."

The vast majority of major leaguers were raised as pull hitters: they were stars in Little League and high school and college and became conditioned to turn into pitches and pull them for maximum extra-base value. Many learn, through professional experience, how to hit the ball to the opposite field, a difficult transition; some never learn.

Posted by Orrin Judd at January 17, 2005 9:11 PM

In America today, most Little League and high school baseball games are ineptathons. This is why black American ballplayers have started to disappear relative to their numbers in the 70's; they do not have access to travel baseball, which is expensive and parent-intensive.

Posted by: Palmcroft at January 18, 2005 9:29 AM