They used to say Rod Carew had a different stance for every pitcher. That wasn't really true, but he did have different stances. Sometimes he'd crowd the plate, daring pitchers to come inside. Sometimes he'd crouch down lower, especially against power pitchers, shrinking the size of the strike zone. He could hit in all of them, winning seven batting titles, including a .388 mark in 1977, and hitting .300 every season from 1969 to 1983.
Carew, 71, underwent heart and kidney transplant surgery Thursday, after living with a left ventricular device that has pumped his heart since September 2015, when he suffered a heart attack and went into cardiac arrest while undergoing surgery to open clogged arteries. Our thoughts are with him.
If you're too young to remember Carew, he was beautiful to watch, the ultimate finesse player, owning the batter's box like he was conducting the orchestra. The best active comparison would be Ichiro Suzuki, although Carew walked a lot more and was a much better hitter compared to the league averages over their careers; Ichiro's best single-season OPS+ was 130 in 2004; Carew's career mark was 131. That's how good he was at manipulating the baseball: Better over 19 seasons than Ichiro at his peak.
Fred Lynn explained one reason for Carew's success was his ability to bunt. "First, he bunts better than anyone else, even with two strikes," Lynn told Thomas Boswell in 1983. "That distorts the whole infield and creates wider angles for him to hit the ball through. It's like he's always hitting with the infield pulled in. His bunting creates holes."
Carew once said that he'd laugh when he saw an infielder moving two steps to his left. That meant he'd just hit the ball two steps to the infielder's right. "He can wait until the last instant to commit his wristy, inside-out swing," Boswell wrote. "He's snake-quick, because he uses little body movement and relies on reflexes, not muscle."
It's the kind of swing we rarely see anymore. Today it's all about lifting the ball and driving the ball into the gaps. It's all about power. In 2016, about a quarter of all balls in play are hit to the opposite field. Among players with at least 250 plate appearances, Travis Jankowski had the highest percentage of opposite-field batted balls at 40.8 percent. But second was National League batting champ DJ LeMahieu at 39.5 percent. Adam Eaton was third on the list and first when focusing just on ground balls, with 27.9 of his grounders hit the opposite way. We don't have the data from Carew's career, but I'll speculate he hit more than 28 percent of his grounders the opposite way.
Could he succeed with that style in today's game? The argument against that is it's more difficult to control your swing -- and the baseball -- when the average fastball is 92 mph instead of 86. Carew didn't have to face too many pitchers throwing in the upper 90s. There are indicators, however, that he would have been just as successful.
Look at his record against the four pitchers he faced most in his career, three Hall of Famers and one borderline candidate:
Jim Palmer (118 PAs): .352/.402/.429, 10 walks, five strikeouts, zero home runs
Luis Tiant (113 PAs): .359/.411/.553, nine walks, eight strikeouts, three home runs
Catfish Hunter (111 PAs): .347/.391/.624, eight walks, 10 strikeouts, seven home runs
Nolan Ryan (109 PAs): .301/.398/.441, 15 walks, 29 strikeouts, two home runs
Hunter didn't throw as hard as the other three, but Carew hit them and owned Hunter. He hit .316 off Gaylord Perry. Mike Cuellar and Mickey Lolich were two of the best lefties in the early '70s, and he hit .348 and .329, respectively, off them. Vida Blue was another top lefty, threw very hard when he came up; Carew hit .352 off him. He faced Dennis Eckersley a lot in the late '70s and early '80s, when Eckersley threw hard; Carew hit .321 off Eck.
Carew was enormously popular while active. In part, that was because the focus was on batting average much more than today. He played in the All-Star Game in the first 18 of his 19 seasons and started 15 of them. Even late in his career, when he was singles-hitting first baseman (he played second base his first nine seasons), fans were voting for him over Eddie Murray or Cecil Cooper to start the Midsummer Classic.
The Boswell article mentions how Carew was sensitive about criticism directed his way, that he never dove for ground balls, that he'd sit out due to nagging injuries or against tough lefties, that he didn't hit enough home runs. Apparently the fans ignored the criticism or didn't care. Maybe they simply appreciated the swing.
It would be interesting to see, if Carew did come up now, if he'd tailor his swing to today's game and hit more home runs. It does seem we've swung too far in the direction of power at the expense of putting more balls in play. Steven Souza struck out 159 times in 120 games and hit just 17 home runs in 2016. Jankowski, the opposite-field hitter mentioned above? He fanned 100 times in just 383 plate appearances while hitting two home runs.
Of course, I guess that's the point: They can't all be Rod Carew.