Raul Ibanez was a searcher in his first few weeks with the Yankees. He searched for his swing, searched for his timing and searched for a groove, that blissful place where hitters always want to live. Ibanez also searched for some hits. In his first 37 at-bats in Spring Training he managed two hits.
So, on a warm night in Fort Myers, Fla., last March, I asked Kevin Long, the Yankees’ hitting coach, if he was concerned about Ibanez’s awful start. At the time, Ibanez was batting .059. I realized those were only spring statistics, which can be meaningless. But .059 was an ugly number for a hitter.
“I know Raul is going to hit for us,” Long said.
Long explained how he wasn’t bothered by Ibanez’s unsightly average because he saw some other encouraging signs. The coach watched Ibanez’s routine in the batting cage and saw a hitter who was prepared. He watched how Ibanez worked at-bats and saw a hitter who was intelligent. He watched the way the ball jumped off Ibanez’s bat, even as Ibanez struggled for hits, and saw a hitter who still had power.
Almost four months after Long expressed supreme confidence in a .059 hitter, I watched Ibanez hammer a grand slam off Jason Frasor to catapult the Yankees past the Blue Jays, 6-3, on Monday night. After Ibanez’s smart and patient at bat, I recalled my conversation with Long. Even as Ibanez sputtered in the spring, Long had seen signs that Ibanez could and would be productive. Long was right.
Ibanez is 40 years old and in his 17th season in the Major Leagues. As I have studied Ibanez’s at-bats this season, I am convinced that he is savvier than most of the pitchers he faces. With the score tied, 2-2, the bases loaded and two outs in the eighth inning, Ibanez knew that Frasor would surely have to throw him fastballs. Frasor throws fastballs 76 percent of the time, according to Fangraphs.com, and he didn’t want to walk in the go-ahead run.
Not only did Ibanez look for a fastball, he looked for the right fastball. Ibanez didn’t swing at three of the first four pitches, patiently waiting for Frasor to put a pitch in an attractive spot. Once the count moved to 3-1, Ibanez was in a superb position. Frasor had to throw a strike and almost definitely had to throw a fastball. When Frasor threw an inside fastball, Ibanez crushed it. It was a familiar sight to the Yankees. In at-bats after the count reaches 3-1, Ibanez is batting .421 this season.
Of Ibanez’s 12 homers, eight have come in the sixth inning or later and five have given the Yankees a lead. Ibanez has 56 hits, but he has also driven in 40 runs. Although Ibanez’s .242 batting average is modest, he has a .463 slugging percentage.
On the same day the Yankees revealed that left fielder Brett Gardner felt more soreness in his injured right elbow, Ibanez started his 41st game in left and was the main reason the Yankees defeated the Jays. When the Yankees signed Ibanez for $1.1 million last February, the plan was for him to mostly be a designated hitter and to occasionally play the outfield. But Gardner’s injury has forced Ibanez and Andruw Jones to start more games in the outfield.
Since Gardner had another setback, there is no certainty that he will return this season. As the Yankees wait for doctors to evaluate Gardner again, they are relieved that they have Ibanez. He can’t play defense or run like Gardner, but Ibanez can hit and can help. Long could see that, could see it back when Ibanez was an .059 hitter.
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