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An Ethier-eal existence?

Dodgers rookie takes National League by storm

Posted: Thursday August 17, 2006 11:42AM; Updated: Thursday August 17, 2006 1:54PM
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Andre Ethier has batted at least .300 during each of his four months in the big leagues.
Andre Ethier has batted at least .300 during each of his four months in the big leagues.
Rookie Ranks
Where Andre Ethier's statistics rank among NL rookies (through Aug. 16)
Statistic No. Rank
Batting average .338 1st
On-base percentage .383 1st
Slugging percentage .545 1st
Home runs 11 T6th
RBIs 48 T7th
Triples 5 T2nd
Outfield assists 7 1st

LOS ANGELES -- How does a guy post better numbers in the major leagues than he did in the minors? How does a guy acquired in a giveaway trade end up carrying the offense of a postseason contender?

The guy in question is left fielder Andre Ethier, and he's one of the nicest mysteries a team could have right now.

Acquired last winter when the Los Angeles Dodgers decided to make Milton Bradley someone else's problem, and called up on May 2 only when the Dodgers couldn't seem to keep anybody healthy, Ethier has become not only a leading candidate for Rookie of the Year but also, arguably, the team's top offensive player.

In 321 plate appearances, Ethier, 24, has an on-base percentage of .383 and a slugging percentage of .545. Among players with 300 plate appearances, his .928 on-base plus slugging percentage (OPS) is 13th in the NL, leads the Dodgers (including the more renowned Nomar Garciaparra) and outdistances all other rookies in the league by nearly 100 points.

"He's been outstanding since the day he came through the door," Dodgers manager Grady Little said.

There's no mystery about what Ethier's strengths are. People have been admiring his swing and work habits since the Oakland A's drafted him out of Arizona State. Teammate Olmedo Saenz, the best bat off the Dodgers' bench, said that Ethier has "great coverage of home plate."

What's confounding is how Ethier went from an .882 OPS for Midland in the AA Texas League last year to an even higher OPS two levels above.

"You always try to better yourself and keep progressing," he said. "You hope that you don't peak at your talent level." Sure, you try, you hope. But still: tougher competition, better stats. You do the math, and the math comes out wrong.

While Ethier can't solve for X, he can provide more of the why. For one thing, though everyone talks about the grind of a major league schedule, in some ways it's a picnic compared with the minors. Ethier said that his shortest bus ride in the Texas League was six hours and that he got fewer days off then.

"Teams really got to know me," Ethier added. "There are only eight teams in that league, eight teams for 140 games."

In his nascent MLB career, Ethier has batted against 18 teams, racking up no more than 40 plate appearances against any of them. He broke in as a reserve, got a little more playing time on a platoon basis and only became an every-day starter just before another Dodgers phenom, Matt Kemp, returned to the minors last month.

"I don't know how I would have reacted if they had thrown me in there every day [from the start]," Ethier said.

Ethier batted .324 in May, .344 in June, .362 in July and .375 through the first 12 days of August, his season average rising to .350 and putting him in position for a remarkable achievement. According to baseball researcher Mike Carminati, only eight rookies have batted .350 or better since 1901, and only one (Ichiro Suzuki in 2001) since 1930.