Batting out of Order
The Orioles' Melvin Mora heads a list of improbable hitters on the topsy-turvy American League leader board
Tacked to a bulletin board in the Orioles' clubhouse at Camden Yards, next to the daily posting of the lineup, is a cartoon torn from a local newspaper of outfielder Melvin Mora, the American League's unlikely batting leader. BASEBALL'S LATEST STAR, it reads. Drawn small under Mora's beaming mug is a person looking through a telescope and wondering aloud, A "SHOOTING" STAR OR "RISING" STAR?
The question applies not only to Mora but also to his equally unheralded companions atop the AL leader board. Of the league's top 10 hitters through Sunday, only Seattle's Ichiro Suzuki and Boston's Nomar Garciaparra had made an All-Star team; Mora and Bill Mueller of the Red Sox, the No. 2 hitter in the league, don't even appear on this year's ballot. Only Ichiro and Frank Catalanotto of the Blue Jays had ever hit .300 in a full season.
The 32-year-old Mueller, who spent his first seven seasons in the National League, had a .286 career average when he signed as a free agent with Boston in the off-season; his hot bat enabled the Red Sox to trade third baseman Shea Hillenbrand to the Diamondbacks for righthander Byung-Hyun Kim on May 29. Rangers third baseman Hank Blalock, the AL's No. 3 hitter, hit .211 in 49 games as a rookie last year. But the biggest surprise has been Mora, who topped the AL with a .360 average and ranked second to Toronto's Carlos Delgado in on-base percentage plus slugging percentage (OPS, 1.050).
In his four-plus seasons in the majors with the Mets and the Orioles, the 31-year-old Mora has largely served as a utilityman. But after playing second base, shortstop and all three outfield spots earlier in the year, Mora has found a home in the outfield, where he has played mostly in left for the last month and hasn't made an error. "He's blessed with tremendous athletic ability to be able to play all those different positions," says Orioles manager Mike Hargrove. "But he's cursed because his value as a utility player has increased, and before now that had taken away every-day at bats."
During a difficult 2002—his brother was murdered in his native Venezuela in April, and his brother-in-law was killed in a car accident in July—Mora hit just .195 in the second half of the season to finish at .233. After injuries sidelined leftfielders Marty Cordova, B.J. Surhoff and Larry Bigbie this year, Mora became a regular. Now the Orioles are juggling the lineup around him. "I'm much more relaxed out there every day in the same spot," says Mora. "People don't realize how exhausting it is to keep changing positions."
In being able to focus on one position, the 5'11", 198-pound Mora has been working out harder than ever in the weight room to strengthen his legs, something he's avoided doing in the past. "I don't have to worry about being as flexible and moving side-to-side playing in the outfield," he says. "With a stronger lower body I'm not jumping into balls as much at the plate."
Another key for Mora in his bid to sustain his blistering start will be maintaining his newfound discipline at the plate. Orioles coaches thought that Mora was swinging for the fences last season when he had a career-high 19 home runs. This season, though he is third on the team with 10 homers, Mora is seeing 4.15 pitches per plate appearance, up from 3.95 last year, and is hitting 50% more ground balls as a result of a shorter swing. "In the past three weeks I've seen him swing at one bad pitch up," Hargrove said last Saturday. "Last year he swung at a lot of those. That's made all the difference."
As for Mora, he's just happy to be playing every day. "I don't want to be considered a utility guy anymore," he says. "I'm an outfielder now."
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