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Beware THE BATS
Daniel G. Habib
September 01, 2003
Powered by Javy Lopez, who's having a record-setting season for a catcher, Atlanta is winning not with pitching but with hitting
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September 01, 2003

Beware The Bats

Powered by Javy Lopez, who's having a record-setting season for a catcher, Atlanta is winning not with pitching but with hitting

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Javy Lopez is on pace for two records: the single-season home run mark for catchers (he has hit all but one of his 34 homers while playing behind the plate) and the record for home runs by a player who fell short of qualifying for a batting title (the minimum is 3.1 plate appearances per game—502 in a full season). Lopez's .326 average at week's end would rank sixth in the NL, but his 398 plate appearances fell five short of qualifying.

MOST HOME RUNS BY A CATCHER

PLAYER, TEAM

SEASON

HRs

Javy Lopez, Braves

2003

41*

Todd Hundley, Mets

1996

41

Mike Piazza, Mets

1999

40

Mike Piazza, Dodgers

1997

40

Roy Campanella, Dodgers

1953

40

MOST HOME RUNS BY NONQUALIFIERS FOR THE BATTING TITLE

PLAYER, TEAM

SEASON

PA

HRs

Javy Lopez, Braves

2003

494*

42*

Hank Aaron, Braves

1973

465

40

Bob Horner, Braves

1980

495

35

Rudy York, Tigers

1937

417

35

Barry Bonds, Giants

1999

434

34

*Projected/Compiled by David Sabino and the Elias Sports Bureau

Javy Lopez is eager to set the record straight. A visitor to the Atlanta Braves' clubhouse at Pac Bell Park has just recounted to Lopez a story told by his teammate Andruw Jones about an afternoon the two spent, two or three years ago, flying one of Lopez's radio-controlled model airplanes. According to Jones, an aerial maneuver went awry, and the plane entered a tailspin and crashed into a wall of trees, forcing the pair to scour the woods for the fallen aircraft. Lopez, an avid flyer, and a proud one, shakes his head. "No, no. What happened was, the battery fell out, and once it comes out, you've got no control over the plane," he says. "So it started spinning and hit the ground, near some trees. It's not like I crashed it in the woods." � This pilot knows the difference between a nasty fall and a true crash and burn. After two seasons of decline, the 32-year-old Lopez is savoring a career year and has become the unlikely engine of Atlanta's big old jet airliner, the most powerful offense in the National League. Through Sunday the Braves had blitzed to the best record in baseball (84-46) and a 13�-game lead in the NL East. They've done it not, as has been their signature since the early 1990s, with otherworldly starting pitching (theirs has been average this year), but with their bats. The sight of Atlanta's potent offense—tied for first in the majors in home runs (197) and second in runs per game (5.7) and slugging percentage (.479)—covering for a scuffling starting staff produces a striking frisson of unfamiliarity.

With a 3-4-5 so formidable that Lopez hits seventh in the batting order (outfielders Gary Sheffield, Chipper Jones and Andruw Jones have combined for 86 homers and a .935 OPS), the Braves have reimagined themselves as bruisers. Atlanta has a shot at the NL single-season team home run record (249, by the 2000 Houston Astros). And with Lopez (34 homers at week's end), Sheffield (33), Andruw Jones (31), Chipper Jones (22) and Vinny Castilla (21), the Braves could finish with a major-league-record five 30-homer hitters.

At week's end Lopez had homered once every 11.71 plate appearances, more frequently than any player besides the San Francisco Giants' limitless Barry Bonds (11.67), and he was on pace to tie the single-season record for home runs by a catcher (41, by Todd Hundley), even though he had only 398 plate appearances, five short of the minimum to qualify for the batting tide (chart, right). He also led major league catchers in batting average (.326), slugging percentage (.668), extra-base hits (54) and RBIs (85). "Javy's been absolutely awesome," says Atlanta manager Bobby Cox. "We knew he'd hit better than last year, but nobody could envision this. It's gotten to the point where he pops up and you almost get pissed off because you're expecting another home run."

Lopez's resurgence not only follows the worst season of his nine-year career (.233, 11 homers), but also arrives at an age that typically transforms power-hitting catchers into 98-pound weaklings. Because the physical demands of catching—the accumulated fatigue on top of everyday bumps, bruises and busted thumbs—are often responsible for that decline, his revival is evidence that Lopez is in the best shape of his life. During an off-season split between homes in Atlanta's Buckhead district and his native Ponce, Puerto Rico, he dieted meticulously and added a speed-training regimen to his workout program, dropping 35 pounds from his 6'3" frame and reporting to spring training at 210, his current playing weight. "I decided to do something different with my life, my body," he says.

At 245 pounds Lopez had grown sluggish as each season wore on and innings behind the plate mounted; his career batting average of .255 in August was his worst in any month. A decade of lavish postgame spreads had accustomed Lopez to heavy late-night meals, so he began his new regimen by cutting back on carbohydrates in the evenings and instead snacked on low-fat popcorn and, in Jared-like fashion, turkey sandwiches from Subway. Working with trainers in both Atlanta and Ponce, Lopez did cardiovascular work three afternoons a week, short runs and sprints, high-jumped through a maze of bungee cords and pulled tires, all with the aim of shedding weight.

Still, Lopez did not immediately display his career-year form. He struggled early, batting .227 with four homers over his first 24 games, and missed five days with a strained left hamstring in late April. Always susceptible to becoming pull-conscious, Lopez was jumping at pitches and letting his head and lead shoulder fly open as he swung. "Even before the ball was to the catcher, my shoulder was open," he says, "which made every pitch I saw almost unhittable."

Even a splashy two-homer, six-RBI performance in front of his father, Jacinto, and a partisan hometown crowd in a 14-8 win against the Montreal Expos in San Juan on April 17 proved only a momentary blip. While mulling over remedies in mid-May, Lopez thought of Matt Williams, the former Giants, Cleveland Indians and Arizona Diamondbacks slugger who retired in June. A righthanded power hitter with a similar build, Williams had a habit of touching the point of his chin to his left shoulder in his stance; Lopez began doing the same thing. To encourage patience at the plate, Lopez began positioning his hands back in his stance, parallel to his right ear when he expected fastballs and farther back, behind the ear, when he was sitting on breaking balls. He immediately found himself with more time to be selective. Says Braves hitting coach Terry Pendleton, "The biggest thing is, he started swinging at strikes. When he wasn't hitting last year, he was chasing bad pitches."

Lopez also began reducing his live batting practice—initially to conserve energy on sweltering Hotlanta afternoons—and soon found that less BP meant better swings in games. "BP would screw up my swing," he says. "There are a lot of people watching BP, and you want to make things fun, right? Are you going to work on your swing, hit balls the opposite way? No, you want to hit the ball over the fence. Then you come into the game trying to jack the ball out of the park on every swing." Now Lopez usually hits only before the first game of each series and does soft-toss drills indoors with third base coach Fredi Gonzalez on other days.

The result has been the most prolific power stretch by a catcher in recent memory. Since his April 17 fireworks in San Juan, Lopez had 33 home runs in 349 trips to the plate, one every 10.6 plate appearances, including a major-league-high eight multihomer games. "It's been bombs away, and I mean bombs away," says Atlanta first baseman Robert Fick. "He's got what, 34? At least 30 of them have been no doubt, right off the bat. I've never seen anything like it. You've got to compare it to a Bonds or Sosa or McGwire." Although his aggregate numbers don't rival those three (as a catcher, he misses substantially more games), Lopez's success ratio does. In '01, when Bonds hit 73 homers, he went deep once every 9.1 plate appearances; in '98, when McGwire hit 70, he did so once every 9.7 and Sosa (66 homers) once every 10.9.

Things are going so swimmingly that Lopez, not normally the superstitious type, has, like Sheffield, taken to wearing the same undershirt every day: Though Lopez claims the '70s and '80s power-ballad band Boston as his favorite, he now sports a black Aerosmith muscle shirt, a gift from a flight attendant on a team charter earlier this season. When informed that the band once co-owned a Boston nightclub, Mama Kin, in the shadow of the Green Monster, Lopez muses for a moment. "Next year we play there. I might check it out," he says, then reconsiders. "Next year, I don't know if I'll still be with this team."

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