As a Stanford history major in 1999, Jody Gerut produced a 20-page senior paper that examined the intricacies of patent law in the Soviet Union. As bright a ballplayer as he was an academic, Gerut determined three years later that his career would stagnate in the minor leagues unless he reinvented himself as a power hitter. "It was what I believed I needed to do to turn heads," says Gerut, who popped 22 home runs and had a .494 slugging percentage in 480 at bats as a rookie last season. "I had been satisfied with my seasons up to that point [.291 career batting average and a season-best 11 homers in three minor league seasons through 2002], but they weren't getting me anywhere. I came to the point of saying, 'O.K., you want home runs? Here are home runs.' "
In the Indian's stripped-down lineup-five regulars began last season with less than 50 games each of big-league experience—Gerut emerged as the big bopper, testament to both the success of his metamorphosis and the shortage of power around him. Avoiding the division cellar thanks to hapless Detroit, the Indians lost 94 games and finished 13th in the AL in runs per game (4.31), slugging percentage (.401) and total bases.
Gerut, however, was a smash, leading the club in home runs and extra-base hits and finishing fourth in AL Rookie of the Year voting. "We don't have a prototypical third or fourth hitter, and as a corner out-fielder, you have to be a run producer," says general manager Mark Shapiro. "Jody's smart enough to realize it's all trade-offs-trade off some on-base for some power, and drive the ball a little bit. He's never going to be a pure 50-home-run hitter, but he's the whole package: makeup, character, work ethic, good defense."
A second-round draft pick in 1998, Gerut played to Stanford type: He was defensively sound, hit selectively and for average, struck out infrequently and delivered the occasional blast as a bonus. He enjoyed his best minor league season in 2002, batting .322 after a midseason promotion to Triple A Buffalo, but homered only once in 55 games. Postseason conversations with Shapiro and Indians brass left him convinced that he needed to beef up his output. "It was difficult," he says, "because I liked the player I was."
Gerut returned to his off-season home in Arizona and began working out with Jay Schroeder—"He's like the Rocky trainer, in a little room at Gold's Gym," Gerut says—whose unconventional techniques focus on force absorption and include, for example, a bench-press drill in which you let go of the weight at the top of the press, then drop your hands fast enough to catch it.
While Schroeder helped him add muscle mass, Gerut helped himself by studying videotapes of the game's best power hitters, such as Barry Bonds, Alex Rodriguez, Albert Pujols and Eric Chavez. The common denominator that he detected? "They were making educated guesses, because they looked bad almost as much as they looked good," Gerut says. "Even Barry, who's the greatest in the game at being patient and having strike-zone command, looks dumb sometimes. You can tell they have an idea of a pitch they want; they go with it, and they live with it if they're wrong."
Although his walk-to-strikeout ratio inverted as he whiffed more than ever, Gerut became the long-ball threat that Cleveland's lineup craved. The problem is, any help in that department is still categorized as potential. Catcher Victor Martinez, who hit 22 homers at Double A Akron in 2002; designated hitter Travis Hafner (14 in 291 at bats with the Indians); and raw, athletic centerfield prospect Grady Sizemore, who'll begin the season at Buffalo, may provide middle-of-the-order juice down the road. "One third of this season's goal is to be more competitive," Shapiro says. "Two thirds is to evaluate and develop."
While the rebuilding program proceeds, Gerut is content in his role as the Indians' only confirmed masher. Articulate and witty—in a team biography, he listed the Roman Coliseum as his favorite road stadium—he chronicled his rookie season in a blog on cleveland.com, recounting the time autograph hounds stalked him into a New York City subway station, opining on Hideki Matsui's rookie eligibility and musing on the possibility of a sophomore jinx. It's good reading, and Gerut's blossoming into a power hitter made for good viewing. It'll be another year, at least, before the same is true of the Indians.
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