Even as he cruises along with high-profile stats—through Sunday he led the majors with a .377 batting average—Cincinnati first baseman Sean Casey remains low-key. He sports sweatshirts and baggy jeans, wears his floppy brown bangs over his eyes and last week, while the Reds visited the Marlins, shuttled between Pro Player Stadium and his Jupiter, Fla., off-season home in a beat-up '95 Honda Accord. "My wife's like, 'Are you ever going to get rid of that thing?' " Casey says. "I'm like, No. The kids will be driving that thing. It still drives great."
Because of his humility, his graciousness and, most important, his .300 lifetime average entering the season, Casey's most glaring flaw has long gone overlooked: For a corner infielder he is an inadequate power hitter. In 2002, when he missed 42 games because of a torn labrum, rotator cuff and teres minor muscle in his left shoulder, Casey hit only six homers (one every 70.8 at bats) and had a .362 slugging percentage. He underwent arthroscopic surgery that September and reported to spring training healthy, but his power numbers in '03 remained well below average: 14 homers (one every 40.9 at bats) and a .408 slugging mark, 15th and 10th, respectively, among regular NL first basemen. "I didn't have any pain," he says, "but I also didn't have a lot of strength behind my swings."
That has changed dramatically. Last winter Casey returned to the weightlifting regimen he'd abandoned after his surgery; as a result he feels stronger and is on the best sustained power run of his career: 10 home runs at week's end (one every 21.5 at bats) and a .619 slugging percentage. Typically, though, he's not getting carried away. "I don't see myself as a power hitter," says Casey, 29. "I'm a gap-to-gap guy. I'm going to hit for average. If I consistently hit the ball hard, I'm going to hit my share of home runs, but I'm not going to be like Jim Thome or Jeff Bagwell, the big boppers."
Hitting for average has always been Casey's strength. As a junior at Richmond in 1995 he led the NCAA at .461, and given his propensity for making contact, he has the potential to win a major league batting title. Says manager Dave Miley, "It seems like every time he swings, he's got a chance of getting a hit."
Though he has two years and $14.6 million remaining on a contract extension he signed in 2002—a significant obligation for the cost-conscious Reds—Casey, like Ken Griffey Jr., is going nowhere, at least as long as Cincinnati continues to win. But for a change, he's providing some bang for those bucks.