- TOP PLAYERSOffensePABLO S. TORRE | August 20, 2012
- TAMPA BAY buccaneersENEMY lines WHAT A RIVAL COACH SAYSJune 28, 2012
- Faces in the CrowdJune 11, 2001
Pal Kelly goes through life like a chronic case of mistaken identity. It is bad enough that people think he is a merry-eyed, bulb-nosed Irish comedian. Worse, last week he got a letter from the owner of the Cleveland Browns that he just knew was meant for his running back brother Leroy. The only evidence he has that the rest of the world is not marching to the drum of some distant tribal lunacy is in the baseball statistics. At week's end Pat Kelly of the Chicago White Sox—dancer, dude, outpatient and all-round blithe spirit—was leading both major leagues in batting with an average of .441.
There is some suspicion that Kelly is symptomatic of a vernal event—one that will melt under the summer sun—and, more important, of the White Sox themselves. They lead the American League in win percentage, in batting and in apostasy. For generations it has been dogma that the Sox, burdened with a ball park only slightly smaller than West Texas, relied on pitching and defense for their success, however slight, and finished regularly, not to say triumphantly, near the bottom of the league in batting. The Hit-less Wonders was not just the name of a common plague in Chicago but the identity of a way of life.
"We decided to go get the hitters," says Manager Chuck Tanner about the turnaround of the White Sox. "We didn't worry about the size of the bail park; we wanted to fill it with men who could hit well." The hitters they got were either celebrated ( Dick Allen) or anticipated (farm products Bill Melton and Carlos May). Pat Kelly came along as a surprise. Until recently he was known—to the extent he was known at all—as Leroy's brother, as baseball's most distinguished fashion plate (he was named to Kansas City's best-dressed list while he was with the Royals) and as a fast man on his feet. On the one hand he has mastered the Jerk, the Skate and the Funky Broadway; on the other, he stole 32 bases in 41 attempts last year.
"Discriminating. Whenever I'm hitting well, I'm being much more discriminating," Kelly was saying. He had put aside the velour Super Fly hat, the cuffed red velvet pants, the pink and burgundy tank top and the red wet-look shirt ("like in scuba diving"), and now was dressed extensively, if not elegantly, in Ben-Gay. For a week or so he had successfully concealed from the rest of the league that the tendinitis in his left shoulder hurt so much he could not make a throw from his shoulder to his shoetops. "When he caught a fly ball, Jorge Orta [the White Sox second baseman] would run out until they were five feet apart and Pat'd just wrist-flick the ball to him," said Tanner. But the pain didn't strike when Kelly swung, and so, fortified with cortisone and by visits to the team doctor, he sent his batting average soaring. "I've become much more selective about pitches in my swing zone," he said, "and I'm seeing the ball good. When you're hitting, it's as big as a balloon."
This revelation may have all the public impact of falling hair, but it does offer some insight into the phenomena of Kelly and the White Sox. For one thing, Kelly has—for all his inclination to disguise it with the engaging boulevardier's esprit—a rather acute intelligence. While most batters talk about their strike zone, Kelly talks about the reality, that slightly larger target which is the real zone of combat between hitter and pitcher, the swing zone. This is the area outside the strike zone where a pitcher can tuck a poor-to-bad pitch in the conviction that the batter may well swing at it—usually ineffectually. The idea is to keep the ball within tempting reach—within the area where the batter likes to swing at a pitch but too far out of the strike zone for him to hit it well. The percentages are that the worst that can befall the pitcher is a called ball.
The strike zone, on the other hand, is a high-risk area where the batter can get good wood on the ball, and the worst that can befall a pitcher is instant disaster. Some batters have by nature, or force of circumstance, a very large swing zone. Dick Allen, for example, had to swing at many pitches far outside the strike zone in the late innings of most games last year because—given the lamentable state of White Sox power after Melton was sidelined with a back injury—a walk would not help the team. If Allen did not, get a big blow for the Sox, nobody else would. If he were content with a walk to first, there to languish until dead, the pitchers were content to let him. This year things have changed. Four of the first five batters in the White Sox lineup are batting over .300 and Melton, hitting fourth behind Allen, leads the club in RBIs. Freed from the imperative of free swinging, everybody on the team is working toward the ideal: to make the swing zone as close to identical with the strike zone as possible, and thus put intense pressure on the pitchers.
To dale, Kelly has most closely approached perfection; he is hitting almost 200 points over his career average. Once he was tempted to be a home-run hitter. "That's the year I had a hundred strikeouts," he says. He is 28 now, only two years younger than Leroy, and at 6'1", 185 pounds he has the look of sleek power. But he knows he has to quell that self-immolating instinct and to concentrate on whittling down his swing zone.
"I felt that with my speed [he has been timed at 3.8 seconds going from home to first] I'd have a 50-50 chance of getting on base if I just made contact with the ball," he says. So he stood a bit farther from the plate, the better to see the ball, and refrained from swinging at pitches on the far outside edge of his swing zone. The result is not only more hits but more walks. By last week he was reaching base 55% of the time.
Once there, Kelly is not only a continuing threat but an elegant subtlety in the strategies of Manager Tanner. Some ploys are obvious. Kelly was very aggressive about advancing by stealing last year because, with the White Sox batting concentrated in Allen, he was not likely to advance any other way. Some ploys are not. For example, Tanner has an inclination to open with a flourish in the second game of a doubleheader, particularly when the White Sox have won the first game. "It gets the adrenalin flowing in your own men and it gets the other team down right from the start," he says. "They start thinking, 'Well, it's starting all over again. What chance have we got?' " The responsibility for such a flourish tends to fall frequently on Kelly because he is the leadoff batter. After the Sox whipped the Texas Rangers 10-1 in the first game of a doubleheader while the pennant race was tightening last August, Kelly opened the second game by getting a walk, stealing second, going to third on an infield out and then stealing home. Thus he gave the White Sox a first-inning 1-0 lead without troubling them for a hit. The Rangers dropped the game 7-1 and the White Sox romped a few steps further in their brief, dramatic stay at the top of the American League's West Division.
This year Tanner's tactics, and Kelly's, are less larcenous. Kelly has stolen only one base all season. "I'm just getting on and waiting for something to happen," he says. The wait is never long: the three men behind him in the batting order—May, Allen and Melton—have 87 hits, a .311 batting average and 55 RBIs. Says Allen: "I know that if Pat gets on base, Carlos will move him along, and that I don't have to mash the ball to score him. If I just keep the ball in play, I know he'll score." The result: Allen is still hitting with power—17 of his first 29 hits were for extra bases, but only five were homers. Kelly has been scoring nearly a run a game, and driving in a run or two, also. Last Thursday it was his nth-inning single that beat the Angels 4-3.