Proving 'extra' special
Shane Victorino will look to build on his best season in the majors.
Two years ago, batting in the middle of the Phillies lineup would have enticed Shane Victorino to defy his baseball existence. Victorino is not a power-hitter in the traditional sense, and when he established a career high with 18 home runs in 2010, it came with a .259 batting average.
"That's not me," Victorino said. "I'm not a .259 hitter." So he went about proving he could hit for a high average and still drive the ball for extra bases. And he did just that.
Victorino enters a contract year after his finest season in the majors, one that signaled the evolution of his game. He struck out less, walked more, and hit a higher percentage of extra-base hits than Ryan Howard or Chase Utley.
In fact, only 13 qualified National League hitters had a higher rate of plate appearances that resulted in an extra-base hit than Victorino's 10.2 percent. Combine that with a lucrative deal staring him down and there is plenty of reason to believe Victorino is better suited for the heart of manager Charlie Manuel's lineup than ever.
"Obviously, I know it's a big year," Victorino said. "This is what it's all about. This is what you play for as a professional athlete, your free-agent year, when the whole game of baseball can take a chance on you. Yeah, that sits in the back of my head. But ultimately it's about winning. If we win another World Series, that takes care of itself."
Generally, the three-spot has belonged to Utley. While Utley missed the first 46 games of 2011, Manuel used Jimmy Rollins and Placido Polanco there. But those two will likely man the top of Manuel's order.
Victorino has never batted cleanup, and he started seven career games from the three-hole - six in 2011. But injuries and a lack of a better option could push Victorino there. For much of the spring, Victorino batted third with Rollins hitting there most recently.
If it weren't for a dismal final month of 2011, Victorino would have likely finished in the top 10 of National League MVP voting. He placed 13th even after enduring a .186 batting average and .577 OPS in 125 September plate appearances. It was the difference between hitting .300 (Victorino ended August with a .305 average) and his eventual clip of .279.
Still, that is a marked improvement over 2010, especially when put in context. Victorino's hits meant more in 2011.
He hit one fewer home run in 2011 than 2010 but finished with a slugging percentage 62 points higher. That .491 slugging percentage was a career best. Victorino tied for the major-league lead with 16 triples, a feat he's bent on repeating in 2012 and has admitted so as part of a marketing campaign for Major League Baseball.
The one factor that could prevent Victorino from hitting third is his speed. Victorino attempted only 22 steals in 2011, his fewest by far for a full season in the majors. Manuel has admitted he may need to take more chances on the bases with his entire team to facilitate scoring with a lack of power.
During the trying 2010 season, Manuel questioned Victorino's motivation. The Hawaiian had just signed his first multiyear contract, and labels such as "complacent" and "comfortable" were tossed around.
There should be no such implications in 2012, when plenty is at stake for the 31-year-old outfielder's future.
"Do I have intentions of doing special things this year? Why wouldn't I?" Victorino said recently. "And I'm not just saying that because I'm a free agent.
Contact Matt Gelb at email@example.com or follow @magelb on Twitter.