CLEARWATER, Fla. - Shane Victorino read the question like a fly ball off the bat. His first response was a scowl. Then a raise of the eyebrows. Finally, he slipped into Flyin' Hawaiian mode, laughing and talking in run-on sentences as an annual conversation once again commenced.
"I say every year I'm going to bunt more," Victorino said. "I just have to do it."
In some ways, you feel bad for Victorino. The only person in the United States who answers more questions about bunting is the White House inauguration planner. Asking Victorino why he didn't lay a few more balls down the third-base line is like asking Sinatra why he didn't sing a few more songs in B minor. All he did last season, among players with at least 300 at-bats, was lead the Phillies in slugging percentage (.491), OPS (.847) and runs (95) while finishing second in batting average (.279), on-base percentage (.355) and steals (19). Factor in his 17 home runs, which ranked third on the team, and the least of Charlie Manuel's worries heading into 2012 is Victorino's reluctance to bunt his way on base.
Except when the Phillies' manager looks at Victorino, he sees someone who is just a few mental adjustments away from developing into a player who generates legitimate MVP buzz, a player who can hit .300 and reach base 38 percent of the time and still knock fastballs over the outfield wall. He sees a player who has the potential to carry a lineup all season.
"When he's hitting good, he's really a tremendous talent," Manuel said. "He stands out, is what he does."
Truth be told, Victorino spent most of last season as that player. On Aug. 24, he was hitting .314 with a .389 on-base percentage, .551 slugging percentage and 14 homers. Heading into the final month of the second-to-last season on his contract, Victorino looked as if he was going to get very, very expensive. But then he slipped into the kind of funk that he hoped he had immunized himself against. In his last 34 games, he hit just .179/.257/.321 with three homers in 134 at-bats. He rebounded in the playoffs, going 6-for-19 and tallying two of the Phillies' three hits in a Game 5 loss to the Cardinals in the NLDS.
This year, the goal is to take the next step, eliminating the isolated but lengthy slumps while becoming the type of hitter who is less a complement and more a centerpiece. Manuel is convinced that a few more bunts will go a long way toward helping. In 2008, Victorino's first season as an everyday player, the speedy centerfielder bunted for a hit nine times. But in the three seasons since, he has attempted to do so a total of nine times, none of which came last season.
"There's times where you are struggling, move a guy over instead of wasting that at-bat and rolling over [a pitch]," Victorino said. "Last year, it was a little tough because I was swinging the bat well, but then when I started swinging bad, why didn't I use that tool that I have? You look back and say, when I went from hitting .310 to hitting .280, why didn't I use some of those periods to drop down a bunt? Instead of wasting outs, why not put down a bunt? It's just the mentality of doing it."
In fairness, Victorino spent most of 2008 hitting second in the order, where reaching base is more likely to result in a run. He spent most of the last season hitting in the bottom half of the order, where a player is more likely to have weaker hitters behind him and slower runners on base in front of him. A switch-hitter, he also had considerable success hitting from the left side of the plate, where in previous seasons he had struggled.
Manuel doesn't want Victorino to pattern his game off Juan Pierre, the light-hitting speedster who is in camp on a minor league deal after a lengthy career that was built on wreaking havoc in the infield. But he does think it would behoove Victorino to incorporate some of Pierre's tactics into his own game. Bunting not only can help him reach base when he is struggling, but it can force fielders to make adjustments, potentially opening up holes in the defense for the times he does swing.
Such thinking is one reason Manuel and bench coach Pete Mackanin are making more consistent use of bunting practice this spring. The Phillies need the few speed options they have on their roster to reach base as much as possible. And with a bunting expert such as Pierre in camp, they think players such as Jimmy Rollins, Michael Martinez and Victorino can learn a few lessons.
Still, Manuel will trade every bunt in the world to see a player such as Victorino lay off a 2-0 curveball in favor of something better that might come along.
"I think he's very capable of hitting .300," the manager said. "It's just a matter of staying with him and making sure that he does get all of the information that he needs. Talk to him about his hitting a lot. As far as communicating with him, that's not hard at all. It's just up to him have a plan every day, every time he goes up there to bat. Know situations, understand exactly what you are trying to do, and when you get ahead in the count, don't chase bad breaking balls. He has to be slowed down where he can definitely concentrate."
With all the focus on the various question marks in the Phillies lineup this season, it is easy to forget the potential that exists in a player such as Victorino. We all know the ceiling. Now the question: Can he reach it?
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