Andre Ethier was named the National League Player of the Week for July 20-26 on Monday. On Tuesday, he extended a season-long nine-game hitting streak, in which he has raised his average from .248 to .271.
Unfortunately, the rest of the Los Angeles offense seems to have fallen asleep. The team has left 26 runners on base in the past three games (all losses), leading to the first three-game losing streak of the 2009 season.
Despite the team’s shortcomings, it was the second time Andre won the award this season with the first coming the week of April 13-19. He batted .391, just 9-for-23, with four home runs and 12 RBI in six games that week.
The award was the third of his career, as he first did it last year in the week ending Sept. 7, 2008.
Ethier hit .545 (12-for-22) in six games with two homers, five doubles and six RBI this past week and helped the Dodgers to a three-game sweep of the Reds. He also led the Majors in OBP (.630) and slugging percentage (1.045).
Throughout his career, Ethier has excelled in the month of July. From 2006-2009 he has batted .329 with 16 home runs and 56 RBI, making it his best month of the year for his career.
The next highest batting average for any month is a .305 mark in September.
The torrid hot streak he is on may be surprising to some but it epitomizes Ethier’s style of play. He gets incredibly hot for weeks at a time and then falls into bad slumps.
It becomes a roller coaster of emotions and is a mental challenge throughout the season; he had a season-high nine-game hit streak from June 1 to June 11 and hit .400 in that stretch, but went just 1-for-14 over the next four games following the streak.
Some of the reasons for his ups-and-down can easily be seen in his ’09 splits.
Andre’s struggles against left-handed pitching have been apparent this season and he has just a .194 average (20-for-103) with five homers and 12 RBI against southpaws.
Compare that to his stats against righties: 302 (78-for-258) with 15 home runs and 50 RBI.
I think one of the problems is that he just doesn’t track the ball well from lefties. He becomes what you could call a “50 feet” hitter—meaning he doesn’t recognize the spin of the ball until it’s 50 feet away from the plate. This slows down everything he does and it makes an average fastball seems harder than it actually is and also changes a hitter’s reaction time on breaking pitches.
It’s not a new problem by any means, but Andre has just seven walks against lefties but 37 against righties. Ethier needs to bear down and pick the ball up from the pitcher’s hand much sooner. One solution could be to back off the plate slightly to try and sneak a peak earlier in pitcher’s motion.
As a result Ethier of the decreased reaction time, he has a tendency to pull off the ball and not let it travel deep enough into the zone, which causes him to roll into a lot of weak ground balls to the right side. This is one of the reasons Ethier ranks second in the NL having grounded into 16 double plays.
A hitting instructor would refer to this habit as “bailing out.” When Ethier gets into a slump he begins to fall into the habit even against right-handed pitchers. It makes a batter highly susceptible to breaking pitches because the problem stems from opening their front shoulder too soon.
What this does is it effectively takes the hitters power source away. When you bail out, your hips open up and clear the zone too soon, which brings your hands through the zone also. That makes it nearly impossible to stay back and hit an off-speed pitch with any sort of authority.
He is a poor hitter on the road; batting just .215 (38-for-177) in forty six road games, and has hit just four home runs and seventeen RBI away from home.
At pitcher-friendly Dodger Stadium, he is hitting .326 (60-for-184) in 51 games and has a whopping 16 home runs and 45 RBI.
The Arizona native leads the club with twenty home runs and a .504 slugging percentage. He is also tied with James Loney for the lead in RBI (62).
While the Dodgers lead the Majors with 10 walk-off hits in ’09, Ethier has led the late-inning charge many times and leads the Majors with four walk-off hits of his own during the season. In fact, his seven walk-off hits are more than anyone in baseball since the beginning of the ’08 season.
The first came on May 2, when he rolled an RBI single into center field against the San Diego Padres to give the Dodgers a 2-1 win.
Then on back-to-back nights in early June, Ethier slammed the World Champion Philadelphia Phillies with walk-off extra-base hits.
The first night, June 5, he hit a double into the right field corner off Philly closer Brad Lidge to notch a 4-3 victory for the Dodgers. The next night, he laced a solo home run in the 12th inning off Scott Eyre for a 3-2 win.
Most recently, he launched a two-run home run in the bottom of the 13th against the surging Colorado Rockies, propelling the Blue Crew to a 4-2 win on June 29—just one day after hitting three home runs against the Seattle Mariners. Ethier has five multi-home run games and is just one of four players to hit three home runs in a game this season.
In the seven games following that walk-off home run, he regressed into a 3-for-32 slump.
Ethier is evolving into a big threat power hitter for this young Dodgers team. His home run and RBI numbers have steadily increased since his rookie season in ’06, when he finished fifth in Rookie of the Year voting.
Los Angeles can live with the downside of that—an increase in strikeouts and a dip in average. This season, he has fanned seventy three times and is on pace to strikeout 121 times, which would be thirty three more than his career high eighty eight of last season.
He hit .308 his rookie year and .305 last season (ninth in the NL) but seems to have lengthened his swing in the ’09 campaign to suit an approach geared towards racking up extra-base hits.
Nonetheless, Ethier is developing his skills on a daily basis and as he starts to get a better feeling for maintaining a higher average while still being a power threat, he will be an even more frightening hitter.
Ethier is more than capable of hitting .300 with 30 home runs and 100 RBI (he is on pace for 33 and 103) but to put up those type of power numbers along with a high average, he is going to have to continue to work hard and continue to develop a patient approach at the plate.
When this season draws to a close and the Dodgers re-evaluate their club, Ethier will be assuming the role of the go-to guy in the third spot in the lineup. In order for him to excel in that position, he really needs to focus on being more patient and letting the ball travel deeper if he wants to see his average bounce back to around .300.
If he maintains his current more strikeout-prone approach, the pressure of producing runs in the future will become overwhelming and spell trouble for such a streaky hitter.
As for this season, Ethier has done about as much as any Dodger supporter could ask of him. He has come through in the clutch and helped carry the team through the Manny Ramirez suspension with a level of professionalism that far exceeds his four-year big league experience.
PJ Ross is a Featured Columnist for the Los Angeles Dodgers.
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