Twins' slugger combines average, power in bid for top rookie honors
Anaheim, Calif. — Most stories this year about rookie Kent Hrbek of the Minnesota Twins have, at some point, mentioned the fact that the big left-handed hitting first baseman resembles Ted Williams in the batter's box.
''I think some writers trying to jazz up their copy decided to link Hrbek and Williams because of their power, only it's not a valid comparison,'' said Twins Manager Billy Gardner. ''The kid is a great prospect alright, and his first-year statistics so far have been close to Ted's, but his style is his own and it's a good one.''
''Unlike Williams, who was a standup, pull hitter with power, Hrbek swings from a crouch and is more apt to spray the ball around,'' Gardner added. ''I don't mean that Kent hasn't and won't continue to hit a lot of home runs, only that he usually goes with the pitch as opposed to Williams nearly always wanting to overpower the ball.
''When I saw how well Hrbek was swinging the bat in spring training, I decided to skip the usual hitting advice managers give to young players and just see what happened. Well, here it is August and this kid hasn't had anything resembling a slump. Frankly, I'll be surprised if he isn't named American League Rookie of the Year.''
The 22-year-old Hrbek, who is 6 ft. 4 in. and weighs 215 pounds, looks rugged enough to go bear hunting with a switch. Kent grew up in Minnesota only two miles from where the Twins used to play and could see the lights of their former ballpark from his bedroom window. He says that his high school coach was the one who taught him the value of hitting to all fields.
''Once word gets around among pitchers that certain hitters can't be gotten out the same way twice in a row, it forces the pitcher to adjust, and that's good,'' Hrbek explained. ''The point is, if you do everything the same all the time, they'll find a way to pitch to you. But if you show a willingness to move around in the batter's box and not try to overpower everything, you'll get enough good pitches that you can handle.
''Several times this year in games where we trailed and the opposition has played me to go for the fences, I've crossed them up and bunted for a base hit just to keep the inning alive. I'm not going to do this very often, because driving in runners is one of my primary responsibilities. But whenever infielders play so far back that they're practically giving me a base hit, I'm going to take it.''
Although Hrbek hasn't needed any advice to do what he's been doing - marry an average well over .300 to power - he did take some advice early in the season from Rod Carew of the California Angels, a seven-time American League batting champion.
''When Carew suggested that if I opened up my stance a little I could get a better look at the ball, especially against left-handers, I decided to give it a chance,'' Kent said. ''If this advice had come from someone else, I probably would have ignored it. But Carew, being Carew, made me want to try. Actually I don't think the switch helped or hurt. But I've since gone back to my old way of hitting, because for me it just seems more comfortable.''
The tipoff on Hrbek's ability should have been apparent to everyone when he put together hitting streaks of 23 and 17 consecutive games early in the season. You don't do that without a lot of bat control and without embarrassing a few pitchers. Kent has also performed very well defensively at first base and actually has enough range to play the outfield.
''Basically I'm a line-drive hitter with power, whose main concern is getting on base as often as he can,'' Hrbek told me in the visitors' dugout at Anaheim Stadium. ''I've hit against every team in this league at least twice now, so I don't think you can just call me lucky. I think I've proved that I can hit the fastball and the curve and that you won't get me to swing unless you throw me strikes.''
Although Wally Berger's rookie major league home run record of 38 set in 1930 with the old Boston Braves might be a little out of Hrbek's reach, the 31 Williams hit in his first year certainly is not.
Last week Minnesota owner Calvin Griffith reportedly gave Kent and another Twins rookie (outfielder Tom Brunansky) substantial mid-season bonuses for their spectacular play.
The last time somebody counted, Hrbek had struck out only 53 times in 355 at bats.