Lewis ready to slug from third spot
Giants left fielder drops from leadoff, expects to swing more freely
SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- That isn't just a bat a No. 3 hitter takes to the plate with him. It's figuratively a conductor's baton, a tool that when wielded correctly can sway all within its influence.A ballclub's offense often revolves around the third batter, who's obligated to reach base as well as generate runs. With this year's Giants, this spot will belong to Fred Lewis, whose multiple gifts make him an ideal candidate for the role.
Whether he's an ideal fit won't be known until the season unfolds. So far in the Cactus League, however, Lewis has performed capably, hitting .333 (6-for-18) with a .722 slugging percentage despite playing every other day as his surgically repaired right foot finishes healing.Just as importantly, Lewis is acting the part, too. "I told myself, 'Even if I get fooled, don't take a short swing. Take a full swing,'" said Lewis, who should be able to play consecutive games by next week. "'Swing through it and take your hacks. Don't get cheated.' That's the main thing." Hitting coach Carney Lansford has tried to reinforce Lewis' new persona. "The biggest thing I talk to Freddie about is having a certain attitude," Lansford said. "When you're the No. 3 hitter, you're our best hitter. I don't care who's on the mound. There's a way you walk into the box and [maintain a] thought process, the whole way you handle yourself. I want him to start doing that now in Spring Training. He's done it right away." Another authority on hitting third who's currently in camp is Will Clark, who had few peers when he occupied that berth for the Giants. The recently hired special assistant defined a three-hole hitter's responsibilities as "whatever the situation dictates. If you have guys on base, you have to try to drive the runs in. If you have nobody on, you're going to try to set up everybody behind you." Clark spent his first eight Major League seasons with the Giants (1986-93) and was especially productive from 1987-91, when he averaged .304 with 27 home runs and 104 RBIs per year. He could hit to all fields with varying degrees of power -- just as Lewis did in a 10-1 split-squad exhibition victory over Oakland on Sunday, when he stroked a two-run, third-inning double to left and a fifth-inning triple to right. "If you're one-dimensional, it makes it easier to pitch to you," Clark said. "If you're multidimensional and can cover the whole plate, up and down, and be patient, you're going to be a tough out. If you combine Fred's skills with his speed, it makes for a great combination." The Giants expect Lewis to be more of a presence in the batter's box while spending less time in it. Though the Giants did virtually nothing during the offseason to upgrade their offense, they believe that Lewis can be one of the power sources they sorely need -- not a 40-homer slugger, but somebody who can hit at least half that. Moving Lewis to the third spot will free him to swing with abandon. Leading off a team-high 79 times last year, Lewis needed to take pitches, which gave the Giants a good first look at the opposing hurler but sometimes inhibited him from pulverizing hittable deliveries. Lewis batted .279 at leadoff, which was comparable to his overall .282 average. But perhaps significantly, he hit .330 (29-for-88) in the third through sixth positions. Lewis demonstrated an aptitude for his new role by crushing a first-pitch homer Feb. 28 against Seattle. Afterward, he admitted that he probably would have taken the pitch had he been batting leadoff. "I'm taking what I do in batting practice into the game," said Lewis, 28. "It's mostly reaction. I know it's in there, but it's a matter of being consistent and finding it." Lewis did what was required from him last season, ranking fourth in the National League by averaging 4.23 pitches per plate appearance. Now that the Giants need muscle from him, they hope he can deliver just as efficiently. "Hopefully he won't be in as many two-strike counts," said Lansford, citing the factor that prompted Lewis' 124 strikeouts in 2008. "Hitting third is totally different from hitting first, especially for him. Freddie now can look for pitches and look to turn on balls." That aggressive approach should enable the left-handed-batting Lewis to pull more pitches and display more power. His homer against Seattle traveled far past the right-field barrier, as did several others that he hit off teammates -- including Tim Lincecum and Barry Zito -- during live batting practice before spring games began. "I think he realized that if he's going to hit third, we need him to hit home runs," Lansford said. Anybody studying statistics and nothing else would conclude that Lewis is an unlikely slugging candidate. He hit only nine homers last year and never has totaled more than 12, his 2006 output at Triple-A Fresno, in any professional season. But as his prizefighter's build and background as a wide receiver at Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College indicate, Lewis possesses more than enough strength to drive the ball. In an exhibition game last March, he launched a homer over the center-field batter's eye at Tucson Electric Park. Though they counted for nothing, his home runs off Lincecum and Zito during the first days of full-squad workouts loomed large, since most other Giants were struggling to hit the ball out of the infield at the time. In 2007 he became the Giants' first rookie since they moved to San Francisco in 1958 to hit two grand slams in a season. "He has unbelievable pop," Lansford said. Lewis admitted being more pull-conscious than before.
"I'm looking for more pitches inside than away," he said. "I'm relaxed, staying tall, using my hands and trusting them like I know how."Whatever he doesn't know, he seems to be learning quickly.
Chris Haft is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.