Inge adjusting stance for success
With firm hold on hot corner, infielder focuses on bolstering offense
LAKELAND, Fla. -- Brandon Inge walked into the Tigers clubhouse at Joker Marchant Stadium on Sunday morning, went to his usual locker and stared.
"Where am I at?" Inge asked.
The locker had an old Chris Shelton nameplate on it. Someone had put it there as a joke earlier in the week, well before Inge arrived, and he fell for it.
Inge has had the same locker here for at least the past seven years, right on the end of the catcher cluster. He has the longest Tigers tenure of anyone on the club, so he sports some seniority. And as he readies for the 2009 season, he doesn't have to worry where he'll be in the field for Spring Training.
After Inge rotated from utility player to backup catcher, starting catcher and then back to third base last year, manager Jim Leyland took out all the suspense over his role at season's end. Inge will be the club's regular third baseman, part of Detroit's effort to shore up its infield defense. Along with the addition of shortstop Adam Everett, Inge and his range should provide many more plays on ground balls to the left side.
"This is the most excited I've ever been to come to Spring Training," Inge said. "And it's because once you lose something that you really love and you get an opportunity to make it right, you almost feel like you don't want to let it go, don't let it slip away. You want to make sure you take every advantage of it and just enjoy it."
Whether he can hit enough to avoid second-guessing about his offense is another question. For Leyland, Inge's offense could be one of the biggest keys for the Tigers this year. Inge hopes a long-needed adjustment in his batting stance will help him do that.
As Inge explains it, he has always kept his hands low and towards his back shoulder, exposing him to pitches on the inside corner. He has received suggestions to raise his hands over the years, but never felt comfortable doing it and, and he always reverted back to his old ways.
The results were some ugly numbers, especially the last couple years. After batting .253 with 27 homers and 83 RBIs during the Tigers' run to the World Series in 2006, Inge's numbers have fallen every season since. His .205 average, .303 on-base percentage and .369 slugging percentage in '08 were his lowest marks in each category since his '03 season, when Inge was sent to Triple-A Toledo for much of the summer.
Take away his strikeouts, and his batting average over balls put in play plummeted from .305 in 2007 to .244 last year. Inge put the ball in play more often last year than he had in 2007 or '06, according to Bill James Online, but he didn't do much with it.
A late-season meeting he requested with hitting coach Lloyd McClendon last year pushed the infielder to make a concerted effort this offseason.
|"I've always not liked my own swing. I wasn't naive to it. I listen to everyone here. I always knew that I swing with my hands really down low, and it's not good."|
|-- Brandon Inge|
"I've always fought to get them up and get them out where I want to be, but your muscle memory [hinders you]. And trying to do it in the middle of a season, you always go back to bad habits. It's really hard to do. So, with all that being aside in the offseason, I knew what we wanted to do before that."
Inge told McClendon he needed to take on his flaw. McClendon came up with a trick to get him there without so much of an urge to change back.
"It wasn't that I never listened [before]," Inge said. "It's just that I couldn't relate to anyone. All the hitting coaches talked about how to do it the right way, and I never swung the right way. It's hard for me to relate, not knowing that if I didn't get my hands up here, I can't understand what they're saying. So for the first time, when I get my hands up here and I'm up, I go off of feel. I'm not so much mechanical as I am [on] feel.
"When my hands were going in the right spot, I understood everything he was saying."
Time will tell if it works in games. Inge had an encouraging session in the Comerica Park batting cage with McClendon just ahead of the Tigers' Winter Caravan last month, but it's far from game speed. At this point, however, the hope is that he at least feels comfortable enough to stick with it and not get the itch -- or the pressure -- to lower his hands.
In that sense, low expectations or the perception of them could help. It's a topic he discussed with Everett, another stellar fielder with a mixed offensive history, on their way to the park Sunday morning.
"Everybody says we've got to hit, yet there's no pressure on us," Inge said. "I mean, if we do our job and we hit the way we're supposed to, it's going to be perfect. If we do better than that, it's a bonus."
Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.