3/1/2013 1:59 P.M. ET
Roberts centered on making contact up the middle
By Bill Chastain / MLB.com
DUNEDIN, Fla. -- "Tatman" didn't add to the collection of 30 tattoos adorning his body during the offseason. Ryan Roberts did spend time reflecting on what might make him a better hitter, though.
"I just tried to think about a time when I did well, a time when I was good, that I was hitting the ball well," Roberts said. "That I was seeing pitches. When I was commanding my at-bat instead of just up there swinging."
Jeff Keppinger also managed to creep into the thoughts Roberts tried to sort through. The former Rays infielder led the Rays in hitting in 2012 before signing a three-year deal with the White Sox.
"The way he was in the lineup is kind of how I want to be, a reliable source to be able to hit the ball, base hit, up the middle, stay through the middle of the field every time consistently," Roberts said.
Keppinger's influence, coupled with the memory of what he had been thinking when he felt the best at the plate, led Roberts to the middle of the field.
"The mindset of when I [was hitting the best] was just try and stay to the middle of the field," Roberts said. "Don't try and crank the ball, don't try and pull the ball. Don't try and hit the ball to right. Just try and see the ball and take my swing to the middle of the field and make solid contact every time."
Roberts believes that hitting the ball through the middle is "something you can control in your mind."
"The reason you stay toward the middle of field is to keep your swing staying through the ball," Roberts said. "You get into pulling the ball or you get into hitting the ball directly to right field, sometimes you inside-out the ball, sometimes you get real rotational trying to pull the ball.
"Basically for me ... just try to make solid contact and keep my hands going back toward the pitcher. Hit everything where the ball came from."
Hitting coach Derek Shelton said hitting the ball to the middle of the field is a mindset rather than a mechanical adjustment.
"It's 100 percent a mindset and that mindset will lead into him being in control of his swing," Shelton said. "One of the challenges we've had with him is just standard control of his swing, driving the ball up the middle of the field. When you do that, good things will happen.
"To his credit, he told me this winter when I talked to him a couple of times, he said, 'Here's what I'm doing.' He's stayed with it. Every round of BP he's taken and his game swings have been like that. It's a good thing to see."
Roberts, 32, split the 2012 season between the Rays and the D-backs, combining to hit .235 with 12 home runs, 52 RBIs and 10 stolen bases. He played 78 games at third, 54 at second and one in left field during the 2012 season. Currently, he is earmarked to play first, second, third and the outfield this season. He's even the team's self-proclaimed emergency catcher, though he noted he will need to procure a protective cup if he ever gets behind the plate.
Despite being prepared to play a myriad of spots in the field, Roberts would like to be an everyday player.
"He's a guy that likes to play every day," Rays manager Joe Maddon said. "He doesn't like to be considered in that [utility] role. We've had a lot of conversations to make sure that everybody's on the same page with it and there's no confusion about it."
Maddon and the Rays use the term "Super U" to describe players such as Ben Zobrist, who play multiple positions. Maddon was asked if he had to talk Roberts into accepting such a role.
"I don't know if we had to talk him into it," Maddon said. "We just had to explain it to him that that's what we were thinking. You can tell Ryan that 100 times and he's still going to want to be that everyday guy. And I appreciate that about him. I get him. I understand him. And that's why with a guy like him, every guy, you have to be 100 percent honest with. But with this guy, you might have to be the proverbial 101 percent, because you don't want any kind of gray area with him at all."
Being slotted to play any number of spots in the field could eventually land Roberts in the place where he wants to be.
"Of course he could end up playing one position a lot as the season progresses, based on whether there are injuries, his performance, or whatever," Maddon said. "But for right now, that's the game plan going into it."
Maddon went on to note that Roberts looks "good right now."
"Some of the things he talked to us about in his meetings he's already doing well, using the middle of the field," Maddon said. "He's really been pounding it. He just looks really good right now. This guy has had some really good success on the Major League level.
"It just speaks to our depth, all the things we can do daily, keeping guys fresh when you put other people in the game. You don't feel like there's any loss, you feel pretty good about it."
Bill Chastain is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.