Jason Giambi isn’t what he used to be. The 42-year-old slugger is little more than a player-coach at this point of his career, his leadership adding more value to the Cleveland Indians than his bat. Last season, with the Colorado Rockies, he hit .225 with one home run in limited action.
Once upon a time, his bat was lethal. As recently as 2008 he was one of the most prolific hitters in the game. From 2000-2003 he was almost Bonds-ian, averaging 40 home runs and 126 walks with an OPS north of 1.000. Over 18 big-league seasons his slash line is .280/.403/.522. His 429 home runs rank fifth among current players.
Giambi talked about his favorite subject — hitting — last week in Goodyear, Arizona.
David Laurila: What have you learned about hitting over the course of your career?
Jason Giambi: Probably the biggest thing is that you can’t be afraid to make adjustments. That’s especially true as you get older and your body isn’t what it used to be. You have to make adjustments to your stance, bat size, where you stand on the plate. As you get older, things change. You don’t stay 23 years old.
When I was younger, I had a blueprint of how I wanted to stand, where I was at on the plate, where I kept my hands. I stood very tall, feet close together, back elbow up. My shoulder was closed to the shortstop. I was slightly closed, instep to toe. I had it down. My front foot was exactly on the break of the plate. I was perfect every time.
When I got to about 35, 36, 37, I had to start making adjustments. I had hit all the way up to that point, then it slowly became: open my stance a little bit, maybe spread out, maybe start with my hands a little higher or lower. That’s because you start to lose some bat speed. When you get older, you’re not the same. The wear and tear of playing the game starts to take its toll.
DL: Can you make up for a lack of bat speed without cheating on pitches?
JG; 100 percent. First and foremost, I’ve always been blessed with a good eye. I can work pitches in a count. You can take some of the guess work out of it by eliminating pitches. On a 2-1 count, maybe I’ll look for a changeup if I see that the pitcher isn’t throwing his breaking ball for a strike. I’ll see it pop out of his hand and just take it until he proves he can throw it for a strike. There are a lot of different ways to, as you say, “cheat.” You can get the pitch you want to hit by working the count.
DL: What has been the toughest pitch for you to hit?
JG: I would say the toughest guy has always been a lefthander who has a great running fastball, down and in, and a great slider that goes away from me. He gives me those two angles, so I kind of have to guess, either inner half or outer half.
DL: Is it hard to differentiate between a two-seamer and a slider?
JG: The fastball is easy. If a guy has a good slider, that’s a lot tougher. You get it, and you start catching it at the end. You start picking up the dot on the ball. But a guy who can run it both ways — and they’re playing the shift against me — really eliminates me swinging at that ball down and in.
DL; Is the pitch up and in hard to handle?
JG: I think every lefthander has a problem with that ball up underneath their hands. It’s kind of our blind spot. There are a few guys who can hit the high ball, but most of are low-ball hitters. And we like the ball out over the plate, so we can get our arms extended. For example, Robinson Cano.
DL: Have you used the opposite field as much as you should?
JG: Early in my career I used it a ton. I used to drive the ball to left center and could reach the high wall in Oakland. When I went to New York, that ball is an out, especially early in the year. It’s something like 400 feet to left center, and short to right field. I definitely became more of a pull hitter when I went to New York.
I was never a good low line drive hitter. I would drive the ball to left field — I’d hit it in the air. For the first two or three months of the year, it’s cold there and the ball doesn’t travel as well to left field.
DL: Have you studied much film?
JG: Some, but for me film is really a last resort. I’ve always been a feel hitter. When guys would ask me about mechanics… it wouldn’t necessarily be about my mechanics. It would be more how I feel. Like I was saying, early in my career it was about my set up. I would have my blueprint and go from there. I could fix my swing by how I felt. Maybe I wasn’t staying inside the ball enough. I was able to do that because I had the blueprint.
As I’ve gotten older and my stances have changed, I’ve use more film.
DL: Do you use film to study a pitcher’s tendencies?
JG: If I’m going to look at film, I’m going to look at what he does against a Ryan Howard or a Jim Thome — the power hitting lefthanders — because I’m going to be pitched pretty much the same way. I think that’s what some guys miss out on. They’ll look at film, or statistics, and it‘s “On 2-1 he always throws a changeup.” But you have to take into account that it’s against the whole league, from the number-nine hitter to the leadoff hitter. You have to look at who he’s doing something against.
DL: Is there a specific way you’ve been attacked?
JG: Definitely. It’s prototypical baseball. Hard in, don’t let me get my arms extended, soft down and away. Try to make me keep the ball on the ground so I don’t drive the ball in the air. Then, every now and again, a fastball up and away, trying to get me to chase. Or maybe bounce a back-foot breaking ball.
When they started playing the shift against me, it changed a little bit. It was mainly hard in, because they wanted me to pull the ball into the shift. Early in my career, it was hard in, but also staying away. They nibbled. I took a lot of walks early in my career.
JG: I think that’s selfish. Walking is such an integral part of the game. It makes the guy in front of you better and the guy behind you better. When you take your walks, that pitcher knows, “Hey, if I don’t get this guy in front of him, he’s got a chance to get a hit or take a walk, and all of a sudden the bases are loaded.” You become the ultimate team guy by taking your walks, because it puts more pressure on the pitcher. Now he can’t throw his breaking ball in the dirt any more. It changes the whole dynamic of the game.
To me, taking a walk is as important as getting a base hit. I’ll take a guy, any day, who has a .400 on-base percentage, compared to a guy who hits .300 and has a .320 on-base percentage.
DL: Is there anyone you consider a mentor?
JG: Mark McGwire. When I first got to the big leagues, I had an idea of what I wanted to do, but I was still very raw. Mark really helped me develop my power. He helped me work counts. He pushed me to that next level and formed who I was as a hitter I followed him around like a puppy dog.
DL: Who else have you learned from?
JG: I had Don Mattingly, and Donnie is very good. Kevin Long does a great job with the Yankees. There are some guys out there who are really good. When I was younger, I kind of followed the Charlie Lau–George Brett theory of hitting. Then — like we talked about — I kind of made up my own.
DL: Has pitching changed over the course of your career?
JG: There’s no doubt. When I first broke into the league, I faced Pedro Martinez in his prime. Roger Clemens and Randy Johnson were in their prime. Then I saw the game get very offensive — there were some great hitters in our generation. Now it’s made a swing back to pitching. Every young kid you see out there throws in the mid 90s. I saw a stat the other day that strikeouts have been way up. I think it’s an influx of these incredible young arms into the game. I played in the NL West the last year three years and every guy who comes out of the pen throws 97-98. Lefties are throwing 97-98.
The cutter became a pitch more guys were learning. Roy Halladay. Pedro would cut it every once in awhile. As guys started to get further on in their careers… Mariano had so much success with his cutter, I think right-handers said, “Shit, I want to learn that pitch.”
DL: What is your approach against a cutter?
JG: When I was younger, I was kind of like Barry [Bonds] in that I’d sit in that chair and spin on that back leg. I could get that ball up in the air. Of course, as I’ve gotten older, it’s a lot tougher. Sometimes I’ll stay inside it and hit it over the shortstop, especially if it’s tight on me. I’ll try to hit it up the middle or jam it into left center field.
DL: What is the key to hitting a good breaking ball?
JG: Unless you’re a guess hitter — which I’ve become later in my career — the best way is to hit the fastball and react to everything else. My whole theory is to eliminate the corners and try to hit everything over the middle of the plate. To me, that’s a mistake. Fastball, breaking ball, changeup — if you throw it in the middle of the plate, I can do something with it. Basically, I’ll start middle of the plate and get wider. I’ll pick one side of the plate as the counts change.
DL: Have strikeouts mattered to you?
JG: No. I never figured I was going to beat anything out anyway, so I always wanted to give myself the opportunity to hit the ball hard. I’d get my hits and take my walks. To me, home runs and strikeouts are going to go hand in hand. If you swing the bat aggressively, you’re going to end up swinging at some pitches out of the strike zone.
DL: What is your biggest mechanical flaw?
JG; My front elbow will come up, and I’ll kind of drag my bat through the strike zone. That’s always been my [problem]. I always have to work on that. I kind of slide my hips, because I’m older now. My knees don’t feel as good as they used to.
DL: Are you a future hitting coach?
JG: Probably. I’ve always seen myself in that realm. I’ve kind of done it for the last few years. I understand the mechanics of a swing. I understand the communication with the guys. I understand how to speak their language. I think that’s what makes a good hitting coach.
Rudy [Jaramillo] has his blueprint. Charlie Lau had his. Walt Hriniak had his. I’m more… like we talked about earlier, I can take a guy and not tinker with how he feels comfortable. We’re going to just play with some of the mechanics of his swing, to get him in a good place to hit.
DL: Who on this team impresses you with how they swing the bat?
JG: [Jason] Kipnis can really hit. [Michael] Brantley. Young kids like that are well beyond their years when we talk hitting. They’ll ask me questions and they already know how to make adjustments. Adjustments are big. I always say that failure isn’t bad. Failure is good, because you can figure out what you need to change. I’ve always loved hitting — it’s what I’ve done best in this game — and I love talking about it.