Being on a big league roster is great, but for most players, it isn't enough. Contributing regularly and having a chance to demonstrate one's skills for a sustained period of time is crucial for a ballplayer's long-term success and self-confidence.
Baseball skills, like any motor skills in life, require repetition to sustain maximum quality and efficiency.
Chicago Cubs first baseman Bryan LaHair is being given an opportunity to play baseball frequently at the Major League level. It is the first time in a career that began when he was picked in the 39th round of the 2002 First-Year Player Draft that a big league club's lineup has regularly included LaHair's name.
He may be strictly a platoon hitter against right-handed pitching, but at least those are frequent at-bats. LaHair has responded to his chance like a flock of Arizona quails respond to my backyard fence: They see the opportunity and they don't miss.
Until this year, the most LaHair had played at the Major League level was 45 games, covering 136 at-bats, for the Seattle Mariners in 2008. As a 25-year-old that year, he hit .250 with three home runs.
LaHair next surfaced on a 25-man big league roster last season for the Cubs. He hit .288 with two home runs in 59 at-bats covering 20 games.
The Seattle Mariners selected LaHair following his play at St. Petersburg College. He was assigned to low Class A Everett, where he hit .244 in 57 games. It was the lowest he ever hit in Minor League baseball. In fact, in parts of nine Minor League seasons, LaHair compiled a composite batting average of .295. In 2011, prior to being called to the Cubs, LaHair hit 38 home runs and drove in 109 runs with Triple-A Iowa. That production opened some eyes.
Year after year, LaHair continued to play professional baseball while waiting for his chance to show he belonged in the big leagues. For those nine seasons, covering 4,051 plate appearances, LaHair was assigned to Triple-A seven times, five of them with Seattle.
Following a season in which he hit only .263 with 12 homers, he was granted free agency and signed with the Cubs in December 2009.
LaHair is a 6-foot-5, 240-pound left-handed hitter. As opposed to many pull-side power hitters, LaHair has power to all fields.
When I'd seen him prior to this past Spring Training, LaHair's bat speed was somewhat slow, sluggish and lagging behind. The slow bat resulted in popups or ground balls caused from rolling his wrists over and not extending his arms on pitches. His swing was long. I saw him struggle for success against left-handed pitching. I found his pitch recognition slow. And more often than not, he didn't use his entire lower body in his hitting mechanics.
Defensively, I didn't feel LaHair measured up as an outfielder because of his lack of speed. He was better, but not athletic or agile, as a first baseman.
That was then. This is now. LaHair has changed. He has matured as a hitter. He has become more comfortable at the plate and his experience has begun to pay dividends. He is now showing the skills many projected when he was a young professional.
Maybe -- just maybe -- his raw power has finally materialized. That happens. It happened to Jose Bautista and Nelson Cruz. LaHair isn't Bautista or Cruz, but he is a guy who is showing power that took a bit of time to emerge on a more consistent basis.
Another major change in LaHair's game has been his ability to accept a base on balls. He has walked roughly in 14 percent of his plate appearances this season. That compares to about nine percent in his final Triple-A season with Seattle.
One statistic that has not changed is his futility hitting against left-handed pitching. He entered Friday's play with a .118 batting average against lefties and a very solid .367 mark versus righties. That's why he generally only plays against right-handed pitching.
Hard work and perseverance have carried LaHair to the opportunity he now enjoys. He is seeing more pitches with a more discerning and selective eye at the plate. Instead of getting himself out, LaHair is taking pitches he might once have popped up or missed altogether. Several of his home runs have been to the left-center-field area, an indication that he isn't jumping out at pitches, but rather taking the pitch where it is thrown. As he did when I saw him earlier in his career, and like many left-handed hitters, LaHair is having success with pitches that are down in the strike zone.
If I were the one pitching to LaHair I would throw a steady diet of offspeed and breaking pitches. I would keep my offerings in tight, refusing to allow him to extend his arms. I would also avoid throwing the ball low in the zone. LaHair can feast on fastballs. He has more trouble when his balance is disrupted with sliders and curveballs.
Until now, LaHair had earned a reputation as a 4-A player -- a guy who isn't quite good enough to play Major League baseball, but better than a Triple-A player. Often, it is opportunity that changes that perception.
Others in similar situations who come to mind were first basemen like Dallas McPherson, Chad Tracy, Travis Ishikawa, Brandon Allen, Jeff Clement and Kila Ka'aihue, just to name a few. Maybe they would respond to a sustained opportunity, as LaHair has with the Cubs. Not just a few big league at-bats here and there, but a commitment to playing time.
LaHair is making the most of his opportunity.
Bernie Pleskoff has served as a professional scout for the Houston Astros and Seattle Mariners. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.