Knowledge of self maximizes Keppinger's production

Knowledge of self maximizes Keppinger's production

ST. PETERSBURG -- Jose Molina likes to employ a lackadaisical flip toss to third base after catching strike three. Not exactly zipping the ball around the infield in the traditional sense, but, hey, everybody deserves a few peccadilloes.

So what did Jeff Keppinger do when one of Molina's lob balls came arching in his direction? Without missing a beat, the expressionless veteran infielder called for a fair catch.

Vintage Kep.

Ask most anybody in the Rays' clubhouse about Keppinger and a smile usually follows because the 32-year-old infielder is a character, as well as a sleeping giant where humor is concerned. He has also been the team's best offensive player this season.

Manager Joe Maddon's eyes twinkle when describing how Keppinger will draw a circle in the clay around himself during infield practice.

"Whoever is hitting balls to him needs to keep the ball within the circle, because he's not catching anything beyond that," Maddon said, laughing.

Ben Zobrist called Keppinger "an acquired taste," because Zobrist didn't know how to take him during Keppinger's first Spring Training with the team.

"He's got that dry humor," Zobrist said. "He's not going to burst out laughing. He's got the straight face. The delivery is dry, and that's part of what makes him funny."

Rays executive vice president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman might have a great appreciation for humor, but that wasn't why he signed Keppinger to a one-year deal for $1.52 million in January. Friedman and company hoped to bolster their offense with a right-handed hitter who could have his way against left-handers and rarely strike out. While the Rays got all of the above, they have received more than anyone could have expected. In essence, Keppinger is one of the top offensive free-agent acquisitions in club history.

"He's been something," Rays special advisor Don Zimmer said. "He's the purest hitter on this club -- hits the ball everywhere. He doesn't care where he hits it. He's going to try and hit it and hit it hard. He's a professional hitter."

Keppinger has always been able to hit a ball, a skill that dates back to his T-ball days.

"I was always following my brother," Keppinger said. "I have a brother a year older than me and he started T-ball first. We always basically played any sport -- ping pong, golf, you name it. And hitting was just something I've always liked."

By the end of Keppinger's sophomore year at Parkview High School in Lilburn, Ga., he had a .421 batting average and he had led his team to a AAA state championship. He followed by hitting .556 as a junior and .566 as a senior.

The hitting continued in three seasons at the University of Georgia, where he batted .380 with just 44 strikeouts in 714 at-bats. But after his sophomore season in Athens, Ga., Keppinger played in the Cape Cod League, where wooden bats are used by the college stars rather than the aluminum ones they are used to using. For the first time in his life, Keppinger struggled as a hitter. Using the wooden bat took away some of the pop he needed to drive a ball to the gap or punch one through the infield. And the quality of the pitching brought a rude awakening.

"When I started facing better pitchers on a more consistent basis, I realized I may have to tone it down early in the count instead of trying to hit a homer," Keppinger said. "I may just need to just touch it, hit it back through the middle, put it in play. Because some of these pitchers, if you take that 1-0 fastball right down the middle, that might be the best pitch you're going to get. Why not swing at it?"

Thus, part of the Keppinger approach was born.

Later, during Keppinger's first season of professional baseball at Class A Hickory of the South Atlantic League, the Pirates' organization introduced him to another aspect of hitting that he neatly tucked away into his portfolio.

At that juncture, Keppinger pulled everything. So, the Pirates told him he needed to hit the ball to right field.

"So I tried that and I was 0-for-32 in like 10 games," Keppinger said. "But that offseason, that's all I worked on."

The rewards from that offseason work came the next season at Class A Lynchburg, where he finished second in the Carolina League with a .325 average.

Keppinger recalled that the team's leadoff man always seemed to be on base that season. In the low Minor Leagues, if a player steals second, the second baseman normally covers the bag with a right-handed hitter at the plate.

Keppinger took advantage of the situation.

"The whole right side of the field was wide open, and I got it," Keppinger said. "I understood that."

Keppinger felt comfortable enough controlling the bat that managers would let him call the hit-and-run play. Inside his head, Keppinger would be having a conversation with his teammate on base along the lines of: "The pitcher threw me a ball on the first pitch. He's worried about you stealing, I'm getting a fastball. Go!"

"I just got really good at punching the ball through the four-hole," Keppinger said. "And I think by doing that, it really helped me a lot to understand what I could do with the bat."

Keppinger has continued to evolve over the years into the hitter he is today. Integral to that progression has been his understanding about the strength of his game.

"Tools-wise, I don't have the tools for this game," said Keppinger, who stands 6-foot and weighs 185 pounds. "But the mental aspect of the game, I think gives me the edge. That's what helps me stick around and that's what makes me successful.

"I understand the game and I understand certain aspects of it. I understand I'm not the most powerful guy when I'm getting into the batter's box. So swinging for a home run every single at-bat is dumb. Even when I hit it [on the button] or hit it to center or right, I don't have enough to hit it out. Those guys are too fast, they run it down. So there's no sense in trying to take that swing into that at-bat.

"You know, this pitcher's pretty good, he doesn't give up homers, I'm not a home run hitter, there's no sense in trying to drive it. Just sit there and try to get on base and let the guys who do drive the ball do their thing."

Rays hitting coach Derek Shelton believes that Keppinger's success is a byproduct of him being honest with himself.

"He never puts himself in a position where he tries to do too much," Shelton said. "Perfect example [Friday night], he's got the runner at third, less than two outs, all he's trying to do is put the ball on the barrel of the bat. I think that's what makes him different than a lot of hitters."

Keppinger has earned many admirers inside the Rays' clubhouse, including Luke Scott. The Rays' designated hitter can talk hitting and approaches until the cows come home, which might explain his great appreciation for what Keppinger does while making the whole thing look so easy.

"He knows how to hit the breaking ball, knows how to hit the fastball," Scott said. "You can go up to Jeff and ask him to pick out the pitches and he'll tell you. He knows what's coming. He knows how to adjust to it. [He] takes what the pitchers give him. He doesn't over swing, stays through the ball to all fields."

Keppinger has proven to be much more than just a right-handed hitter to use against left-handers. Due to the number of injuries on the team this season, Keppinger has played more than the Rays had intended, hitting extraordinarily well against left-handers (.405) and reasonably well against right-handers (.279).

"I'm always looking to prove people wrong," said Keppinger of his motivation. "That drives me to keep playing and to be mentally there, because to me if you're not mentally in this game, you're in trouble."

Bill Chastain is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.