Slugger Wood tries to crack deep lineup
Angels prospect sees improvement after altering batting stance in 2008
TEMPE, Ariz. -- The meeting was held in June in the office of Angels manager Mike Scioscia, who did the talking and demonstrating along with hitting coach Mickey Hatcher. Brandon Wood listened, intently absorbing every detail.
"Sosh had a fungo bat in his hands and was showing me some things, and Hatch was showing me how it would benefit me to move my hands down, get quicker to the ball," Wood said.
"At first I thought, `I've been quick enough to hit home runs in the Minor Leagues.' But I have a lot of respect for their knowledge and experience, and we started working on dropping my hands from the cocked position I'd always used.
"I couldn't find a comfort zone for two or three weeks. But by July I had it down and began to have some success with it. In September, I was playing every day and I had some good at-bats. I could feel the difference."
Wood, who will be 24 on Monday, has spent the past three years trying to live up to a mammoth season at 20 in 2005. At high Class A Rancho Cucamonga, the shortstop led the California League with 43 homers, 115 RBIs and a .672 slugging percentage, gaining acclaim as one of the game's premier prospects.
He followed that with solid, yet unspectacular seasons at Double-A Arkansas and Triple-A Salt Lake, his star dimming somewhat. Summoned for cameo roles in the Majors the past two seasons, he was over-amped and over-eager. He was burying himself in counts by swinging at pitcher's pitches, breaking stuff dancing out of the strike zone.
The adjustment in his hand placement was designed to shorten his long swing, create a more direct path to the ball.
The rest -- equally, if not more important -- involved his mental approach: calming down, laying off balls out of the zone, letting his natural talent flow.
"Ever since I could swing a bat, my hands were up here," he said, bringing them up to his right shoulder. "I thought I would lose power dropping them, because I thought the little hitch I had was what caused me to hit home runs.
"They convinced me in the meeting that I would still have power. They were right. When I went to Triple-A, my swing felt better than at any time since I've been in professional ball -- even better than '05. That was A ball, and I was seeing 90 percent fastballs. Now I was comfortable hitting some really good pitching."
Wood batted .296 with a .595 slugging percentage at Triple-A Salt Lake, with 31 homers in 395 at-bats. A decent second half (.256) with the Angels left him with a .200 average for the season in 150 at-bats.
A brief trip to the Dominican Winter League produced negligible results. Teammate Reggie Willits said Wood was finding his stroke and hitting shots right at people when both players were sent home.
Wood came to camp this spring -- his Scottsdale home is about a 15-minute drive from Tempe Diablo Stadium -- determined to carve a spot on a roster loaded with quality infielders.
"This is where I want to be," he said. "It's all I thought about all winter, doing everything I can to make this team."
Playing third base, Wood came out smoking in the Cactus League opener, crashing two drives against walls for outs on sensational fielding plays by White Sox outfielders. In his second game, he doubled and singled in three at-bats.
With any luck, he could have been 4-for-5 heading into Saturday's game against the Brewers, the Angels' first road test of the season.
Scioscia looks at the inner game more than results in the spring. He has seen Wood stay off pitches he once hacked at in vain, creating more favorable counts and situations.
"Everything in Spring Training is evaluated differently than during the season," Scioscia said. "With Brandon, we've seen what he can do, but we're not going to know till this guy gets 600 at-bats in the big leagues.
"He's moved forward, but he's not a finished product. The litmus test for a player is playing in the Major Leagues. Right now, he's fighting for at-bats. He's got to play at a certain level, show growth. That's where he is right now."
Which brings us to the Catch-22: Wood would love to show he's capable of playing every day, but he's second on the depth chart at third (behind Chone Figgins) and third at shortstop (behind Erick Aybar and Maicer Izturis). And the DH role appears destined to fall in the hands of a fourth outfielder again.
So, how does Wood prove he can deliver impressive numbers with 600 at-bats when he might struggle to get 150 again -- and travel back and forth on the Salt Lake Shuttle?
One thing he has learned from experience is that he can't tie himself in emotional knots thinking he has to go 4-for-4 with two homers every time he's in the lineup.
"What I'm trying to learn is to not overswing -- and overanalyze," Wood said. "I've watched Garret Anderson, Mike Napoli, Juan Rivera, guys like that, and I've seen how you can drive the ball with a smooth, natural stroke.
"If you don't try to hit it 450 feet, you might hit it 420 -- and that's good enough."
The education of the super prospect burning to be an everyday player continues.
Lyle Spencer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.