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Aubrey Huff has a new lease on life. After spending most of the past decade on non-contending teams, the fun-loving Giants slugger finds himself in the middle of a good old-fashioned pennant race, and he couldn’t be happier. A lifetime .283/.344/.476 hitter with 223 home runs, Huff is riding that happiness to a career year as he is hitting a robust .295/.387/.524 in the middle of the San Francisco lineup. Huff talked about his personality, his newly-found appreciation for OBP, and why he is glad to be out of the American League East, when the Giants visited Atlanta earlier this month. 

David Laurila: How would you describe your career thus far?

Aubrey Huff: Kind of up and down, I guess. I’m kind of a guy that… I’m not a streaky guy throughout the season; I’m a streaky-season guy. I have some great years and then follow them up with not such a great year. It’s just weird and hard to explain why some years are so much better than the others.

I’ve also been on a lot of losing teams and that’s been frustrating. Now, being here, I finally feel like I’m in the big leagues. This has been an incredible year for me. It got to the point last year where I didn’t enjoy baseball anymore.

DL: You’re happier here in San Francisco?

AH: Oh yeah, man. I’m in a pennant race, the staff is good, the organization—everything here is first class. I’ve had a million older guys on all these other teams that I’ve played on tell me, ‘Huffy, wait until you get to a team that’s in contention and then you’ll find out what the big leagues are all about,” and I finally understand what they were saying after all these years.

I found out as soon as I got to spring training. We have a facility [in Scottsdale, Arizona] that is top notch. All the staff was awesome, the whole nine yards. We have a great weight room. In Baltimore we had this Fort Lauderdale Stadium with a weight tent outside, with just some rental equipment, and that’s not cool. To me, this organization does everything right.

DL: How much do things like that matter to a player?

AH: They matter a ton. When you’re in spring training with a facility like the one we had in Fort Lauderdale, with rental weight equipment, it just goes to show how much farther ahead every other team is than you are.

DL: Does being on a winning team impact a player’s performance?

AH: Without question. It makes you happier, and when you’re happy you play better. And I’m extremely happy this year. I was in the American League East for nine years—pretty much my whole career. I was with Tampa the first six years, when they were the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, and they weren’t good. Then I spent the last three with Baltimore, when they were pretty much dead last while Tampa was good. It was always a grind for me coming to the field against teams like the Yankees and Red Sox, knowing that you’re probably going to lose. I come to this place and know we have a great chance to win every single day, so it‘s just a completely different feel for me.

DL: Do you think your 2010 performance is directly related to that feeling?

AH: Absolutely. I mean, I don’t know where I’d be right now, performance-wise, if I was still in Baltimore. I might be at the point where I just want to take it home. It got to that point, seriously, the last couple of years there.

DL: Do you feel that you’re underappreciated because of where you’ve played?

AH: I don’t think so. I just think that I’ve just been on teams that haven’t been all that marketable. They’ve been dead-last teams where nobody cared. If I’d had have some of those years in Boston or New York, it would be a totally different story. You get the pub wherever you play, but obviously with a big-market team, if you’re having a good year you’re going to be a little bit more known.

DL: Do like being in the spotlight, or would rather be doing your job without the fanfare?

AH: I like to be on the radar, man. Still, I look at some of these guys around the league and they can’t go to the mall without having security around them, and stuff like that. I take solace in knowing that I can go anywhere I want and nobody is even going to recognize me or care. So for me, it’s the best of both worlds. I get to play in the big leagues and nobody bothers me.

DL: Are you the same hitter now that you were coming out of the University of Miami?

AH: No. I’m not the same hitter that I was last year. It seems like this year I’m a lot more patient. They say that patience grows as you get older and this year I finally learned how to work the count, take pitches, and hit the pitch I want to hit. So many times throughout my career I was such a free swinger. I know that I’ve had good years in the past, but I was still aggressive. I think that my career high in on-base percentage is .360-something (.367) and this year I’m way over that. This year I’m finally understanding the value of taking more pitches. So what if I’m 0-1; it doesn’t matter. It used to be that I was scared to death to be 0-1, but as you get older you learn the importance of that.

DL: What triggered your desire to have a more-disciplined approach?

AH: This team is known as a free-swinging team, and I was that guy, so I wanted to try to come in and work the count since everybody else here was such a free swinger, apparently. I started taking more and more pitches early in the year and started getting pitches to hit—it was working out—and I said, “Man, there’s something to this, to working the count.” Pat Burrell is here now and he does the same thing. It’s really starting to take control of the whole club. Everybody is starting to see the ball more—take more pitches—and as a whole, on offense, if you do that you’re really putting a lot of heat on the pitcher.

DL: Is plate discipline catching?

AH: Without a doubt, man. The Red Sox and Yankees all these years—they’ll have every starting pitcher at 100 pitches by the fifth inning. That’s why they win so much. I know that they have great players and everything, but it’s also about having an approach and a plan up there, and this team is getting to that point.

DL: Do you see yourself as a mentor to the younger guys on the team?

AH: Actually, I have a hard time when everybody calls me a veteran, because it seems like I just started playing myself. But I like to give information if I’m asked. I don’t try to go up and force anything on anybody. If anybody asks me a question, I’ll give them my insight.

DL: Does that happen very often?

AH: Yeah, a lot, man. I’ll throw out anything I can at them—whatever I’m thinking—but by no means am I going to go with anybody and try to change their whole approach, or change their swing. But if they ask, I’ll give them a little tidbit.

DL: Did you ask many questions when you were a younger player?

AH: Not really. I was kind of hard-headed. I was stubborn and kind of a free-swinging guy. I got here by being aggressive and was going to keep doing it, and I learned some hard lessons that way. This year I finally figured it out a little bit.

DL: When you did listen, who was most helpful to you?

AH: You know, Fred McGriff was always big for me. Fred McGriff was always a good mentor. And Ozzie Timmons—I was in Triple-A with him—is the one who kind of taught me what it is all about in the big leagues, how to go about it and stuff like that. I still talk to him to this day. And Wade Boggs, when he was the hitting coach with us in Tampa; he gave me a lot of useful insight. He kind of took me under his wing and really helped me to develop my swing.

Boggsy was real big on staying through the ball and I was always pretty much a dead pull hitter. He really helped me to start working the ball the other way when I was pitched away; that’s the way that he hit. He taught me how to go the other way, which is what I do now. If thrown out there, I’m going to hit it out there.

DL: Do you view yourself as a power hitter?

AH: No. I think that power hitters are guys that consistently hit 35-40 [home runs] a year. I’m a guy that hits line drives and doubles. I’ll get under one every now and then, but I just think that power hitting is more in line with 40 a year and I’ve never been that consistent with the power.

DL: What is it like hitting at AT&T Park?

AH: It’s intimidating at first. I spent the first month trying too hard to hit it out of there, but then I just kind of gave up and it started working for me. Once I stopped trying to hit home runs they started actually going out. Right-center field you can forget about; it’s not going to happen. If you’re going to hit a home run there lefty, you have to hit it down the line. That’s about it.

DL: Do ballparks impact your approach as a hitter?

AH: The only ballpark that has affected the way I hit was this place, early—the first month of the season—and then I had to stop thinking about it or I was going to be done, because the first month I really struggled. Then I gave up and decided to take my doubles and triples, because if you hit the ball into that gap, it’s a triple.

DL: To close, who are you in the clubhouse?

 AH: I like to be the clown guy and mess around with the boys. I like to be the kind of guy that helps people relax, because you can’t take this game too seriously. If you do, it’s going to kill you, and you don’t want that.  

Thank you for reading

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Awesome. As a Giants fan, watching Huff this year has been an extremely pleasant surprise. I really wondered whether we'd get his 2009, his 2008, or something near his career line. I didn't think he'd be this good, but he's been a ton of fun to watch.
And he's absolutely correct that a huge factor is his success this year is better plate discipline. He's got his highest walk rate of his career at 12.4% with previous best being 9.7%. Also got his best strikeout rate since 2004. It really does seem like he figured something new out this year. And it's been awesome reading quotes and watching his dugout reactions. Also there's a great article by Andy Baggerly at San Jose Mercury today about how Burrell had a huge influence on Huff at Miami.
The Tigers were in contention in 2009, playing a 163rd game to determine who got the playoff slot, despite Aubrey Huff's poor performance. That data point contradicts the overly simplisitic "I'll do better if a team is in contention" meme.