Lyle Overbay isn’t one of the sexier names on this year’s free-agent list, but the 33-year-old former Blue Jay should attract the interest of teams desiring a solid left-handed bat and above-average defense at first base. A career .274/.358/.447 hitter, Overbay has averaged 38 doubles and 17 home runs over the past seven seasons. Originally an 18th-round pick by the Diamondbacks, Overbay went on to play two years in Milwaukee before spending the last five in Toronto. He talked about his career progression and free-agency expectations prior to a game in mid-September.
David Laurila: You’ve been in pro ball for 12 years. How has your career gone thus far?
Lyle Overbay: There have been some ups and downs. Getting back to day one when you get drafted, and then when you’re in the minor leagues, you just don’t know what to expect. You dream about being in the big leagues, and you get closer to that spot, but you don’t actually grasp what it takes to do that. So it is something that I’ve been very proud of, and I guess I’ve been very surprised in a sense, too. You start thinking about the guys that have been around for a long time and don’t quite make it. I mean, a lot of guys don’t even see their arbitration years let alone their free agency years. I’ve been blessed with fooling them for this long.
DL: You came into pro ball as a senior sign out of the University of Nevada. Were you drafted after your junior year?
LO: I wasn’t, and who knows just why, but I think I took my game to the next level my senior year. I had a hitting coach that played in the minor leagues and had just gotten released, Justin Drizos. He came back as an assistant. He wanted to get picked up, too, so we’d go hit late at night in the batting cages and I learned a lot just from watching him. I ended up having one of my best years in college there. [Editor’s note: Overbay hit .338 as a junior, .420 as a senior.]
Like I said, I think I took it to that next level and I think that prepared me for the minor leagues. And I’ve been very grateful as far as having good coaches—good hitting coaches—throughout my minor-league career to get me to that next level. It’s just little adjustments that make the difference. I mean, from Double-A to Triple-A the difference is so small.
DL: You hit over .340 as a minor leaguer but didn’t really get a chance to establish yourself in the big leagues until you were 27 years old and with your second organization. Why was that?
LO: Part of it was being back-loaded at first base in Arizona. They had [Erubiel] Durazo and I was also learning a new position. When I was in college I played outfield and in the big leagues you have to be prepared for everything. You have to get that experience so that once you get to there nothing is going to surprise you. I think that was a big reason.
They also had control over me so it wasn’t really a rush to get me there, and it was just one of those things where you’ve got to keep proving yourself and proving that you can hit. [The Diamondbacks] gave me the job in ’03, and I never did get consistent at-bats, but we were in a playoff race and things tend to happen certain ways when you’re in a playoff race. I went to another organization and got a second chance, and not a lot of guys get that.
DL: How did the trade to Milwaukee come about?
LO: You know honestly… at the end of the year Shea Hillenbrand was the third baseman and he moved over to first base, and they mentioned that he was going to be the third baseman next year for Arizona, and they never said anything about first base so I was like, “OK, they’re going to make a trade.” I thought I was going to be included so I was expecting it; I just wasn’t sure where it would be.
They always wanted a power right-handed hitter, so Richie Sexson came over [to Arizona]. I came over to Milwaukee and the first thing they told me was, “You’re going to play every day, this is your job, so just go out and play. We know what kind of player you are, and we don’t expect you to do anything different.” It was comfortable from the very beginning.
DL: What kind of player are you?
LO: Just a patient hitter… doubles, hitting it to all of the gaps I think more than anything. My minor-league coaches always said that the home runs would come, so I wasn’t trying to do too much as far as hitting home runs. Everyone looks at me and I’m 6-foot-2, 230 pounds and they’re like, “OK, he’s got to hit home runs” but I’ve just never been able to figure that out.
Every time I try to hit home runs, or pull the ball a little bit more, it just complicates things. It snowballs and I actually do worse. When I’m going good—when I’m feeling the most comfortable—is when I’m hitting the ball the other way and driving the ball to all fields. Honestly, that doesn’t result in homers because sometimes that’s the deep part of the ballpark.
DL: When did you learn who you are as a hitter?
LO: You know I’ve always been that way. That’s how I came up: a doubles hitter with average. That’s just the way that I’m programmed. I didn’t want to hit .250. I wanted to hit .280-.290 and hit more doubles, and drive in runs. That’s the player I wanted to be, and I wanted to be consistent. I didn’t want the ups and downs. I’ve always known that, it has just been a matter of making sure that I stick with it. That’s been the hardest deal.
DL: How aware of on-base percentage have you been throughout your career?
LO: I think about it. I mean, you have to look at it both ways. You look at, for example, J.D. Drew. It’s always been, “He’s got to drive runs in,” but you’re not seeing him drive runs in because he’s taking those walks, whereas an aggressive hitter like Adrian Beltre—he’s going to go out of the zone and he’s a good hitter like that. That’s the way he is.
It’s just a matter of understanding what your game is. For me, I don’t do very well hitting when the ball is off the plate. I’m not a good bad-ball hitter, where other guys are. I guess that’s something where I’m not helping my team if I’m going out of the zone and trying to hit those balls and trying to be greedy as far as driving runs in. I want to be able to make sure that I’m getting on base. That’s going to result in just as many opportunities.
DL: Would you say that you’re essentially the same hitter now that you were five or six years ago?
LO: I think I’ve grown as far as maybe knowing, or honing in on… it’s hard to explain. I think I’m somewhat the same hitter, but maybe I understand my swing a little bit more, which probably ends up hurting me.
DL: Why would that hurt you as a hitter?
LO: I think it’s more that you’re thinking about it too much; you know what you can and can’t do. When you’re going good, guys will sit there and say “Man, I don’t even know what pitch that was.” Sometimes it’s better to be dumb than smart in the game of baseball.
DL: How much do you study pitchers?
LO: I’m pretty anal about that. I write stuff down on each pitcher, as far as what I see. You can only watch so much video. If you don’t get out there and see them… you can see a lot of sink on a pitcher on video, and then you get in the game and it doesn’t look like that much sink. So it’s something that I want to be prepared for, and that’s where I think I’m at my best. The more I see a pitcher, the better I’m prepared. They’re going to pitch you how they know to get you out. You can watch video on how they’re going to get other guys out, but honestly that’s a totally different hitter than me.
DL: So, if you’re on deck and Travis Snider—another left-handed hitter—is at the plate, are you paying attention to how the pitcher is attacking him?
LO: I’ll pay attention as far as if his off-speed pitches are strikes—if it’s a good pitch to hit or if he’s leaving it up in the zone. Frankly, those off-speed pitches are tough to hit unless they’re up. Some days they have it and some days they don’t, so I’ll pay attention to that, but other than that I don’t watch the sequence because they’re going to completely change it when I get up there.
DL: Brian Butterfield, who is regarded as one of the best infield instructors in the game, has a lot of good things to say about your defensive work at first base.
LO: That’s the one thing that I can control. In baseball, with hitting you’re going to fail seven out of 10 times if you’re a Hall of Famer. That’s something I’ve dealt with and it’s something you can’t control. You can hit a ball on the screws and be 0-for-4. I feel that defense is something I can control, and you can change the game even if you’re not hitting. You can save a run here or there and I’ve taken more pride…I think I get more upset if I do something bad on the field as opposed to striking out with the game on the line.
DL: What is the most underrated part of first-base defense?
LO: I would say that it’s [footwork] around the base. Guys will throw the ball up the line and if you don’t take the right angle on it, you’re not going to get that out. We’ll see on TV that he pulled you off the bag, and while the second baseman or third baseman should have hit you on the chest, if you’d have taken the right angle to it, you would have been able to stay on the bag and get the out. On TV you see the first baseman coming off the bag and you think, “Oh, it’s the shortstop’s fault.” Those are the little things that make a big difference, because you don’t ever see it. You can only see it if you’re here and you see the angle from where the throw is coming, and exactly what you’re supposed to do as far as your feet. The footwork at first base is very underrated.
DL: Butterfield says that you’re adept at scooping throws out of the dirt.
LO: That’s something that becomes a natural reaction. You don’t panic. Once you start tensing up, you don’t do as well. You’re not as free. It’s just a matter of reading the ball. In the big leagues, when they miss they barely miss. Yeah, maybe I did scoop it off the hop, but on the same token it’s a fairly easy play. The ones that get you are the ones that are right between the grass and dirt because you don’t know where it’s going to go or what it’s going to do. Most of the time, you have a good idea of what it’s going to do, so it’s just a matter of going and getting it.
DL: How are you approaching free agency this offseason?
LO: That’s something where you don’t know what the market is going to be, so you don’t know if you’re going to get a two-year deal or a one-year deal with incentives. I just hope that I get the opportunity to pick where I go and get what’s best for my family. Hopefully I’ll go to a contender. I’ve played in this league long enough that I don’t like playing for personal reasons. I want to win a championship. It’s hard, because if you go to a championship team, maybe you don’t get as many at-bats as you might somewhere else, so it’s like, “OK, do I go to this team that’s going to get me at-bats?” It’s a decision that hopefully will be fun, but like I said, I want the opportunity to play and be on a championship-caliber team.