Marco Scutaro rode a lot of buses before he ever sniffed the big leagues. After being signed by the Indians in 1994, he played six full seasons in the minors. Then there were cups of coffee with the Mets in 2002 and 2003, but Scutaro didn’t get a shot to play every day until Oakland picked him up prior to the 2004 season, when he was already 28. In four seasons with Oakland, he showed glimpses of the player he might become, including a .269 True Average in 2006. He was never flashy, but he was an integral part of the A’s playoff run that year, a super-utilityman who played significant time at all non-first-base infield positions.
Now, at age 37, when most players are well into decline or out of the game altogether, Marco Scutaro is arguably in the prime of his career. After a terrible first month, during which Scutaro now admits he was suffering from a bad back, he caught fire. He put together a 19-game hitting streak, during which he hit .481. He’s worked just 12 walks this year, but he’s also struck out just 13 times. Scutaro’s current TAv is .294, and he’s already accrued 1.0 WARP in just 46 games.
I made the four-mile journey from my house to the O.co Coliseum to talk to Marco when his current team visited his former team for the Bay Bridge interleague series. He returned to Oakland as a conquering hero, a member of the world champions and MVP of the National League Championship Series.
There are quite a few former Athletics on this Giants team: I watched Chad Gaudin and Barry Zito reunite with broadcasters and clubbies, all smiles and hail-fellows. Scutaro was as unassuming in his interactions as he is at the plate; he greeted an Oakland groundskeeper warmly after batting practice, and then apologized to me for keeping me waiting for our scheduled interview.
As a hitter, his plate discipline and contact rates have become the stuff of legend. So far this season, he’s got the fifth-lowest out-of-zone swing rate in the majors at 19.9 percent, and his career rate is even lower: 17.6 percent. I asked Scutaro how he developed such a discerning eye.
“When your mechanics are fine,” he told me, “you have a chance to lay off bad pitches and attack good pitches. Over the years, I’ve just learned what my game is. I’m not a power hitter or an RBI guy, so my game is to get on base and try and be consistent.”
I started out by asking him about his fifth inning at-bat in Sunday’s game against Jon Garland. To the layperson, there may have seemed nothing special about the matchup. But to a dedicated Scutaro scholar, it stood out at as quintessential Scutaro.
“You took the first two pitches,” I told him. “A sinker and a curveball–”
“Sinker and a changeup,” he corrected me.
I consulted my notes; of course he was right.
“You took a sinker and a changeup for strikes, then a curveball just low.”
I mean, it was really just low. Check out the PITCHf/x thingie:
“The next pitch is a fastball out over the plate, and you lace it right back up the middle. You’d eventually score the go-ahead run, and you guys would go on to win the game. It was a very Marco Scutaro at-bat.”
He nodded. Classic Scutaro.
Scutaro is, not surprisingly, an elder statesman among hitters in the Giants’ clubhouse. After he finished his BP session, I saw him consulting with Gregor Blanco. Scutaro, who hits exclusively right-handed, was set up as a lefty while talking to the left-handed-hitting Blanco. I asked what they were discussing.
“I was telling him how he can use his hands and upper body more. Even when a pitcher takes your legs away, you can still hit with your hands.”
He’s also tried to talk to the man who hits behind him in the order about being more, well, Scutaro-like. So far it doesn’t seem to have taken effect: Pablo Sandoval leads all qualified hitters on out-of-the-zone swing percentage at an eye-popping 48.1 percent. (Of course Sandoval also boasts an O-contact percentage of better than 80 percent.)
“I’ve told Pablo that sometimes the situation requires you to be more selective, like when there’s a man on third and less than two outs. But I don’t want to take his aggressiveness away either.”
Giants’ hitting instructor Hensley “Bam Bam” Meulens repeated this exact sentiment.
“We have one guy who swings at everything and puts it in play, and then one of the five toughest guys to strike out in the league,” Bam Bam told me. “But you can’t change guys, really. You’d like them [to be more like Marco], but you don’t want to take away their aggressiveness.”
I asked Meulens about what makes Scutaro’s approach unique and why it’s so successful.
“He knows the strike zone very well. He has a good, level swing. And he has great hand-eye coordination, which you can’t teach. When you put all of that in the same basket, you’ve got a pretty good hitter.”
Bam Bam also complimented Scutaro’s swing mechanics, which allow him to let the ball get deep and recognize location, speed, and rotation.
“He puts his hands in position and the only thing he does is loads his legs and swings. Very little movement. It doesn’t get any simpler than that. I’m very happy to have him here.”
And those of us who appreciate the craft of hitting are equally happy watching him ply his trade.