A two-time American League All-Star with a lifetime batting average of .287, Shea Hillenbrand has averaged 33 doubles and 18 home runs over the last three seasons, and has driven in as many as 97 runs in a season. What the straight-shooting Hillenbrand does not do is draw many walks, which has made him no particular favorite of the sabermetric community.
Originally with the Red Sox, Hillenbrand was traded to Arizona for Byung-Hyun Kim in 2003. He began last season with Toronto, but was traded to San Francisco in July after a well-publicized confrontation with Blue Jays manager John Gibbons that erupted after Hillenbrand briefly left the team so that he and his wife could adopt a child. The 31-year-old Hillenbrand has since found another home, signing a $6.5 million free agent deal with the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim in December.
David Laurila talked to Hillenbrand for Baseball Prospectus about what happened in Toronto, his approach to hitting, and playing with Barry Bonds.
David Laurila: In mid-June of last year you were hitting .330 with 11 home runs. From that point on you struggled. What happened?
Shea Hillenbrand: First of all, I had a good relationship with my hitting coach in Toronto, Mickey Brantley. We worked well together, and I was continuing to learn as a hitter. Things went good until we went into interleague play, and then the wheels started to fall off with my manager. It escalated from there, and it got to the point that the only thing I didn’t like about Toronto was going to the ballpark. That’s not an excuse, though. As a player, it’s your responsibility to deal with situations and do your job. Still, while I take full responsibility for my actions and my performance on the field, it was something I had never had to deal with, and it affected me.
DL: What happened between you and John Gibbons?
SH: It boiled down to him saying that I was selfish, not a team player, and that I was a cancer in the clubhouse. It’s unfortunate that a team will put a spin on a player to try to make something 100 percent his fault. I think that was far from the case. Look at the problems he had with Ted Lilly and Bengie Molina; two very good people. I don’t think the cancer went away when I was traded. But in retrospect, it’s the best thing that could have happened to me. I was willing to take the criticism and I’m just thankful to be out of that situation.
DL: As a hitter, how difficult is it to change leagues?
SH: The way I look at it, if you can hit, you can hit. Not that I’m a great hitter, but if you have a passion for hitting it’s no big deal. You have to make adjustments to new teammates and to new pitchers, but that’s part of the game. I know that people debate it, but there’s not a big style difference in my opinion. I faced a lot of talented pitchers in the American League, and I did when I was in San Francisco, too.
DL: What was it like playing with Barry Bonds?
SH: Unbelievable. Barry Bonds is one of the nicest guys I’ve ever met; one of the best teammates I’ve ever had. I wasn’t intimidated by him, so we got along well. He’s probably the greatest ever, and I talked to him a lot about hitting. I utilized him as a resource. I’ve played with elite players before, and Barry just wanted to play the game and be his own person. In some ways we’re a lot alike. He’s a Leo, like me.
DL: How often do you look at video of your swing?
SH: All the time. I look at it frame-by-frame. That’s when you want to think about your swing. Your mechanics need to be outside of the batter’s box. Once you step into the box, your entire focus and approach needs to be on the pitcher.
DL: When you break down your swing, what are you looking at?
SH: Primarily balance and timing. I want to see if my weight is where it should be, because power comes from the legs. It comes from the knees to the top of the abs. That’s what hitting is all about: your groin, your glutes, your midsection. Your hands are your guide to creating it, but your power comes from your base. When you’re in a slump, people usually think it’s your mechanics, but it’s all about rhythm and timing.
DL: How often do you look at charts?
SH: I don’t look at charts. There are players who like charts and numbers–Curt Schilling is a good example–but everyone is different and I prefer video. That’s how I like to study pitcher’s tendencies and formulate my game plan. Number crunching isn’t for me.
DL: When you do look at your numbers, which ones mean the most to you?
SH: One is batting average, although that doesn’t mean shit without a good on-base-percentage or if you’re not driving in runs. Troy Glaus hits 35-40 home runs and drives in over 100, and only hits around .250 or .260. But he’s being productive. Some guys hit for a higher average but don’t really contribute anything. I also look at home runs, RBI, and doubles. That’s the kind of player I am. I’m a gap hitter with some power.
DL: You had a better-than-league-average OBP in both 2004 and 2005, and were right around league average at the time you were traded last season. Yet you get criticized for that part of your game. Is that fair?
SH: The way I look at is that I’m not perfect, but people keep paying me more every year, so I must be doing something right. I don’t care about criticism. It doesn’t faze me, because I’m getting older and I understand how the game works. As a player, you look at what you do and you try to get better.
DL: You’re going into your seventh big league season. At a similar point in his career, Dwight Evans became more disciplined and saw his productivity increase. Do you see yourself changing in a similar fashion?
SH: That’s… If you’re not balanced, it’s not going to matter. The way I look at hitting, you have to be mechanically and bio-physically balanced. I’m huge on kinetics. When you look at guys who practice karate, you ask “why are guys who are so small creating so much power?” It’s a matter of using your smaller muscles to create that power and good bat-speed. It’s all about balance and being in position to fire and drive through the ball. I have good hand-eye coordination, and that’s how I hit. I consider myself a student of the game, and the desire is there to get better.
DL: What are your thoughts going into the 2007 season?
SH: I’m really excited to be where I am. I grew up half an hour from Anaheim, and it’s going to be a great place to play. I learned a lot from what happened last year, and I’m switching my goals to be more geared toward winning than anything else. I’m not going to let myself get wrapped up in things I have no control over. We have a lot of talented players here, and I just want to help the team.
DL: Stepping back and looking at Shea Hillenbrand through the eyes of a general manager, what do you see?
SH: A lot of people are skeptical on what they have with me because I’m so intense. I’m so competitive. They know I’m going to play hard every day. I hope they recognize that team chemistry is important to me, and that there’s a lot I can offer to the younger guys on the team. I think I have the potential to do a lot for a ball club.
David Laurila grew up in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and now writes about
baseball from his home in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He is the author of
“Interviews from Red Sox Nation” which was published in 2006 by Maple Street
Press. He can be reached here.