Not that many people have taken notice, but Jeff Keppinger just keeps on keeping on. The Reds infielder flies under the radar as much as anyone in the game, playing in relative obscurity despite rapping out base hits everywhere he goes. Originally drafted by the Pirates in 2001, Keppinger has been shuttled from Pittsburgh to the Mets to the Royals to the Reds since July 2004, with no one giving him a serious look until injuries prompted Cincinnati to give him an opportunity last season. The 28-year-old University of Georgia product responded by doing what he’s always done: produce base hits. A .322 hitter in 2,175 minor league at-bats, Keppinger put up a what-else-did-you-expect .332/.400/.477 line in 67 games last season, and also proved himself to be a capable defensive shortstop. Sidelined from May 14-June 22 this season by a fractured left kneecap, Keppinger was hitting .320 at the time of the injury. He talked about his game when the Reds visited Cleveland in late June.
David Laurila: It wouldn’t be fair to ask you to compare yourself to a Hall of Famer, but looking at your skill-set and career-path, would it be at all plausible to liken you to a poor-man’s Wade Boggs?
Jeff Keppinger: I don’t know so much about career path and all that, because I’m not too in-depth with his career, although I guess that I do know his career in Boston well enough. I remember that.
DL: What I’m referring to is that despite consistently hitting for a high average in the minors, Boggs had to wait for an opportunity to prove what he could do in the big leagues, in part because he didn’t profile as a tools guy.
JK: Yeah, I think there could be some kind of a comparison with him, maybe my mindset when it comes to hitting? Like when it comes to stepping in the box and trying to figure out what you need to do against a pitcher-you know, against certain pitchers there are only certain things you can do. Some pitchers are harder to take bigger swings against, and all you can do is try to take your base hits; you have to play small ball and hope to beat those pitchers 2-1 or 3-2. Maybe we’re similar in that way.
DL: Is that how you’d describe your hitting style: looking for base hits, whichever way you can get them?
JK: Oh yeah. I don’t look for anything else; I just try to find a way to get on base. If it looks like a pitcher is pounding me in, I’m going to maybe open up a little bit and try to beat him to that spot inside. Or if it looks like he’s pounding me away, I’ll sit away and try to hit something in front of the right fielder, and if it gets by him for extra bases, that’s even better. You have to get on base in order to get closer to home, so that’s all I try to do.
DL: Do you spend a lot of time studying charts, or is your approach more to just go into a game and make adjustments on the fly?
JK: It’s funny, sometimes you look at charts and they’ll be right on, and sometimes you’ll look at them and the pitcher will be throwing completely different from what they have written down. So you have to be able to do both; you have to watch some video and then get in there and see what they’re doing to you as the game goes on. That’s why it’s not always good to go up there swinging at the first pitch when you have no idea what they’re trying to do to you. You might swing at the first pitch in your first at-bat, and the pitcher may miss his spot, and you think they’re going to pitch you a certain way. But they’re not, so the next thing you know, the next two at-bats you’re still trying to figure it out. So it’s good to get in there and see some pitches, try to figure it out, and then make adjustments from there.
DL: Did you change as a hitter when you got to the big leagues?
JK: No, I still have the same approach I always have. I try to sit up the middle; I try to hit the ball back up the middle. If you stay up the middle you can make that adjustment in, and if you stay up the middle you can make that adjustment away. But if you’re looking either in or out, that’s pretty much all you’re going to get. I mean, you have to be able to make adjustments quickly, regardless of what the charts are saying, because they’re not always right.
DL: Given that charts are used much more extensively in the big leagues than they are in the minors, did you go through a period early on where you utilized them more often?
JK: Oh yeah, I did. And I’ll still go in there after an at-bat, especially when I’m struggling a little bit, to see if I can pick up anything-but it’s more so with the video, because if I’m watching my at-bats, I can see if I’m swinging at strikes, and I can see how their ball is moving. Charts are helpful to know what pitches they’ve got, and where their speed is at, but besides that-it’s all in the box. It’s all about what happens when you start hitting. All of that other stuff goes away when you get in the box and hit.
DL: Along with showing that you can hit at the big-league level, you’ve also proven yourself to be a solid defensive infielder. How meaningful is that to you?
JK: It’s definitely meaningful.I think that my defense is underrated. Talking about the tools thing again, like range and speed out there in the field, and arm strength-the fact is, when it comes to playing the game it’s a matter of making the outs. It doesn’t matter if you have to throw the ball underhanded to first base. As long as you make the outs, that’s all that matters. The pitcher doesn’t care how hard you threw it to first, or whatever. But as far as my defense goes, maybe my hitting overshadowed my defense, so people always labeled me as an offensive guy, which caused my defense to be overlooked? But I think I do pretty well out there.
DL: You’ve moved around the infield, from second base to shortstop to third base. How difficult has that been?
JK: It’s not as easy as people think it is. A lot of people think that if you can play one position you can play them all, but it’s a different look at every different position; it’s a different feel; it’s a different mindset. So I don’t know-I just go out there and try to get in my mind that if the ball is hit to me, I’m going to make the play. If it’s in my reach and I can get a glove on it, I’m going to make the play and make a good throw. That philosophy has been working for me, so I’m going to stick with it.
DL: Having played mostly in the middle of the infield, has it been especially hard to adjust to third base because of the different reads off the bat?
JK: Yeah, it has; you could say that. I feel that I’m more comfortable at shortstop right now. Third base is a little closer, with a quicker reaction time, so shortstop is a little easier for me. It’s just a matter of getting used to taking balls over there.
DL: Unlike the middle infield positions, you can’t see the catcher’s signal from third base. Is that information relayed to you from the shortstop?
JK: It depends on who the shortstop is. Sometimes they help you out by letting you know, and sometimes they don’t. I guess it’s just one of those things where if they let you know, they let you know, and if they don’t, hang with them and make the play if the ball is hit at you. What else can you do?