- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 27, 2005

VIERA, Fla. — Endy Chavez stepped to the plate yesterday morning and dug in to face Washington Nationals reliever Chad Cordero for some live batting practice.

Whoosh! Low, ball one.

Whoosh! Outside, ball two.

Whoosh! High, ball three.

Whoosh! Low again, ball four.

Chavez never took the bat off his shoulder, yet hitting coach Tom McCraw couldn’t have been more pleased. That was the best batting practice session Chavez has had all week, and the sound of each pitch smacking into catcher Brian Schneider’s mitt was music to McCraw’s ears.

“That’s great,” McCraw said. “That’s what you want to do.”

Few major league hitting coaches would be so excited about one of their players not making contact, but in Chavez’s case, this qualifies as progress. The Nationals desperately want to see their starting center fielder and leadoff hitter take more pitches after a season in which he drew only 30 walks and reached base at a troubling .318 clip.

It’s a task easier said than done. Chavez, 27, is a good contact hitter. Maybe too good.

“If he has one downfall, it’s that when he swings the bat, he’s going to hit the ball,” McCraw said. “He’s not going to foul it off or miss it. He’s going to put it in play. And it’s not always a good count or a good situation. He’s great at swinging the bat. He just has to learn how and when.”

The club has been trying for three years to mold Chavez into a productive leadoff hitter since the Montreal Expos claimed him off waivers from the New York Mets. And the results haven’t been all that bad — the Venezuelan native hit .277 in 132 games last year, stole a team-high 32 bases and played solid defense in center field.

But a leadoff hitter’s batting average can be a deceptive stat. Managers, hitting coaches and scouts point to two other categories in determining his true value: on-base percentage and runs scored. In both departments, Chavez has fallen short over the years.

A decent leadoff man will get on base 34 percent of the time. The good ones? 37 percent. The really great ones? 40 percent. Chavez, in 41 games batting atop the lineup last season, got on 29 percent of the time.

“It’s hard, because I like to swing the bat,” he said. “I just need to focus more. If I don’t swing that much, maybe I can take a walk. I’m not going to be a very good hitter if I don’t [improve my on-base percentage]. I’ve got to work on it.”

Once on base, Chavez can wreak havoc. The fastest regular on the team, the slight, 154-pound outfielder stole 32 of 39 bases last year and legged out six triples.

Just one problem: He was on base so infrequently, he managed to score only 65 runs. The Nationals would like to see that number approach triple digits in 2005.

Of course, Chavez can’t score 100 runs if he’s not on the roster, and there’s no guarantee he’ll be there April4 in Philadelphia to take the first swing that matters in Nationals history. Manager Frank Robinson has made it clear this spring that Chavez must prove he’s ready to be a reliable leadoff hitter, or else risk starting the season in the minors.

That’s what happened a year ago, when Chavez suffered through a terrible spring, batting .200 in 55 at-bats, with an atrocious .228 on-base percentage. He was promptly sent to Class AAA Edmonton to open the season, a move even Chavez now admits was necessary.

“I had a really bad spring training,” he said. “[Robinson] told me from the beginning that I had to win the job. I understand that I didn’t do the job in spring training, so I deserved to be sent down. I wasn’t ready. I don’t believe I would have been good for the team.”

Don’t take Robinson’s threat of another demotion as a sign the Nationals lack confidence in Chavez, though. Or that they don’t want to see him succeed.

“I just told him, ‘I want you to make this team because we’ll be better with you on the team. Go out and do what you’re capable of doing. That’s all,’” Robinson said. “He knows. We’ve talked a lot to this kid.”

And Chavez seems to have gotten the message.

“I’m focused for this year,” he said. “I just know I’m going to be better this year.”

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