Mattingly's decline could be a matter of bad hitting habits Yankees Gold Glover struggling at .230

May 23, 1992|By The Hartford Courant

NEW YORK -- Nobody around the New York Yankees wants to say anything. Nobody wants to suggest that Don Mattingly, once considered the second coming of Stan Musial, now more closely resembles Mike Squires. Nobody wants to say that, least of all Mattingly.

He speaks cordially about matters in general but has next to nothing to say about himself specifically. He retreats to his corner stall in the clubhouse, a celebrity corner occupied in years past by Sparky Lyle, Graig Nettles, Ron Guidry and Dave Righetti.

There has been talk about his back, naturally. Mattingly's bulging disks problem is a chronic condition that has forced him to adhere to a daily exercise ritual. But watching him glide around first base with the same stylish and purposeful manner that earned him five gold gloves is evidence the back is not the sole reason for his offensive decline.

That is the Yankees' dilemma about Mattingly, 31. How can it be a first baseman whose nickname ought to be "3-6-3" and who turns every pop on the right side of the infield into a routine out often looks like Whistler's Mother at the plate?

"Bad habits," is batting instructor Frank Howard's assessment. "That has been the ruin of a lot of great hitters. Donnie had one of the best hitting situations possible. A guy like Rickey Henderson getting on base at will in front of him and a guy like Dave Winfield hitting behind him. Can you imagine the hittable fastballs per game Donnie saw? A lot more than Ted Williams or Joe DiMaggio did, you can bet.

"All of a sudden, that was gone. Pitchers could work around Donnie, which they did. He started going after pitches he should have let go by. It was tough for Donnie. He wanted to be the guy who drives in runs, not the guy who leaves it to somebody else. But what it did was make him less of a selective hitter. He started getting himself out instead of making pitchers get him out."

That helps illustrate Mattingly's concession to ego this year by agreeing with Manager Buck Showalter's decision to shift him from the No. 3 spot in the batting order to No. 2 in deference to center fielder Roberto Kelly. But that is not a satisfying explanation for why Mattingly continues to struggle, which Showalter acknowledges.

"What makes it tough to evaluate Donnie at this point is that in the past he has been a notoriously slow starter," Showalter said. "He has always had a hard time of it in April and May. But in previous years, he would be hitting .250 or .260 in those months. Now it's much lower. It's a matter of concern."

Once .349 would have been Mattingly's batting average, but now it is his slugging percentage. Mattingly's batting average is .230 with three home runs and 17 RBI. He is a .250 hitter with runners in scoring position.

This is quite a comedown from a player who averaged .314, 23 home runs and 102 RBI his first seven seasons. The past two seasons combined, Mattingly totaled 14 home runs and 110 RBI in 981 at-bats and batted .275. Not that this has interfered with the Yankees. They have won four in a row and seven of eight on the homestand despite little offensive impact by Mattingly, (.219, two RBI in 33 at-bats).

Showalter, a minor-league teammate of Mattingly in the Yankees chain, is understandably diplomatic in discussing the team captain's situation but has suggested that an evaluation of Mattingly as a No. 2 hitter may be warranted.

"Donnie could be better suited to batting fifth, even sixth," Showalter said. "Until recently, he had been hitting a lot to left field with runners on base. But I'm not prepared to make any change at this point. Down the road, who knows?"

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