Orioles receiving benefits of Hoiles' major production

THE BIG CATCH

September 19, 1993|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,Staff Writer

MILWAUKEE -- It isn't difficult to understand the excitement in the Orioles' front office over the performance of catcher Chris Hoiles. He has bailed the team out in more ways than one.

Look at the numbers. His 26 home runs and 74 RBI this season have been an elixir for a sometimes inconsistent offensive lineup, and his skills behind the plate have improved to the point where he is recognized as one of the best all-around catchers in the American League.

No doubt, club officials will tell you they knew it all along. They could see the potential, both at the plate and behind it. They just had to be patient and everything would work out.

Of course, that's what they'll tell you. The Orioles acquired Hoiles in 1988 as part of a trade that sent Fred Lynn to Detroit. After the 1990 season, in which Hoiles split time between Balti

more and Triple-A Rochester, the Orioles took an organizational gamble. They traded power-hitting catcher Mickey Tettleton to the Detroit Tigers for soon-to-be-somewhere-else pitcher Jeff Robinson and some payroll relief.

"That's what I told everyone at the time," general manager Roland Hemond says now with a laugh, "but I don't think anybody was listening. We did feel that Chris was coming along and that was one of the reasons we made the [Tettleton] deal."

The three-day period during which the Orioles acquired first baseman Glenn Davis for three prospects and let Tettleton go will long be remembered as a black hole in the organization's history. But Hoiles, whose first full season in the majors was 1991, has done everything in his power to make Orioles fans forget.

He leads the club in home runs and ranks second in RBI. Though 0-for-5 in the current Milwaukee series, he is batting .312, which means that he has a chance to become the first full-time Orioles catcher to hit more than .300 and only the fourth in American League history to bat .300 or better with 25 or more home runs.

"I never wanted to try and fill Mickey's shoes," Hoiles said. "I thought that would be the wrong thing to do -- trying to duplicate his numbers. I just wanted to do what I could do. If that was good enough, fine."

He has been good enough and getting better. Imagine the numbers he might have put up if he had not been on the disabled list for three weeks in August. No wonder the club thinks it has a potential superstar on its hands.

"It doesn't surprise us that he's doing what he's doing," Hemond said.

"He's got the good power swing, and he has done it two straight years now. This isn't the first time that he has hit well. He has hit well for us since he joined the organization. So we're very pleased and encouraged that what you're seeing now is what we can expect to get."

Hoiles says he feels the same way, though he needed to prove to himself this year that he could do more than just hit home runs. He drove in just 40 runs with his 20-homer performance a year ago, so he wanted to show that he could be a front-line run producer, too.

"One of my biggest goals going into spring training was to increase my RBI," Hoiles said.

"With 20 homers, I wanted to drive in more runs. Considering that I've missed three weeks, I think I've done that. I feel I've reached my RBI goal."

But manager Johnny Oates says he thinks that everyone is missing the point.

The offensive production is nice, but everyone knew that Hoiles was a solid hitting prospect when he was acquired from the Tigers. The thing that gets Oates going is how much Hoiles has progressed behind the plate.

"I think his hitting has been pretty consistent the past two years," Oates said.

"I think Chris is going to get better, but the 20 home runs, that's not where he's getting better. He's getting better behind the plate. He's got only six passed balls. Our pitchers have the fewest wild pitches in the league. His whole defensive game has improved so much, it's unbelievable."

Leave it to an old catcher to notice that kind of thing. Oates is most impressed with the way Hoiles has grown up the past couple of years. He may be one of the most soft-spoken players on the team, but he isn't afraid to tell a pitcher what's what.

"He's starting to take charge," Oates said.

"He's starting to scream at pitchers when they don't get the ball in the right place. You sit there and watch him, and it would be hard not to say that he is the most improved player on the team."

That's saying quite a bit, because Hoiles had a pretty good year in 1992. He hit 20 home runs even though he missed a big chunk of the season when he broke his left wrist in June -- the result of an inside pitch by Tim Leary, whom the Orioles suspected was scuffing the ball. He set a dubious record for fewest RBI (40) by a player with at least 20 home runs, but everyone could see that the power and run-production potential would be there if his surgically repaired wrist healed completely.

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