In retrospect, the fact falls somewhere between amusing and puzzling to consider.
After all, Josh Reddick is now considered someone with an uncanny ability to drive the ball. Manager Terry Francona often speaks of the “thunder” in the bat of the 24-year-old, and he’s gone deep four times in 99 plate appearances in the majors this year, on top of 14 more homers in the minors.
Given the frequency with which he is driving the ball for the Red Sox this year – he is now hitting .372 with a .424 OBP, a massive .651 slugging mark and 1.075 OPS, in the process earning a job as the Sox’ everyday right fielder – it is remarkable to contemplate the origins of his power.
Many big leaguers have stories of walloping one ball after another over the fence from Little League straight through college and into the professional ranks. Reddick has a different narrative.
While he now clears fences with ease, Reddick did not hit a home run in a game until he turned 17. It was not until a summer showcase game following his junior year that he finally went deep.
“It just kind of came out of nowhere. It actually got out of the park pretty far,” said Reddick. “I hit it and didn’t know how to react. I held my hand up as I rounded the bases like I hit a walkoff homer and ended up getting plunked the next at-bat. I didn’t care – I’d hit the first one of my life.
“Growing up, I was always that slap hitter getting his hands inside the ball and hitting line drives over short,” Reddick added. “My senior year, I didn’t change anything. Just out of nowhere, I started hitting balls out of the park.”
Even so, when Reddick’s power did start appearing – first with a handful of homers in his senior year of high school and then when he went deep seven times in his lone season at Middle Georgia College – it was not entirely shocking.
After all, at South Effingham High School, Reddick had demonstrated a unique ability to get the barrel of the bat on the ball, no matter where it was thrown. His hand-eye coordination permitted him to do uncommon things in the batter’s box, resulting in an approach that separated him from the Red Sox prototype.
“My philosophy on hitting and Boston’s philosophy on hitting is entirely different. I understand theirs, and I appreciate theirs, but when you’re a good high school hitter, I want him hitting everything,” said Tony Kirkland, who coached Reddick in his last two years of high school. “Anything he can smash, I want him hitting it.
“When he’s up there hitting balls two inches off the ground, balls around his neck, he was almost like a Vladimir [Guerrero] in high school. He didn’t miss, he didn’t walk, he didn’t strike out.
“When I got a chance to watch him play, he had an uncanny [ability],” Kirkland added. “I called him The Freak. He just did not miss. He would not miss. He went through two full baseball seasons, accumulated well over 200 plate appearances, and had five strikeouts.”
Even before he started hitting homers, Reddick already showed the ability to send screaming liners all over the park, including to the opposite field. He was a doubles and triples hitter, though he didn’t generate the loft or backspin associated with the typical power hitter.
When he did start hitting homers, they were typically missiles that shot over the wall, rather than cloud scrapers. Kirkland recalled a ball that was on Reddick’s shoetops, about three inches off the ground, that the young outfielder turned on and rocketed over the fence.
While Reddick went deep on occasion while armed with aluminum as an amateur, it was as a wood-wielding professional that he discovered a power stroke. It was in his first full pro season that Reddick realized that he possessed a surprising amount of pop.
Drafted in the 17th round in 2006 after spending a year at Middle Georgia, Reddick, then 20, opened the year in extended spring training before getting assigned to the Sox’ Single-A affiliate in the South Atlantic League in May.
Though he played in just 95 games, Reddick put up big numbers. He hit .305 with an .881 OPS, and in 404 plate appearances, hit 18 homers and drove in 72 runs. Previously unheralded, he had thrown himself onto the prospect radar.
“My first year was really a surprise for me. I missed a month and a half in extended. To come back and hit 18, second on the team in home runs and RBIs, was like, ‘Wow. I didn’t think I’d be able to do this,’” admitted Reddick. “It opened my eyes to a whole different level of my game.”
It is a part of his game that has been a staple of his performance ever since, with a swing that features different elements than it did when he was an amateur. Reddick suggests that experience has taught him to backspin a baseball, something that has allowed him to generate power while still maintaining an easy, fluid swing.
“[Power comes from] staying within myself and putting a lot of backspin on the ball so I can get the trajectory of the ball to stay up and keep going up when it goes out of the ballpark,” said Reddick. “When I start swinging too hard, I just roll it over, or if I hit it in the air, it’s going to have a lot of topspin. Stay within myself, stay back, get backspin on it.”
He does so now on a consistent basis. Even when he has struggled, Reddick has still been a lineup threat capable of unloading on a baseball. In five minor league seasons, he has averaged a homer for roughly every 23 at-bats.
Reddick believes that power will play a significant part in determining his future with the Sox. He is part of a glut of talented left-handed outfielders, and entered the year fifth on the depth chart of that category, behind Carl Crawford, Jacoby Ellsbury, J.D. Drew and Ryan Kalish.
In assessing that group, Reddick believed that he could define a niche for himself.
“Once we got a guy like Crawford, the speed game was something I didn’t need to focus on, especially with a guy like Kalish, too. You’ve got three guys that steal bases, hit for average,” said Reddick. “I figured they needed someone who can drive in more runs and hit the ball out of the park a little more. No one wants three guys who can steal bases like that.
“So that was one thing I needed to focus on. Luckily I’ve been able to do that up here and hit for a high average. Hopefully I can continue to do that.”
Reddick set a preseason goal of hitting 25 homers between the majors and minors. After going deep 14 times in Pawtucket and four in the majors, he’s just seven longballs from that plateau, though the outfielder is mindful of not placing too great a priority on reaching it at the expense of a sound approach.
“It’s something that if I don’t reach, I’m not going to be disappointed. If I do reach, I pat myself on the bat and keep going,” said Reddick. “It’s something I want to do, but I don’t have to do. Especially up here. With the lineup we have, I don’t have to be the guy hitting the longball.”
Even so, he has emerged as a player who is capable of doing so with some regularity. That reflects in no small part the fact that he has made huge strides in his plate discipline.
The aggressive, free-swinging approach that Reddick developed in high school was a focal area of his development as he moved up the minor league ranks. Even when he was enjoying tremendous success in the minors, the Sox offered consistent reminders about the need to become more selective, and to take command of an at-bat by defining his hitting zone and refusing to expand it.
This year, more than ever, he is implementing a gameplan at the plate, with obvious results. He is striking out once every 6.6 plate appearances in the majors, having cut his punchouts nearly in half. After walking just three times in 125 combined plate appearances in 2009 and 2010, he has taken 10 free passes this season.
The walks are not significant in their own right. However, they attest to an increasingly sound approach that has put Reddick in position to show off his ability to drive the ball.
“He’s got such good hand-eye coordination, strong hitter’s hands. The ball jumps off his bat,” said Francona. “But it’s hard to do that when you’re not swinging at strikes. He’s done a better job of swinging at strikes. That’s probably just repetition, maturity. It looks like it’s starting to fall into place. I hope it stays there.”
While it would be all but impossible for Reddick to sustain his production to date, he has nonetheless produced a stretch that has significant implications for both his present and future. In the process, the rookie has given a unique thrill to those who were a part of his baseball upbringing.
Last weekend in Tampa Bay, several friends and family members made the eight-hour drive from Georgia to see Reddick. He rewarded the undertaking by hitting a home run against the Rays, the first time that either his immediate family members or his high school coach had ever seen him go deep in a big league game.
It served as a reminder of how far Reddick has come and how bright his future may be.
“It’s a coach’s dream to see it live,” said Kirkland. “I’m hoping he hits a line drive opposite field single every time he’s up there. To see him leave the yard is pretty special.”