By Jon Weisman
GLENDALE, Ariz. — He hasn’t been the subject of much chatter at Spring Training, but outfielder Mike Baxter has displayed a special skill that might be of intrigue to fans wondering about the Dodger bench in 2014.
Baxter, quietly claimed October 17 off waivers from the New York Mets by the Dodgers (who were planning for 2014 even during the 2013 National League Championship Series), has a career .417 on-base percentage and .463 slugging in 84 plate appearances as a pinch-hitter. His .313 batting average coming in cold off the bench trails only Corey Hart, Jamey Carroll and Seth Smith among MLB players active in 2013.
“A lot of my time has been as a bench player,” the 29-year-old said today. “Over the years, I’ve kind of gotten comfortable in that role, so I have a lot of experience with it. I look forward to getting at-bats off the bench.”
That’s easy enough to understand. In 2012, Baxter was unconscious as a pinch-hitter, leading MLB by going 11 for 24 with eight walks and six doubles for a .458/.559/.708 slash line. He came back in 2013 with a .412 on-base percentage in another 34 pinch-hit plate appearances.
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“I’ve developed an in-game routine that I’ve tried to stick to through the course of the season,” Baxter said. “When you’re coming off the bench, you’ve just got to be ready to go from the first pitch they throw you. You get a good pitch to hit, you’ve got to go for it.”
Overall, Baxter has hit .229 in 353 career at-bats, dragged down by a .189 season in 2013, but with walks in 11 percent of his trips to the plate, his lifetime MLB on-base percentage is .335. He walked five times on August 4, 2012 to tie an NL record for a nine-inning game.
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Baxter has also displayed defensive ability as well as determination, earning a broken collarbone on a catch that helped preserve Johan Santana’s no-hitter on June 1, 2012. He said he spent the 2013-14 offseason “just trying to get back to kind of staying down through my swing and not popping out of it … staying down through contact.”
Last year, Dodger pinch-hitters OBPed .256 and slugged .313. No one reached base more often as a pinch-hitter than Jerry Hairston, who had seven hits but is now part of the SportsNet LA broadcast team. The Dodgers’ leading returning pinch-hitter is Scott Van Slyke, who went 4 for 10 with a home run.
“I’m excited to be here,” Baxter said. “When they claimed me in October off waivers, I was thrilled to have another chance and come out on a team with such a good roster and so many good players. I’m excited to be a part of it. I know that I can help them win.”