Shelton's name heard across the nation
Tigers first baseman becomes well known after homer barrage
DETROIT -- Don't ask Chris Shelton what it feels like to hit home runs.
To him, a home run is not something to be felt.
"You hear it," he said last week. "The sound of the bat, it sounds so good. You don't feel it. It sounds loud."
A good Shelton home run sounds loud. Five Shelton home runs in four games can be heard around the country.
They're still echoing across the Majors. It's not so much the crack of the bat, but the sound of fans asking, "Who?"
Until the weekend, most folks who knew of Shelton were either family, friends, devoted Tigers fans, bitter Pittsburgh fans still angry the Pirates let him go, American League baserunners who said hello to him at first base last year, or fantasy league owners looking for a corner infielder in the middle rounds of their draft.
After an opening week to remember, Shelton has a little more recognition now. He's been on ESPN's Baseball Tonight and had more radio interview requests over the past five days than he did in his other five professional seasons. That's his smiling, surprised face on the MLB.com home page where the Major League home run leaders are listed.
Those photos are taken during Spring Training. His surprised look, though, could've been taken anytime last week. He's as surprised by his start as everyone else.
"I'm not going up there trying to hit home runs," Shelton said after his second two-homer game in three days on Thursday at Texas. "The power part is kind of shocking. It's kind of surprising."
The abundance of Shelton's hits isn't so much of a surprise. As his records show, he has hit at every level of baseball. As a 33rd-round pick out of college, he had to.
He hit .305 in the NY-Penn League that summer, then .340 at low Class A Hickory and a franchise record .359 at high A Lynchburg. He was the type of hitter that young pitchers hated to face -- not only could he fight off pitches to the opposite field, he could do it with power.
The Tigers snapped him up in the Rule 5 Draft and let him soak up the big leagues in 2004. Shelton was rarely seen and heard even less, but he observed, from how Ivan Rodriguez worked on his swing every day to how Rondell White approached RBI situations.
Detroit sent him to Triple-A Toledo last spring to teach him first base as a full-time position, but they also wanted Mud Hens hitting coach and former Major League slugger Leon Durham to work with him on pulling the ball for power. There was still debate whether he could do it when the Tigers called him back after two months, but Carlos Pena was struggling and Detroit needed a first baseman.
Shelton not only adjusted as he went along, he thrived. Of the 10 home runs he hit at spacious Comerica Park last year, six went out to right field, four pulled to left or left-center. He had more nicknames than anyone on the team, as much for his hair as his hitting: Red Pop, Red Bull, Big Red.
The only change Shelton made in the offseason, he says, was to hire a personal trainer to help him work on his core strength. He still had the squatty-looking frame more fitting for a bowler than a big-leaguer, but he still had the swing.
His Opening Day was a perfect example of what that swing can do. He singled to right-center in his first at-bat of the year, pulled a hanging breaking ball from Scott Elarton on a line to left field in his next appearance, then tucked a fastball inside the right-field foul pole for another homer.
"You don't see that very often," first-year hitting coach Don Slaught marveled.
His approach is literally somewhere in the middle. By trying to hit everything to center, he allows himself to pull offspeed pitches while covering the fastball. Many hitters do it, but not many have the quickness and pitch recognition to do it with power on both.
"He's unbelievable," Magglio Ordonez said. "We have a lot of good hitters, but he's even better when he's got two strikes. He's focused the same every time."
All three of his home runs in Texas were pulled. Rangers knuckleballer R.A. Dickey hung two gopher balls to him Thursday. The next night, Shelton went after a Jon Koronka pitch outside and sent it 409 feet.
"It's hard to explain how it feels when you a hit a home run, especially when you hit one and it happens to go out of the park," Shelton said. "You hit the sweet part of the bat and you don't feel it through your hands. You hear it."
That sealed Shelton's Player of the Week Award, but he had more. He didn't get anything to pull Saturday and still came up with three hits, including two opposite-field triples. No Tiger, not even the fast ones, had put up a two-triple game since Carlos Guillen in 2004.
"He can hit," Brandon Inge said. "I don't care if he can't run a lick. Let him hit home runs and do the whole Babe Ruth thing."
Or in this case, the Lou Brock thing. The only other players to homer five times through the first four games of a season were Brock in 1967 and Barry Bonds in 2002.
Shelton didn't feel the home runs, but he felt the reaction that came with them. He had plenty of interview requests in Detroit. One station in Utah called. So did one in Altoona, Pa., where Shelton played 35 Double-A games in 2003. The irony is Shelton didn't homer in any of them.
"It's funny, I could not hit a ball out of Altoona to save my life," Shelton recalled. "And it's smaller than Comerica."
Back home, the attention was tenfold. When the Tigers were introduced prior to Monday's home opener, no one received a bigger ovation than Shelton, not even new manager Jim Leyland. Even after they lost the opener, Shelton faced a crowd of cameras and microphones around him. He answered questions until everyone left. Because he's so polite, he takes all questions.
"Hopefully he'll just settle in and get into a routine on a daily basis," Leyland said. "He's going to be fine. He's going to hit."
Hitting for power at this rate is doubtful. For one thing, he's back in Comerica Park. Plus, opponents are pitching him differently. He struck out three times Sunday, mostly on fastballs. Freddy Garcia approached him the opposite in Monday's home opener, feeding him breaking balls to try to pull. He turned on one down the left-field line for an RBI double, but he also struck out twice.
The Tigers don't want him intentionally swinging for the fences, and he doesn't expect to. All he tries to do is center the ball and hit it hard. If pitchers approach him trying to avoid home runs, he could still easily hit .300, something he narrowly missed last year.
"I want to go out there and stay consistent," he said. "I don't want the big ups and downs. Last year I had a big July, bad August. We just have to go out there and keep it steady, just try to produce and help the team win every night as best we can."
If he keeps hitting balls out, well, he'll deal with the attention.
"Once things settle down and we start getting into the season, hopefully I play well enough that I can keep this attention, even though I don't like it," he said. "That means I'm playing well. As long as the team's winning, it doesn't matter."
Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.