09/17/09 5:35 PM ET
Laird improves on offensive side
Veteran catcher batting .412 in his past five games
By Jason Beck / MLB.com
Laird doesn't show his emotions at the plate, he said, because he doesn't want pitchers thinking he's distracted. The way he has been hitting lately, that might be less of a question down the home stretch.
"Honestly, I do feel like I'm a better offensive player," Laird said. "I hope people know that I am. I've been struggling and didn't have the offensive year that I'd like. But for the most part, I'm a team guy, and we're in first place and winning."
His manager believes. Jim Leyland would like to have Laird back next year to show it, and he isn't shy about his support. If he can have the combination of Laird and Alex Avila back behind plate, he would be pretty happy.
"I think Laird has taken so much pride in handling the staff, learning the staff and doing the job defensively that it's probably affected his hitting some," Leyland said. "He's a better hitter than what he has shown. Is he a great hitter? No. But is he a better hitter than what he has shown? Yes."
Laird's starting to show that lately. His double and run scored Wednesday extended his hitting streak to five games, during which he's 7-for-17 (.412), with a pair of doubles and three RBIs. Those are more hits than he has had in a five-game stretch since late June.
It has done a little to boost Laird's numbers, but his average still rests at .226 on the season and .198 since the All-Star break. His .637 OPS is the lowest among American League catchers with at least 400 plate appearances this year. Still, this latest stretch reflects a final month in which Leyland and others have noted Laird hitting balls harder than he had for much of the year.
"I think he's actually swinging the bat a little bit better right now," Leyland said.
Laird said coming into Spring Training that his primary focus as the Tigers' new catcher would be getting the most out of the pitching staff and providing defense. Those stats show his influence. While Detroit's ERA has plummeted this year to 4.33 for its starters, 4.17 for relievers, Laird has essentially taken away the running game by throwing out 41 percent (34-for-83) of would-be basestealers, best in the AL.
"There's times, honestly, when I feel like I've devoted myself to my defense and being the best I can back there," Laird said. "Because coming to a staff with a lot of good talent, I wanted to make sure I was back there and guys wanted me back there. I do the work, and I have a good idea what I'm doing back there."
That learning process largely won't be an issue next year, save for new pitchers. Both Laird and Leyland believe that can make a difference.
"I feel like next year I know what I'm coming into," Laird said, "and I put a little more time in."
Matt Treanor's season-ending injury in April essentially meant an everyday role for Laird, and the wear and tear may have caught up with him.
Now, Leyland said, "We've got a nice combination right now with him and Avila."
It isn't quite a platoon; Laird catches more games than that. But it's a little more time off than Laird had been getting, and enough time to work in Avila.
If Leyland can get that next year, he'll gladly take it. Laird has another year of arbitration left after making $2.8 million this year.
"I'm hoping he's back next year," Leyland said, "but that won't be my decision."
Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.