TAMPA — Last August, after Hunter Pence arrived in the lineup, the Phillies scored 132 runs (third in the National League), sported a .436 slugging percentage (tied for second) and hit 33 home runs, more than they had hit in any other month in the 2012 season.
Pence was an important part of the often-criticized lineup’s resurgence. But so was one of the guys who could have lost playing time with Pence’s arrival as the Phillies’ every-day right fielder.
John Mayberry Jr. hit six home runs in 18 games last August. Among players with at least 50 plate appearances, Mayberry’s .685 slugging percentage that month ranked fifth in the National League.
Whether that short run of eye-opening success will be a harbinger for the 2012 season remains to be seen. The four players with better slugging percentages last August included two perennial MVP candidates (Joey Votto and Carlos Gonzalez) and two random NL West catchers (Nick Hundley and Rod Barajas).
But with Ryan Howard out for the beginning of the season and Raul Ibanez no longer patrolling left field, Mayberry, for the first time in his career, will have time to establish himself as a productive major-league player in 2012.
“I’m definitely excited about it,” Mayberry said Sunday, when he went 1-for-3 with a double in the Phillies’ 7-4 loss to the Yankees in an exhibition game in Tampa. “I definitely view it as an opportunity to realize one of the goals I had since I signed Day One, and that’s to be an everyday player.”
Coincidentally, one of the people with the most confidence in Mayberry’s ability to expand his success over the duration of a season happens to be the guy he could be replacing as the Phillies’ regular left fielder. Ibanez, who signed with the Yankees last month, spoke glowingly of Mayberry prior to Sunday’s game.
“It’s not just the work ethic and the want, and he’s obviously got the talent and the ability, but it’s his desire to learn, his desire to improve that makes him special,” Ibanez said. “It’s what has put him in the position he’s in now, where he can be a dominant player.”
“Absolutely,” Ibanez said. “I think he can be a dominant player. He proved that last year. He popped 15 homers in a limited time.”
After playing in 50 games with the Phillies in 2009 and 2010, Mayberry carved out a role as a legitimate major-league reserve last season, when he hit .273 with a .341 on-base percentage and an .854 OPS (on-base plus slugging percentage) in 104 games. He also hit 15 home runs, 17 doubles and racked up 49 RBIs.
Mayberry also got better as the season progressed — and as he got more regular playing time.
In a 38-game stretch from Independence Day to Labor Day, Mayberry hit .296 with a 1.012 OPS, 10 home runs, nine doubles, a triple and 32 RBIs. He started 25 of those 38 games.
Mayberry’s surge at the plate coincided with his return from a monthlong stay at Triple-A Lehigh Valley.
“Hopefully those days are behind me,” Mayberry said.
At 28 years old, Mayberry wouldn’t be the only late bloomer to play in the Phillies outfield. Jayson Werth didn’t become a regular until 2008, when he was 29, and Ibanez was 30 when the Kansas City Royals gave him the opportunity to play every day.
After spending countless hours in the batting cages with Mayberry in the last three years, Ibanez knows his former teammate has the makeup to achieve similar success.
“He always has a desire to learn and listen, he seeks you out to learn and to listen — and what a great quality to have,” Ibanez said. “And he takes it to heart. He’s obviously very bright, but he’s also humble at the same time. And I think having that humility, it helps him; he wants to learn and get better all the time. He’s always trying to find a way to get better.”
Those traits should help Mayberry become more accustomed to playing first base, too. He hasn’t played the position regularly since he was in Stanford in 2005 — coincidentally the last year Jim Thome also played the position regularly — but Mayberry has started at first in each of the Phillies’ first three exhibition games.
But the 6-6 Mayberry looked like an old pro Sunday when he robbed New York’s Mark Teixeira of extra bases by stabbing a ball just inside the bag to end the first inning.
“I thought it was foul,” pitcher Roy Halladay said. “I don’t know how he got it, but, I mean, he’s an athletic player, he’s a big guy and he did a great job last year.”
“He’s got the natural athletic ability and he can play all three outfield spots and first base,” manager Charlie Manuel said. “That might be how he plays every day.” — (AP)