There have been times during Cal Ripken's career when any change of his batting stance started a debate and a shift in the batting order created a controversy. Often the two went together, usually accompanied by below-average numbers.
Little has been said about either subject this season, for obvious reasons. Ripken has tinkered with his stance only minutely -- but he is prospering with a subtle change manager Johnny Oates made in the Orioles' lineup almost a month ago.
It was on June 10 that Harold Baines and Ripken flip-flopped in the Nos. 4 and 5 spots. Before that, Ripken had hit fourth only against left-handed pitchers, with mediocre results.
His overall numbers, however, influenced Oates to move Ripken up a notch and provide more protection with Baines hitting behind him. At the time, the bottom of the Orioles' lineup was struggling, but Ripken had 41 RBIs and was just starting to display home-run power.
Of particular interest, though, was the fact that Ripken had only one homer and 17 RBIs in 145 at-bats while hitting fifth. His totals in the fourth spot were 4 and 23 -- in only 63 at-bats (he also had a home run and RBI in 14 at-bats while hitting third).
"Originally, my thoughts coming out of spring training were, No. 1, to keep right-handers from pitching around [Rafael] Palmeiro," said Oates. "I felt the best way to do that was to hit Baines 'D behind him."
As the season progressed, and Ripken's overall numbers improved, Oates decided he could put Baines to even better use. "I figured I could hit him fifth and make sure they had to pitch to both of them [Palmeiro and Ripken]," he said.
The move enabled Oates to separate the left-handed hitters in the middle of his lineup, making the Orioles less vulnerable to a left-handed reliever. Since the move became permanent, Ripken has hit at a .354 pace (35-for-99), with six home runs and 20 RBIs in 103 at-bats.
At the same time, there has been only a minimal drop in Baines' production, and his home-run ratio has improved (seven in his first 162 at-bats, five in his last 72). Meanwhile Leo Gomez and Chris Hoiles have made significant strides while hitting behind Baines against right-handed pitchers.
The result has been the kind of offensive balance the Orioles expected coming out of spring training. And there's no question that Ripken has thrived as the No. 4 hitter.
Overall he has hit .333 (54-for-162), hit nine of his 12 home runs and collected 45 of his 63 RBIs while batting in the cleanup spot. It would appear he has settled into the role.