By Ryan Schulz - Using a round bat to hit a round ball that is thrown by a pitcher who has every intention of making sure you don’t get a hit is one of the biggest challenges in sports. Where else would someone who succeeds at what they do 30 percent of the time be considered a success?
While Vanderbilt redshirt freshman Aaron Westlake would never say hitting is easy, what he has accomplished at the plate in 2009 makes the challenge of hitting a baseball look, well, not so challenging.
The Redding, Calif., native overtook the lead for the SEC batting title this past week when he went 10-for-17 (.558) from the plate to move his season average to .395. Westlake began the week by going 3-for-6 in a doubleheader against Belmont before putting up even more mind-boggling numbers at Georgia over the weekend.
Against the Bulldogs, Westlake went 7-for-11 (.636) and had two home runs, five RBI and five runs to help Vanderbilt take two of three games in the series and move one step closer to the SEC Tournament. His performance in the series moved him in front of Georgia’s Rich Poythress for the league lead in batting.
“I was just seeing the ball well, getting good pitches to hit and good counts,” Westlake said of his performance. “My teammates were getting on in front of me, which forced the pitcher to have to pitch out of the stretch.”
Westlake is quick to credit his teammates, and rightfully so. Of the 14 times he stepped to the plate in Athens, Ga., all but three at bats were with at least one runner on base. One player who Westlake has benefited from having in front of him in the lineup is first baseman Curt Casali, who batted cleanup in front of Westlake in all five games last week.
“It is a huge advantage having someone like Curt in front of me,” said Westlake of Casali, who leads the team with 50 RBI. “They are obviously going to pitch around him more to get to someone like me. Anyone who has someone like Curt hitting in front of them in the lineup is always the beneficiary.”
Being surrounded in a lineup by batters who have high on-base percentages has clearly helped as it did last week, but no matter the circumstances, the success Westlake is having is no fluke. Not once this season has he even been in the same area code of the Mendoza Line. Instead, the only number he has flirted with is the one Ted Williams is most known for — .400.
Westlake’s average has never been lower than .357 and his average was higher than .400 as recently as April 3.
“He’s been a good hitter all year,” Head Coach Tim Corbin said. “He’s had a couple of bad weekends, but who hasn’t. He’s been .360-.400 all year, so I just think he is very consistent and he has very good work habits.”
The two weekends Corbin is referring to came in back-to-back SEC series against Florida and at Arkansas, where Westlake went 1-for-19 with his only hit coming in his final at bat at Arkansas. Including the team’s midweek game at Belmont on April 1, Westlake was 0-for-21 before his hit at Arkansas.
“It is baseball and everyone is going to have a slump,” Westlake said. “It is just about how you react to it and how you handle it. When I was having a slump in the beginning, I didn’t react to it too well. I let it get to my play rather than not thinking about it.
“After the Arkansas series, I took a different approach to it. I sat down with coach and we just talked about how to approach things better and not allow it to get to my head because it is baseball and you are obviously going to fail. I had to stop worrying about what I couldn’t control and control what I could like my body language, my emotions and preparation.”
On top of taking a different approach at the plate, Westlake has also changed his mindset between at bats. After being thrust into the catcher position for the first time in his career when Andrew Giobbi missed 16 games due to injury during the start of the season, Westlake has since been moved into the role of the team’s primary designated hitter. The adjustment of not playing in the field took a little getting used to for Westlake.
“It is a tough adjustment because everyone wants to play in the field and it was fun while I did, but we have the guys out there that we need to have out there right now,” Westlake said. “All I have to do between at bats is focus on hitting. Just focusing on hitting is easier because you don’t have to take it to the defensive side if you go 0-for-4. If you are still playing defense, you can’t think about hitting, but obviously you are probably going to. When you are the DH, you can think about your last at bat and what you did wrong, and then prepare better for the next at bat.”
So far the preparation has paid off and Westlake is flirting with the idea of becoming the first Vanderbilt player to hit over .400 since Warner Jones hit .414 in 2004. The notion sounds well and good to Westlake, but he’d rather just focus on his next at bat.
“You can’t think about it or your results at the plate, but when you look up at the scoreboard, you are going to see what your batting average is,” Westlake said. “You just can’t think about it though because it puts a lot of pressure on yourself.”