BY John Hickey 09:30PM 04/30/2011

The case for Olivo batting cleanup

Catcher’s recent work suggests he’s up to the challenge in the short term.

Miguel Olivo has never been a regular cleanup hitter, but it could work short-term. / Drew McKenzie, Sportspress Northwest

Let me be the first to admit that I dismissed the insertion of Miguel Olivo into the cleanup spot Sunday by Mariners’ manager Eric Wedge as something akin to a panic move.

Let me further stipulate that the two games Olivo has now spent there don’t mean anything in the course of 162 games.

But I’m beginning to wonder if Wedge’s insertion of Olivo as the No. 4 hitter in the Seattle lineup wasn’t a little inspired.

Not that I believe Olivo is anything close to the kind of hitter the Mariners need batting fourth. For the moment, however, it’s worth a thought that he might be an excellent short-term candidate.

There are several reasons why I’ve come around to this line of thinking.

The first is that Olivo has been hitting the ball hard lately, something the nominal No. 4 guy, Jack Cust, who has much better career power numbers, hasn’t done in the first four weeks of the season.

The second is that in his two games as the cleanup man, Olivo has a double, a homer and two walks in eight trips to the plate. You can argue that Ryan Raburn of the Tigers should have caught the ball that flicked off his glove and went for a solo homer Tuesday.

If you do that, however, you need also to factor in the fact that the A’s Coco Crisp probably shouldn’t have caught the rocket Olivo hit in the sixth inning of Sunday’s game. The ball was a screamer, and Crisp won’t make many catches better than that in a season.

So that’s one caught that might not have been and one not caught that might have been. It’s a fair trade.

The third is the historical record. It’s not much, just 17 games (14 starts), but in those games, Olivo has a higher batting average (.288) than at any other spot in the lineup, and he’s hit everywhere from first to ninth except third.

And in his 64 at-bats as a cleanup hitter, he’s delivered four homers and 16 RBIs. Extrapolate that out to 475 at-bats (about the most one can legitimately expect from Olivo, whose career best in 469 at-bats), and that works out to 30 homers and 120 RBIs in a season.

No way would I expect that Olivo could be productive at anything close to those levels over the course of a season. Catchers get too beat up for that. And he’s never been Albert Pujols – no one is except the man himself.

But the numbers do suggest Olivo doesn’t make himself crazy when he’s put in the cleanup spot.

So until Cust, who batted sixth Tuesday, gets his swing back together, why not go with Olivo?

You may remember a ball Olivo hit to the warning track last Friday against the A’s, a shot that would have carried out of most parks on most nights but on a cool wet Seattle evening simply was another long out.

Olivo grabbed his batting helmet with both hands as he got the first base and shook it briefly in apparent frustration.

On Sunday morning I went to Olivo to ask him about hitting line drives that seemed to be getting caught with alarming regularity and the frustrations that ensued.

He flashed me a thumbs-up when I brought the subject up.

“I’m fine,’’ he said. “I’m not frustrated. But I don’t want to talk about it.’’

With that, he got up and headed for sanctuary in the off-limits-to-the-media area of the clubhouse.

What that tells me is that Olivo doesn’t want to get caught up in the cycle of talking about it, which forces him to think about all those hits being taken away. Countless hitters over the years have seen slumps prolonged by just that kind of thinking.

He did bring up the subject of potential extra-base hits being caught on his own on Tuesday, true, but that came after the homer and a roaring double, both of which suggest that he’s not dragging his lack of success up to the plate with him.

The rest of the Mariners should follow that lead, be they hitting fourth or hitting ninth.

Twitter: @JHickey3


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