Junior outfielder A.J. Balta is used to being an integral part of Oregon’s offense.
Last season, the Valencia, California, native led the Ducks in home runs and RBIs while spending much of the season at the top of the lineup, mainly as the team’s second or third hitter in the batting order.
This season, Balta is once again expected to be a crucial batter in Oregon’s lineup, but in a somewhat different role. Through 18 games this season, Balta has found himself batting in the fourth or fifth spot in the lineup — spots usually reserved for production-heavy hitters.
“Hitting four, five — I think that’s where I can help the team,” Balta said. “That’s where coach wants me to be hitting, with men on base and following JB [Jake Bennett] and [Kyle] Kasser — you know, guys that get on. RBI situations — I think that’s a spot I can help the team at.”
Head coach George Horton said the lineup change came about because of Balta’s noticeable improvement as a hitter. Though Balta led the team in RBIs and home runs last season, he hit only .219, a low batting average. Horton noted that Balta’s style can be “gorilla ball” at times — meaning hitting for power instead of hitting to get on base — something he doesn’t out of a middle of the lineup hitter.
“His batting average was not where it should be or he wanted it to be,” Horton said. “He invested a lot of time with coach [Jay ] Uhlman and coach [Mitch] Karraker on using the whole field, getting inside the ball, things that are more conducive to high-average hitters.”
Horton said Balta worked a lot over fall to become a more complete hitter, hitting to all parts of the field instead of “pulling” the ball to the right and keeping his swing compact to “stay inside” of inside pitches.
Through 18 games, Balta has shown overall improvement as a hitter. His batting average is almost 100 points better than it was at this point last season (up from .181 to .273) and he’s showing more patience at the plate: he’s already drawn 10 walks, half as many as he drew all last season.
Though his batting average and on-base percentage are up, Balta’s power numbers have dipped. He has only one home run so far and his slugging percentage — bases per at bat — is just .404. Oregon doesn’t have a lot of power as it is, and its offense doesn’t rely on power hitting to be successful. But the lack of a home-run threat, which Balta has provided in the past, could be a weak spot in the Ducks lineup.
Horton isn’t worried, though. He says Balta’s dip in power is a result of him still adapting to be more of a contact hitter. And even if he isn’t hitting for power, Horton has still liked the productivity that his new middle-of-the-lineup hitter has given him.
“He’s not getting the power that we think he’ll end up showing,” Horton said. “I think his best at-bats, at least how I see it, have come with guys in scoring position, and that’s typical of AJ and being an RBI guy.”
Balta himself said at media day that balancing power and batting average would be difficult. He said changing his mentality of crushing the ball to right field instead of waiting for it longer and taking it to the opposite part of the field will be “pretty tough to do.”
As the year goes on, Balta’s power should come. Even if it doesn’t, his bat will still be critical for Oregon’s success this year.
Follow Gus Morris on Twitter @JustGusMorris