SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — As a Class A second baseman in 2002, Jeff Keppinger swung for the fences in the home run derby at the South Atlantic League All-Star Game against the likes of promising sluggers Ryan Howard and Jose Bautista.
This is who Keppinger thought he was, a power-hitting infielder who dug the long ball. Memories of taking USC pitcher Mark Prior deep in the 2001 College World Series during a postseason homer surge for Georgia only reinforced Keppinger's self-image. Then one day after the All-Star break, Pirates roving minor league instructor Alvaro Espinoza broke the news to the 22-year-old whose sights were set beyond the outfield wall.
"He told me I was not going to hit like that in the big leagues so I'd better start moving the ball around,'' Keppinger recalled Monday. "I tried it.''
Over the next 10 games, Keppinger went 0-for-32. His confidence dropped quicker than his batting average.
"But in the offseason I said, 'Fine, if that's what they want me to do, I'll work at it,''' Keppinger said. "I'm not a speed guy, I'm not a power guy. You have to have some kind of niche so I figured that would be mine: I want to walk more than I strike out. When I get to two strikes, I decided to just make sure I put it in play.''
He opened his right-handed stance even wider, a look he copied from older brother Billy in high school. He shortened his swing and changed his goal from making the highlights to making contact. He stopped trying to pull every pitch and saw right field as more inviting than ever.
"After that, I started hitting,'' Keppinger said.
As White Sox announcer Ken Harrelson might say, don't stop now, Kep.
Sox general manager Rick Hahn signed the third baseman to a three-year, $12 million contract to be the toughest out in the order. Keppinger looks like he could be coming to the South Side to join a 16-inch softball team, not fix a lineup that set a franchise record for strikeouts. The Sox need Keppinger to show what compelled Rays special adviser Don Zimmer to call him "the purest hitter on this club.'' They want him to take the same approach at the plate he has taken since he was a Little Leaguer who dreaded the walk back to the dugout.
"I used to cry when I struck out,'' Keppinger said. "I hated that feeling. I tried my hardest with two strikes. I'd rather just hit it back to the pitcher. Through high school, college and pro ball, it carried over.''
Now it carries Keppinger to Chicago. The first player outside the organization Hahn signed as general manager, Keppinger represents the head-over-heart thinking many expect from the new Sox regime. If Hahn's predecessor, Ken Williams, was considered an impulse shopper, Hahn is the type of guy you imagine strolling down grocery-store aisles with a calculator.
The $12 million for Keppinger to play third base for three years equaled what it cost the Yankees to sign Kevin Youkilis for one. Youkilis supplied the Sox with toughness and intangibles that Williams occasionally overvalued. But the player fans greeted as "Youuuuuuk'' never provided much at the plate. He managed a .236 average and struck out 69 times in 344 plate appearances. Acquired in June, Youkilis was part of an ignominious trio that contributed to the Sox ranking last in on-base percentage among third basemen.
In contrast, Keppinger enjoyed a career year. In 115 games, Keppinger hit .325 with an on-base percentage of .367 and remained one of the hardest batters to strike out.
Over Keppinger's eight major league seasons, he has struck out just 173 times in 2,705 plate appearances — once every 15.6 times. Teammate Adam Dunn had 173 strikeouts last season by late August.
"That was a huge part of this,'' Hahn said, also referencing Keppinger's on-base plus slugging percentage (OPS) of .806 last season.
Signing a lesser-known 32-year-old veteran on his seventh team as the biggest offseason addition could symbolize the winter that seamheads took over U.S. Cellular Field — a notion that makes Hahn chuckle.
"I understand completely what you're saying, but I don't think that just because this offseason we didn't do anything splashy or headline-grabbing it means we'll shy away from those moves,'' Hahn said. "It was based on what was available, what it would cost us, and what was the best fit. This was a guy we wanted to make sure we got.''
Sum up the signing and the player the same way: More solid than spectacular. Nobody in baseball would call the move a home run, which suits Keppinger fine.
As he learned early in his career, those aren't everything.