Alex Verdugo gets it.
He may not look the part at first glance, his Quaker beard juxtaposed against a mélange of tattoos. And he may not sound it, with his stream-of-conscious rambling and genuinely endearing enthusiasm.
But make no mistake, when the young Red Sox outfielder talks about the state of baseball, he knows of what he speaks.
If MLB wants to win back fans, it needs more players who not only play like Verdugo, but think like him, too. "I think David Ortiz came out and said baseball is kind of boring with the homers and just strikeouts and stuff," Verdugo said via Zoom on Thursday. "And I felt that. I felt that big-time."
Verdugo was referring to comments Ortiz made recently in the Boston Globe bemoaning the sport's three-true-outcomes death spiral that produces nightly four-hour displays of monotony.
Verdugo doesn't play that way. He's proud to be a line drive hitter who sprays the ball all over the field. He has no use for launch angle and the pyrrhic pursuit of home runs. He prefers taking batting practice in the cage instead of on the field because he doesn't want to be tempted to swing for the fences.
He wishes more players would do the same.
"In this day and age, you see people on ESPN, people just want to hype up the glory," Verdugo said. "They want to hype up the homers, the strikeouts, and all that. I think it kind of got away from how the game used to be taught. For me, you play hard. You've got to be a complete hitter, and then power will come. It feels like so many people are reaching for power and reaching for the highlights instead of just really playing and grinding every single game.
"For me, I'm just going to keep doing what I do. I'm a big bat-to-ball guy. I know I have power in my swing as well, it's just a matter of when I want to take my shots, and I think what's more beneficial in this part of my career is going to be spraying the ball all over, getting on base, and letting some of these guys behind me drive me in and maybe if I'm on base, I'm adding some holes to the defense and things like that, and causing some pressure to the pitchers."
When the Red Sox acquired Verdugo from the Dodgers as the centerpiece of the Mookie Betts trade last spring, no one really knew what to think. For one, he hadn't played in months, thanks to a season-ending back injury that turned out to be a fractured vertebrae. For another, he hadn't really produced a ton, with his career-best 2019 season featuring a modest 12 homers and .294 average in 106 games.
Add character concerns over vague accusations that Verdugo didn't do enough to stop a teammate from committing a sexual assault during his minor league days, and it was fair to wonder if Chaim Bloom had just traded a former MVP for an idiot.
It didn't take long for Verdugo to assuage those fears, however. He answered questions about the 2015 incident in the minors with unexpected candor, speaking for more than seven minutes and insisting that if he had known an assault was taking place in another room, he would've stopped it.
He then went out and played like the MVP of the 2020 team, such as it was, taking the field with an enthusiasm and energy that would've made him a good fit on the early-2000s Red Sox of Johnny Damon, Kevin Millar, and Big Papi fame, all fun-loving and high energy.
Verdugo turned out to be an excellent outfielder with a cannon arm, he stepped into the box with impressive focus (particularly against left-handed pitching), and his offensive approach harkened back to more exciting times when a ball might actually be put into play. He's a throwback who rarely swings and misses and tries to make things happen one or two bases at a time instead of four.
The revolution that has transformed the game and overemphasized the home run? Not interested. "I'm big on just playing the game, spraying the ball and hitting the ball hard," Verdugo said. "I don't really care about that launch angle stuff. I don't care about all that."
Maybe Verdugo can join players like Yankees All-Star D.J. LeMahieu and Mets counterpart Jeff McNeil in reminding the rest of the game that the ball needn't leave the park for a hitter to make an impact.