EVERETT — When the Seattle Mariners selected Dennis Raben in the second round of the June draft, the critics scoffed.
He’s too slow, they said.
He’s too patient at the plate, they said.
He doesn’t have real power, they said.
Do you really want to use the 66th-overall pick on a player who never broke .300 or hit more than 12 home runs during his three seasons in college?
But what the Mariners apparently knew — and the critics didn’t — is that while Raben may not be anything special with aluminum, put a piece of lumber in his hands and he’s a new man.
Raben has the air of that rare player who hits better with a wood bat than with an aluminum one, and so far during his short tenure with the Everett AquaSox he’s showing just how much better.
“I probably would have used a wood bat in college, but my coaches probably would have been, ‘Hey, what are you, stupid? The aluminum bat helps you out, you hit it off the end and you can still hit it out,’” Raben said. “I don’t know, the wood bat works for me.”
Raben never put up spectacular numbers during his three seasons at the University of Miami. Last season in 53 games he batted .292 with 10 home runs and 52 RBI. Those are good numbers, but they paled in comparison to his teammates as he ranked ninth on the team in batting average and fourth in homers. One teammate, Yonder Alonso, batted .370 with 24 homers and 72 RBI, numbers that dwarf Raben’s.
Raben’s numbers weren’t any better in his previous two seasons, either. He batted .280 with 12 home runs in 60 games as a sophomore and batted .285 with eight homers in 60 games as a freshman.
But Raben has been lights out since beginning his professional career with the Sox. In his first at bat he homered. In his first four games he reached base in 15 of his 17 plate appearances, with six of his 10 hits going for extra bases. Although he’s cooled down a bit since, going into Sunday night’s game he was still batting .484, and he had at least one hit in all eight of his games.
“It’s a big bonus for us to have a player like that,” Everett manager Jose Moreno said. “He’s a real good addition because the rest of the position players, any time we have a player like that who swings the bat well, it’s contagious.”
And the reason for Raben’s sudden upward surge? It’s got to be the wood.
Raben’s ability with a wood bat manifested itself last year in the Cape Cod League, the prestigous summer college league where the teams use wood bats. Raben was named all-league after batting .298 for the Orleans Cardinals and leading the league with 35 RBI. He finished second in the all-star game’s home run hitting contest, and in the game was named the East Team’s most valuable player.
That stint in the Cape Cod League was the only time Raben had used a wood bat consistently. The summer between his freshman and sophomore seasons was spent recovering from toe surgery, and before that his experience was limited to week-long wood bat tournaments as a high school player. So Raben’s affinity for the wood bat is a recent discovery.
“What I noticed is that with a wood bat, I like my wood bat a little heavy in the barrel, a little top heavy,” Raben explained. “I really like it when you can get your hands through and you really feel that barrel clear the zone, because the weight just helps bring it forward. With an aluminum bat you don’t really feel that, the weight distribution is pretty even throughout the whole bat, so you don’t really feel that top heaviness.”
Another consequence of the wood bat has been the ability to use all fields. Raben has peppered the entire outfield with doubles since becoming a pro.
“It’s weird because with a wood bat, even last summer in the Cape, I used the whole field foul pole to foul pole,” Raben said. “With an aluminum bat I kind of feel I’m more of a pull hitter. When I try to go the other way I really don’t feel that head and I try to guide the ball the other way. But when I have the wood bat I’ve noticed I’m more of a complete hitter to all fields.”
Raben has put all those abilities on display for the Sox. If he continues his current pace, he won’t be long for the Northwest League.
“I hope we keep him for the rest of the season,” a laughing Moreno said when asked how long he expected Raben to stay in Everett. “But if not, that’s what we’re all about, trying to get to the next level, and I think he’s got a real future in the major leagues.”