Tom Krasovic wrote:
March 13, 2005
When Khalil Greene played baseball five years ago, he was no one's idea of a spectacular shortstop.
A Clemson University sophomore, Greene was a slugging third baseman who enjoyed, and was suited to, his corner office.
Shortstop? He'd played it well in high school, but now it was the province of athletes faster than the bulky Greene.
"I wouldn't refute that claim," Greene said from his Padres clubhouse cubicle recently. "Scouts labeled me as a third baseman or second baseman. That was justified. At that time, that's what I was. I figured that would be my thing."
Plans changed, happily for the Padres.
Reinventing himself, Greene returned to shortstop at age 20, improved his defensive speed by more than a step-and-a-half, drew on instincts that allowed him to play even faster and, just three years after being drafted, outperformed many opposing shortstops as a Padres rookie last year.
Nothing to it, right?
"There's a lot to be said for athletic ability, but from where I was as a high school shortstop to where I am now – I've gone on to be a totally different player," Greene said. "I was an offense-first guy. Now, there's a lot more parity."
Padres second baseman Mark Loretta said "it's very surprising" when a player can move to shortstop and flourish. Usually, infielders are moved off shortstop.
"It's probably the toughest position in baseball," said Loretta, a former shortstop. "Mentally and physically, it's just very demanding."
Just two months into the 2004 season, Bruce Bochy proclaimed Greene the best shortstop, by far, in his 10 seasons as Padres manager. Greene may have looked like a veteran, but for the first time, he was at home on the dirt between second base and third.
"In the minors, the first couple of years, I didn't really feel 100 percent comfortable at shortstop," he said. "I knew I was making the plays. But for me, defensively, last year was really the year where, in my own mind, I stepped up a little bit more."
When a slugger can also handle shortstop duties, baseball people talk of potential greatness.
Greene, despite playing home games in one of the majors' best pitcher's parks, set franchise records for a shortstop with 15 home runs, 65 RBI and 50 extra-base hits. He devastated opponents with his glove and arm, yet was just learning the tendencies of his own pitchers and other hitters.
"We haven't seen the tip of the iceberg yet," General Manager Kevin Towers said. "He's going to get better defensively, and offensively. With experience, knowing the pitchers and the hitters in the league, and feeling more established, he'll be that much better."
But detours happen, too. Sophomore years can be more challenging than rookie seasons. Shortstops, major league studies show, are more likely than other position players to go on the disabled list. And at 5 feet 11 and 210 pounds, the husky Greene could outgrow the position if he thickens up the way some players do in their late 20s.
"Khalil has got a chance to be exceptional," said Padres broadcaster Jerry Coleman, a former Yankees second baseman who has spent six decades in professional baseball. "But the thing is, after one year, you can't tab anybody. It takes five years before you can really see if he's going to be great or just good. Right now, Greene is incredibly good."
Greene's stealth advantages included an artist's appreciation for the job's broad canvas.
"I have more fun playing defense," said the 25-year-old South Carolina resident, who grew up in Key West, Fla., after his parents set up a jewelry shop there. "There's room to be a little more improvisational, a little more creative. You never know when a ball is going to take a bad hop. The dynamics of defense are really ever-changing."
Greene's diving grabs and rapid throws earned him the only curtain call Padres first-base coach Davey Lopes had seen in his 37 years in professional baseball.
Pitcher David Wells, a teammate last year, said Greene's defensive work, which spanned 133 starts and 83 percent of the team's innings, compared with that of past teammates such as All-Stars Barry Larkin, Tony Fernandez and Derek Jeter.
Even umpires marveled. One told a Padres coach that Greene's hands and feet were the quickest he'd seen from a shortstop since Omar Vizquel was stockpiling Gold Gloves.
But if Greene had joined a fraternity of baseball's ballet stars, just years earlier he was more bull than Baryshnikov.
"I was a step and a half slower," he said. "I was probably stronger."
Clemson wanted him to play third base as a freshman so that a veteran could stay at short. Eager to meet the job's greater power demands, Greene bulked up his muscle mass. He hoisted barbells five days a week, performing power lifts as a Clemson linebacker would.
"My whole rationale was getting bigger so I could have more power," he recalled. "Knowing what I know now, I would've focused more on my swing, less on the strength aspect. Strength helps. It's a big part of it. But there are a lot of big guys that have less pop because their swing is not as good."
Greene prospered at third base and enjoyed his time there. But when he got the chance to play shortstop in the Cape Cod League entering his junior year, he was quick to recover skills he'd used in high school.
Soon, a leaner Greene was replacing another slugger, Jeff Baker, as Clemson's shortstop.
The skeptics continued to doubt his shortstop upside, but Greene was putting together pieces in ways not always evident to outsiders.
"It just seems like he's got a lot of things figured out," said Michael Johnson, a former Clemson teammate and Padres' Single-A first baseman who regularly seeks Greene's counsel.
Padres scouting director Bill Gayton became a true believer, in part because conversations with Greene revealed "a special makeup." Gayton drafted Greene 13th overall in 2002, after Greene earned national Player of the Year honors as a senior. Gayton forecast a long career at shortstop, citing, among other virtues, the player's smooth tempo afield.
"It's like a golf swing," Gayton said last year. "Khalil makes it look so easy, because he's under control. He slows it down."
As Greene made play after play last summer, Lopes wondered if this was the same Khalil Thabit Greene he'd heard about through industry sources.
"You heard reports that he didn't have the range," Lopes said. "Then you'd watch him and say, 'What were they watching?' He gets better and better and better."
A closer look at Greene's methods, many of which are unorthodox:
Greene asks less of his arm than many shortstops, getting to balls quickly and getting rid of them on the move. Thus, he fooled some scouts who doubted his arm's strength. He prefers to throw on the run more than most shortstops and makes it work with balanced, accurate throws. As a boy playing sandlot football, he said, he cultivated the skill unwittingly.
"I never just dropped back and threw it," he said. "I threw on the run. It's not something I would've thought about then, but now that I look back on it, as I grew up, I was always good at it. Throwing across my body, back the other way, is something I've done a long time. And I've practiced it. It's unorthodox, but sometimes it can be just as routine as the other throws."
Loretta said Greene gets good carry by imparting backspin with rare economy. Johnson said he can not recall one time when Greene overthrew him at Clemson.
"It's like (first baseman) Mark Grace said: If you're going to miss, miss low where I have a chance to get it," Bochy said.
Padres left fielder Ryan Klesko, accustomed to first base, tended to play deep and get late breaks on bloopers. But in part because Greene covered Klesko's front side, the Padres allowed 18 percent fewer balls to land in front of the left fielder than the major league average.
Showing better functional speed than some shortstops who are faster, Greene sustained sprints while looking upward and careening toward Klesko and foul ground.
Greene said that playing 10 years of organized soccer – as a center striker – accustomed him to scanning the horizon while on the run.
Loretta said Greene sets up deeper than some shortstops – often on the outfield grass – and exploits that deeper angle by "flowing" in the right direction before the ball is hit.
"He's like Andruw Jones," Loretta said, referring to Atlanta's Gold Glove center fielder. "He catches balls that you think are going to be hits. It's like he knows something that you don't."
Greene said imagining what he would do as a hitter helps him to get better jumps. Infield coach Rob Picciolo said Greene sharpens his first step by standing at shortstop during batting practice and getting jumps on every swing.
Greene's ball-hawking skills, along with those of sidekick Sean Burroughs, fed this impressive stat: Between shortstop and third base, the Padres allowed 24 percent fewer hits than the major league average last year. Only the Red Sox and Dodgers did better.
Greene's relaxed demeanor and surfer-dude blond hair belie a killer instinct. Loretta said Greene doesn't just want to make plays, he wants to erase specific hitters. "Me, I'm just trying to make a play," Loretta said with a laugh.
Picciolo said he's never seen Greene lose his composure, even when angry.
"Certain people might be able to go out and play a little more loose and let it fly and react to everything out there without really being 100 percent into it," Greene said. "If I appear laid back, it's not really indicative of what I'm thinking. I'm just focused on what I'm doing.
"You have somewhere from 2 1/2 to three hours where you devote total concentration on what you're doing."
Greene practices his dives on mats inside the Padres clubhouse. "I've never seen a guy do that," Lopes said.
Lopes said that Greene's ability to rise and throw in a blur calls to mind greats such as Ozzie Smith, Vizquel and Rey Ordo×ez.
"There's really not a play, athletically, that he can't make," Towers said. "It's been a long time since we've had an infielder who leaves his feet like Khalil does."