For J.P. this spring, modifying swing's his thing

For J.P. this spring, modifying swing's his thing

DUNEDIN, Fla. -- J.P. Arencibia made his mark on the Blue Jays last season with a series of powerful drives over the wall in left field, but this year he's hoping for a better overall approach at the plate.

Arencibia set a club record for most home runs by a catcher with 23 in 2011. It made him the most dangerous source of power from any player in the league out of the final spot in the order, but there were times when perhaps he got caught up in looking for the long ball.

The second-year backstop is looking to slightly modify his approach and get back to the type of swing he had during a successful run through Toronto's Minor League system.

"When I'm at my best, my batting practice involves hitting the ball right through the middle," Arencibia said. "I'll barely hit a ball out in batting practice. If I do, it's because I ran into it. I got away from that last year and it was more or less just immaturity.

"When you get to the big stadium, you want to rattle the seats, first time there. I had to go back to working. Now I'm back at what works for my swing. It's a swing that I can hit balls out anywhere in the park when I'm staying through the middle."

Arencibia spent most of his 2011 campaign as a dead pull hitter. All but two of his 23 home runs were to the left side of the diamond, and one of the shots that didn't go in that direction went just barely right of straightaway center field.

The focus this spring has been to go back to the swing that worked for the 26-year-old in 2010, when he was the Most Valuable Player of the Pacific Coast League. Arencibia said that year and his successful seasons before that occurred when he stayed on the ball and let his swing do the work instead of trying to force the issue.

That was on display Sunday afternoon against the Braves as he sent a long drive off the wall in right field for an RBI double. Earlier in the week, Arencibia also recorded his first homer with a shot that easily cleared the wall in right.

"That's what I'm capable of, that's when I'm at my best," Arencibia said. "[When] I had my best years, that's what happened. I'm a guy that hits half of my home runs the other way. Last year, just from trying to get things to work, I was really side to side with pulling the ball and I've worked really hard to get back through the middle.

"When I'm staying through the middle, it's not a ball you try to go to right, it's just that you have that good swing, but I'm capable of that."

Arencibia took on arguably the hardest role a rookie can have when he was named Toronto's everyday catcher last season. He was tasked not only with learning opposing pitchers while at the plate, but also an entire staff.

It can be a daunting challenge for any first-year player to handle, but he managed to do so despite hitting .133 from June 10-July 21 because of an injured left thumb that severely impacted his offense. The Miami native finished the year hitting .219 with 78 RBIs and 47 extra-base hits in what represented a good first step of his big league career.

The biggest area of improvement can be found in the average and on-base mark of .282, but it's something Arencibia has shown he can improve upon in the past. In 2009 with Triple-A Las Vegas, he hit .236 with an on-base percentage of .284, but came back the following year with MVP-type numbers and a .359 OBP.

Toronto is beginning to feel like it's that side of Arencibia that is starting to surface again here in camp.

"He's settled into a swing he's had his whole Minor League career, and I think it's evident he's got power to all fields," Blue Jays manager John Farrell said. "Just the fact that he's staying inside the baseball and using his power gap-to-gap.

"But J.P. has looked good for a quite a while here in Spring Training. It was evident from Day 1 here. Last year he got to a point where his handset was a little higher, this year it's back down to almost parallel to his right shoulder, which allows him to use all the field."

To a certain extent, Arencibia also has switched roles on the team. Last year, he spent lots of time learning the pitching staff with veteran backstop Jose Molina.

Molina has since departed, while defensive specialist Jeff Mathis was acquired from the Angels. As a result, Arencibia has spent part of the spring passing along valuable information about Toronto's pitching staff so that Mathis will be ready for the start of the season.

That doesn't mean the learning process for Arencibia is complete, but the leadership role has kicked into another gear.

"We communicate, we know the situation," Arencibia said. "He's a great game caller and defender. He's going to help our team a lot. For me to help him familiarize himself is going to help him.

"He's still a guy I bounce a ton of things off of. As far as the role goes, I know it's my staff, my team. Last year I was eased into the position and now I know it's mine. I have a ton of respect for [Mathis]. He's been in the big leagues already for six years and he's 28 years old. He's been in the playoffs. He has caught guys who are Cy Young candidates. There's a lot of knowledge in his brain that is valuable to me."

Gregor Chisholm is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, North of the Border, and follow him on Twitter @gregorMLB. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.