In under two weeks, outfielder Jose Constanza has rocketed from relative obscurity as a career minor leaguer to buzz-creating .413 hitter after 12 big-league games for the Braves.
After seven years, he’s an overnight success story.
To understand how far under the radar 27-year-old “Georgie” – that’s his nickname in the Braves clubhouse, a reference to a famous Seinfeld story arc — had operated until recently, consider:
– He’s still listed as a switch-hitter in the Braves media guide, although he’s batted exclusively left-handed for the past several years..
– The last time he was rated as high as a top-30 prospect by in any organization was 2007, when he was No. 26 in the Indians system by Baseball America.
– He played 743 minor-league games in seven seasons (six with the Indians) before his first big-league callup with Atlanta, which signed him as a minor league free agent.
– Fifteen months ago a writer for the Indians’ website, answering a fan’s question about the “switch-hitting speed demon” at Triple-A Columbus, noted that Constanza hadn’t been viewed as a potential every-day player in the majors.
Obscurity is threatened. Constanza has started 12 straight games at all three outfield positions for the Braves, demonstrating what a disruptive force speed can be.
He’s also drawn curious looks for a habit of licking his bat after a foul tip.
The amiable Dominican, speaking in broken English, said he began licking his bat years ago for no real reason, other than to taste the hot spot that smells of burning wood immediately after a fastball skips off it. It became a compulsion.
As for his move from switch-hitting, that came after he broke his right index finger jamming it into a base on a hands-first slide in 2005. He was in his first full season in Class-A ball at the time, and didn’t want to say how bad it was or stop playing.
The finger didn’t heal properly, and now there’s a grotesquely large, gnarled lump on the knuckle. “Every year, it gets bigger,” said Constanza, who stopped switch-hitting when it became too painful to bat right-handed.
“Now you’re in the big leagues, you can get it checked out,” Braves reliever Peter Moylan said to Constanza, who plans to see about possible surgery this winter.
The Braves knew what they were getting when they traded for Astros center fielder Michael Bourn on July 31. The major league stolen base leader has lived up to billing.
But Constanza? No one could have expected this, even after he hit .312 with a .361 on-base percentage and 23 steals in 86 games at Triple-A Gwinnett.
After going 1-for-8 in his first two major league games, Constanza is 18-for-38 (.474) in his past 10 games with a double, triple, homer, eight runs, four RBIs and .500 OBP.
“Got an opportunity, trying to [take advantage],” he said. “Working hard, trying to help the team.”
The left-handed hitter is 8-for-14 (.571) against lefties, 8-for-18 with runners on base, and 9-for-20 with two strikes.
“Constanza’s been amazing since he got up here,” said Dan Uggla, whose 31-game hitting streak has overshadowed Constanza, Bourn and everything else. “He’s really got a good idea about what kind of game he’s playing. That dude can flat-out run and get on base. Him and Michael Bourn both. Even when there’s nobody on base and they’re coming up to hit, you’re creating pressure on the defense, just from their legs alone. And both of them can handle the bat.”
Constanza had three singles Wednesday, all infield hits. He had a slap hit where he was already headed toward first base as the ball came off the bat.
“For me, personally, I’d rather face a guy like Barry Bonds than someone like [Constanza],” said Braves pitcher Tim Hudson. “I want somebody up there that’s trying to hit homers; you have a tendency to get those guys to swing and miss. Constanza, I mean he’s pesky, he’s going to put the ball in play. A ball on the ground, more than half the time it’s going to be a hit.
“It’s almost the same kind of approach that [Seattle’s] Ichiro [Suzuki] had back when he first came over and had his legs under him. Anything that’s not right to the defender is going to be a hit. And it’s nice to have that weapon on your side for a change.”