TEMPE, Ariz. — Ask Raul Ibanez why he's still able to play major league baseball effectively at an age when so many peers are retired or into coaching, and the Angels' new designated hitter responds with a question:
"I have a 22-year database of pitchers, 22 years of professional experience swinging the bat," Ibanez, 41, said. "I've trained with world-class strength guys, used some of the world's best sports psychologists and physical therapists, and I still have the will and the determination. So why wouldn't I be able to do this?"
It helps to have the drive of a blue-collar father who Ibanez said "never missed a day of work and always asked for overtime," the hunger of a fringe prospect trying to win his first big league job, and the willingness of a research scientist to try something new.
Last May, Ibanez was hitting .180 for the Seattle Mariners when he got a visit from Greg Tekerman, a friend who is a security guard and assistant baseball coach at Ibanez's Miami high school.
Tekerman brought a heavy, paddle-like bat with a thick handle and flat-sided barrel that he developed as a training tool. He designed the "Tek Bat," which is used for practice swings or to hit off a tee, to prevent a hitter from rolling his wrists as he makes contact.
Ibanez used the bat in an indoor cage and homered in his next game against Oakland. A few days later, he hit three homers in two games at Yankee Stadium. He continued to incorporate the bat during pregame workouts.
By the All-Star break, Ibanez had pushed his average to .267 with 24 homers and 56 runs batted in en route to a 29-homer season that tied Ted Williams' record for homers in an age-41 season.
"It's not a magical thing, it just happened to work with where I was at that moment last year," Ibanez said of the Tek Bat. "It's not always going to be the same thing, the same drill. You find different ways to do things to be effective."
The Angels are counting on Ibanez, who turns 42 on June 2, to be productive for at least one more season after signing him to a one-year, $2.75-million deal with incentives that can push his salary to $5 million.
In addition to his 29 homers, Ibanez hit .242 with 65 RBIs last season. But he faded after the All-Star break, hitting .203 with five homers and nine RBIs in 51 games.
A probable cause: Because of injuries to other outfielders, Ibanez played 832 innings, the equivalent of 92 games, in the field, far more than he is expected to play for the Angels.
"Not that he was tired, but he may have been mentally fatigued," said Angels assistant hitting coach Dave Hansen, Seattle's hitting coach in 2013. "He battled every day. There was pressure to compete. He was trying to carry the club. At his age? But he will never have an excuse for you. He is one of those guys who is a living example of what it means to be a big league baseball player."
Angels General Manager Jerry Dipoto said character was one of the attributes he targeted in acquiring players this winter. In Ibanez, the Angels have a player with a PhD in team chemistry.
"First of all, he's the nicest person I've ever met in my life," right fielder Kole Calhoun said. "For such a veteran, he's still a student of the game and is still learning. It's really awesome to see, as a young player, someone who's been around as long as he has be as humble as he is."
It is already evident to the Angels why Ibanez has averaged 23 homers, 32 doubles and 89 RBIs a season since he turned 30.
"He's out-working a lot of guys here," Calhoun said. "It's extremely impressive."
The key, Ibanez said, is not only working hard, but also smart and efficiently, and staying motivated.
"The most important thing is the intensity with which you do things," Ibanez said. "Nobody knows but you whether you gave everything you have on every set, every rep. You give your all in everything you do. . . . It's like compound interest. Over time, it has to pay dividends."
Ibanez built an elaborate gym — complete with hyperbaric chamber — in his Seattle-area home, and in addition to a rigorous winter workout regimen, he underwent surgery to correct an astigmatism in his right eye. A left-handed hitter, he now has 20-15 vision out of that eye.
"If I didn't think I could still perform at a high level and exceed the level I was at last year, I wouldn't play," said Ibanez, who has hit the ball hard but is batting just .208 with one homer and four RBIs in exhibition games this spring.
The Angels need Ibanez to fill some of the power void left by Mark Trumbo, who had a team-leading 34 homers and 100 RBIs last season but was traded to Arizona. That doesn't mean Ibanez feels any kind of pressure to produce a 30-homer, 100-RBI season.
"I've said this for years — pressure is a single mom working two jobs and trying to feed her family," Ibanez said. "This is baseball. I thrive in adverse situations, so I don't think there's any pressure whatsoever.
"I'm going to do everything in my power to help this team achieve the ultimate goal, winning the World Series."
Twitter: @MikeDiGiovannaCopyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times