Returning this weekend to the stadium that was once his home, Adrian Gonzalez reflected on his evolution as a player.
Thinking about his days playing for the San Diego Padres, Gonzalez said wistfully, "Back then, I could mishit home runs."
"I don't mishit home runs," he said with a laugh. "I have to hit it."
Gonzalez nonetheless remains a middle-of-the-lineup fixture at 33. He again batted third for the Dodgers in their 2-1 defeat to the Padres at Petco Park on Saturday night.
The four-time All-Star was 0 for 4 but is still batting .311 with 11 home runs and 40 runs batted in.
Gonzalez credits his continued production on a change that was recommended to him by Dodgers hitting coach Mark McGwire.
When the left-handed-hitting Gonzalez was selected to his first All-Star teams with the Padres, he often looked to drive the ball to left-center field. That remained the case for his first couple of seasons with the Dodgers.
Some time last season, the first baseman started looking to drive the ball to right-center field.
"You have to evolve as a player, as a hitter, as you get older," Gonzalez said. "When I was in my early 20s, I could sit up there, wait for a fastball away and hit it out to left. If I hit it to left good, it was a home run. You had more kid's strength. If I do the same thing now, it's probably caught at the wall. Even though you get stronger as you get older, your swing isn't as quick or there's not as much thump behind it."
McGwire said he was aware of Gonzalez's reputation as an opposite-field hitter. But McGwire was also aware Gonzalez underwent a major shoulder operation leading up to the 2011 season.
There were also changes in the sport to consider.
McGwire said there are significantly more hard-throwing pitchers now than when he played.
"You'd get maybe a handful of guys that threw 95-plus throughout the division," McGwire said. "Now, it seems like you get a handful of guys per team."
But these same pitchers often lack refinement and are prone to making mistakes.
By looking more for fastballs on the inside half of the plate, Gonzalez believes he can take advantage of the conditions.
"If you're thinking left center, you might be thinking fastball away, let it get deep and stay on the off-speed stuff," he said. "If you're thinking more right center, if he throws a fastball in the strike zone, I'm going to hit it in front."
The new approach worked.
Gonzalez finished last season with 27 home runs. The last time he hit more was in 2010.
He has stuck with the plan.
Of his 11 home runs this season, only one was to left field, according to ESPN's home run tracker. That marks a radical shift from his 2009 season with the Padres, when 24 of his career-high 40 home runs were to left field.
The recovered power, however, comes at a cost.
"Looking middle-in to drive the ball, I don't see it as a hit-for-average mentality," he said. "I see it more as a .280 with 25 to 35 [home runs]. If I had more of a singles up-the-middle-or-other-way approach, I'd be more of a .300 hitter but more of a 20-home run guy."
In what he believes was the best season of his career, he batted a relatively modest .276.
Gonzalez attributes the decrease in batting average to the defensive shifts he often faces.
"You know that if you hit the ball on the ground, you're out," he said. "You're going to hit balls hard into the shifts and there's nothing you can do about it. People always go, 'Hit the ball the other way for a hit.' Well, yeah, I could, but I'm not going to hit home runs. I can hit for average that way, but do you want your first baseman to be a .300 hitter with 10 homers? Don't tell me to hit the ball the other way but still ask me to hit home runs. You're not going to get both."