Name: Mike Epping
DOB: August 28, 1983
Epping became New Orleans' first player to hit .400 since 1987 and added a team-leading 58 RBIs in 2006. He also stole a team-high 42 bases in 49 attempts.
The Padres were happy to place him at the top of the lineup in Eugene – a sparkplug for an offense built predominately through the draft.
Epping started out on fire, hitting .360 over his first 11 games, notching a hit in each before cooling down and hitting .243 the rest of the way.
"Mike started out real good and has been pretty solid all season long," 2006 Eugene manager Doug Dascenzo said. "He had been working on his swing – he has a real good future ahead of him."
Still, he would lead the Northwest League in runs scored with 53 and added 17 stolen bases in 22 attempts.
The Oklahoma native also showed some pop, collecting 16 doubles and three homers. But the crux of his game is reaching base and clearly scoring runs.
One of the concerns, therefore, was Epping's affinity for striking out. He whiffed 66 times in 68 games while drawing 34 free passes. Being more selective at the plate – he has a tendency to chase when he is behind in the count – led to fewer balls hit and less chances to reach base successfully to cause more havoc.
It is, therefore, crucial, that he put bat to ball and gives himself a chance to reach base. Epping isn't patient in the sense of balance and timing.
He commits early as a pull hitter and has to stay back and shoot the ball the other way with more regularity. When he is pulling the ball, Epping will be fooled by off-speed pitches and can't hold his swing. Conversely, if he sits back that extra tick he should be able to pick up the spin of the ball and can lay off pitches that fall outside of the zone.
A left-handed hitter, Epping struggled to pick up the ball against his own kind, hitting .225 off southpaws while batting .279 against right-handers.
They pounded the inside of the plate and he could not adjust to get his bat angle right to cover that portion of the plate.
"Mike Epping had a solid season," former Eugene hitting coach Matt Howe said. "Hits the ball to all fields. In our opinion, he was chasing too many pitches. He had quite a few strikeouts for a leadoff guy. He needs to work on his strike zone and discipline as well. But he had a solid first year, scores a lot of runs, steals some bases and showed a little bit of power as well. He has a lot of promise and just needs to work on his plate discipline."
When Epping does reach base, his aggressiveness and savvy take over.
Epping is above average in the speed department, has good first step quickness and more than anything else he can read the pitcher and anticipate when he will make his move towards the plate, getting good jumps.
"He's really a nice, smooth player," Dascenzo revealed. "He doesn't do anything max-effort. And he's just really fun to watch." Ironically, he wasn't that good of a base stealer until his final season in New Orleans – spending a lot of his time focusing on that aspect of his game.
"We give them the green light and see what they can do," said Dascenzo. (There is a time when) he is not on the green light because he screwed up. But that is how it works. That is how they learn. As we go through the season, we will give and take to see what they learn and what they remember. The green light only means that you know what you are doing. A lot of them think they know but they don't. It is nice to have that part on the expertise to help them grow as quickly as they can."
He scored 51 percent of the time he reached base – a stellar number.
What can't be overstated are his leadership qualities and makeup. Epping was usually the last player off the field – sticking behind to sign autographs for the fans. He was honored with the Sun Belt Conference Sporting Behavior Award for his work on and off the field during the 2005-06 season – thanks in part to his work at local soup kitchens and at the Children's Hospital.
That same attitude extends to the field where Epping continually puts in the extra work necessary to succeed.
His ability to set goals will set him apart in the coming year. He wants to succeed and will push himself to the limits.
Defensively, Epping is above average. He takes solid routes to the ball and reads the ball off the bat – getting good jumps. He is a heady player that will cut a ball off before diving unless he is sure he can come up with the ball. His arm is adequate but he sets himself up for accurate throws by aligning his feet and coming into the ball rather than being off-balance.
"The kid Epping showed to be a real skilled centerfielder just during the training camp we had," Padres' outfield defense rover Tom Gamboa said.
ETA: Epping had a good year, minus a .213 August. With a new attitude towards working the count he should see an immediate payoff. In full season ball, the challenge will be keeping his approach consistent. With good speed and outfield skills, he will have a place and what he does this year will shape his future.