Hawaii Winter Baseball Feature: Eric Campbell

HONOLULU–He has proven power and shown he can swipe a few bases. But infielder Eric Campbell is looking to improve on another aspect of his game: his approach at the plate.

Campbell is among four players from the Braves’ farm system playing for the Honolulu Sharks of Hawaii Winter Baseball, where he ranked second in the league with a .345 batting average through Oct 16.

After taking MVP honors in the Rookie-level Appalachian League with Danville in 2005, Campbell progressed nicely this past season at low Class A Rome, batting .296 with 27 doubles and a South Atlantic League-leading 22 home runs while driving in 77 runs. He was the starting third baseman for the Southern Division of the SAL all-star game in June.

But Campbell wants to have better command of the strike zone. He walked just 23 times with 68 strikeouts in 116 games.

“If you take a pitch, it takes a lot of trust to not swing at something you’re not looking for,” Campbell said. “If I’m sitting on a curveball in an at-bat, don’t swing at the fastball. Wait until you get the curveball.”

Except for one game in Campbell swung at bad pitches in favorable-hitter counts, Sharks manager Gary Kendall–who managed against Campbell at low Class A Delmarva in the Orioles system this season–said Campbell has “been a tough out so far.”

“Before that, he was going the other way, hitting the gaps,” Kendall said. “He’s very talented offensively.”

Campbell isn’t here to just improve his hitting. He also is getting on-the-job training at second base with the anticipation of Marcus Giles’ departure from the big league club. The Braves appear to have their future third baseman in Van Pope, also with the Sharks, selected as the best fielding third baseman in BA’s Best Tools poll by managers in the high Class A Carolina League. Pope has already impressed the Hawaii fans with some dazzling stops and strong throws across the diamond. Campbell hopes the move puts him on a faster track to the majors.

“Chipper’s going to be there,” he said. “Marcus (Giles) has one more year left on his contract, so it’s probably the quicker way, but there’s a lot of good guys in our organization I’ve got to work my way past. I don’t know. We’ll see.”

One of those in front of him is Martin Prado, who played at Double-A Mississippi and Triple-A Richmond, batting .281/.321/.360 overall.

Campbell played shortstop at Gibson Southern High in Owensville, Ind., where the Braves made him their second-round pick (71st overall) in 2004. He was drafted as a third baseman, even though he said he never played there until he reached Danville in 2005.

“So I’m just learning as I go,” he said. “Mainly, I’m just hitting the ball because that’s what’s going to get me there more than anything. That’s what I’m focusing on, being able to hit the ball, (hit) home runs and produce some runs and see if I can get up there pretty quick . . . I’ve shown I could steal some bases, too (18-for-22 at Rome), and I know people overlook that. I take pride in being able to steal bases whenever I need to. That helps us out in a tight game.”

Luckily for Campbell, HWB returned. Otherwise, he said he probably would have ended up in instructional league to learn the new position in a much shorter time period.

“Coming over to here is relaxed, but the competitive environment makes it a lot easier moving over to second base whenever you’re playing (in) games,” Campbell said. “That’s the way you get better, learning from game situations. It’s better than just taking ground balls. It’s going to help me out a lot better.”

But life isn’t all baseball for Campbell, who is getting a better feel of the Hawaiian culture than the typical tourist. Unlike most of the HWB players who have rentals in Waikiki, Campbell is staying with Hawaii native and Braves first baseman Kala Ka’aihue, his roommate at Rome over the summer.

They are staying with Ka’aihue’s parents, who reside in Kailua, about a 20-minute drive to Les Murakami Stadium at the University of Hawaii, where the Sharks play home games. (Ka’aihue’s father, also named Kala, played in the minors in the Pirates and Cardinals organizations, and later with the Hawaii Islanders of the Pacific Coast League.)

“His family is great,” Campbell said. “Everyone’s been nice. When (Ka’aihue’s parents) came up to Rome, we just hit it off. It’s like I’m one of their sons. That’s what they’re taking me as right now, so I’m having a great time.”