PORT CHARLOTTE — Jeff Keppinger can't pinpoint one particular reason he hits so well against left-handed pitchers.
But his older brother Billy has a theory.
"He kills lefties because he's had a great lefty (batting practice) pitcher," Billy said.
That, of course, would be Billy, 33, a former Royals minor-league starter who routinely throws to Jeff in the offseason, going to a batting cage near their suburban Atlanta homes.
"I groove it in there over the middle," Billy quipped. "He's pretty happy with that."
Keppinger's ability to handle left-handed pitchers (.324 career average) — and hit to contact — made him intriguing to the Rays as a utility infielder. The 31-year-old Miami native said it was his childhood playing up in age groups with Billy, as well as the fuel of proving doubters wrong, that has turned him into the player he is today.
"I always try not to do too much," Keppinger said. "Because guys were always bigger, faster, and stronger, always hit the ball harder, threw harder. So I just tried to do what I could do to fit in."
Keppinger is one of the toughest hitters to strike out, second among active players with one for every 16.11 at-bats. He's patient, doesn't panic and has good plate discipline.
But most of all, he says, it's pride.
"Growing up, I would cry when I was striking out," Keppinger said. "There was something about striking out and having to walk back to the dugout that was embarrassing. I always took pride in putting the ball in play, and it was just something I always made a priority, and it just carried over and carried over."
Billy can remember a couple of other times when Jeff showed some tears on the baseball field, including after getting caught stealing for the first time in high school. Then there was the game when Jeff, then a 7-year-old shortstop, let a ball through his legs while Billy was on the mound.
"He's never heard the end of it," Billy said.
Keppinger has never hit more than seven homers in a season. He has never won a Gold Glove. But Keppinger has played all over the infield, as well as the corner outfield spots. And he can come through in the clutch, with his .477 career average with the bases loaded the highest among active players.
"He's a very calm baseball player," manager Joe Maddon said. "I like that, and I think it bodes well. It permits you to do well all year. You don't get spent emotionally, and those are the kinds of things that permit a guy to play every day. He definitely has all of that."
All Keppinger has ever wanted was an opportunity. The former University of Georgia star shortstop said the Pirates, who drafted him in the fourth round in 2001, had him move to second base. And Keppinger started to learn more positions in 2005 to increase his value after not getting a real shot with the Mets.
"He was always nervous every year, didn't know if he's going to be in the big leagues or sent down," Billy said.
Keppinger is playing for his sixth team, having been traded five times, but he has never reached the playoffs. That's partly what drew him to Tampa Bay, even though he joked it's awkward "feeling like one of the old guys." He loves the talent, the energy, and culture of winning. Maddon told Keppinger before he signed a one-year, $1.525 million deal in January that he'd get a chance to play against lefties, including sometimes backing up Carlos Peña at first base.
"That made my decision easy," Keppinger said.
Billy never got a chance in the majors, playing four years in the Royals system and three in independent ball (2004-07). But he has gotten the better of Jeff the only two times he faced him professionally, both in high-A ball. Jeff had a sacrifice bunt in one meeting. But in the other, in the eighth-inning of a one-run game, Billy got Jeff to hit into a 5-4-3 double play.
"He was so mad," Billy said, laughing. "That's the one thing I have on him."
Joe Smith can be reached at [email protected]