Time Out of Mind (05/15/01)
(or Do Coaches Matter - part 2)
Yesterday, I tried to show that a very good pitching coach can have a profoundly beneficial effect on a single pitcher or on an entire staff. A good hitting coach can have a similar effect on everyday players.
Reeling in the Years
Before Don Baylor was a manager for the Rockies, he was the hitting coach for the Cardinals. One of his projects was Andres Galarraga, who had been a pretty good hitting first baseman in Montreal before falling on hard times. Very hard times. In 1991, his last year in Canada he hit .219 with on base and slugging percentages of .268/.336 in 375 at bats. Those kind of numbers aren't even good enough for a slick fielding shortstop, much less a position player with great offensive demands like a first baseman.
So he was traded to the Cardinals for a promising pitcher named Ken Hill. Baylor saw that Galarraga's problem wasn't so much with his swing but his vision. Galarraga's stance was so closed - meaning his front foot was closer to the plate than his back foot - that he couldn't see the pitches with both eyes. Essentially, he was batting one-eyed. So over the course of the year, Baylor kept opening his stance so that he could keep both eyes on the pitch for as long as possible. However, the results were modest, improving to .243 with .282/.391 in 325 ABs. The following year, Baylor was named manager of the Rockies and Galarraga followed him to Colorado as a free agent. Baylor kept tinkering with his stance in the spring, and finally struck gold. In 1993, with a rarely seen completely wide open stance, Galarraga exploded in the thin mountain air, hitting .370 with .403/.602. in 470 ABs. And he's been hitting ever since, still using Baylor's wide open stance.
In one of my first articles on the new strikezone, I was not optimistic that Tony Clark would be much of an offensive factor this year. He was coming off a couple of years with back troubles, and facing a new taller strikezone that didn't portend well for a 6'7" man. Well, I was wrong. Clark is posting an impressive year so far showing no adverse effects from his back or the strikezone. In fact, his numbers are on pace to soar well beyond his previous career highs. How can this be?
Well, part of the reason has to be his swing doctor. This winter, four-time batting champ Bill Madlock was named as the Tigers' hitting coach. During his playing days he was known for having a keen eye, but being very aggressive at the plate. He didn't walk a whole lot (his best season total was 56), but from 1974 until 1984, he struck out more than he walked in a season just once.
Madlock analyzed Clark's swing from both sides of the plate and decided that he needed to open up his stance against lefties more. While Clark did hit right handers slightly better, he was never really weak from the opposite side. Apparently, Madlock saw something that made him think that Clark could do much better. Currently Clark is scalding left handed pitching to the tune of .356 with a .578 slugging percentage, both marks well above his career average.
Clark isn't the only one seeing dramatic improvements this year. Juan Encarnacion, previously a very undisciplined hitter, is on pace to triple his walk total from last year without sacrificing any power. Jose Macias is showing considerable improvement as well, especially in the power department. If four batting titles weren't proof enough, this cinches it: Bill Madlock knows hitting.
Do it Again
Travis Lee has enjoyed a return to productivity. Some of his success probably should be attributed to Phillie hitting coach Richie Hebner. After Lee's rookie season, Tony Gwynn observed that his swing had changed from the first half of 1998 to the first half of 1999. Leg injuries had apparently caused him to change his mechanics, which threw off his timing, causing his production to drop to almost pre-Baylor Galarraga levels.
Hebner and Lee sat down this spring to look at just what had changed and to see if they could re-discover the sweet swing that had scouts tossing a coin between him and Todd Helton as to who would be the best hitting first baseman of the new century. Judging from the results, they figured it out. He's hitting right on track with his performance in the first half of his rookie year when he hit .284/.355/.479 with 17 homers and 47 RBI. Only this time, he's got a much better eye at the plate, walking as much as he's striking out. Currently he's hitting .297 with on base and slugging percentages of .435 and .532, respectively.
Speaking of Helton, he's probably one of the most over-rated players in baseball. Yes, he's a good hitter and a very good fielder. But does anyone honestly think he'd be leading the majors in slugging or challenging for batting titles if he didn't play in Coors? His career road numbers are .293/.371/.518 and would average about 26 homers a year if he played in a neutral park. This year, he's hitting .255/.397/.455 away from Coors with just 3 homers. Those numbers aren't any better than those of Sean Casey (.313/.387/.504), who's a year younger. And Helton hasn't been hit in the eye by a batting practice line drive and played through a fractured thumb as Casey has in the last 2 years. Helton is simply a good first baseman who plays in an unbelievably great place to hit. As far as I'm concerned, you don't need to be much of a swing doctor to coach hitting in Coors. Gumby could teach hitting in Coors. A pitching coach there... now that's a challenge.
People talk about what a great hitting coach Merv Rettenmund was with San Diego, helping Steve Finley, Greg Vaughn and Ken Caminiti achieve career years in a Padre uni. However, while all three acknowledged Rettenmund's tutelage, each of them also pointed to fellow teammate Tony Gwynn's work ethic. They cited following his practice routines as a big reason for their improvement.
Rettenmund left San Diego before last season for greener pastures in Atlanta. In 2000, The Pads OPS was third worst in the NL at .732. Surprisingly, that was an improvement over Rettenmund's final season's effort, which was .725. This year, it's 8th at .756. Don't necessarily point the finger at hitting coach Duane Espy, who was promoted in the middle of last season to serve as Rettenmund's replacement. San Diego's improvement is largely due to replacing OPS derelicts Ruben Rivera, Eric Owens and Al Martin with OPS paladins Bubba Trammell, Mark Kotsay and Mike Darr. Give GM Kevin Towers credit for this one.
As for Rettenmund's new home, Atlanta? The year before he arrived, the team's OPS was .777. Last year, it fell to .775. This year, it's .692. Maybe if the Braves traded for Tony Gwynn...
Any Major Dude
The Yanks have a number of renowned coaches who were well above average players in their day. Manager Joe Torre was an MVP. Pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre was a very good pitcher in the 60s, although didn't get much recognition because the teams he played for never gave him enough run support to win very often. Bench coach Don Zimmer was a very good player in the 50's and early 60's until a couple of beanings moved him to the dugout. So who is the big name hitting coach for the Yanks? Gary Denbo. Who? Gary Denbo, who never played a single day in the majors. The Yanks current hitting woes - they are currently 9th in team OPS in the AL - aren't completely his fault, but he certainly hasn't solved them. Rather than trying to trade for Sammy Sosa, the Yanks should have tried to trade for Cubs hitting coach Jeff Pentland.
But just because a guy was a good hitter in his playing career, like Baylor and Madlock, doesn't necessarily mean he'll be a good hitting coach. Wade Boggs, one of the best hitters of the last 50 years, is the Devil Rays hitting coach and he hasn't figured out how to get that team going.
Back to Pentland, he a perfect example of a guy who was never much of a hitter (didn't even make the big leagues), but understood enough about hitting to make other guys better hitters. Before he arrived on the scene, Sammy Sosa was a solid player, but not yet considered to be among the NL elite. His big issue was discipline at the plate. From 1993 to 1997, Sosa averaged just 6 more walks than home runs per season. Pentland somehow convinced him that if he didn't swing at pitches out of the strikezone, that his numbers would improve. Boy, howdy! Not only did Sosa's batting average improve more than 50 points the following season, but his on base jumped better than 70 points. Oh yeah. And he hit 66 home runs. And has hit 50 or more in each season since.
Other teams to keep an eye on are St. Louis, where Mike Easler is the new hitting guru, Los Angeles (Jack Clark) and Milwaukee (Rod Carew). When he was with Boston, Easler was credited with making Mo Vaughn into a feared hitter. He is doing equally as well with young sluggers JD Drew and Albert Pujols.
The Dodgers have had problems drawing walks over the past decade. Clark, a man who drew 1262 of them in his major league career, good for 32nd all-time, should be able to teach them something.
And Rod Carew, a lifetime .328 hitter and the former hitting coach of the Angels, who guided Tim Salmon and Darin Erstad to batting prominence, should help a talented Brewers club in need of guidance.
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