Judging the Royals

George Brett, my personal hitting instructor

Updated: 2013-05-30T21:33:55Z

By LEE JUDGE

The Kansas City Star

The winter before he retired, George Brett was my personal hitting instructor. I had just started playing baseball in a men’s amateur league and had already received some hitting instruction—which was amazing. When I was a kid, if you sucked, they sent you home; not to a hitting coach. It was eye-opening to find out you could actually learn to be a better hitter—not necessarily good—but better.

That’s why I called George; I wanted to learn more and I figured I knew one of the greatest hitters that ever lived—maybe he’d let me hit with him. George invited me out to whatever they were calling Kauffman Stadium back then and we hit together. I was stepping in and taking hacks with George, Wally Joyner and guys like Keith Miller (look him up). After we finished, George and I were walking out of the stadium and he asked if I was going to be there next week.

"Dude, I got a day job."

I went home and thought about it and decided I was being an idiot; if Ted Williams had asked my dad to hang out and my dad said he was busy, I’d have to say my dad was a moron. I decided to use vacation days, called George up, and said I was in. We hit together every Wednesday that winter. It didn’t take long to figure out why I’d been so lucky: the pitching machine kept getting stuck and someone needed to stand down at the other end of the cage and make sure the balls kept going down the hole that fed them into the chute that led to the pitching arm. (So actually, it’s a lot more accurate to say I was George Brett’s ball caddy than George Brett was my hitting instructor, but guess which version I prefer.)

The other thing that worked in my favor is the Royals had two days set aside for hitters to come in and take their swings and George Brett—a lock for the Hall of Fame and nearing the end of his career—wanted three. He needed me to get in that extra work. That may be the first thing the Royals hitters can learn from George Brett: the really good guys work harder than anyone else. It’s just as true today as it was in George’s day. Who’s the hardest worker on the 2013 Royals? Who’s having the best season? The answer to both those questions is Alex Gordon.

The really good guys work harder than anybody else.

When George Brett was playing he used a weight-shift hitting style. He started with most of his weight on his back foot and shifted his weight forward as he swung. All swings contain weight-shift (movement from back to front) and rotation (circular motion). Emphasizing weight-shift keeps the hitter on the ball longer (he doesn’t pull off as he rotates) and emphasizes hitting the ball back up the middle. Rotation hitting gets the bat head in the zone more quickly, but also gets the bat head out of the zone more quickly. Bottom line: weight-shift tends to help average, rotation hitting tends to help power because the hitter is more likely to pull the ball. Back then, weight-shift hitting instructors like Charlie Lau were criticized for turning guys who might show some power into a bunch of singles-hitters. So it’ll be interesting to see what hitting philosophy George will promote and how it fits into the current debate about home runs.

I’ve got no clue what George Brett will be teaching—and, frankly—I’m not sure it matters.

What’s happening below the neck may be less important than what goes on above the neck. Whatever mechanics a hitters uses, George Brett can teach him to go about the game in the right way: how to prepare, how to get your pitch and what to do when you get it. Back when he was still playing I asked George why he was good in the clutch and he said a lot of hitters couldn’t forget that there were two outs, the tying run was in scoring position and it was the World Series—but when he was going good, George could forget. He could forget who was on the mound, what the larger situation might be and just focus on the ball. He said that all he knew was he was getting a pitch in his zone—and he had a pretty good idea of what to do next.

If the young players on this team pay attention, they can learn a lot. If they decide to continue flashing hand gestures after every hit and see the Hall of Famer in the dugout frowning, they need to cool it. If they come in late and haven’t down their prep-work and George says something about it, they need to listen. I doubt George Brett wants to be a hitting instructor for long (I could be wrong, nobody’s said anything), but if that’s the case—if he’s just stepping into help the Royals out of a jam—every guy on the team needs to take advantage of this opportunity.

It’s freaking George Brett.

If nothing else, this is a brilliant PR move: instead of talking about Ned Yost’s job security, lots of us will be focusing on Brett and how the hitters respond—for about two weeks. After that, if the Royals aren’t winning, we’ll be right back to where we started: what will it take to turn this team around?

If George Brett—my personal hitting instructor—can’t get it done, look for more changes.

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