Just how important are hitting coaches anyway?
06/07/2014 7:37 PM
06/07/2014 7:37 PM
This is all Charley Lau’s fault. Him and George Brett. They done changed the game, as the kids say. Or, at least, as the kids used to say.
Anyway, you probably know the story, how the old catcher waited until the young third baseman’s lowest moment and offered a way to stay in the big leagues. Lau was innovative and certain. Brett was scared and open to anything that would help. They were the perfect match.
So Lau tore down everything about how Brett swung, especially the way he held his hands high and used a bat just a little too big because that’s how his hero Carl Yastrzemski did it. Lau used logic and numbers and video (revolutionary back in 1974) and convinced Brett on the importance of weight shifting and slight uppercuts and easy swings and a thousand other little details that turned a .205 hitter into one of the game’s all-time greats.
When Brett was inducted to the Hall of Fame in 1999, he spent more words thanking Lau than anyone else.
Nobody could have known it at the time, but the relationship just ruined it for every hitting coach who followed here in Kansas City.
Even more than in other markets, hitting coaches are supposed to fix it. Especially if they’re working with hitters who’ve been hyped. Guys who’ve been on the cover of Baseball America (and The Star) before they’ve been in a big-league lineup. Just in the last few years, Kevin Seitzer, Jack Maloof and Andre David and Pedro Grifol have lived that reality.
“We’re in these jobs to be fired,” Dale Sveum said after becoming the next in line.
He took over last week. Eric Hosmer’s slump continues. Same with Mike Moustakas. And Billy Butler. Omar Infante appears to have joined them. The Royals have scored two, three and two runs in their most recent games.
Charley Lau was a long time ago.
There is no professional sport where the power structure is as tilted toward the athletes as major-league baseball. This is not necessarily a good or bad thing. Just reality. Other than high-level rock stars or actors, there may not be a line of work where the employees have more power and the supposed bosses less.
This is a line you hear from executives, scouts, coaches and players: when things go right, the players get most of the credit and when things go wrong the people around them get most of the blame.
There is perhaps no place in baseball where that is truer than the dynamic with Royals hitters and the hitting coaches who must feel as if they’re speed-dating. The coaches are cursed and crushed, fired or demoted. The players are in the lineup the next day.
Recently, largely the same group of players have finished 12th in runs with Seitzer in 2012, 11th with a mixed plate of four hitting coaches last year, and 15th so far with Grifol and now Sveum in 2014.
That’s six different hitting coaches with most of the same players and most of the same results. But yet a chunk of those with a vested interest in the Royals keep asking and wondering whether a change in hitting coach can be the difference in a group of millionaire athletes reaching their full potential.
Brett isn’t even making a controversial statement when he calls hitting coach “the worst job in baseball.” This is more fact than opinion, backed up by so much grind and monotony and so little thanks and sleep that baseball people around the country see those words and think, “Well, yeah.”
Hitting coaches are usually the hardest working men on a big-league staff. This is easy to forget sometimes, but it’s absolutely true. The Royals carry 12 position players which means 12 different men with 12 different swings, attitudes, talents, adaptability, strengths, weaknesses and moods.
Someone is always going through a slump, and it affects their sleep and confidence. They need help getting out of it. Someone is always going through a hot streak, and it can affect their drive and habits. They need help staying in it.
No position player makes it this far without loving to hit, or without understanding that they need to hit at a certain level to stay living that big-league life. That means someone is always wanting to take extra swings. The work can be overwhelming.
And in the context created in large part by Lau and Brett, it means that when the Royals trend up and down, a disproportionate chunk of the fan base focuses on the coaches (except, it seems, in the cases of Butler and Moustakas).
The Royals aren’t the only team to churn through hitting coaches. The Mets actually beat the Royals by two days, firing Dave Hudgens. But there is perhaps no place in baseball where firing the hitting coach is such a go-to fix.
There are broader reasons than the success of Lau and Brett for hitting coaches catching so much attention in Kansas City.
A lot of it, of course, is that the Royals are working on a third consecutive disappointing offensive season despite a lineup made up largely of hyped draft picks. Some of it is the way that Seitzer, himself a beloved former Royal, clashed with manager Ned Yost and was fired in 2012. And at least a bit of it might be that Kansas City is very much a football town, and in football, many coaches are stars who make legitimate differences.
But in baseball?
There is a reason the players make millions and the coaches make thousands, and it’s not just because most coaches have similar emphases — hit your pitch, have a plan, quick hands, etc. Changing voices has its place, and like any other job some hitting coaches are better than others. But no hitting coach ever turned a marginal talent into a great big-league hitter.
Hitting coaches are more like caddies or swing coaches on the PGA Tour. They are there for maintenance more than creation, and are often fired on whims. They are there for advice, which the athletes we watch are free to absorb or ignore.
Brett, actually, knows the other side of this.
If you’re eating, this might be a good time to move on. Either way, you’ve been warned.
Several years ago, long before Brett became the Royals’ hitting coach, he was sent to Omaha to work with a young player who was having problems with his swing and confidence.
After a few days, Brett suggested a tweak in the player’s stance. The player said it was uncomfortable. So Brett — and here’s where you should put down the fork — asked which hand the player uses to wipe with in the bathroom. The player said his right. So Brett grabbed a bat, and asked what would happen if he smashed the player’s right hand.
Well, obviously, the player would have to change strategies in the bathroom and, Brett said, it would be uncomfortable in the beginning. But eventually, he’d get used to it. Brett was speaking from experience. He’d done this bathroom-strategy-change after breaking his thumb one year and, ever since, has made sure he can do all the essentials with either hand just in case.
So here we have a lesson — a little discomfort can be good for you — given in an absolutely unforgettable way by one of the greatest hitters of all time.
When telling this story last summer, Brett said he didn’t think the player took the advice.
The player went on to have the best year of his career anyway, and earn generational wealth implementing some of what he heard from hitting coaches and ignoring the rest.
To reach Sam Mellinger, call 816-234-4365, send email to firstname.lastname@example.org or follow twitter.com/mellinger. For previous columns, go to KansasCity.com.
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