Sunday, December 23, 2012
Second hitting coach becoming hot trend
By Anna McDonald
This offseason, nine teams -- the Cubs, Red Sox, Dodgers, White Sox, Phillies, Royals, Rays, Pirates and Reds -- have added a second hitting coach. Several other teams are thinking about hiring an assistant hitting coach before spring training. Before this offseason, only five teams -- the Cardinals, Giants, Padres, Tigers and Braves -- employed an assistant hitting coach.
After surveying teams and talking to Major League Baseball, no one is absolutely certain when and where the concept of the assistant hitting coach originated. Roving hitting instructors have been around for a while, but the assistant hitting coach has more responsibilities and information about the game plan than a typical roving instructor.
In 1985, the New York Times reported that Willie Horton was hired as an assistant hitting coach for the Yankees. The Rangers had an assistant hitting coach, Tom Robson, from 1986 to 1988. Bobby Evans, assistant general manager for the Giants, said that in 2000 the Giants informally hired Joe Lefebvre, who was a roving hitting instructor at the time, as an assistant hitting coach.
Mark McGwire, left, was lead hitting coach for the Cardinals when they won it all in 2011.
But this current trend seems to come from teams recognizing the success the Cardinals have had in recent seasons with two hitting coaches and following St. Louis' lead.
"We saw the Cardinals obviously had a great deal of success with Mark McGwire and Mike Aldrete in 2011," Phillies assistant general manager Scott Proefrock said in regard to one of the many reasons they hired Wally Joyner as assistant hitting coach this year.
The Cardinals hired Aldrete in 2008 to be their assistant hitting coach, and while the concept of a second hitting coach isn't exactly new, many in the industry say it was former manager Tony La Russa who engineered the role as we see it today.
La Russa recalls the concept of the assistant hitting coach developing from his special relationship with video guru Chad Blair, who became like a scout and coach within the Cardinals organization.
"He became a real good source of information," La Russa said. "Our hitting coach or our hitters would go to him and say, 'Hey, what do you see with this picture?' and he would give a really good analysis even though he didn’t play."
La Russa said everyone on the team knew that Blair watched everything; they trusted him. La Russa, the pitching coach and the hitting coach all had a lot of confidence in Blair and what he said.
Blair’s impact on the team -- named the secret weapon by La Russa in Buzz Bissinger's "Three Nights in August" -- helped La Russa recognize the need for a second coach, because Blair had other responsibilities beside providing feedback to the players and coaches.
With the advent of video preparation for a series and the in-game video teams use, La Russa says, such a role is now too much for one person to handle. The Phillies identified this as a problem, too.
"You’ve got one hitting coach, and that’s an awful lot with all the advanced reports and the technology and the film and the video and all the other things," Proefrock said. "You’re stretching one person awfully thin to deal with all that. We just thought there was enough work to do to expand the role and really pay more attention to that preparation and the scouting with our hitting game."
Typically, the hitting coach watches video on the starting pitcher and all the relievers for the current opponent; done thoroughly, La Russa says, that's several hours of work -- it could maybe be done in two hours, but it wouldn't be as thorough and thus not as valuable. Before the advent of the assistant hitting coach, the lead hitting coach was never able to look ahead to the next series.
You can't have too many coaches these days.
"We felt like we could take the assistant hitting coach and it would help us stay ahead," La Russa said. "So [for example] over the weekend, the second hitting coach would be looking, besides what he had to do in the [current] series, he would be looking at the next series, at the pitchers and the relievers, so that when that Monday got there, he could have a bunch of information there for the hitting coach and make his hour or two of preparation more meaningful. That’s a real important key."
Along with the demands of video preparation, most ballparks have an indoor hitting facility. Prior to hiring an assistant hitting coach, La Russa said he would have to take one of his other coaches, like first base coach Dave McKay or third base coach Jose Oquendo, to have enough coaches to work with the players in both the cages and batting practice prior to the game.
"We were taking away from one thing to help the other," La Russa said. "So that was one common-sense solution, it seemed like, to get the extra coach."
The Red Sox said one of the reasons they hired a second hitting coach this year was because they have cages right behind the dugout, and players were using them during the game. Such use of the indoor facilities is common in MLB, but the Red Sox felt it made sense to hire a second coach to better serve their players.
"[In] spring training, you had this real strong confidence factor that there was good quality work because it was being supervised by quality hitting coaches," La Russa said of having coaches spread out over all the fields. "And that’s really what got the thinking going, along with the other factors."
The assistant hitting coach needs to do more than just be an extra set of eyes and ears to succeed. The position also involves more than having another coach explain hitting to the players.
"The second hitting coach -- his personality, is really an important piece of this, because he is the second hitting coach: He is the assistant to the hitting coach," La Russa said. "So if he is very opinionated and determined and he tries to carve out his little empire, then that undermines what you are doing as a team and undermines what you are doing as a hitting coach.
"So we were really, really well set up because Mike Aldrete until  did it and he was outstanding, he had a real good sense of what he should do, when he should do it, and made sure he would defer to the hitting coach, and John Mabry did the same thing [in 2012]. Maybe one of the reasons other people haven’t tried it is because that can be a volatile situation if the assistant hitting coach takes things personal, gets his ego in the way."
To date, assistant hitting coaches have not been on the bench during games. MLB has rules as to who may occupy the bench and the bullpen during a game. A manager and six coaches are allowed. Clubs choose the six they want on the bench and communicate that to MLB. Most teams with an assistant hitting coach feel that his work in the cages and the video room during games is more valuable than having him to take a spot on the bench away from one of the other coaches.
"It’s not a real glamorous or high-profile position," Proefrock said. "I think from the standpoint of what we expect the assistant hitting coach to do, the cage is probably the most productive spot, but you wouldn’t mind having him have the opportunity to poke his head out there on the bench every once in a while if he wasn’t back there working with somebody."
It’s hard to imagine the number of ideas La Russa presented to his front offices when he managed -- his mind always working, always trying to find an advantage -- but La Russa said he appreciated that when it came to the assistant hitting coach, Cardinals' brass hopped on board.
"Fortunately with the Cardinals, the front office was always willing to listen. I got told no a bunch of times, but they were always willing to listen and if it made sense," La Russa said.
A World Series championship is not just a matter of having the best hitting talent. It’s not just a matter of having the best pitching rotation. Somewhere in each team's balance of hitting, pitching and fielding is the key to a better team. In baseball, if a team can figure out how to get an edge, even the smallest one, it can be the difference between a trip to the postseason and staying home.
Talking to one team that does not employ an assistant hitting coach left the impression that the club felt it was covered enough this season with the extra coaches and the roving hitting instructor. La Russa sees somewhat of a fallacy in that reasoning, though. He uses an example to illustrate.
"You are a veteran manager, right? And now you are not managing and someone asks you for an opinion and you come around once in a while. The only opinions that really count are the ones of the guys who are with the club every day. ... You can’t come in part time and have as much [impact] -- I’m not saying you can’t have some impact -- but if you’re trying to get the best edge that you can have hitting-wise ... if you miss any piece of [the video room, the cages or spring training instruction] you miss an edge."
Anna McDonald is a regular contributor to the SweetSpot blog. Follow her on Twitter @Anna_McDonald.