Commentary

Lonely job

White Sox hitting coach Jeff Manto tries to keep up morale despite epic struggle

Updated: June 6, 2013, 4:13 PM ET
By Jon Greenberg | ESPNChicago.com

Adam Dunn Kelvin Kuo/USA TODAY SportsAdam Dunn has become the poster child for the Sox's anemic offense, but not from a lack of trying.

CHICAGO -- It wasn't that long ago that the White Sox were respectable in terms of record, if not performance.

On May 27, the Sox were newly .500, thanks to a weekend sweep of the Miami Marlins, the pitching was solid and the hitters, well, one could think optimistically.

"I really think (we've turned a corner)," White Sox hitting coach Jeff Manto told me, just hours before the Cubs' Jeff Samardzija threw a two-hit shutout against the South Siders in a 7-0 win. "Guys are really starting to feel more comfortable right now. The at-bats are getting better and they're finding the barrels more."

Since that talk, the Sox's barrels have mostly been MIA. Eight straight losses and a Jake Peavy injury later and the Sox are officially a mess. A mind-numbingly bad 16-inning win over Seattle, another floundering team, on Wednesday saved the team from the longest winless road trip in its history.

There is an overwhelming referendum for change on the South Side. The White Sox have been averse to a rebuilding-type plan, and I'm not sure they have much to sell with Jake Peavy out for 4-6 weeks, but it's clear the team isn't responding to adversity.

I can't imagine there would be too many complaints about a White Flag trade this time. I expect bigger crowds at the Wells Street Art Festival and Printers Row Lit Fest than at the Cell this weekend.

When I talked to Manto in late May in the home dugout, there were signs a drought like this was coming, because the hitting was so epically bad. The Sox players, a group of realists and veterans, knew they wouldn't keep winning half of their games without some drastic change.

The Cubs series, three losses and one rainout, was just the beginning, as the Sox went on to get swept in Oakland and drop two of three to Seattle.

One thing the hardcore traditionalists and advanced analytics community can agree on is the Sox hitters are bad in any language. They are the Esperanto of Awful.

A quick reminder:

Going into Thursday's game against Oakland, the Sox are 29th in runs, 27th in hits, 28th in doubles, 30th in triples, tied for 21st in home runs (South Side Hitmen!), 29th in RBIs, 26th in batting average, 28th in on-base percentage, 28th in slugging, 29th in OPS, 28th in walks, 30th in sacrifice hits, 29th in total plate appearances, 28th in walk percentage, 23rd in strikeout percentage, 27th in BABIP, 29th in wOBA, 29th in WAR.

(By the way, they're home this weekend, tickets still available!)

To summarize, the White Sox hit a lot of fly balls, but not a lot of home runs, they strike out, they don't walk, they don't get runners in, they don't even sacrifice runners over.

They know this. They live it every day. And for Manto, who like most hitting coaches doubles as a shrink, life coach and teacher, it's been a difficult time.

"One thing as a hitting coach you take things personally, more personal than the players do because you know they care," he told me in a long conversation before that first Cubs-Sox game. "These players care. They come to the ballpark every day and want to do well. They understand all the stresses, the pressure and when you see someone you grow attached to (struggle), you take it personally and try to help and when it doesn't work on the field, you really do get upset yourself."

As for those numbers I listed above, they are uniquely bad for most of the lineup, Alex Rios and Conor Gillaspie aside.

"I don't even show them the stats, they can find those stats faster than I can," Manto said. "I just make sure they're in a good frame of mind and make sure they know they are good players.

"There's times these players walk in and they're getting beat up in the media, they're getting beat up in Facebooks (sic) and things like that. You have to make sure you're a good player, you're a major league player and believe it."

If you're thinking about Stuart Smalley right now, you're not alone.

In an empty Sox dugout, we talked about the team's struggles to get on base, his acceptance and aversion to "sabermetrics" ("I like sabermetrics, it has its place," he said.) and we talked about Adam Dunn's struggles in particular.

What was his job like at that point, I wondered. The hitting coach is the most maligned, misunderstood job in baseball. What can you do when your organization puts together a lineup like this? While James Rowson is supposed to teach the "Cubs Way" to the hitters young enough to digest its principles, Manto took over for the popular (with the players) Greg Walker with no particular mandate. When you have veteran hitters, your job is to basically make sure they keep on track while watching enough video to be familiar with their swings.

Take Dunn, for example. He's the mascot for the team's continued hitting failures. During the team's last nine games (one of which he sat), he's 5-for-29 with one homer, four RBIs and surprisingly, only nine strikeouts.

With the worst long-term deal in Chicago since Mayor Daley signed the parking meter fiasco, Dunn's performance has been mocked in his two-plus seasons. He was so bad in 2011 that last year was considered a success because he hit 41 homers and drove in 96 runs, while also hitting .204 with 222 strikeouts.

"The thing with Dunn that people don't realize is that he's so athletic," Manto said. "He made a comment the other day, and I truly believe it, he said no matter what he tries, he feels comfortable. So I can ask him to hit with an open stance and he'll go OK fine. Hit with a closed stance, ok fine and he'll feel comfortable. Just a matter of him barreling the ball up."

Dunn's affability led to a problem this year. In spring training, Manto, Harold Baines and Robin Ventura asked him to tinker with his approach and be more aggressive, rather than waiting for a pitch to drive or taking a walk. According to a Tribune article from Feb. 20, Dunn hit .118 with 65 strikeouts on full counts in 2012. But he also had 55 walks.

"We had talked about, Bainesy, I and Robin had talked about, maybe if he were just more aggressive early in the counts he wouldn't get to the two-strike count all the time," Manto said. "There's often times we know organization that will just pump a fastball in there knowing he's going to take it. Hence, if they're going to pump a fastball in there, let's get after it."

Give the Sox credit for trying to fix Dunn. But the grand plan didn't work. By mid-April, around the time FanGraphs published an in-depth piece on its failure, the plan was scrapped.

"That took him out of his comfort area a little bit," Manto admitted.

[+] EnlargeJeff Manto
Hannah Foslien/Getty ImagesJeff Manto doesn't show his players their stats because he wants to keep up morale.
No kidding. In Dunn's first 16 games, he hit .098. By the end of the month, his average climbed up to .148, dropping again to .133 on May 13. As of Wednesday's win, he's hitting .162 with 13 homers, giving him an amazing 37-homer, 88-hit pace.

Part of the problem in coaching Dunn, besides his affability and his well, awfulness, is that teams often play him with an exaggerated shift.

"I often say he plays on a different field," Manto said. "We did some numbers here last year where if everyone played him in a traditional manner, he'd end up hitting .260. Those numbers are true.

"He's hitting with six guys where he hits the ball. An easy thing to say is just hit it to left field. That's easier said than done. That's like asking an NBA center to shoot 3s. 'I'm open take the shot.' It just doesn't make sense."

When I bring up the rise of advanced scouting reports, he agrees that it's changed the game for guys like Dunn.

"It's tougher to hit," he said. "You talk about the way people play their defenses now, as good as these pitchers are, the bullpens now, it's tough to get a hit. Especially if you're Adam Dunn. When you're playing in a field that has seven fielders that can catch the ball where you're sitting. When he gets a base hit, it's truly a pretty big feat."

He's not kidding.

When it comes to advanced statistics, Manto is right not to overload the players. Very few players want that much information, in any sport. Sometimes I wonder if the Sox could use a little more, given their track record of uneven offenses. Most likely they just need better hitters.

"We have all the info," Manto said. "It's good information, some of it makes sense, some of it is a bunch of numbers that makes sense but doesn't pertain to tonight. We have all the information as much as the Cubs have all the information, but guess what, when the umpire says play ball, the game becomes a monster in itself."

The game has become a monster to the White Sox, and if they don't turn things around soon, the monster will devour this club.

Jon Greenberg

Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
Jon Greenberg is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com. He has lived and worked in Chicago since 2003, and is a graduate of Ohio University and the University of Chicago.