Commentary

Dodgers to preach plate patience

Don Mattingly and Mark McGwire aim to instill team-centric hitting approach

Updated: January 29, 2013, 5:18 PM ET
By Mark Saxon | ESPNLosAngeles.com

LOS ANGELES -- When the Los Angeles Dodgers were interviewing candidates to be their hitting coach in November, general manager Ned Colletti set up a phone conversation between manager Don Mattingly and Mark McGwire.

A few minutes later, Mattingly called Colletti back.

[+] EnlargeMatt Kemp
AP Photo/Reed SaxonMatt Kemp, one of the league's most feared hitters, has eclipsed 55 walks in a season just once, in 2011.

"I said, 'You don't need to talk to anybody else,'" Mattingly recalled.

The two former All-Star first basemen knew each other casually from a decade of competing against each other in the American League. Within minutes on the phone, though, they came to agree on what ailed the Dodgers last season and what could be done to fix it.

What appealed to Mattingly had nothing to do with McGwire's 583 career home runs. It had more to do with the thousands of times he never swung his big bat.

Mattingly and McGwire were meticulously patient hitters in their day, though most people remember them for their moon-shot home runs and clutch doubles; or, in McGwire's case, for his subsequent confession to using steroids.

Now, the two Hall of Fame candidates are intent on instilling a more team-based approach in the middle of the Dodgers' batting order this spring. The need is obvious. Even after adding former All-Stars Hanley Ramirez and Adrian Gonzalez in trades last summer, the Dodgers' offense stagnated just when the team needed it to ignite.

Gonzalez, Matt Kemp, A.J. Ellis and Ramirez all slumped in tandem and Mattingly thought he detected a common thread in the season's most meaningful games.

"My dime-store take it on it is we just had a lot of guys who were really good hitters trying to do too much," Mattingly said.

Now, Mattingly and McGwire will ask a small group of superstar hitters to try to do less.

Whether the message resonates could determine how far the Dodgers go toward supporting what appears to be a championship-caliber pitching staff. They'd like to see shorter swings and longer at-bats, less swagger and more toughness. The upshot, they hope, is a more flowing lineup than the herky-jerky effort Mattingly watched in September.

If hitters aren't convinced by the message, they could just check the resumes. McGwire led the majors in on-base percentage in 1996 and 1998 and was in the top 10 four times. His former team, the St. Louis Cardinals, seemed to take his message to heart when he became their hitting coach. The Cardinals led the major leagues in OBP last season and the National League the year before.

Mattingly, despite having less-than-intimidating power, had an excellent career .358 on-base percentage and was in the top 10 in the American League twice. The Dodgers finished 18th in the majors in OBP last season.

McGwire has only met a few Dodgers hitters so far. He has worked with Gonzalez and Luis Cruz and met Kemp and Mark Ellis during a brief mini-camp in Arizona. When he got the job, he called every hitter on the Dodgers' roster. One of the guys he actually got on the phone was catcher A.J. Ellis, who had something he wanted to tell McGwire.

Every time the Dodgers faced St. Louis in recent years, Ellis said, Dodgers pitchers noticed how trying it was to get outs. Each Cardinals batter seemed to have a determined approach and a grind-it-out mentality. Ellis had played minor-league ball against Matt Carpenter, Allen Craig, Daniel Descalso, David Freese and Jon Jay and something seemed different about them.

"I thought they'd be pretty solid major-league players, but never in my wildest dreams did I think they were going to become the hitters they became," Ellis said. "That's a testament not only to their hard work, but obviously they got some help when they got to the big leagues. Mark was there to aid them."

It's one thing to figure out what's wrong. Fixing it is a trickier proposition. Some of the Dodgers' best hitters, Kemp and Carl Crawford in particular, have aggressive hitting styles. Kemp, one of the league's most feared sluggers, has eclipsed 55 walks in a season just once, in 2011, and 24 of his 74 walks that season were intentional. Crawford is a .292 career hitter with a mediocre .332 career OBP. Gonzalez, Ellis and Ramirez take more patient approaches.

McGwire said he has a pretty direct way to convince hitters to be willing to build a rally rather than punctuate one. He just asks them, "Do you want to win?"

"When you have all this talent, you're going to have to spread it around. We have a lot of guys who have the potential to be the man," McGwire said. "But when you put everything together and you want to win -- you want to win a world championship -- that has to blend together.

"To me, it's about strike zone, it's about game plan, it's about being disciplined and it's about understanding. It's about saying, 'Look, you know what? I know this guy's not going to give me anything to hit tonight, I'm going to take the walk. I'm going to do what I can to pass the baton.' "

Pass the baton. It has become the pet phrase for Mattingly and McGwire this winter, the message both men would like to get through to some of the highest-paid hitters in baseball starting next month. In its purest form, it's about trusting in and caring about the people you work with.

"It's one thing to have a bunch of superstar hitters. We've seen that not work on so many teams in the past," Mattingly said. "I really think there is something to having a group of guys who get along and want to play for each other. That's when you get an offense that works the way it's supposed to."

Mark Saxon

ESPNLosAngeles.com
Mark Saxon is a staff writer for ESPNLosAngeles.com. He spent six years at the Orange County Register, and began his career at the Oakland Tribune, where he started an 11-year journey covering Major League Baseball. He has also covered colleges, including USC football and UCLA basketball.

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