Part 1 – The Role of a Hitting Coach in College & Professional Baseball

For Giants fans, the 2017 season has been an unexpected disaster. With a core of star players all either entering or firmly in the midst of their prime, fans fully expected the Giants to compete for a World Championship, something they’ve done consistently since 2009. Instead, the Giants have combined an inability to stay healthy with poor on-field performance, resulting in the 2nd worst record in all of Major League Baseball.

Being in such unfamiliar territory, Giants fans don’t quite know how to react. Some are angry, suggesting an organizational fire-sale from top to bottom, while some are more optimistic, believing that this simply isn’t the Giants year, and 2018 should bring better days.

As for me, I stand somewhere in the middle. While 2017 has caught me totally off-guard, I do believe the long-term benefit is that this will force the Giants to re-think their current roster and evaluate how they plan to attack the future. Had the Giants been a competitive team with a healthy, well performing roster, there’s a decent chance that the Giants would not have had the opportunity to adequately gauge and foster the development of future impact players like Ty Blach and Austin Slater. Assuming those two (combined with top prospects Christian Arroyo, Tyler Beede, and Chris Shaw) continue to progress into the affordable, controllable, and productive assets they appear to be, the Giants future doesn’t look so bleak (at least compared to today).

So what actually is the problem with the 2017 Giants? They’re loaded with high-priced “star-power”, all of whom (with the exception of Buster Posey and Eduardo Nunez) are significantly underperforming. Yesterday, Andrew Baggarly of the San Jose Mercury News wrote an article about the Giants offensive struggles and the players’ insistence that hitting coach Hensely “Bam Bam” Meulens is not the one to blame. In browsing the mainstream media, it’s clear the fans have an opposite view. And thus, the purpose of my two-part analysis on hitting coaches. Today’s I want to explain the role hitting coaches play on a daily basis in college and professional baseball, as well as some common character traits good hitting coaches share. In Part 2 tomorrow, I’ll elaborate on specifically how this applies to Bam Bam Meulens and the Giants organization, and why I tend to believe that Meulens deserves a bit more leeway than the average fan seems willing to provide.

As someone who was lucky enough to spend 4 seasons in the minor leagues and 8 seasons as a coach (1 at the high school level, 1 at the Division 3 level, and 6 at the Division 1 level), I’ve become well acquainted with the role and skill set of effective hitting coaches. As a player, I had hitting coaches I liked and hitting coaches I didn’t like, but by no means were my sentiments always universal throughout the clubhouse. Same went for my career as a coach, I had some players who liked my approach, and others who didn’t. But if there was one commonality amongst all, it’s that good hitters make good hitting coaches, NOT the other way around.

In my experience, every good hitting coach needs to excel in 3 areas – mechanical knowledge of the swing, the ability to act as a mental or psychological support system, and the ability to act more or less as an “offensive coordinator” who can effectively formulate a game plan, and execute it within specific personnel.

As it pertains to a knowledge of the mechanics of a baseball swing, it seems like that would be an obvious prerequisite. However, this is so much more depth to it than simply mechanics. As I’ve said consistently throughout my career, “If mechanics were all that mattered, we’d all hit like Barry Bonds.” But the reality, is that nobody has the physical skill-set or hand-eye coordination of Barry Bonds. And therein lies the biggest obstacle all hitting coaches have to face – attempting to implement a collective offensive philosophy based on each player’s skill-set, athleticism, and learning-style. Hypothetically, Joe Panik and Hunter Pence might have a similar swing flaw, but the approach to fixing that swing flaw will be entirely different due to the nature of each players swing and the ways they internalize what Bam Bam is trying to teach them. I’ll always remember former MLB hitting coach Don Slaught saying “students retain about 10% of what they read, 20% of what they hear, 30% of what they see, 50% of what they both see and hear and 70% of what they feel and experience.” A hitting coach’s ability to CORRECLTY understand precisely what is going on with each individual’s swing is only half the battle – that hard part lies in applying those changes in a way the student can absorb and implement both quickly and effectively.

The 2nd common trait that all effective hitting coaches possess is the ability to act as a mental or psychological support system. If you ask any hitter how they perform when they aren’t in a good mental state of mind, the response will almost always be “poorly.” The ability of a hitting coach to help maintain a positive mindset for his hitters, even when feeling like they’ll never reach base again (yes, it can get that bad), is crucial to performance. And no matter how good of an offensive club you have, there is ALWAYS someone on the team who’s slumping or not in a good mental state. Even now, for example, if we look at the National League’s highest scoring team – the Washington Nationals – 2014 Silver Slugger and 2016 NL Comeback Player of the Year Anthony Rendon came into last night game in a 3-21 slump (.143) while batting only .237 for the month of June with 2 HR (after hitting .308 with 6 HR in May).

Offensive slumps are a constant in baseball, and as much as anyone might suggest that poor mechanics lead to slumps, I can say from experience that 99% of my slumps were a direct result of a negative mindset and/or a lack of confidence. As a hitting coach, it’s imperative in times like these to help hitters focus on what is going right, rather than what is going wrong.

That brings me to my best piece of advice for all hitting coaches out there who might be reading this – do not, and I repeat – DO NOT tinker with swing mechanics during pre-game batting practice. One thing I know about hitting is that it can only be done effectively with a clear mind and where the process of the swing is an anticipated reaction, not a thought. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen a young player be told 5 different things he needs to incorporate in the batter’s box during an at-bat. The hitter then gets so tied up mentally, that he forgets to do the most important thing – see the ball, and hit it hard. Paralysis by analysis is 100% real, and a hitting coach’s ability to keep the mind free, clear, and confident while the batter is in the box is critical to success.

The 3rd and final common skill that all good hitting coaches possess is the ability to formulate a strategic approach to each pitcher, and quickly and effectively implement that approach based on the skill set of each individual hitter. For the most part, teams have a common offensive philosophy that it’s personnel is built around, whether it centers on the homerun ball, station-to-station, small ball, etc. And unfortunately, being able to implement that philosophy isn’t so cut and dry, especially the higher level of baseball you play. In college and professional baseball, ALL opponents are scouted to the point where hitters know exactly what pitchers each pitcher throws, at what velocities, and in what counts. Pitchers know what sequences of pitches give hitters the most trouble, and what pitches they’re most susceptible to given the count and situation. As a hitting coach, you need to adapt and formulate an approach to the pitcher based on the strengths and weaknesses of that pitcher, the strengths and weaknesses of your hitter, and the goal of the given situation. Not being able to understand the situation, formulate the correct approach, and implement that approach effectively leads to offensive inefficiency, something that has plagued the Giants all season long.

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