No one notices him when things are going well, but when the offense is ailing, the hitting coach is everyone's favorite punching bag. After a brief vacation last season, the Concerned Citizens Against Mickey Hatcher Brigade is back with a vengeance. Here are five things to think about before hopping on that bandwagon.
Myth #1: Only good hitters can be good hitting coaches
Let's take a look at the list of current major-league hitting coaches and their associated playing careers:
Tm Coach OPS+ PA
ATL Terry Pendleton 91 7637
ARI Jack Howell 103 2982
BAL Terry Crowley 104 1768
BOS Dave Magadan 112 4936
CHC Rudy Jaramillo N/A 0
CIN Brook Jacoby 104 5027
CLE Jim Nunnally 111 1048
COL Don Baylor 118 9401
CWS Greg Walker 108 3177
DET Lloyd McClendon 94 1375
FLA John Mallee N/A 0
HOU Jeff Bagwell 149 9431
KCR Kevin Seitzer 111 6062
LAA Mickey Hatcher 89 3607
LAD Don Mattingly 127 7721
MIL Dale Sveum 82 2198
MIN Joe Vavra N/A 0
NYM Howard Johnson 117 5715
NYY Kevin Long N/A 0
OAK Jim Skaalen N/A 0
PHI Greg Gross 103 4355
PIT Don Long N/A 0
SDP Randy Ready 108 2488
SEA Alonzo Powell 71 171
SFG Hensley Meulens 77 549
STL Mark McGwire 162 7660
TBR Derek Shelton N/A 0
TEX Clint Hurdle 105 1596
TOR Dwayne Murphy 115 5242
WAS Rick Eckstein* N/A 0
* Never played professional baseball
A quick glance at this list shows that major-league hitting ability is not the primary criterion teams use when selecting a hitting instructor. Of 30 MLB coaches, 8 never played in the major leagues (1 never even played in the minors), 6 more were sub-average hitters, and only 5 were legitimate middle-of-the-order bats in their primes. Jeff Bagwell and Mark McGwire are the only titans on this list, but they are both recent hires with lengthy associations with their franchises.
Which brings us to the real reason hitting coaches get jobs: patronage, loyalty, networking, all that smarmy slap-on-the-back ladder climbing crap that drives just about every human institution on earth. Maybe coaching jobs should be strictly meritocratic, you say. Well, that's nice, but some teams still manage to be consistently better at scoring runs than others. In recent years, the Yankees, Red Sox, and Phillies have all been pretty good at it, and their hitting coaches are Kevin Long (never played above AAA), Dave Magadan (patient, but no power) and Greg Gross (7 career home runs). Sorry, but I'm not convinced.
With a career .280 / .313 / .377 batting line, Mickey Hatcher was not a good hitter. But he is by no means the worst hitter with a major-league coaching job, nor the least experienced. There are both better hitters coaching worse offenses and worse hitters coaching better offenses. Hatcher is Scioscia's guy because they both got their Dodger on together in the 80s, but whether this is right or wrong, it just doesn't matter how lousy Mickey was at the plate. You'll need to find some other evidence for your case against the Mickster.
Myth #2: Hitting coaches can make good players bad
Can anyone even find an example of this happening, like, ever? I don't mean some anecdote like "the Cubs ruined Milton Bradley!" Milton Bradley is past his prime, and he's also frickin' nuts. I'm looking for one particular hitting coach who repeatedly took guys with established reputations and turned them into mush, only to see them transform back into good hitters after they escaped his clutches. Surely such a case would have attracted a lot of attention, especially when the evil coach was inevitably fired and the whole team immediately reverted to awesomeness. It would be even more convincing if that coach then moved to another team and produced the same effects. Any takers?
If you're tempted to answer "Mickey Hatcher," think again. How can you explain the fact that Torii Hunter, a 31 year-old veteran when he came to the Angels, has actually improved as a hitter every single year with the team? Did anyone else notice Chone Figgins nearly double his walk rate over the course of five seasons? Or how about Mark Teixeira? He had just about the best two months of his career in Anaheim. Sure, Hideki Matsui has turned into a bum, but he's freaking 36 years old. Howie Kendrick never had plate discipline to begin with when he showed up on Hatcher's door. Shea Hillenbrand? Come on. That was garbage in, garbage out.
Teams fire their hitting coaches quite often, always when the lineup is struggling to score runs. It never does the least bit of good. The Mariners shitcanned Alan Cockrell after the team got off to a 12-19 start, and they've gone 36-54 since then. They were hitting .225 then and they're hitting a robust .236 now. What about those Astros? They brought in Jeff Bagwell, one of the greatest sluggers of our time, to be their new hitting instructor in July. He's brought the team OBP from .295 to .304. Yeah, I'm going to need you to start coming in on weekends, Jeff. Oh wait, you already do.
Myth #3: Hitting coaches can make bad players good
This is pretty much the same as Myth #2. My whole argument can be reduced to the fact that coaching hitting is not like teaching American history. You don't need to know how to be a monster home-run hitter in order to guide someone because hitting a baseball is a motor skill that can only be cultivated by direct experience. You can tell your teenage son all about the principles of a manual transmission, but he's never going to be able to do it until he actually practices for a few hours. And hitting a baseball is much, much harder than driving a stick.
By the time a player reaches the bigs, he's been through thousands and thousands of repetitions, from whacking grapefruits in the back yard to staring down a replacement-level fastball in AAA. The process takes years, and a young hitter is already a precision-engineering high-speed circuit of nerves, tendons, and muscles before Mickey Hatcher ever sees his scouting report. The process of building a hitter isn't 10% complete when he reaches the Show, it's 99.9% complete, and that final 0.1% is finished up pretty quickly. So by the time Hatcher gets a hold of a Bobby Abreu, say, with nearly 8,000 major-league plate appearances, forget it. That die has long since been cast.
Baseballs just move too quickly for conscious thought to be of any use. You can't even imagine the word "fastball" in the time you have to decide whether to swing or not. So what's Mickey going to do in the five minutes a day he was with Brandon Wood? He probably tells him, "Hey Brandon, you're swinging at too many sliders." Now let's take a look inside Wood's head when he's at the plate, John Malkovich style:
Cerebral cortex: Okay, here comes the pitch. Crap, can anyone make it out?
Visual cortex: It's spinning like a slider if you ask me.
Cerebral cortex: Cerebellum?
Cerebellum: My instincts tell me it's a slider too. Looks juicy, I'm pulling the trigger.
Cerebral cortex: Hold on a second. Let's take a vote. Amygdala?
Amygdala: I'm mad! Let's crush that sucker.
Cerebral cortex: How about you, hypothalamus?
Hypothalamus: I like sex.
Cerebral cortex: Um, thanks for that. I'll put you down as a yes. So hippocampus, any wisdom to share?
Hippocampus: I'm remembering something...
Cerebral cortex: Yes...?
Hippocampus: Something Mickey said to us earlier today...
Cerebral cortex: Hurry it up, man, we ain't got all day.
Hippocampus: He said, "Hey Brandon, you're swinging at too many sliders."
Cerebral cortex: SHIT! Hold everything!
Cerebellum: I told you I was already swinging, dude. I cut loose the basal ganglia and everything.
Cerebral cortex: Well, check that swing NOW!
Cerebellum: That's a deliberate action, bro. Your problem, not mine.
Neocortex: I put a work order in to the spinal column, but they say they can't retool on short notice. Union regs.
Cerebral cortex: GODDAMMIT! SHUT IT DOWN, SHUT IT ALL DOWN!
Brandon Wood then twists up like a pretzel and smacks a weak-ass grounder at the shortstop. So yeah, there's Mickey Hatcher screwing up a hitter by turning what should be a completely unconscious process into a mental struggle. But tell me, is that Mickey Hatcher making a good hitter bad, or just a bad hitter being what he truly is?
Myth #4: A hitting coach sets the organization's hitting philosophy
It should be pretty clear by now that Mickey's job is maintenance rather than construction. Players have spent 20 to 30 years learning how to hit a baseball before they come to him. The guys with more serious influence are the minor league coaches. Even they only get to work with a player for about 5 years or so, certainly a critical 5 years, but a player's skills and talents are already pretty well developed by the time he's drafted. So it's the people doing the scouting and the drafting who really have the power to determine what the organization's hitting philosophy should be. If Mickey Hatcher is up in the big leagues preaching swing-happy contactball, it's because that approach is systemic within the Angels organization. But Mickey can preach all he want and he's not going to turn an experienced hitter into something he's not. If there is a genuine problem with the way the Angels develop hitters, Mickey should be the absolute last guy to be upset with.
Myth #5: Mickey Hatcher is a bad hitting coach
Unless you have pictures of Mickey Hatcher selling cigarettes to kids under the bleachers at Ball Junior High when he should be at the stadium, I'm guessing you haven't got a shred of real evidence that Mickey is actually bad at his job. You may not have even put a lot of thought into what his job actually is.
Well, he goes over scouting reports with players, both the reports on their tendencies at the plate and on the pitchers they'll be seeing soon. He makes sure the guys get their cage time in. He watches a bunch of video, looking for little discrepancies between what a hitter has done at the plate recently and how he's behaved in the past. If he sees something wrong, he'll have that player do some extra reps and try to iron the kink out. That's basically it. No grand strategy meetings to plot the D-Day invasion, no epic Rocky workout montages with a pulse-pumping Toto soundtrack. Sounds like a pretty boring job.
Face it, the only thing we see as fans is the product on the field. We judge the results by batted balls. We look at the screen and see "Jeff Mathis: .204 AVG" and correlate that information with a selective remembrance of Jeff Mathis doing dumb shit at the plate (it actually doesn't have to be that selective in Mathis's case). As for everything else, we just don't have the expertise.
I mean, when was the last time you were jumping up and down in front of your TV shouting "Oh my God, Torii, you are opening up your hips too soon you worthless sack!"? No, you shout at Torii for popping out to the second baseman with the bases loaded. There's no "right way" to hit a baseball, and we fans really have no perception of what makes one swing better than another. Jeff Mathis actually seems to have a pretty nice chop at the plate, and Ichiro Suzuki's chicken strut routine just doesn't look like it should work in MLB. Which one of those players is a career .331 hitter?
So cut the Mickster some slack. I'm not saying he's necessarily a good hitting coach, but I am saying that neither you nor I really has sufficient information to judge that. It's not a big deal anyways. Having a good hitting coach is nowhere near as important as having good hitters. And putting good hitters into Angels jerseys just isn't Mickey's end of the business.