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The Hitting Coach

Happy weekend. Hope by now you've found our story on Jack McGeary and this notebook with news about Julian Tavarez and Shawn Hill.

Today, though, is my last day following the Nationals around, so I need to tie up some loose ends. I'll try to do that during the day, and will hand off any left-over stuff to Chico, who flies back to Florida tonight and returns to the beat rested and ready tomorrow.

The hitting coach: I had forgotten how passionate the debate about this position was. Stupid of me, because it was worth every minute of said debate.

Let's go back to the origins of how Lenny Harris got the job. It was May of 2007, and Mitchell Page - with whom I always enjoyed talking hitting - left the team for personal reasons. Page had battled alcoholism, and people in the organization were concerned about his well-being. But his departure did not help the Nationals, regardless of what the numbers said.


Harris, at the time, was a roving instructor for the Nationals in the minors, basically working with infielders. He was, as he was quick to tell you, the all-time leader in pinch hits. Still is. And he had an approach at the plate that worked for him in those eighth- and ninth-inning situations. He was aggressive. He knew how to stay ready even when he wasn't playing. And he had success.

But when Jim Bowden installed him as the major league hitting coach, he wasn't ready. He told me as much months later, but it was obvious to anyone who was around. He didn't work like a hitting coach - studying videos, talking with players about their swings. Rather, he played cards, trying to connect with them emotionally. This, some in the organization told me, was clearly because he hadn't gotten playing out of his system.

The big error, it seems to me, was not that the club installed him as the temporary hitting coach for the remainder of the 2007 season. Rather, it was re-hiring him for 2008. That left several of the Nationals' hitters - young and old - drifting for an entire season.

Last spring, I wrote a profile of Harris that I think was revealing. Here's one of his quotes:

"If you let it, this job will be too much work," Harris said. "If you let it. But I don't let it. I don't stress. I don't let it run me. I run it."

Not exactly the words of someone who's grinding it out with his players. Here's what Bowden said about keeping him.

"Lenny has tremendous communication skills," Bowden said. "Having just retired from baseball, he was very close in his relationship with the players, which I thought our staff needed. I thought it would help the staff to have someone who could relate to players, and the players could relate to him -- as if he was a player."

That all was true for some players, particularly Lastings Milledge, with whom he connected. But here's more from that story last spring:

Harris's approach rankled some in the organization who thought a person in such a position -- essentially the offensive coordinator -- should put in more time in the video room, more time learning the particulars of each hitter's swing. Harris, though, said he handled the job precisely how he wanted to.

"That was my way to get to know them," Harris said of the card games. "I don't want guys to go and look at my history and say, 'Oh, this guy was a good hitter and he played well.' No. I wanted them to know I'm a good human being, and I know you guys are human, too. I know you're not going to go out there and going to be successful all the time. I want to connect with them mentally."

Well, the Nationals ended up with the worst offense in baseball, and it's hard to point to a player who really developed over the course of 2008. So when the entire coaching staff was canned after last year, they turned inward, to Rick Eckstein.

I do not know Eckstein yet, though I've met him. However, it's not hard to draw some conclusions. He was described to me by one front office official as a "grinder," and he has to be, because he didn't play in the majors yet he has to gain the respect of major leaguers.

That he has done. Chico wrote about Eckstein and Nick Johnson early in camp. I think some of the attributes players respect about him are apparent there. I have not seen a moment at HSCS when Eckstein wasn't working with someone on something.

Take last Monday night. Johnson got, I think, three at-bats against Houston. But he didn't like them (even though he drew a walk and some such thing). After the regulars came out of the game, Eckstein was in the clubhouse talking to a few guys about their swings, their at-bats that night. He pumped his fist toward Austin Kearns, who has made a mechanical adjustment to how he loads his bat - and had hit a three-run homer.

But clubhouse manager Mike Wallace then said to Eckstein, "Nick's down at the cage. He's waiting for you." At 10 p.m. or so, Eckstein sprinted down to the batting cage to work with Johnson.

I'm not saying the Nationals are going to turn things around offensively because of one guy. But with a group of developing hitters - and lots of the Nationals are young enough that they're still coachable - this is a hugely important position. The people who matter - the players - tell me it's a huge upgrade.

Anyway, we'll have lineups and such when they become available.

By Barry Svrluga  |  March 14, 2009; 10:08 AM ET
 
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Comments

[from before]

oh, and thanks alot for the link on Tavares, jobleux. Now I have a knot in my stomach.

http://stlcardinals.scout.com/2/436721.html


And Cevans, I kippin' love your idea.

Posted by: NatsNut | March 14, 2009 10:11 AM

~~~~~~~~

... Julie may or may not have tossed a bean at Piazza, and Mikey may or may not have deserved it. But for goodness' sakes, it happened in 2005. Much water(er down beer) has flowed under a few bridges since then. It's too much of a stretch to paint him with the same brush, a brush which may have dried up a long time ago.

Posted by: natscanreduxit | March 14, 2009 10:24 AM | Report abuse

Fair enough, natscan.

But there's still that sinking feeling we *could* end up with another Felipe Lopez already, practically days after Bowden's leaving seemed like a fresh start from all that.

Posted by: NatsNut | March 14, 2009 10:37 AM | Report abuse

And Barry, way to capture the full picture of the Harris/Eckstein story.

I know begging you to stay is useless, but I hope you don't stay away as long this time and visit more often.

Posted by: NatsNut | March 14, 2009 10:39 AM | Report abuse

I was not a Lenny Harris fan either,but you have to have something to work with,Eckstien can be the second comming of Charlie Lau but if these guys can't hit what difference is it going to make?

Posted by: dargregmag | March 14, 2009 10:40 AM | Report abuse

Eckstein! Thanks for the post, Barry.

And I second NatsNut. Don't be a stranger.

Posted by: natsfan1a1 | March 14, 2009 10:46 AM | Report abuse

dargregmag-

Well, I guess that is what we are going to find out, isn't it? Are these young players who could develop offensively, but were held back by Lenny Harris's tutelage, or are they simply dross?

My guess is that Eckstein will impress enough with his efforts that when some players improve, and others don't, the blame will be placed more on the players this time than on the batting coach. Part of the problem with Harris was clearly that he wasn't seen as putting forth the effort that would help, and some players may have gotten a free pass when they didn't deserve it. If he truly was a bad hitting coach, he might also have stunted or reversed some players' hitting progress.

Austin Kearns, perhaps?

+1/2St.

Posted by: kevincostello | March 14, 2009 10:47 AM | Report abuse

"Talk about veterans who are a little too comfortable. Milledge is just a little too comfortable with himself. I'm not as angry about it as JayB, but I definitely see a kid who is just a little too assured of his own greatness. I think he does enough to keep up with his peers and gives the right answers to the media so as not to look to cocky, but it's there."

Milledge is just that - a kid. Really. He's not a veteran and shouldn't automatically be expected to act like one. And it makes no sense to heap scorn on him for being a kid and not growing up fast enough when he was subjected to bad coaching last year. He bonded with Lenny Harris, a bad authority figure. That kind of thing happens all the time, so blame the authority figure, not the kid. And while the likes of JayBeee seem to think they were out front on criticism of Lenny Harris, I've looked through the archives here and really I don't see ANYONE saying good things about Lenny Harris. This so-called debate that Barry referred to wasn't a debate at all. Debates have two sides, this had only one.

So yeah, pile on Lenny Harris all you want. But lay off Lastings Milledge just because he was unlucky enough to be one of Lenny Harris's main victims. He's a kid. Let's see how he grows this year with good coaching for a change.

Posted by: nunof1 | March 14, 2009 10:49 AM | Report abuse

Well said nunof!!!!! Here's to hoping that Milledge through a relationship with Eckstein is better able to discern "good" coaching.

Posted by: jfromPG | March 14, 2009 11:01 AM | Report abuse

I'm also inclined to cut Milledge some slack. He's young, and if I recall correctly, was rushed to the majors by the Mets. I would think that it's easier to develop at the minor league level than in the bigs, particularly when you're playing in NYC.

Also, thanks for the heads up on the McGeary piece, Barry. I'd not yet read it. I really like the fact that he's getting some higher education under his belt. That said, it will be interesting to see how he does on the mound this spring, wherever he end up planing.

Posted by: natsfan1a1 | March 14, 2009 11:01 AM | Report abuse

Lemme guess who gets on the bus to Port St. Lucie today?
CA- Nieves, Valentin
1B- Casto, Eldred
2B- Hernandez, Orr
3B- FotF
SS- Gonzalez, Desmond
OF- Davis, Kearns, Langerhans, Milledge, Willingham
P - Martis, J.Jones, Estrada, Bergmann, T.Young, Colome, Towers, Atilano

That's my best shot...

Posted by: BinM | March 14, 2009 11:02 AM | Report abuse

"playing"

Posted by: natsfan1a1 | March 14, 2009 11:02 AM | Report abuse

...as in "ends" up "playing."

Geez. Time for some coffee.

Posted by: natsfan1a1 | March 14, 2009 11:03 AM | Report abuse

Looks like the Mets are going with an all-RH staff today - Pelfrey, Livan, Knight, Robertson, Muniz. Load up on the LH hitters, Manny!

Posted by: BinM | March 14, 2009 11:23 AM | Report abuse

There is a significant difference between management and labor. Yes, there are different management styles (help some author make his next mortgage payment buying a book on that subject), but, when you go from labor to management (and coaches are management)you need to make a break. Some people just can't make that transition. I would be of the opinion that Harris just couldn't make that transition.

I don't normally fault either Kasten or the Lerners, but, as executives of the company, they should have quickly spotted the inability of Harris to make that transition. That is one of their jobs. My guess is that, in addition to producing the worst offensive team in the Majors last year, having Harris as hitting coach during Spring Training slowed the progress of Milledge, maybe Casto, maybe even Zimm (yeah, I know, not fair to judge on an injured year w/ no one hitting behind him and add to that the hamate surgery, which, I understand, actually takes a year from which to recover fully). S.T. is more than a time to work on your golf game. It is a time to lock in good habits and eliminate problems that might have crept in at the end of the previous year or created themselves over the winter.

Posted by: Catcher50 | March 14, 2009 11:29 AM | Report abuse

>I was not a Lenny Harris fan either,but you have to have something to work with,Eckstien can be the second comming of Charlie Lau but if these guys can't hit what difference is it going to make?

The complaint with Harris was that he wasn't breaking down video, which meant he wasn't breaking down each player's individual swing. You can only fix somebody's swing through video. You can't sit there on the bench, on the side, with the ball whizzing by and make a determination on a swing, you have to see it in slow motion. It's like he wanted everyone to be aggressive and hit the ball up the middle - 'see pitch, hit pinch', instead of looking for something in a particular zone. Zimmerman was the perfect example - he was swinging at whatever he could see and reach, which meant his head would tilt to adjust to the location of the pitch. If he's looking in a certain zone, and the ball doesn't appear in that zone, his head shouldn't move. The ball has to come to him, not him go to the ball - that's why it looked like he was lunging, or out on his front foot hitting ground balls to the left side, because you have to wait for the ball to get to you instead of reaching for it. He also had WM Pena hit the ball up the middle until he ripped his shoulder using the big long Charley Lau swing, instead of having him keep his hands rested around his belt, with the bat already in the hitting zone (like they're doing with Kearns, getting the bat away from the body), looking for the ball in a certain spot, and look to pull. That's what power hitters are supposed to do, by and large.
Harris understood what it meant to be a big league hitter, and I saw an interview with him that showed that, he just didn't find a separate approach for each player, and that's the coach's job.

Posted by: Brue | March 14, 2009 11:36 AM | Report abuse

Brue - well thought out & nicely stated. Thanks.

Posted by: BinM | March 14, 2009 11:40 AM | Report abuse

My particular argument about Milledge didn't have anything to do with his relationship with Lenny Harris. And it had nothing to do with being patient with his youth because I'm not talking about his ability. Of course he's good, with potential for greatness.

But my impression, and I get that it's only one from a great distance, is that he may not achieve that greatness because he's already convinced of it now.

It's why I'm worried that he's seemingly treated as a lock for center field. More than anyone in that outfield right now, he's the one that needs to be competing precisely *because* he's so young and/or was rushed to the majors.

Posted by: NatsNut | March 14, 2009 11:44 AM | Report abuse

I just noticed a NY Post story which indicated that Tim Redding has been shut down with a shoulder weakness, and will be on the DL to start the season:

http://blogs.nypost.com/sports/mets/archives/2009/03/redding_has_bee.html

I take no joy in this, but I am shocked to see the Nats dodge an injury bullet for once. Not that I am trying to jinx things, mind you.

+1/2St.

Posted by: kevincostello | March 14, 2009 12:02 PM | Report abuse

Hello from FL....Well said NatsNut that is the issue. That is why when I see him dribble in a 10 hopper to 2nd or walk in and out of the dougout between innings or talk about how CF is not supposed to be work and that Acta is great because he gives me the job before I earn it......I think Nats are just hurting him as much as he hurts himself.....Trade him for pitching now.

Posted by: JayBeee | March 14, 2009 12:12 PM | Report abuse

You can only fix somebody's swing through video.

So, nobody got better until there was video?

Posted by: markfromark | March 14, 2009 1:05 PM | Report abuse

Hey, guys, did you know that there are some new posts up?

Posted by: natsfan1a1 | March 14, 2009 1:26 PM | Report abuse

>You can only fix somebody's swing through video.

So, nobody got better until there was video?

Only Lenny Harris could have lol. Sure, you can move a guy's hands around, move him around in the box, etc., but if he's going to buy into the changes, you have to show him tapes of him being successful so he's reminded that it will work. These are big-money pro athletes, they don't have to do what a coach says if they have guaranteed money. Coaching the pros is unique, you have to sell your solution instead of just threatening to cut them if they don't change.

Posted by: Brue | March 14, 2009 1:39 PM | Report abuse

>You can only fix somebody's swing through video.

New technology offers improved coaching techniques, which doesn't mean the old techniques suddenly don't work at all anymore. They just aren't as good, overall. Maybe there is the odd genius who *could* break down, analyze, and improve a swing from the bench, but most coaches have to sift through a lot more trials, and errors, to get the results they want, if they have less information to work with, no?

Posted by: CEvansJr | March 14, 2009 3:06 PM | Report abuse

Lenny Harris "...I want to connect with them mentally."
++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

I am not sure whose job it is on the team to connect with the players mentall. I am not sure what context Lenny Harris meant it in, but I do believe in positive reinforcement for hitters and pitchers.

What I do think that slumps are sometimes caused by a change in a batting approach and sometimes it is just mental.

Hitting is contagious which in my mind becomes mostly mental as the batter goes in believing he will get the better of the opposing pitcher when a few guys have gotten hits off of the pitcher.

Yogi was on the right track with baseball is 90% mental, the other half is physical.

Posted by: dmacman88 | March 14, 2009 5:53 PM | Report abuse

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