It's Walker season, but don't expect change

At this time, the Sox have about a month and a half before any real changes can be seriously considered. There's no trade market. Last year, the Sox were similarly dismal over the first two months - more so, since the Twins held first place instead of fourth. Williams waited until the first week of June before declaring the Sox were "open for business."

So the players can't be fired yet, and neither can Ozzie Guillen. Well, he could, but the Sox effectively ruled out that possibility when they picked up his 2012 option. Jerry Reinsdorf doesn't like to pay coaches and managers to not coach/manage for him, and besides, Guillen is one of his favorites. As long as his family is playing nice, I don't think Reinsdorf will be inspired to cut his stay short.

(I really wish Guillen were in the final year of his contract. Not because I want to see him gone, but because his tone is dramatically different when security is in doubt. When he knows he's getting paid for a year or more down the line, that's when he trots out the "fire me, I'll go on vacation jajajajajaja" line. It'd be fascinating to see if and how he'd squirm with this start and no set "next year." At least he could count on Joe Cowley's warm and everloving embrace.)

That means it's a bad time of the year to be Greg Walker. The next six weeks are essentially open season on hitting coaches, because it's the only change that can be made. It's usually more symbolic than anything, but it's a way for an organization to tell the fans it cares.

I wouldn't be opposed to it, although I can't say I'd stump for it, either. I have no clue what a hitting coach is worth, and I usually like to have more substantial reasons for suggesting changes than "Because!"

Above else, there's one big reason I can't get pumped for a firing. When a hitting coach gets the axe during the season, he's usually replaced by the instructor at Triple-A. So if Walker were fired, that would mean he would be replaced by Charlotte hitting coach Gary Ward. You may remember him as the White Sox hitting coach from 2001 to 2003, when he was canned and replaced by ... Greg Walker.

Wheeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee.

 

I wrote about Walker at length in White Sox Outsider 2010. I basically asked and attempted to answer two questions:

  1. Why has he kept his job so long? (Key people like him.)
  2. Does it matter? (The Sox don't seem to think so, and if hitting coaches were that valuable, they'd make far more money.)

Neither reason is all that comforting, but 1 1/2 years after I wrote that essay, I don't see the tide turning.

At this point, Walker has been a hitting coach for two years longer than Walt Hriniak held the position. Hriniak's credentials exceeded Walker, and he was a Reinsdorf favorite, too. That should tell you about Walker's standing.

Moreover, Williams has fired two hitting coaches in his career. Both took place in May - Von Joshua in 2001, and Ward in 2003. Considering the number of disappointing starts the Sox have endured since winning the World Series, I imagine Walker would have been fired by now if he were judged by team performance, because they all had similar problems (collectively pull-happy and feast-or-famine).

He's obviously judged on how individuals respond to him, and there's one individual that looms larger than most. After all, he does occasionally go by "Kong."

Paul Konerko is a huge Walker backer, and he's a big damn feather in Walker's cap. For those of you who don't remember 2003, Konerko was stuck in the bleakest, cripplingest individual White Sox slump in recent memory. It probably started in the second half of 2002, and at the time of Ward's firing on May 18, he was hitting .221/.296/.324 with two homers in 152 plate appearances.

This recent New York Times article describes how Walker worked with Konerko to reconstruct his approach.

"I would look at Frank, and that didn’t appeal to my eye," Konerko said. "I wasn’t thinking like that back then, as far as where weight was distributed — that’s not the way I hit. Now I look at it and it’s like, he was hitting the right way. That’s exactly what I would like to do."

Walker told Konerko that he wanted him to understand his swing, and warned that he might not see results right away. Though Konerko did not improve very much, finishing the season at .234, he liked the way he could drive the ball to center and right.

Essentially, Walker and Konerko agreed on how the snapshot of his swing should look when he connected, and Konerko accepted some absolutes, specifically in his lower half. Konerko can tinker with the rest of it, especially the placement of his hands.

Walker was right -- Konerko bottomed on June 28. At the time, he was hitting .185/.260/.265 with three homers and eight doubles in 235 plate appearances. On July 2, though, he hit a game-tying homer off Everyday Eddie Guardado with two outs in the 11th inning, and his climb back to respectability began. He hit .279/.346/.519 through the end of 2003.

Konerko has been the rock of the offense ever since, and his extended slumps have been physical in nature (thumb, oblique), not mental. Hell, for the last seven baseball months, he's produced at unprecedented levels. The stone the previous hitting coach rejected is the cornerstone, and Walker gets serious props straight from the source.

If you want to look at it cynically, Konerko's success is a poison pill. Dump Walker as part of a shake-up, and you might only end up shaking your most reliable hitter. Looking up and down the lineup, and Gordon Beckham is the only one I openly wonder about. Why can't he stop with the loopy hand path?

(Oddly enough, Beckham seems like a good fit for Walker since he emulates Konerko in many ways. In a postgame commiseration call tonight, my dad pointed out that Beckham even uses the same between-pitch practice swing as the King.)

Otherwise, every hitter is performing as a type of himself. Adam Dunn is a slow starter, Alex Rios has toe problems, Juan Pierre and A.J. Pierzynski are getting old, and Carlos Quentin broke out under Walker's watch. There are no outward cues to suggest Walker is preventing these guys from unleashing their better hitters. If you want to point to other problems -- the sputtering, the struggles against no-name pitchers -- those problems plagued the two coaches prior to Walker, too. Maybe it's rooted in the kind of player Williams and his talent evaluators seek out, or maybe it's Mike Gellinger, who has been around since 1999 as the computer scouting analyst.

Dissecting the situation, it's difficult to assign blame to Walker with any degree of certainty. It's almost a shame that he isn't a more convenient scapegoat. When we're looking at a possible failure cascade like Colin described, I wonder if an event like a firing would be a way to rattle them out of their collective rut - a variable that could trigger a faster turnaround than mere inertia. If people are struggling in comfort, why not make them uncomfortable?

Alas, there's nothing to suggest that Walker is going anywhere. There are no outright conflicts or tension, his prize pupil is in a great place, and his would-be replacement has already failed at the job. Given the circumstances, I'm fairly convinced it will take a resignation or a new manager to replace Walker. He's no different from the rest of the coaches and roster -- everybody's locked into place until Williams decides to blow it all up.

In other words, it could be a long six weeks.

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