Oh, those tell-tale signs of autumn's approach! The days that grow shorter, the leaves that take on tinges of yellow, the return of cool crispness in the night air...
...and the renewed uncertainty of Greg Walker's future.
Like fresh apple cider after the harvest, the decision to retain the longtime White Sox hitting coach undergoes a thorough mulling process by all sides.
This year, Ozzie Guillen kickstarted the debate, taking a break from stumping for his own future by issuing an emphatic defense for the only hitting coach he's ever had:
"Greg Walker is a better person than me because he loves the White Sox, he loves the owner, loves the players," Guillen said. "Greg Walker is the only thing I can ask for. He did it; he's doing it. He takes the kids out to practice. He takes guys to hit. He tries to help the best he can. He comes here every day without missing one day, trying to help the ballclub. At the end of the day, they not perform."
Greg Walker starts the phone tree in case of schedule changes ... Greg Walker takes the kids out for pizza after the game, win or lose ...
I don't feel good about criticizing Walker for a few reasons. He indeed seems like a decent guy, and I sympathize with him because there's no way he can save face when the team struggles. He pretty much has to choose between leaning on clichés or pantsing his hitters, so while he might seem like an empty vessel when he goes with Option A, it's all he can do. Plus, there's only so much a hitting coach can do (as Carlton Fisk told us), and if they made a bigger impact, they'd be paid more.
But there comes a time in every hitting coach's life where they suffer the consequences for the sins of their hitters, and it's immensely difficult to see how the buildup of bad vibes can be overlooked for one more year.
We're talking about ...
No. 1: Season-crushing slumps.
The last four seasons have been marred by shocking nosedives from significant players:
(There's a case that Juan Pierre also warrants inclusion on this list, but he's had a handful of slow-to-terrible starts with other teams.)
In two cases -- Swisher and Beckham -- their respective faceplants stunted the development of the franchise. The Swisher trades are a whole stable of dead horses at this point, but I think we could make more of the fact that Beckham still can't hit his way ahead of the suddenly surging Brent Morel.
No. 2: Dissension in the ranks.
Kenny Williams certainly isn't happy with Beckham's degeneration as a hitter, and he let Walker know about it via screaming earlier this month, reportedly telling Walker to clean out his locker. Of course, it's unclear if Williams has any authority to do anything anymore, but either way, he rattled Walker's cocoon like never before.
No. 3: Faces that change, and trends that don't.
As Satchel Price at Beyond the Box Score noted, the White Sox have a problem with pop-ups. As a result, their batting average on balls in play suffer, because pop-ups don't translate into hits.
But this problem isn't unique to this season. When it comes to BABIP, the White Sox leased the American League cellar with an option to buy:
- 2011: Last
- 2010: 11th
- 2009: Last
- 2008: Last
- 2007: Last
Paul Konerko and A.J. Pierzynski are the only constants from five years ago. Everybody else has come and gone, and it doesn't matter whether hitters have had some pop-up issues in the past (Swisher, Carlos Quentin) or not (Dunn, Rios) -- the players seem to fall right in line.
This doesn't all fall on Walker's shoulders. Player evaluation likely plays a big part, and the Sox barked up the wrong tree when they prioritized reducing strikeouts to solve batting-average problems. Here's a fun fact -- even with Dunn on the roster, the Sox have struck out fewer than any AL team outside of the Texas Rangers. The rub is that they doubled down on weak contact in the process.
But there's gotta be something besides the talent. The Sox have had four of the worst everyday hitters in the American League, and there were considerable expectations for three of them. The number of death-spiral crises over the past three years has created a funk that seeps into the fabric of the organization, and it isn't coming out in the wash.
The only thing the Sox haven't tried is a change in the hitting staff. The current hitting coach and scouts were in their respective positions in 2007, and despite the number of hitters who have come and gone, the fundamental weaknesses remain.
Yes, I know changing Walker and his crew doesn't guarantee improvement. That has been the standard defense every time his job security comes into question, and while reactionary decisions seldom bear fruit, this particular friction has persisted long enough to wear a hole through this argument. There's a far better case to be made that consistency has turned into complacency, and when a problem hangs around long enough to be considered "constant," then the constants have to become variables.
So far, Alejandro De Aza and Dayan Viciedo have yet to hit an infield fly over their 179 combined plate appearances. There's a 99 percent chance I jinxed one or both by writing this, but nevertheless, it's just another facet in their games that illustrate how thoroughly they represented solutions to the current problems. Which, in turn, makes the decision by Williams and Guillen to sit on their hands all the more inexplicable.
And another thing -- it could be said that if Guillen truly cared about Walker's continued employment, he wouldn't be making conscious (and possibly subversive) decisions to play the guys that make Walker look like a zero by association. The yearlong cold war has resulted in a lot of collateral damage, and we might have to add Walker's name to the list within a month or so. Reserve a seat for him next to the fans, just in case.