We've spent a lot of time recently discussing Greg Walker's job security, as is the custom when a team is massively underachieving and it's too early to trade players. We throw this idea around without having much of an idea about the impact a hitting coach can make, and both sides of the argument lead to the same point:
- If a hitting coach can make a difference:
- Fire him: Then what looks like a good offense could respond to a good coach.
- Keep him: Changing hitting coaches could mess with the only things that are working.
- If all hitting coaches are basically the same:
- Fire him: It doesn't make a difference, so send a message to the rest of the team via ax.
Keep him: Most coaching changes are born from personality conflicts, so a change won't address the real problem.
And honestly, I've given it a great deal of thought, and I still have little idea about the importance of a hitting coach. On Thursday morning, though, I got an opportunity to talk to somebody who does.
Carlton Fisk talked to South Side Sox while making the media rounds on behalf of Pepsi Max, as he's one of many baseball greats appearing in the new ad campaign. I considered asking him about various aspects of his career, but since I only had 10 minutes, I settled on delving deep into this one hot topic. After all, how many times can you get a Hall of Famer to weigh in on a baseball argument amongst friends?
On the 2011 White Sox
"I follow the fortunes of the White Sox because I know some of the guys -- I know the coaches -- and I feel for 'em. I really do. Getting off to a slow start, I hope it's not a hole they can't climb out of. Because I think they will. They'll start climbing here pretty soon.
"I was down there the other night -- of all nights, when [Francisco] Liriano threw the no-hitter -- and I said, 'Boy, I'm a pretty good good-luck charm, aren't I?' [...]
"I think it's one of those things where it's kind of contagious. If you get one guy that's not hitting, or two guys not hitting, and everybody else is picking up the slack, you don't even notice it. But if you get some guys that are supposed to hit, and everybody's expectations are at such a level, if they don't meet those levels, it's like the stock market, you know? [...]
"The worst part about it is, when you get down on the team, the team kind of gets down on themselves. And that's the danger here, I think -- it's not so much that they don't have the talent, it's not so much that they might not get going, it's the fact that I think they have such a ... I don't know how to say it ... a bad karma or bad self-image, maybe, right now. It's tough to jump out of that unless one or two guys that are supposed to [hit] get going. If Adam Dunn gets a couple home runs or if [Alex] Rios starts getting some hits ... it's a process, it doesn't happen overnight."
On hitting coaches against slumps
"All a hitting coach does is he tries to enhance the players' talents. He doesn't try to change anybody. I mean, if there's something glaringly wrong in a guy's physical approach, then he can address that, because they have video.
"It's not like they're not working hard. I've been down there, and they're working and working and working to try to get this thing figured out. You can try to get it figured out physically, but until you get a grasp on it mentally, then it's difficult.
"They can talk about all kinds of things -- confidence, and awareness, and mental approach. But to the individual, until that light bulb comes on and all of a sudden your brain is in sync with your body, it's gonna be hard. That's what's happening now -- the guys got the physical talent, they just have to get on the right wavelength, mentally."
Me: Have you ever seen a situation where seven or eight guys are slumping at the same time?
Fisk: "Yeah, as a matter of fact, we have. I know back in '83, when everybody was on the right page at the right time ... and the next year, everybody couldn't get going. Everybody expected us to be right back there again, I'll be danged if we couldn't get going that year ... so you can go from one year to the next, which means you can go from one game to the next."
On Walt Hriniak
Me: ... Was he the real deal, or was it the collection of talent?
Fisk: "Well, you know, Greg Walker is a student of Walter Hriniak. And the collection of talent ... you've got a collection of talent right here. But what Walter brought to the table, maybe as much as anything, was the intensity of the approach.
"You have to stick your face in the dirt one of these days, and it doesn't seem as though it's happening right now. I mean, it just doesn't seem as though-- you gotta grit your teeth, you gotta be a bulldog, you gotta be unwavering in your intensity. And sometimes, you know, it just appears that the guys heads are down right now, and you gotta pick your heads up and look down the road, because what's happened has happened. You can't look backwards; that doesn't do you any good."
On changing coaches to shake a slump
Me: From watching the hitters go about their business, it seems like they could use a wake-up call, and that's why I think a lot of people want the hitting coach to be fired. Not because necessarily Greg Walker is a bad coach, but because they want something to rattle the guys to the core, like a shot across the bow.
Fisk: "Well, sometimes that works, and sometimes that doesn't ... It can motivate some players, but it can crush other players, too. So that mental approach is sometimes pretty fragile, and it's a fine line. If you step on one side, everything goes crashing further down.
"Hitting is more of an attitude than it is a physical approach, you know. There are some glaring physical problems that have to be addressed when you go into that physical slump, but if you go into that mental slump ... you know, you might need a little ... jog. Somebody might have to jog your brain a little bit. That strength has to come from inside you. You're the one that has to dig down- the player is the one that has to stick his face in the dirt.
"The coach doesn't hit. What do coaches do? They suggest. They've got a video room that you could launch a missile to the moon from. You can go in there and say, 'This is what you're doing when you're in tune, and when you're on target and when you're on time.' They go in the cage and they work on that, and things look good, and things are working. And you take it out on the field, and -- (laughs) -- it doesn't quite work. But that doesn't mean you stop. That doesn't mean it's the wrong approach, that doesn't mean Greg Walker's not doing his job, or getting to the right spot.
"Boy ... sometimes it's just a fine line. Once you can jump over that line, then you start taking off. But until you do? Things start looking pretty ragged." [...]
"You know something: It's not so much the teacher -- it's what you want to learn. Somebody says, 'Well that's a bad coach,' or 'That's a bad teacher.' It's only a bad teacher if you don't want to learn what he's teaching."
That's the Pepsi Max ad, and I'm sure you noticed what I did -- he's wearing the wrong uniform.
I asked him whether choosing a uniform for the ad was a bigger decision than choosing a cap for his Hall of Fame plaque (also Boston, sadly), and he said he didn't have a say in this particular spot.
But, Fisk said, "There are two parts to this thing. On one part, I was wearing my Red Sox uniform, and on the other part, I was wearing my White Sox uniform. So the White Sox uniform should show up, hopefully."
At the end of the allotted time, I told Fisk I appreciated his input on what I find to be an unclear topic. When taking into account the reflexes needed and how quickly a swing can be thrown off, it's hard to find a good frame of reference.
He offered to help further.
Fisk: Well, what we'll do is get you, put a helmet on you and have you stand at the plate and find out how easy it is.
Me: (laughs) Yeah, I would probably wet myself.
Fisk: (laughs) I always did against Nolan Ryan!
For the record, Fisk hit .193/.333/.263 against Ryan with nine walks and 24 strikeouts in 69 plate appearances. Looking at how Ryan fared against other Hall of Famers, Pudge has plenty of company below the Mendoza Line.