The last time the White Sox hired a minor-league hitting coordinator to be their hitting coach, some old quotes from his past ... they didn't come back to haunt him, per se, but they didn't do him any favors.
Basically, Jeff Manto didn't put stock in on-base percentage as a particularly indicative stat. He had to make up one of his own in order to sum up what he wanted to see:
For starters, Manto is no fan of on-base percentage, partly because he believes its emphasis on walks does not take into account that a base-on-balls is not always a desired or productive result.
While dismissing runs created, Manto offered his own statistical category: "runs produced" -- measured by adding runs and RBI, subtracting home runs from that total and dividing that number by games played.
"It's as important as on-base percentage," Manto said, "because it is a tremendous evaluator of who is a total offensive player." [...]
"Somehow, some way, you have to get to second base," said Manto. "That's why, to me, on-base percentage doesn't mean a lot for an individual player ... I mean, it's great to get on base, but does the player get to second or beyond and score runs? If not, what good is him just getting on base?
That drew some mockery in the sports-radio circle, even though he was willing to talk about it openly. Then again, that just dug him a deeper hole in the echo chamber.
For Manto's part, he didn't fight that fight while with the White Sox, at least outwardly. He stuck to things like approach and mindset and tried to remain upbeat despite the massive offensive problems, most of which were not likely his fault, at least primarily.
No matter the quotes (or lack thereof), it didn't work out, and so we have to apply the same scrutiny to his reported replacement, Todd Steverson. A veteran of the Oakland A's organization, Steverson has spent the last two years serving as their minor-league hitting coordinator. Before that, he's been a first base coach, minor-league manager and minor-league hitting coach. He's never been a hitting coach for a major-league team before, so once the move is announced, he can cross that off his list.
Digging through his background, you will see that in 2012 he was banned from the California League for a year for ordering balks to end an 18-inning game. He did it because position players began to pitch, and he saw no need to risk injury. The league saw it as an endangerment to the integrity of the competition. Both sides had a point, but Steverson didn't lose a job over it (he might've been congratulated).
So you'll see all that. What you won't see is Steverson slagging OBP, because he probably wouldn't have survived two years in Oakland's organization, much less 10, if he dismissed a chief tenet of their philosophy. However, he has overseen their minor-league system as it relaxed its pitch-taking doctrine. A Modesto Bee article from April 23, 2012 detailed the patience demanded from the A's farmhands:
As recent as last year, swinging 3-0 was not allowed at this level of the Oakland organization. This year, Ports hitters already have taken hacks at 3-0 pitches four times. [...]
As recent as five years ago, Oakland's farmhands were required to walk a minimum of 10 times per month, since walks and -- in a larger scope -- on-base percentage were at the heart of the team's offensive approach.
The system was so ingrained that batters short one or two walks at the end of any given month were known to take pitches on 3-1 and even 3-2 to make sure they met the quota.
You can see how that might help, or be incredibly detrimental. The A's started leaning toward the latter, and Steverson detailed it in an interview with the Bee, which you can watch in its entirety:
A sample quote:
"We were getting our walks in the organization, but we weren't scoring many runs behind it, which means we needed to not only walk and get our on-base percentage up, but we also needed to learn how to drive guys in when need be and not be passive in certain situations, where you have to be aggressive. Sometimes you may have to go out of the zone, understand what pitchers are trying to do to you, and really the philosophy is wrapped around the knowledge of the game and what a pitcher has to do to be successful. Once we understand what he has to do to be successful, we can combat that."
That doesn't sound too different from what Manto said in his Pittsburgh days:
"Do we want Jason Bay walking if a pitch is an inch outside and there's a man on third? I'm not so sure. There's a time to walk and a time to understand what's going on."
But if you're starting to panic, Steverson said this right before the "We were getting our walks..." part:
"Obviously with the Moneyball era, I think it got understood a lot about what the philosophy of it really was. We wanted our players to hit strikes, be able to take walks when they're given to you, have an on-base percentage -- obviously on-base percentage turns into runs, high on-base percentages throughout the lineup turns into runs, which turns into wins."
So no, Steverson and Manto aren't the same guy. It's just that hitting coaches are only going to sound so different philosophically before one becomes way too radical to actually coach effectively. Reading through his quotes in interviews with Melissa Lockard of OaklandClubhouse.com, he talks at length about hitting development without hitting any land mines.
For instance, he seems to understand BABIP:
"Most guys take it for granted that they are hot, but if you stay hot for a long time and then all of a sudden it doesn’t happen, what did you learn from it? What you end up finding yourself doing for too long is searching for that same feeling that got you to hit .390. The truth of the matter was all you were doing was putting yourself in position every day, a timely position and swinging at good pitches that you could put a barrel on. And the baseball gods shined upon you that the balls fell to the side or in front of defenders."
What I try to do is understand where our players are based upon the league averages. So the league average in the Cal League compared to the Midwest League is completely different. To give you an idea, here are the averages for the New York-Penn League through the end of July: the average batting average was .243 for the whole league. That will give you an idea there. The average on-base percentage: .315, the average slugging percentage, .341. OPS, 656.
Comprehending and conveying core concepts doesn't guarantee success, but should the Sox finish dead last across the board again, nobody can point to the hitting coach being stuck in the past.
But really, it's going to come down to the talent of the offense -- whether he finds a way to become a Hitter Whisperer, or merely stays out of the way if guys figure it out themselves. If you consider the development of the Cuban sluggers his primary tasks, Lockard's interviews offer some clues.
For Jose Abreu:
"I’m not the guy with the crazy hat on and the crystal ball at the pier. Who am I to tell you that this funky move to my eyes right now won’t work? Everybody has to have a chance to prove who they are and if it works. There is no cookie-cut for a swing or an approach.
"You never want anybody to say that they never had a chance to show who they were, that they were always having to work on something we told them to do. ‘I never got a chance to do what I wanted to do.’ All in all, that’s a valid point. The thing with us is that we are dealing with the unknown, and they are also dealing with the unknown. As coaches year-after-year, we understand what you are in store for. It’s like a parent-to-their-kid sort of thing. But there has to be some recognition on their part what is not great in their approach and their mindset."
And for Dayan Viciedo:
"Everybody is individual as it relates to their approach. Everyone has different sets as it relates to their hands. Everyone’s got different loads, what have you. But what we like to say is that learning to approach the pitch is a lot more similar to everybody than their personal mechanics. The approach and putting yourself in position to hit mistakes that are thrown up there by the pitcher are really where it’s a common ground. We want everybody to be able to be in the strongest position with their legs, so they can see the baseball. One of the biggest things about hitting is being able to see the baseball. To be able to do that, you’ve got to get ready and prepared with an early body movement to get your legs to be a strong base so you can see the ball longer. "
That sounds similar to reason Jeff Manto tried installing a leg kick into Viciedo's approach. It was a good idea, because Viciedo's bat speed is negated by his inability to get started on time. If Manto did anything wrong there, perhaps it was leaving him an out. Perhaps Steverson won't give Viciedo the same luxury, but it's merely another example of hitting coaches having to cover the same ground, and hoping their particular way works.