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Todd Steverson has a mandate, and it's a tough one

New White Sox hitting coach hopes to drill selectivity into young hitters' heads, and the work starts now

We should have a picture of Steverson in a White Sox setting by next month, hopefully.
We should have a picture of Steverson in a White Sox setting by next month, hopefully.
(Natalie Litz / Flickr)

Allow me to backtrack a couple days and catch up with a story I missed while playing in a curling tournament...

Following the completion of his minicamp with young White Sox hitters and Paul Konerko, Todd Steverson talked to the Chicago media via a conference call.

Jose Abreu was at the top of everybody's list, and rightly so. But Steverson is just as new as Abreu, and he's entrusted to develop the Cuban first baseman and a few other rookies, too. Hitting coaches may be interchangeable, but Steverson is the guy in the seat during a critical period in the direction of the White Sox, so I want to hear what he has to say.

[It's been] well-chronicled we weren't very disciplined last year. And I'll say it time and time again -- as a hitter, your best swings are going to be off of strikes. Your best approaches, everything you want to have happen positive, is going to be off balls you can handle in the strike zone. The more times that we make the pitcher work to get his outs by staying in the strike zone, the better off we're going to be.

It's kind of just a reality thing. I'm not trying to reinvent the wheel or anything like that. It's the truth. If you swing at balls out of the zone, it's a tough time to get a hit. If you stay in the zone and make him work for his strikes, put the ball in play that you're supposed to put in play, consistently, over and over again, you're going to have better results than when you're chasing balls that are hitting the ground or in the other batter's box.

To get that thought process through to everybody, yes, I do harp on it quite a bit. Through batting practice and through soft toss and all our routines -- "Are you swinging at strikes? Was that a pitch you wanted?" "Yes." Over and over again. And they'll get it, they understand it, because I'll never stop.

None of this is groundbreaking -- in fact, it's basically a rephrasing of his opening statements -- but that last part hit my ear differently. Timing has something to do with that, because his philosophy has moved from the purely theoretical to an attempt at the applicable. He's officially begun his work with a crop of hitters that is crucial to the organization's rebound, and this is the cornerstone.

It's a good one. The White Sox finished in the bottom half of the American League with their out-of-zone swing percentage, swinging at 32.3 percent of pitches out of the zone, but it looks even more dreadful when you see the players most responsible for inflating the team's percentage.

  • Josh Phegley: 46.4
  • Avisail Garcia: 45.7
  • Dayan Viciedo: 42.5
  • Marcus Semien: 42.1
  • Alexei Ramirez: 41.8
  • Tyler Flowers: 37.2
  • Leury Garcia: 36.2
  • Gordon Beckham: 32.4

Phegley, Garcia, Viciedo, Semien and Ramirez were among the AL's top 15 chasers for hitters with 50 plate appearances. With 15 AL teams, each club should be allotted one spot on this list, so the Sox have, like, five times too many. Worse yet, that's at least one-third of the everyday 2014 lineup.

They're also going to be integrating two to three rookies (Abreu, Adam Eaton and Matt Davidson), hoping that they can avoid the club's penchant for absurdly long season-starting walk droughts. They shouldn't have the same problems Phegley did, but that was supposed to be the case for Semien, and he walked just once over his first 71 trips to the plate.

It's partially a talent problem, because patience was never a virtue of Phegley, Viciedo or the Garcias in their minor-league histories. But when Semien draws one walk, it suggests an environmental problem that can permeate even strong track records.

The White Sox saw more pitches in the zone than any other AL team, which seems hard to believe when the Sox chase as much as they did last year. Pitchers just didn't have a problem staying on the attack, setting up Sox hitters and knocking them down. Without a disruptive presence or three in the lineup, the young guys have little cover at best, and it's the blind leading the blind at its worst.

It's hard to say they're any better off in that department this year, because the guys expected to alter the lineup are young themselves. Eaton is supposed to be the pest, and Abreu's supposed to have a good eye, but neither have proven capable of doing so.

That's why Steverson's mandate is fascinating to hear reinforced at this time, because he really is giving us something to grade him on. Even the Russian judge should award him a high base value for the degree of difficulty, and it's not going to be immediately pass-fail if he's also evaluated for establishing a top-down approach for the minors. Nevertheless, when it does come time for his performance reviews, he's made the parameters for evaluating him quite clear.