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Hiring an assistant to help hitting coaches catching on with clubs

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Fredi Gonzalez and the Braves know one hitting coach can't monitor 13 guys at the same time. (Getty Images)  
Fredi Gonzalez and the Braves know one hitting coach can't monitor 13 guys at the same time. (Getty Images)  

Interviewing 101, this wasn't.

Braves general manager Frank Wren was sorting through the wreckage following one of the worst September collapses in baseball history last autumn. He had fired hitting coach Larry Parrish. The guy he was zeroing in as Parrish's replacement just happened to be fleeing the White Sox mess in the aftermath of Ozzie Guillen's departure.

Greg Walker was a veteran hitting coach with World Series credentials. He was a free agent. He was a Georgia native (Douglas), for crying out loud.

How hard could it be to close this deal?

Wren and Walker sat down. They talked. It was pretty clear where this was headed. And then Walker asked for something.

An assistant hitting coach.

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"Frank, the pitching coach has a bullpen coach, a bullpen catcher, they've got a team," Walker told Wren. "And I just think that's the way to go. I don't want to miss anything. Two sets of eyes are better than one."

"Well, we hadn't planned on doing it that way," Wren answered.

"There are a lot of people doing it that way now," Walker said.

Wren went home that night intrigued by the idea. He phoned Walker back the next day, asked what Walker thought about Scott Fletcher and, that quickly, the Braves joined baseball's newest revolution.

The Cardinals, Braves and Padres all are employing two hitting coaches this season, with a handful of other clubs unofficially supporting their hitting instructors with an extra coach.

From Charlie Manuel, the hitting savant who manages the Phillies, to Don Mattingly, the Dodgers manager who had an assistant (Jeff Pentland) when he was Los Angeles' hitting coach, rival clubs are taking note.

"We would consider doing something like that," Manuel says. "But it's got to be the right guy. The hitting coach has to feel comfortable."

Mattingly endorses the idea, too.

"The biggest thing is, you've got to know who the head guy is," he says. "There has to be one voice.

"I always listened to Dean Smith. I read his book. And he had different coaches for dribbling and passing, but there was one shooting coach."

Like so much else in baseball, the job of a hitting coach has changed dramatically over the past several years. What once consisted mostly of watching and aiding hitters during pre-game batting practice and during games has become a multi-faceted challenge that often requires one man to be in multiple places at once.

Former Braves manager Bobby Cox tells stories from the old days when most players didn't arrive at the stadium until 5 p.m. for a night game.

"Now, with the facilities and work ethic of players ... the norm for these guys now is to eat lunch at the ballpark for a night game," Wren says. "They're here working, and one coach is spread awfully thin with 13 guys."

It's all part of the game's evolution.

Old ballparks rarely contained an indoor batting cage.

New ballparks all have an indoor batting cage, with some having multiple indoor cages.

There is video to watch on computers and televisions, both to fine-tune swings and break down opposing pitchers.

There are scenarios now in which, say, at 3 p.m., some players are on the field taking early batting practice, another group is hitting in the cage and still others are watching video.

The Cardinals, with John Mabry currently assistant hitting coach to Mark McGwire, have employed a second hitting coach for several seasons. Mike Aldrete once assisted Hal McRae, then Aldrete assisted McGwire, and now Mabry is working with McGwire.

Maybe you won't be surprised to learn that Tony La Russa, godfather of the modern bullpen, was an early pioneer of the two-hitting-coach idea, too.

"Tony originally came to me and felt like, if you look at a coaching staff, you have a bullpen coach who works with a pitching coach, so this balances it out," Cardinals general manager John Mozeliak says. "It seemed like a logical thing to do, given the amount of information you feed players today -- statistical, video.

"I thought it made a lot of sense."

The Padres, who over the past decade have run through hitting coaches like ice at a Fourth of July picnic, hired Phil Plantier and Alonzo Powell over the winter, with Plantier the lead guy and Powell his assistant. Since moving into Petco Park, the Padres had fired five hitting coaches in nine years.

No, they didn't expand the pool in 2012 just so they could fire two at once.

"The genesis of it came from me, even going as far back as when I was in Anaheim, seeing all of the work Mickey Hatcher would do in the cage," says Padres manager Bud Black, Angels pitching coach from 2000-2007. "With our amenities, with two cages in our park ... if you go around the league, everyone has [indoor] cages. Players now are spending so much time in the cage and watching video, both at home and on the road.

"We felt, you can't be in two places at once. There are scenarios now where you'd like to be in the video room with someone, but you might have three or four guys hitting in the cage and three or four guys in the video room."

The Plantier-Powell idea came after Dave Magadan, Merv Rettenmund, Wally Joyner, Jim LeFebvre and Randy Ready came and went while hitter after hitter misfired in Petco Park. In an age of specialization, the Padres -- with Black and under then-GM Jed Hoyer -- decided two hitting coaches were better than one.

"One coach for 13 position players, in the modern era, with cages and video ... it's the most physically demanding job, and the most time-consuming," Black says. "You're working, throwing, flipping in the cage with guys ... from 1:30 or 2 in the afternoon, you're on until game time.

"I see this as a trend because, if you ask most hitting coaches, they'd welcome it."

Before the Angels fired him last month, Hatcher fully endorsed the idea.

Hoyer is now working under Theo Epstein running the Cubs, who on Tuesday fired once-legendary hitting coach Rudy Jaramillo. As the Cubs move forward, you wonder whether Hoyer will implement in Chicago what he helped start in San Diego.

Last year, long-time minor-league manager Dave Keller worked with the Cubs as a special assistant to then-manager Mike Quade and helped Jaramillo with the hitting coach duties. Also in Chicago, though the word "hitting" was not in his title, Mike Gellinger, listed in the Sox media guide as "major league coach", worked with Walker for Walker's entire 10-year run as Sox hitting coach.

"When I got the job, I knew Mike," says Walker, whose first season as Sox hitting coach was 2003 (he played for them from 1982-1990). "Mike worked for the Sox right at end of my career. When I showed up, Frank Thomas had been working with Mike. Mike was around Walt Hriniak [the legendary hitting guru] a lot, and me being new and knowing a lot of the guys, I just said 'Hey, I want you to stay on and help me.'

"He's a video scout there, but he's really good on the field, too. He's a good thrower, and a good flipper, and a good worker. And we got along so well and I felt it was a two-man job."

More and more folks within the industry are thinking that way. And every one of these people say the key is that both hitting coaches had better speak the same language, literally.

"The assistant has to work under the hitting coach, and if he says anything to the hitters, the hitting coach should know it," the Phillies' Manuel says. "They've got to be on the same page."

"If the ego doesn't get in the way, it works great," Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez says. "But if Fletch wants to be in the newspapers because he fixed Jason Heyward, and Walk gets upset. ..."

That doesn't happen because the strong relationship between Walker and Fletcher was established long ago, when they played together for six seasons with the White Sox in the 1980s.

In San Diego, third baseman Chase Headley says that's also why the Plantier-Powell tandem works so well. The two previously worked together with the Mariners, and one can usually finish the other's sentence.

"I really think it's been beneficial for us," Headley says. "During games, even when guys come off of the field, they can go take a few swings or talk about the pitcher. Guys who are going to pinch-hit, they can get in some swings in the cage with Alonzo throwing to them."

Because major-league rules allow no more than six coaches to be in uniform in the dugout, the second hitting coach usually floats between the clubhouse, taking notes from the television broadcast or studying video with hitters not in the game, and the batting cage, where he can either throw or soft toss to hitters between innings, or to pinch-hitters preparing for an appearance.

"I've seen it definitely work in St. Louis, Chicago," Manuel says. "The two toughest jobs on a staff are the hitting coach and pitching coach."

Plus, sometimes the same message delivered by a different voice gets hits a mark that might otherwise be missed.

"I think you'll see this more and more," Walker says. "It's just a lot of work for one person. There's a lot of work that goes on underneath in those cages before you even get out here for a game.

"I think it's the way to go. It's the only way I'd want to do the job, I'll put it that way. This is my 10th year doing the job that way, and I think it works best."

The Braves, who currently rank third in the NL in runs scored, love what they've seen so far.

"I can't believe we haven't done it sooner," Gonzalez says. "But you know how the baseball industry is, the slowest industry to change. ..."

The man who ultimately made the decision in Atlanta chuckles when someone suggests that, a decade from now, at this rate, maybe all 30 clubs will employ two hitting coaches.

"I don't know that it will even take that long," Wren says. "We've seen it more and more over the past three years. And like any other good idea, which obviously we didn't originate it, when it's a good idea and teams see people having success with it and talking about it positively, I think you're going to see it spread."

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