March 31, 2010
Jim Dwyer understands the art of hitting. Currently the hitting coach for the Fort Myers Miracle, Minnesota’s High-A affiliate, Dwyer has spent the past two decades coaching and managing in the Twins' system, including a nine-year stint as the roving hitting coordinator. An outfielder for seven teams over 18 big-league seasons as a player, he retired in 1990 with a career average of .260 and 77 home runs. Dwyer sat down with Baseball Prospectus to talk about his approach to hitting, including the work he’s done with star pupil Ben Revere, at the Twins' spring training complex.
David Laurila: A number of the players here are in camp for the first time. How do you help them acclimate to pro ball?
Jim Dwyer: Well, you’ve got to be patient with them. The first thing they have to learn is to get used to the schedule. There is the way we do things, the drills we do, and they have to get to know the other players. We have to give them time to settle in and get used to professional life. A lot of these kids don’t even speak the language. We get them from other countries. We have the Latin coaches kind of take control of them and help them out with where they need to be. They help them with the drills and the communication part of it. Basically, you’ve just got to be patient with them.
DL: Many of the guys in camp for the first time played rookie ball last summer. What didn’t they experience there that they‘re seeing here?
JD: Everything. A lot of these guys have never seen competition like this before. We’re signing a lot of players from Australia and from Europe, and usually the kids from the Latin American countries have been playing baseball their whole lives. The first thing is the brand of competition. They are seeing pitchers that they’ve never seen before and defense they’ve never seen before. The game is played at a much faster speed than they’ve ever played it, and it just takes a while to get used to. Every time you move up a step in baseball, the game gets played faster.
DL: Organizations don’t typically ask players to make many adjustments until their first full season. I assume that is the Twins’ approach?
JD: Yes. I think that one of the worst things you can do with any player is rush him into making changes. You’ve got to observe them and see what’s going on. What are their strengths and their weaknesses? If you see something that might be able to help them, you have to take your time. You have to win their confidence first. You can lose players by trying to do something right away. I like to wait until they’re struggling a little, even if you see something where they might need some help. If they’re doing well, you kind of put it on the back burner until they start struggling. If you do something with a guy when he’s doing well and then they start struggling, they’ll tend to blame you for that. Then you’ve lost that player. They’ll lose confidence in you, and then you’ve lost them.
DL: When you see something that won’t translate to a higher level, how early can you plant that seed without actually suggesting a change?
JD: See, that’s the thing. I used to be the rover here; I traveled to all six different levels of the minor-league system. I’d be at Triple-A, watching Triple-A players, and then come right back down here to the lowest level, the GCL, and see guys that are hitting .300, but I’d know that if they were facing a Triple-A pitcher, they’d really struggle. So you’ve got to kind of play it by ear and wait for an opportunity where they’re struggling and looking for help. And then, when you get that opportunity, that’s when you move in with the stuff that is going to help them, because they’ll be more receptive to it.
DL: What is one thing that a lot of young players don’t understand about hitting?
JD: For the most part, the shortness of the swing. A lot of these kids come in thinking they have to hit home runs, especially with the era that we’ve just been through in baseball—the Home Run Era, or whatever you want to call it. They think that to be a professional player you have to hit a lot of home runs and they adapt their swing—a big, long swing that’s pull-oriented. That’s just the opposite of what you have to do to be a good hitter. You’ve got to kind of preach to them the beauty of shortness and the meaning of staying inside and hitting the ball where it’s pitched. That’s a lot of work and it takes a lot of patience. It’s harder to teach a kid how to hit big-league pitching than it is to actually throw a big-league pitch. Hitting a baseball is really hard to do on a consistent basis, especially against good pitching, so you’ve got to be patient. The coach has to be patient, and the player has to be patient, because it’s not something that you learn overnight.
DL: Is there any one level where it is harder to teach?
JD: It was always, for me, Triple-A. You teach the same mechanics at every level. The things you have to do to be a good hitter in the big leagues are the same things you have to do to be a good hitter in high school and college and in the low minors. The game doesn’t change, but as you move up the ladder the players get better. The competition gets better, but the actual mechanics that make you successful stay the same. The hardest level was Triple-A because a lot of the players have been in the big leagues and the attitude of the players—some of them are on their way out of the game and they know it. They’ve had their shot and it didn’t work out for them, so they kind of have an attitude toward the game, as opposed to down here, in rookie league, where these kids have the dream of playing in the big leagues. It’s a different attitude and a different animal in Triple-A. You’ve got two kinds of players in Triple-A. You’ve got the young kids on their way up, just a phone call away from being there, and then you’ve got the guys that have been there and are on their way out of the game—and they know it. They’re just trying to hang on.
DL: People who have been in the game for as long as you have sometimes say, "We didn’t do it that way in my day." Thinking back to when you were in the minor leagues, was the game the same?
JD: Oh, no. Geez. You talk to players sometimes, and you work with guys in the cage, and you tell them: "When I played, they didn’t coach you." They just gave you a uniform and you went out and played, and if you did well, they kept you another year. If you didn’t, they let you go. There was no "trying to fix you" and all this coaching—the strength coaches and all these conditioning things we have now, like the thing we just got done doing here. We didn’t do that stuff. It was a totally different game.
DL: Going back to what you said about adjustments and patience, is there a fear of ruining a hitter by over-coaching him rather than just letting his natural talent come out?
JD: Yeah, you can smother a player. You can get them so confused that they just can’t function. Some guys are more able to take instruction and apply it in games than others. You’ve got to feel that, sense that, as a coach. If you feel your player is getting paralysis through analysis, you’ve got to back off a little and tell him to try to free his mind. Whenever I work with a player, I always tell him: "When it’s game time, just see the ball and hit it. Don’t worry. It’s too late to think about all of the things that we’ve been working on. Now, it’s time to go in there, see the ball and react to the ball. Then, tomorrow, before the game, we’ll do our drills and do our work again." When you’re in the cage, you work on your stuff, and when you’re in the game you forget about it.
DL: You had Ben Revere in the Florida State League last year. What was your approach with him?
JD: Ben is one of the most talented players I’ve ever worked with and that I’ve ever seen. I think Ben’s biggest problem is just his youth and lack of experience. He needs to learn the strike zone better and once he does, he‘ll be special. And I don’t think you can teach a player the strike zone. You have to just play games, get your repetitions, get your at-bats, and then, slowly, you learn the strike zone. You learn to channel your aggression. You can be overaggressive, and experienced pitchers will use that against inexperienced hitters. They’ll use that aggressiveness against them. They’ll throw the ball out of the strike zone, knowing that they’re going to swing at it. I keep telling the players that it’s the hitter’s responsibility to make the pitcher throw you strikes. If you don’t make him throw you strikes, he won’t. It’s one of those things and it’s probably Ben’s biggest thing, because his bat speed and hand-eye coordination are off the charts. If he ever learns—and he will learn—to condense his zone, he’s going to be a great player. I really believe that. His defense—he can go get balls. I’ve been in the game thirty-something years now, and he’s made plays I’ve never seen guys make before. And he’s got power; he’ll flash power. He can steal bases. He’s going to hit for average. He can do it all. He’s going to be a great player.
DL: When a player flashes power but doesn’t project to hit many home runs, does he need to be careful not to think power?
JD: I like to work with guys. When we had Justin Morneau when he was a young kid, we didn’t talk about hitting home runs. We just talked about being a good hitter—hitting the ball where it’s pitched and being able to time the different speeds. Let the home runs just happen. Morneau is one of those guys where he doesn’t have to pull the ball to hit a home run. He can take an outside fastball and hit it out to left-center. You don’t have to be a pull monster to hit home runs. Just work on being a good hitter, like Joe Mauer, Joe Mauer became a batting-title guy and all of a sudden he started hitting home runs. I think that’s the progression that hitters should take—learn how to be a good hitter first and then, as you get older and your body gets more mature, and you get smarter at the plate and more patient, the home runs will be the last thing to surface. If you try to put the cart before the horse and say, "We’re going to hit home runs now and then worry about being a hitter later," well, that doesn’t work. You have to impress upon these kids to be a good hitter first and the power will come later.
Ben doesn’t really hit home runs, but every once in a while he’ll get his pitch and turn on it and hit a home run to right field. He’ll flash power. For a young age, it’s in there. It’s just going to take time before his body—his core muscles and everything—get stronger. Players usually reach their peak at about 27, 28 years old, and they hold that longer now because of the conditioning and stuff like that. But at 25, 26, 27 years old, that’s when the combination of all the at-bats that you’ve had, the experience and the maturation of your body—that’s when the power starts to develop.
Albert Pujols is another guy. You go and check his stats, and he didn’t hit a lot of home runs in the minors. All of a sudden, in Triple-A, those doubles in the gap started going over the fence and now he’s a 2,500-RBI guy because it was time for him to start hitting home runs. But in the meantime, he learned how to be a good hitter. Same with Mauer and the same with Morneau. It’s going to be the same thing with Revere. Learn how to be a good hitter—spray the ball around, hit the different speeds, hit the different locations—and when your body is ready to hit home runs, you’ve already established yourself as a good hitter.
DL: How do Revere and Aaron Hicks compare?
JD: I really haven’t seen a lot of Aaron Hicks; I’ve just seen a little of him in the instructional league. Aaron is bigger, kind of taller, stronger, a more athletic kind of guy. I don’t think he has the explosiveness, just the raw burst of speed that Revere has. It’s hard to compare those two because I’ve seen so much of Revere and so little of Hicks, but I think they’re both very talented and have a chance to be really good players.
DL: Do they have a chance to be as good as Jim Dwyer was in his prime?
JD: Oh, easy. They’re there now! Ha!