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April 12, 2009

Prospectus Q&A

Rob Deer

by David Laurila

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Russell Branyan and Jack Cust are challenging his legacy, but until their career stat lines are finalized, Rob Deer reigns as the king of Three True Outcomes. With 230 home runs, 575 walks, and 1,409 strikeouts in 4,512 plate appearances, Deer has a TTO rate of 49.7, a percentage unmatched in big-league history. A legendary slugger in multiple statistical categories, Deer hit .220/.324/.442 in a career which saw him strike out once every 2.75 at-bats-also a big-league record among retired players-and register the lowest batting average of any outfielder with over 2,000 at-bats. Despite the negatives, Deer did three things well: propel majestic home runs, draw walks, and play a well-above-average right field. A minor league hitting coordinator in the Padres' organization for seven years after his playing days, Deer currently runs his own business, Vizubat. Deer talked about his time in the game, including notable teammates, his unique standing in historic annals, and a memorable home run on Easter Sunday.

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David Laurila: Among players with over 1,500 at-bats, you're first all time in Three True Outcomes. What are your thoughts on that?

Rob Deer: Because of the game now, with so many statistical analyses, and so many different numbers-people come up with so many different stats-there are times when I look at things, and hear things, and it's just very interesting. When I look back at my career, people talk about home runs and strikeouts, or RBI, and when you have different ideas... I've read columns and books where people have come up with different statistics, and I think I'm near the top of categories that I never thought would have existed. So to know that I'm first in [Three True Outcomes] is pretty cool.

DL: In a more general sense, how do you view the career you had in the big leagues?

RD: You know, it's really strange, because I got myself into a situation where I coached for seven years and I didn't realize until I started coaching just how hard it was for me to have been able to accomplish what I accomplished. It makes me realize, it makes me understand, how difficult it was for me to do what I did at that level for the 10 or so years that I played. That gives me something to appreciate even more, because I know how hard it is to even get to that level.

DL: Is there any irony in the fact that the all-time leader in Three True Outcomes worked as a hitting instructor for a big-league organization?

RD: That's the thing. Once people understand that what I talk about, and what I accomplished as far as coaching... they realize I don't teach the way I hit. I'm a big guy who understands the importance of using the whole field and wants hitters to understand a two-strike approach. Those are the things I implemented in my hitting system. One of the things I tried to teach on a lot is the things I couldn't do. I didn't have a two-strike approach when I played, so I try to make that an important part of teaching. I didn't hit the ball the other way, so I try to make them more complete hitters by having them do something I couldn't do.

DL: How important is it to allow players to do what they do best? For instance, I assume you wouldn't want to take a young Rob Deer and try to turn him into something he isn't?

RD: That's a good question. I try to instill in young players that they need to understand themselves and what kind of hitter they are. I wasn't a guy who was going to bunt; I wasn't a guy who was going to hit behind runners; I wasn't going to hit-and-run very much. I was up there to drive in runs and occasionally hit a home run. I did try to make myself a better hitter as far as average-wise goes. I try to instill with young players that they understand what type of hitter they are, and if you're a guy who is a two-hole hitter, or lead-off guy, your job is to get on base so guys like myself can drive you in.

DL: Are there any specific players you feel that you made a major impact on?

RD: You know, I don't think it's really fair to put my name to any one person. I can say that, as an organization-I had six hitting coaches underneath me-we all had our input. At each and every level, I was a part of helping Jason Bay, Xavier Nady, Khalil Greene... I think it's a whole package that we presented. We all stuck together. We all had our own ideas, but we followed the same plan. Three years ago we had something like 13 major league players that we had developed.

DL: Are great hitters developed, or are they born?

RD: I think that a fair analogy is that you take a third of all your hitters, and you don't touch them. Then you have another third who aren't going to make it no matter what. It's the in-between third that you have to say to yourself, 'I have to figure out a way to get through to these hitters to get something out of them.' It's easy to put your name on players who are going to be all-star hitters. It's those we over-coach that can become a problem. You have to let those guys play, and let them be the type of hitters they need to be. What you need to do is find the third that can go either way. You need to be able to persuade that third to become major league hitters.

DL: Matt Bush obviously failed to live up to expectations. Why was that?

RD: He's a very misleading young player. Matt Bush grew up in a scenario where he was a young kid who was given a ton of money and... you know, I've always felt that a lot of what happened to that kid is the Padres' fault. For one thing, they made him play shortstop too long. This kid throws 97 mph. I've seen him do things, once they put him on the mound... I mean, he was drafted as a pitcher who threw 97, and as a shortstop with a big swing that wasn't going to hit in the big leagues. The people in coaching understood that. It took them however long to realize that he should be a pitcher, and then he blew out his arm.

DL: What was he like to work with?

RD: I had one problem with Matt Bush [in] all the time I was around him, and that was the first week I met him. He didn't show up for early work one day, so I called him into the office and sat him down. I wanted him to understand certain things. I wanted him to understand that when you're a player who is struggling, and you miss early work, that could be the day you found something that would get you to the big leagues. At 17, 18, 19 years old, you should never miss early work. So I called him into the office, and I'm sure he remembers this. We had a good heart-to-heart talk, and for the three years that followed, I never had a problem with Matt Bush. I just feel that the kid needed... Ty Waller was the farm director, and Ty went out of his way to do everything he could for him, from counseling on up. He did everything he could to help him learn. I think the poor kid's career was just kind of misled by some wrong decisions.

DL: Getting back to your playing career, which of your former teammates stands out as being a better player than most people give him credit for?

RD: That's a pretty good question, and I think the number one person who comes to mind is a guy who is a good friend of mine. That's Robin Yount. Yes, he's a two-time MVP and a Hall of Famer, and he has 3,000 hits, but when they talk about great hitters, and great players... because Robin played in a small-market city, they don't bring up Robin Yount's name very much. And not only was he a great player, he was a great teammate; he was a great inspiration for all of the younger players. I think that had he been in New York, or someplace like that, he would have been a household name.

DL: You broke in with the Giants and hit your first big-league home run at Candlestick Park. Do you ever wonder how your career might have gone had you not been traded?

RD: No, I've never actually thought about that too much. But I do think I was very fortunate. Roger Craig called me into his office at the end of the season... this was my rookie year, in 1985. He said they were going to send me to instructional league to become a catcher, and I said, "I'm not doing it. I'm not going to be a catcher." They had Danny Gladden, Jack Clark, Jeff Leonard... they had a lot of outfielders, but I still said, "There's no way; I'm not doing it." Two weeks later, I was traded, and it was the greatest thing that ever happened to me. That's how I got my chance with Milwaukee.

DL: In your first season with the Brewers, you broke Gorman Thomas' team record by striking out 179 times. Do you see yourself as having been a similar player to Thomas?

RD: You know, I'm sure it was brought up when I was there playing... about strikeout comparisons, but I wasn't aware that I had broken any records. But Gorman was really good for me. Gorman is one of the three or four most popular players in Milwaukee, still to this day, and he kind of knew what situation I was coming into. He knew that I was going to be a guy who struck out a lot and hit some home runs, so he made it a point to help me feel comfortable and at home. I was fortunate to get to play with him at the latter part of his career, and as far as comparisons go, yeah, we were a lot alike. He had a lot better years than I did, though, and he also got to the World Series. But he's still a great friend, and I enjoy being around him. He's a good guy.

DL: Were your high numbers of strikeouts an issue for your manager and the front office?

RD: You know, people knew what they were getting with me. They knew I wasn't a guy who was being paid to hit .300 or to steal 50 bases. I was there to drive in runs. People who saw me play know that I saw a lot of pitches and had a chance to walk, and there were a lot of 3-2 sliders that got me after tough at-bats where I battled a guy for a bunch of pitches. I wasn't a guy who went up there and saw three pitches, and then went to take a seat on the bench. I think that a lot of people understood that, regardless of the outcome, I would always give you a good at-bat. I think that people were patient in a lot of aspects because of that fact. There were times when I'd strike out with a runner on third and less than two out, and that would be frustrating, but there would be nobody more frustrated than myself. But guys who strike out a lot... my numbers show that I walked a lot, and my on-base percentage wasn't as bad as some people might think. That's a big thing today. People talk a lot about wanting players who hit homers and walk, and that's not an easy thing to find. People who are knowledgeable... Harry Dalton, the general manager of the Brewers, used to tell me, he'd say, "Hey, you're a guy where we understand what is going to go on. We have guys like Molitor and Gantner and Yount; we have guys who are going to be on base for you to drive in."

DL: You were in Milwaukee when Gary Sheffield came up to the big leagues as a 19-year-old in 1988. What do you remember about him as a young player?

RD: We played together for a short time, and the thing I remember about Sheff is that he had one of the quickest swings I've ever seen. And you don't hit 499 home runs without having the complete package. Watching him his first few years, he did things... I remember Nolan Ryan knocking him down two or three times in a game in his first at-bats, and he'd just get up and call time out between pitches. He was a very confident player, and you knew, for some reason, that he was going to be something special. There have been critics in his past who would say certain things, but here's a guy who goes out and plays every day and has a determination to win games. He's a throwback who comes to play and wants to win. I respect the fact that he's had a great career and has been one of the most exciting players in baseball.

DL: You went from Milwaukee to Detroit after the 1990 season. How do you view the time you spent with the Tigers?

RD: You know, I've always been very lucky, because I played on teams where guys really wanted to play... the guys would play very hard. I always played on teams where there were a lot of unselfish players. My time in Detroit was special, because the teammates I had were special. I always looked up to, and admired, and I still do to this day, Sparky Anderson. He's a big part of why I enjoyed my time there.

DL: Do you remember a game where you contributed to John Shelby getting hit by a pitch?

RD: I do. Inky [Pete Incaviglia] was hitting before me, Clemens was pitching, and T-Bone [John Shelby] was hitting behind me. Inky came up and hit a home run off of Roger, into the net at Fenway, and then I came up and saw four or five pitches, and he threw me a slider that I hit into the net for a homer. He seemed to take a disliking to that, and proceeded to hit John Shelby in the middle of the back. T-Bone charged the mound and that caused a huge melee.

DL: Did you and your teammates resent that Shelby was ejected from the game, but Clemens wasn't?

RD: Yeah, but I think there was a point in time... there are certain things that happen in a game that aren't the same anymore, and I think that takes a lot away from what should be demanded. There were times when I'd get hit and know that it was on purpose, but the retaliation... when you have a pitcher on your team who goes out and hits somebody else, well, then now we're even. Pitchers have a reason to brush people back. Pitching inside is part of the game, and I have no problem with that. It's when people get thrown at, and get hit in the back of the head, that is concerning.

DL: How glad were you to see Nolan Ryan retire?

RD: You want to hear a story? I saw Nolan Ryan throw two no-hitters at Anaheim Stadium when I was a kid growing up, so when I got a chance to face him, it was one of the most awesome things. There was always, in the back of my mind, the fact that I wanted to get a hit off of Nolan Ryan because of who he was. There was always that added incentive to get a hit off him, so I kind of screwed myself out of good at-bats because I f-ing tried too hard. My first at-bat against Ryan... Mike Krukow was in the dugout, and Krukow told me, "Hey, you're going to be playing tomorrow because Jeff Leonard doesn't like facing Nolan Ryan." We were in the Astrodome and I had just gotten called up. He said, "You're playing, kid. Just remember, Dave Kingman hits him good, and so do some other guys who strike out a lot, so you're going to have a great day against Nolan Ryan tomorrow." I was thinking that I wasn't going to play, but when I looked at the lineup the next day, my name was on it; I was hitting sixth against Ryan. [Krukow] said to me, "Just remember something: No matter what, he knows who you are. He knows you're a home-run guy who came up through the system and he's going to send a message your first at-bat." I said, "What's that message?" He said, "He's probably going to buzz you and knock you on your ass." So I'm on deck, getting loose, and not really thinking about anything other than the fact that I'm going to get to face Nolan Ryan. Then I walked up to the plate, and as he looked in for the signal... right about then it dawned on me, 'Oh yeah, he's probably going to send a message.' Well, that message went across the tip of my nose! To this day I can still feel that ball grazing off the end of my nose. He knocked me right on my ass. But I respected it. He wasn't trying to kill me, he was just trying to send a message. That at-bat, I ended up hitting a one-hop backhand to [Ken] Caminiti, who made one of those plays that he always did. I ran as hard as I could, and as fast as I could, and it was bang, bang. To this day, I feel like I was safe, but the umpire called me out. That was my only chance to get a hit off Nolan Ryan, because I ended up going something like 0-for-14 against him with a bunch of strikeouts.

DL: You played with Mickey Tettleton. How do you remember him as a hitter?

RD: Mickey Tettleton was a very disciplined hitter who did a lot of the same things I did, but sometimes he got himself out by trying to do too much. Instead of taking a walk, Mickey would try to hit balls... like myself, there were a lot of times where they'd be pitching around him, or pitching around me, and we'd try to make things happen. We'd try to hit a three-run homer when they were trying to get around us. A lot of times he'd open his strike zone up and swing at balls, rather than taking walks when he could have. I was fortunate to play with Mickey for three years in Detroit, and he was a guy who could hit the ball out of sight, but he also swung and missed quite a bit. There were a lot of us like that, but like Sparky always talked about, any one of us, at any certain time, could hit a three-run homer. We'd live and die for the homer. I wouldn't have fit in with the Yankees' system, because they weren't that type of organization. I was a free-swinging guy who went up there and... I was given a bat for one reason, and that was to swing it. And I swung it.

DL: When you, Tettleton, Incaviglia, and Cecil Fielder were together in Detroit, which of you hit the ball the farthest in batting practice?

RD: You know what, it's weird, because on certain days it could have been any one of us. Gibby could hit balls a long way, too... Kirk Gibson. So it all depended, but it was fun. We'd be starting to take batting practice, and instead of going in to get dressed, the visiting team would sit on their bench and watch us hit in BP. We used to hit a lot of balls out, and it was fun.

DL: What does it feel like to really get into a ball?

RD: I can explain it perfectly. You don't feel a thing. Everything is in sync and it's almost like the ball slows down. It's almost like... if you could imagine hitting a ping-pong ball with a bat, it's like that. You don't feel a thing. And it's a beautiful sound. Everything is balanced. Especially for me... I swung so hard, that to be on time and hit a ball square, swinging so hard, and watching a ball take off knowing that it's going to go 495 feet... it was a pretty cool thing.

DL: What are your thoughts on the state of today's game, including the controversy around performance-enhancing drugs?

RD: What I'd like to comment on is how the game has changed, and how the players have changed. It's almost sad because of the fact that... I learned some of the most important things about the game, and life, after the games were over, just sitting with teammates and having a few beers. Guys who were older players, veteran players... if you weren't doing things right, man, you'd get your ass jumped. Those meetings were always important. It's frustrating for me to see, nowadays, how so many guys leave the clubhouse early. I think that takes away from the camaraderie, too. I would have missed out on so much had I left the clubhouse like a lot of guys do now. That's one way the game has changed. As for the steroid thing, it is what it is. Guys did what they did when they thought it was a time to make themselves better. I don't think that you can totally... nowadays, because of the situation... because they're trying to clean it up, it has to stop. And I think it's only fair that, if they're going to put a stop to something, then the players need to abide by it and get on with the game and get it back to what it should be. I don't think we're ever going to see 65 or 70 homers in a season again. I think it's going to go back to when I played, when 30 home runs was an accomplishment. I think that's going to come back, and I like that.

DL: What are you doing now that you're no longer coaching?

RD: I started my own company, which is called Vizubat. I have three spokespeople: George Brett, Robin Yount, and Tony Gwynn. I went to each one of them and said that I just wanted to ask for their opinion on my device, and all three thought it was a great idea. What it is, is a visual strength type of training device that is going to be used on deck. The Yankees have one. Boston is going to use it. Kansas City, Cincinnati, a whole lot of colleges, like USC and San Diego State. So it's getting out there, and we're hoping that it takes the place of the old batting donut. We think it has more to offer than the donut. Along with that, I'm also working with George in one of his endeavors. I'm the major league rep for the Brett Brothers Company.

DL: To close, you were on the cover of Sports Illustrated in 1987 following a big home run on Easter Sunday that helped the Brewers start the season with 13 straight wins. What are your memories of that?

RD: I could talk about that for an hour. To be a part of something that was so special... you know, you go out there and you can't lose a game, and I helped to be a part of it... that was my World Series. I didn't get a chance to play in the All-Star or in a World Series, so that was my highlight. The whole city of Milwaukee, the whole ball club... everything about it was phenomenal. I still watch the video, and Dale Sveum and I talk about it all the time. It's something I'll never forget. It's greater than any first at-bat, first base hit, or anything, because... what made it so great is that I was part of a winning situation. I mean, I hit the home run off of Tom Seaver in my first American League at-bat, the one that went off the roof, and it doesn't even come close to the Easter Sunday. You can do all kinds of great things, but to do them when the outcome is a win... that's what makes something really fun. We couldn't lose, and every day somebody new was picking us up. My day happened to come on Easter Sunday.

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