Currently the hitting coach for Philadelphia’s Double-A affiliate in Reading, Greg Gross hit .287 in a playing career that spanned 17 big league seasons. A member of the 1980 Phillies team that captured the franchise’s only World Series title, Gross was primarily a role player, logging as many as 300 plate appearances only four times. A contact hitter with only seven career home runs in 3,745 at-bats, he is fifth on baseball’s all-time pinch-hits list with 143. Gross began his coaching career in 1995 and has been with the Phillies organization since 2001.
David talked to Gross about his hitting philosophy, the art of pinch-hitting, and his opinion of batting practice.
David Laurila: What is Greg Gross’s hitting philosophy?
Greg Gross: It’s very little connected to the mechanics of the swing. It’s more a focus of using your eyes, because your eyes dictate what you do with the bat. That’s why I don’t think that you can teach hitting–everyone has a different level of talent, and it’s up to their hand-eye coordination, and what’s in their head, to determine the success they’re going to have. The mind is what messes guys up. A lot of times, hitters talk themselves into going through bad times. Mechanics come into play, sure, but it’s usually more their thought process. Look at all of the so-called instructional manuals. They all say essentially the same thing, but if it was that simple, why isn’t everyone successful? You can’t clone hitters.
DL: What do most young players not understand about hitting?
GG: Most of today’s young guys are too wrapped up in trying to hit home runs by creating lift. What they don’t understand is that a good, smooth stroke will produce more home runs than if you try to hit them. If you look at the best power hitters in the game, a low percentage of them put up big home run numbers in the minor leagues. They developed a good, consistent stroke first, and the power came later as they matured and got more experience.
DL: What is the purpose of batting practice?
GG: It’s about getting ready, and about how many balls you can square up on a line without elevating them. You don’t want to try to drive balls out, because what you practice at 50 miles per hour becomes pop-ups at 90 miles per hour. You can’t simulate game experience in batting practice. So, for me, batting practice is all about developing your stroke. It’s the idea of driving the ball through something–through the pitcher, through the infielders, through the fence. Now, is there time in batting practice to have fun, and to see how far you can hit the ball? Sure, I have no problem with that–as long as it’s not your main focus. If it is, then why are you bothering to take BP?
DL: Besides batting practice, which hitting drills do you feel are the most important?
GG: You’re just looking for repetition, because this game is all about repetition. There are a thousand drills, so unless there’s something specific you need to work on you just want to get comfortable with a routine. It doesn’t matter if it’s hitting off a tee, short-toss, or anything else–the objective is to get ready. You start with drills in the cage, and transfer that approach to the game. It’s about preparation, because you can’t work on things during the game. The game should be played. The work comes before.
DL: Are good hitters born, or are they made?
GG: Most of it is God-given, but then it’s working the right way to get the most out of your talent. You don’t want to try to be something you’re not. If you’re an up-the-middle guy, don’t try to pull the ball and be a power hitter. Don’t try to be a complete player who can do everything. Do what you do best. Good hitters understand what they do well, and they improve upon it.
DL: What about good pinch-hitters? Are they born, or are they made?
GG: That’s a lot of luck and a willingness to accept a role that’s hard to do. If it’s your primary job, you don’t get enough at-bats to be consistent. All you can do is be ready and do the best job you can when the opportunity comes. Most of the time, a guy who is a pinch-hitter is fortunate to be on a good club, so there’s a value to having someone in that role. That’s a position I found myself in for much of my career. Then, when I was on a team where that role became less important, my playing time went down.
DL: You walked more than twice as many times as you struck out during your career. Are the hitters you work with aware of that fact?
GG: Probably not. I rarely mention what I did when I was in the big leagues. How I did things only puts another thought in their heads, and they need to focus on what they do, not what someone else did. When I played, I just wanted to get on any way I could. Today, players want to hit home runs, and to them a strikeout is just another out. In my day, you didn’t want to strike out. You wanted to put the ball in play, because you never knew what might happen when you did. But the game is different in today’s era, and it’s hard to change people. If a young player sees someone doing something at a higher level, that’s what he wants to do. As a coach, all you can do is help players take the right approach to getting the most out of their ability.
GG: They both have excellent power to the opposite field. If you’re willing to go the other way, you should be able to hit for a relatively high average, and they do that. Being power hitters, they both strike out a fair amount of the time. They also have a great work ethic. Ryan maybe even tried a little too hard earlier in his career, but over time he’s learned not to be quite as hard on himself. He’s a perfectionist with everything he does, but that only goes so far in baseball because there’s so much failure involved in the game. You can be extremely diligent in your work ethic, but you still have to accept things for what they are.
DL: One of the players you’re working with here in Reading is Mike Costanzo. What does he need to do to reach his potential?
GG: The biggest thing for him is pitch selection–he chases too many pitches out of the zone. What he can do to improve that part of his game is to simply focus as much as he can, but it’s also a matter of getting more at-bats. How many does he have since he signed? Maybe 700 or so? He’s also moved fairly quickly, so he hasn’t had two years in a row at the same level. There’s no substitute for experience. Maybe he’s guilty of trying to pull the ball a little too much, but it’s mostly a matter of experience and getting at-bats.
DL: Who did you learn the most from during your days as a player?
GG: A lot of people, but one guy who comes to mind is Gary Sutherland. I was fortunate enough to play with Gary in Triple-A, and I learned a lot from him. He had played for Gene Mauch, who was a stickler about everything, and he taught me about mental concentration and the approach of the game; little things like knowing how many pitches a guy had thrown to the previous batter, where the defense was playing–things like that. You have to remember that when I played, there weren’t as many coaches as we have now, so you learned a lot more on your own. There were other guys, too. I played with people like Doug Rader and Lee May, who were very helpful. And I also played with Pete Rose for four or five years. Listening to Pete talking about hitting is a great education. The intensity he had about not giving away at-bats was incredible. He obviously had great hand-eye coordination, but he also worked really hard at what he did. That’s what it takes.
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