Jose Bautista’s overnight transformation from fifth outfielder to superstar stemmed from a small timing change, a modest tweak that jumpstarted his career and put a face on the potential of making an adjustment. For better or worse, his wild and unexpected success has inspired fans around the league to hope that their flawed but talented slugger is just one mechanical tweak from pulling a Bautista. Quick-fixes are rare, however. Even when a slumping hitter has unusual mechanics — a hitch, an awkward stance, etc. — the irregularity isn’t necessarily related to the player’s struggles, and might actually function as a vital part of what made him so successful in the past.
At the minor league level, organizations are rightly wary of fixing what isn’t broken, and mechanical overhauls are not taken lightly. Instead, many of the important adjustments teams propose to their players are mental or approach-based changes. Like any aspect of player development, coherent communication is key. With daily access to hitting coaches and roving instructors, a minor league player has plenty of resources available to help him improve his game. From the front office’s perspective, the most important aspect of a successful adjustment is getting the player to hear the right words from the right people. An adjustment at the plate requires a coherent organizational plan and successful implementation must come from sources the player trusts, in language the player can relate to and understand.
There’s no set pattern for developing a hitter or guiding a slumping young player through his problems. Every organization has a different philosophy on when, how, and who should ultimately implement an adjustment when it needs to be made. For those working in player development, it’s important to not only convey a clear message when something needs fixing, but also to tailor the message to suit the particular player.
For Jeff Manto, a big league veteran and the current Director of Minor League Hitters in Baltimore, the right path to successfully implementing an adjustment depends on several factors. One important consideration is age and level: “At short-season ball, you aren’t really making physical changes. You make sure everyone stays in good spirits, but you don’t really mess around with hitting mechanics.” Even for players in affiliates higher up the chain, Manto says that mechanical tweaks aren’t always needed: “These guys are already good hitters with what they’ve been doing,” he says, noting that unorthodox mechanics aren’t necessarily incorrect and that struggling players often need a mental refresh more than a physical adjustment.
Another challenge is ensuring that developmental goals stay realistic and measurable, particularly if a struggling player needs a confidence boost along with new instruction. To this end, Manto tries to help players separate their developmental objectives from the results on the field: “Sometimes a player just needs to accept that he’s not feeling good. And when that’s happening, we try to get him to take 25-30 at bats, and just have a plan.” The specific plan depends on the player in question, but the idea is more nuanced than a pat on the back and a ‘go get ‘em’ from the manager. “We don’t want them thinking about hits at that point,” Manto says. “For one guy, maybe we want him to get deep in counts. Or to really focus on swinging at certain pitches. We’ve found that after about 10-15 at-bats, the pressure (of an extended slump) wears off and guys start focusing on just having a good at bat.”
One of the more overlooked elements in making an adjustment is the implementation of a particular plan: a club can have all of the expertise in the world and it won’t matter if they can’t effectively communicate with their players. For Carter Hawkins, the Director of Player Development for the Cleveland Indians, getting the right people to say the right words is crucial, and coaches have a particularly important role: “from an implementation standpoint, our coaches are the only staff members constantly with a player, so it’s beneficial to have them as the point person in any plan.” Oftentimes though, a specific mechanical or mental tweak is the collective brainchild of several members of the organization, and their opinions and voices are included as well. “We try to collaborate as much as possible, and make sure each person is heard,” Hawkins says. “And that absolutely includes the player’s voice.” That last point is critical: for a player to get the most out of an adjustment, he needs to be fully invested in the changes at hand, and part of his responsibility is ensuring that his perspective remains a part of the conversation.
As always, finding the specific language to use with a player is necessary. “Figuring out what makes a player progress towards his goals is much easier said than done,” Hawkins says. “It’s often a result of hours of quality work and effective communication between a player and coach.” Though he doesn’t mention him by name, it’s telling that Hawkins works in the same organization as pitching coach Mickey Callaway, who traveled to Driveline Baseball in Seattle over the off-season to better understand Trevor Bauer’s unique workout regimen. At bottom, coaches face many of the same issues whether they're instructing players in pitching, hitting, catching, or fielding: Communication and tailoring the message to the individual are key. Coaches like Callaway, who make the extra effort to relate with the specific needs and vernaculars of their players, benefit not only from enhancing their ability to communicate but also by building trust and fostering a beneficial player-mentor relationship.
Communication is important in every situation and some players, particularly those who don’t speak much English, come with additional challenges. Most organizations employ at least one bilingual coach at each of their minor league affiliates, and rely on them to translate information into Spanish. Like Hawkins, Manto trusts his coaching staffs: “we think they can get the point across,” he says, although he admits that a language barrier can obstruct some of the intricacies of instruction. “Sometimes it just comes down to playing baseball charades in the clubhouse a little bit.”
While the Indians and Orioles rely on their coaches for implementation, other teams like to work through their roving instructors, and prefer to have their minor league coaches maintain rather than adjust a player’s swing and approach. When asked about dealing with players in season-long slumps, one hitting instructor ran through a few mechanical checkpoints but said that his job was mostly to “stay positive,” adding that his organization preferred a more top-down approach to big changes. “I don’t want to be the guy who fucks him up,” he says with a shrug.
One surprising constant was that most organizations don’t seem to have different developmental approaches for their blue chip prospects than they do for everyone else. “The beautiful thing about player development is that we don’t really know how good a player can be,” Hawkins says. “We just try to make the player better than he was the day before.” He also notes that even lower ceiling players can be an adjustment or two from making a breakthrough: “Often times there is one thought or cue that can help a player either align his body mechanically or prepare himself mentally.” Putting big prospects in a different bucket from everyone else can only stunt potential development and would theoretically limit a club’s ability to get the most out of their system.
For many in the game, the ability to coax every ounce of ability out of lower ceiling players is a sign of a healthy organization. Hawkins and others in player development roles adhere to this notion and position themselves to get the most out of all of their players, lest they be the team to give away the next breakout hitter. “We try to individualize as much possible,” Hawkins says when I ask if the Indians treat their high-ceiling players differently. Brian Hunter, the hitting instructor for Seattle’s Short Season affiliate in Everett, echoed Hawkins’s thoughts on working with high-ceiling players. A player’s ultimate potential “doesn’t matter to me,” Hunter says. “As a hitting coach, I have a job to make every one of these players better. Everybody’s here because they have a lot of talent, and if I see guys who need a tweak, then I’ll make a suggestion.”
Manto confirms that the process for making an adjustment doesn’t vary much according to a player’s ultimate ceiling, though he acknowledges the gravity of working with premier assets: “when you’re making changes with (a big prospect) one thing you have to make sure is you better be right. You better have a reason why you’re doing this and you better nail the adjustment. You don’t make big changes just because a guy is struggling.” At the end of the day though, players are players. Says Hawkins: “The ultimate process remains consistent (for all players)— try to make the best decisions and create the best plans we can using as many resources and communicating as effectively as possible.”
One of the biggest impediments to improvement lies not in the athleticism necessary to adjust a grooved swing or alter ingrained habits, but in communication. Whether a proposed tweak is mechanical or mental in nature, any alteration must be functionally sound and also presented in such a way that a player can understand what is being asked of him. Every team employs dozens of coaches and instructors who understand hitting but that knowledge is only valuable if it rests in the brains of those who can share their wisdom. It’s impossible to determine the precise value of a coach flexible enough to frame instruction effectively for a diverse body of players, but the people who can adapt their knowledge and messages to fit the needs of on-field personnel give their clubs an enormous advantage. Their work separates premier player development organizations from the teams that just can’t seem to get the most out of their top prospects.
Thank you for reading
This is a free article. If you enjoyed it, consider subscribing to Baseball Prospectus. Subscriptions support ongoing public baseball research and analysis in an increasingly proprietary environment.Subscribe now