HJ-ED-DHJHerald Journal Columns
July 30, 2006

Good hitting not a requirement to be a major league hitting coach

By Matt Kane

When the New York Mets officially named Howard Johnson as their hitting coach July 13, I thought to myself, ‘OK, Johnson was a pretty good offensive player during his time in the big leagues, so he sounds like a guy who will make a good hitting coach.’

One would think that a guy like HoJo, who knocked out 228 home runs in his career and had a season for the ages when he batted .287, hit 26 home runs and drove in 101 RBIs for the Mets in 1989, would know something about hitting. The Mets obviously do, and that’s why they hired them.

Johnson’s name should definitely be recognizable for anybody who watched baseball back in the 1980s and ‘90s, but you might be surprised at the names around the rest of the league that are followed by the title of “hitting coach” or “batting coach.”

One might think former offensive players with long, productive major league careers would fill those coaching positions, and that is the case for some teams — Mickey Hatcher holds the position for the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim; Terry Pendelton for the Atlanta Braves; Hal McRae for the St. Louis Cardinals; Bill Mueller for the Los Angeles Dodgers; Lenny Harris for the Washington Nationals; and Dave Magadan for the Boston Red Sox — but, surprisingly, many of the names of today’s hitting coaches might be foreign to even an avid baseball fan.

Have you ever heard of Ty Van Burkleo, Jeff Pentland, Rudy Jaramillo, Alan Cockrell or Kevin Long? Me neither. But they are in fact major league hitting coaches for the Oakland Athletics, Seattle Mariners, Texas Rangers, Colorado Rockies, and New York Yankees, respectively.

If you haven’t heard of them, maybe that’s because they are doing their jobs well, keeping their names off the tongues of the critics.

Long, and Pentland have their two teams in the top four in the majors for team average. The Yankees are second in batting with a .286 average, and Pentland’s Mariners are fourth with a .279 average. (Statistics are through Thursday’s games.)

Long knows something about hitting for a good average. He batted .313 his rookie season in baseball. . .in the Northwest League, that is. Long, a 31st-round draft pick by the Royals in 1989, never made it to the big leagues. He played minor league ball in the Royals’ system through 1996, and then coached in the minors before joining the Yankees big league staff at the start of this season.

Like Long, Pentland never appeared in a Major League Baseball game. He played in the Padres system from 1969 to 1971, and batted .302 while playing at Salt Lake (AAA) under Don Zimmer. Apparently, Pentland’s glove was of more value than his bat. He saw time at first base, outfield, pitcher and catcher, despite being a left-handed thrower.

As a hitting coach, Pentland is highly thought of. While with the Chicago Cubs, he helped sculpt Sammy Sosa into one of the most prolific power hitters in the game.

Pentland has his Mariners making the most contact. They’ve struck out the least, having fanned only 507 times in 3,484 at-bats. The biggest whiffers are the Florida Marlins, whose batters are coached by Jim Presley.

If you are a fan of power numbers, Brook Jacoby, of the Cincinnati Reds, and Jim Skaalon, of the Milwaukee Brewers, share the spot as your favorite hitting coach.

The Reds and Brewers have both hit 140 home runs.

Combined, Jacoby and Skaalen hit 120 home runs, all of them off Jacoby’s bat.

Jacoby’s best power season was in 1987 when he hit 32 with the Indians. Skaalen hit 15 home runs and batted .246 over three seasons in the Oriole’s minor league system.

From the surface, it may not make sense that guys who didn’t hit well when they were players are coaching hitting in Major League Baseball, but, in looking deeper, it may make sense after all.

Since these guys were not natural hitters, they had to receive coaching, themselves, so they were taught different techniques.

Players who were always good hitters, didn’t need as much coaching, and, thus, they were never taught the details of hitting a baseball.

In his book “Kent Hrbek: Tales from the Minnesota Twins Dugout,” Kent Hrbek touched on the topic of coaching.

“I think I would be lousy at it,” he said. “For as long as I can remember, I could hit. I never really had to work at it.”

All those hitting coaches we’ve barely heard of probably did have to work at their hitting when they played. And now they are passing on the lessons they learned to today’s major league hitters.

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