A caller to Monday's "Nationals Talk Live" named Ted felt he had deduced the problem with Washington's struggling offense. It must be the hitting coach.
Ted made the point that in most businesses, if you had hired someone to head a particular department, and that department had seen a drop-off in efficiency and production, usually that department head would be let go. Well, I think most of us know that baseball isn't really like any other business. And, as I mentioned to Ted on the radio, the position of hitting coach is a relatively new innovation in the game.
In their entire history, the Washington Senators never had a designated hitting coach. (To clarify a little bit, by "designated" hitting coach, I mean a guy who was hired to work with the hitters as his primary responsibility. Over the years a lot of big league coaches would make suggestions to hitters, but they were kind of all-purpose guys, not real batting specialists.) Sure, when Ted Williams arrived on the scene in 1969 he spent a lot of time working with hitters. Some - Eddie Brinkman, Hank Allen and Frank Howard - he helped a lot. Some others he helped a little and some were simply beyond redemption. Inasmuch as 1971 was 40 years ago - barely a blip on a timeline - I decided to see how many of the then-24 clubs had designated hitting coaches.
The answer: Five of the 24 teams had designated hitting coaches. Two in the National League (Bill Virdon with Pittsburgh and Larry Doby with the Expos) and three in the American League (Charlie Lau with the Royals, Pete Reiser with the Angels and Harvey Kuenn with Milwaukee). At year's end, the Pirates had won the World Series, and finished a point behind St. Louis in team batting average. The Expos had finished eighth in hitting and lost 90 games. In the AL, all three teams with hitting coaches finished out of the money, and only the Royals, at .250, finished ahead of the league's average batting average of .247.
Ten years later in 1981, there were 26 teams, and 12 of them had designated hitting coaches. Interestingly, the Pirates, who'd had one 10 years earlier, went without one in '81. Yet, here we are, just 30 years ago, and less than half of the big league clubs had true hitting coaches, based on their titles in team media guides.
Obviously, every team has a hitting coach now, and there's a perception that a hitting coach can be all things to all hitters. That's never been true, nor is it true that a hitter necessarily buys into what a specific hitting coach is selling. When you think of the great hitting coaches - names that invariably come up whenever the subject is broached - you tend to always hear names like Lau or Walt Hriniak, two ex-catchers who were terrible hitters as players. Don Mattingly used to praise Mickey Vernon, the ex-Senators' batting champ who worked in the Yankees' organization for years. Vernon told me himself that he never did anything to alter Mattingly's approach, which may be why Mattingly had so much respect for him.
I'm no expert on hitting, but I do know from speaking with Nats players that Rick Eckstein works exceptionally hard at his job. His intensity is legendary. But like anyone who's ever taught a class knows, some kids get it, some kids don't and some kids are simply bad at retaining the information on a daily basis. Fans in Baltimore screamed for Terry Crowley's head over the past few years when the Orioles struggled to score, but the players always stood by him. The Orioles replaced him this year with Jim Presley, but when Crowley stepped in temporarily as bullpen coach, many of his past pupils once again went to him for advice. Is it merely a coincidence that Nick Markakis' stroke returned after a consult with Crowley? Maybe, maybe not.
The point of this exercise is simple: You can have the greatest hitting coach on the planet and your players may still have problems putting the ball in play. Yesterday's caller Ted said it sounded like a case could be made for not having a hitting coach at all. That might be so.
The real bottom line, though, is this: You can't simply blame the messenger every time. Unless your hitting coach is chronically late, distracted or simply not getting along with the players - clearly not the case in Washington - it's virtually pointless to make him the scapegoat.