Coaching Tweaks | The Process Report

Coaching Tweaks

To state the obvious: This is not a defense of Derek Shelton or Jim Hickey. I’m neither qualified nor comfortable in analyzing their performances.

Here’s a question: What do hitting and pitching coaches do? The answers may vary, but we can probably drill the job down to three basic responsibilities. Coaches have to prepare players for the night’s game, instruct them on mechanical tweaks, and counsel them on success or failure. In a sense, coaches are utility players. They have to carry many gloves and prepare for anything. During the course of a day, their version of a game, they may take two or three different positions. Weighing these tasks is a subjective act, but as outsiders, we probably notice the instructing part more than the other two aspects combined.

There’s no easy way to figure out if a player is prepared or whether he’s in a good mental state. What you can see, even from a single at-bat, is a surface-level change in stance or swing mechanics. Theories are then formulated, and from there we can judge the tweaks based on results. It gives us tangible proof of the coach’s work. Because of that we have a perverted view of the coach’s job and impact. The risk that comes with changing a player’s mechanics is overlooked in favor of known activity; if a player suffers through a prolonged slump without changing something, anything, then it must mean the coach isn’t doing his job.

What we forget is that a tweak can make things worse. Think about Chad Orvella. When Orvella came to the Rays, he was a collegiate shortstop. They threw him on the mound and he ascended to the majors quickly, thanks to a low-to-mid-90s fastball and trapdoor changeup. Orvella’s greenness on the mound did lead to some problems. He was slow to the plate and slower in between pitches. The Rays tried speeding him up. It didn’t work. Once the closer-of-the-future, Orvella washed out of the system (and professional baseball) with one career big-league save.

There are cases where the tweaks work. Take Fernando Rodney and John Jaso this season. Both changed facets of their mechanics. Both have improved as a result. It’s enough to wonder what other marginal players could improve with a little tweaking. But it brings into question the equilibrium between tweaking and letting players be themselves. So much of baseball is muscle memory and tactic knowledge that fudging with the most basic part can create an avalanche effect, where the player is consumed with thoughts about his mechanics. W. Timothy Gallwey wrote in The Inner Game of Tennis, “It’s not that I don’t know what to do, it’s that I don’t do what I know!”

At the risk of sounding like an armchair psychologist, Luke Scott has been interesting to observe. During his hitless slump earlier in the season, I talked to someone who used to have Scott in his organization. The person told me that Scott is one of the streakiest hitters in the game because he’s emotional and gets down on himself during the bad times. Even during the good times, Scott can be seen expressing displeasure after a swing. On the swing that broke Scott’s slump, he showed disgust despite the end-result being a home run.

Scott’s strategy has worked out fine. He’s had a lengthy big-league career with more highs than lows. Were he an unproven player, though, you wonder if an organization would try to break him of his habits. Rick Peterson had a great quote in an older Baseball Digest where he said, paraphrasing, “If you’re thinking about mechanics on the mound, then let me know so I can get someone in there who doesn’t.” If you’re thinking about whether your front shoulder is flying open when in the box, you probably aren’t going to succeed. Overcoming these obstacles is part of the developmental process and part of why making changes in-season is so difficult.

So how much should a coach tinker? It depends. We view mechanical changes in isolation when we should consider the entire picture. Sometimes, a coach isn’t making a fix because the player is performing, or because the player’s performance will worsen after the tweak. Other times, it’s because the tweak is more style than substance. Coaches have to rely on their feel and experience to handle 12-plus players a season, all with varying personalities. As difficult as hitting and pitching are, coaching is just as hard.

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