The Mets’ Wally Problem

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There was a mini-storm regarding the Mets decision to send Ike Davis down to Triple A Las Vegas this week not because they did it (they had to); and not because Davis complained about it publicly (it would take an audacity unmeasurable with current available tools for him to do so), but because Las Vegas manager Wally Backman went on WFAN with Mike Francesa on Monday and expressed his opinion as to what’s wrong with Davis and what he’s planning to do to fix it.

Some in the Mets organization (presumably those who have been working with Davis—futilely) were offended that Backman so openly went against what they’ve been doing with the first baseman even though what they’ve been doing has yielded a hitter with home run champion potential batting .161 with 4 homers in 207 plate appearances in 2013. This minor dustup has exacerbated the problem the Mets have as they endure a 2013 season in which they’re likely to lose 95 games and are preparing to use the freed up money from the contract expirations of Johan Santana and Jason Bay to acquire name free agents to make a move in 2014. Any veteran acquisitions along the lines of Shin-Soo Choo and/or Jacoby Ellsbury would be done to add to David Wright, Matt Harvey, Zack Wheeler, Daniel Murphy, Jonathon Niese and Bobby Parnell. Travis d’Arnaud is also on the way.

Is Davis part of the future? He’s going to have to be right now because he has no trade value and the team doesn’t have a ready-made first baseman to replace him. The only choice they currently have is to get Davis straight and that led to the demotion to Triple A.

The Backman comments came from a miscommunication or Backman simply ignoring what he was told when it came to what was going to be with Davis. The Mets are no longer a club where the major league staff will say and do one thing and the minor league staff will say and do another. There’s not a lack of cohesion from the lowest levels of the minor leagues and going step-by-step to different levels with a multitude of hitting and pitching coaches imparting diametrically opposed theories to clog the heads of the youngsters so they don’t know what’s what when they go from one place to the other as they listen to everyone. For better or worse, the way Dave Hudgens teaches hitting at the big league level is how hitting is to be taught all the way through the organization. And that’s where the disconnect came with Backman.

The front office and Backman had different ideas as to what was going to occur with Davis in Triple A. The Mets major league front office and on-field staff wanted Davis to go to Las Vegas and not worry about media attention, endless questions as to what’s wrong and what he would do in the event that he was demoted, and the constant tweaking to his batting stance and approach to the tune of having a different one from game-to-game and at bat-to-at bat. Backman was under the impression that the Mets were sending Davis down to be “fixed” and that he was the one to do it.

The only way to determine who’s right and who’s wrong here is whether it works because there’s no “right” or “wrong.” If Backman sits Davis down and gets into an old-school “your head is getting in the way of your abilities” and Davis starts hitting, then Backman will have been “right.” If it was a breather he needed to get away from the constant scrutiny, then the front office will have been “right.” Or everyone will have been “right.” Or everyone will have been “wrong.” It might just come down to Davis himself.

Regardless, it’s these types of territorial battles that get in the way of actually developing and correcting players and it’s precisely what the Mets were trying to get away from when they brought Sandy Alderson onboard as GM.

As for Backman and his hopes to manage the Mets one day, it’s still up in the air and unlikely. Reports have surfaced that there is no chance that Alderson will ever hire Backman. That doesn’t mean that ownership won’t overrule Alderson, but given the way Alderson has done essentially whatever he’s wanted since taking over, they probably won’t deviate now just as they’re about to get better. Fred and Jeff Wilpon accepted that the entire organization needed to be rebuilt without the desperation that led to the contracts such as the one Bay signed. They’re taking the hits and dealing with the fallout of the past three years looking forward to the farm system and loosened purse strings building a sustainable success. They’re not going to undercut him and force Backman on him even if Terry Collins is dismissed after the season.

Much like Collins can’t be blamed for the current state of the Mets big league product, nor is it as certain as those in the media and fanbase portray it that Backman is the answer to all the Mets’ problems. As much of a competitor and baseball rat that Backman is, he has had off-field issues and how he handles the day-to-day questioning and pressure he’ll face as a manager in New York with expectations hovering over him has the potential to result in a Billy Martin-style wave of self-destructiveness. Placating the fans and Backman-supporters in the media would bring a brief bout of happiness and good press that would disappear within a month if the team continued to play under Backman as they did under Collins. Or he might be just what they need. There’s no way of knowing.

Backman has patiently bided his time and rebuilt his image after the embarrassing hiring and immediate firing as manager of the Diamondbacks after he didn’t inform them of his DUI and financial problems during the interview. He’s worked his way up through the Mets organization managing from rung-to-rung and is right below the spot he truly and openly wants. One of Backman’s strengths is also a weakness: he has no pretense. He wants the Mets job and doesn’t care who knows it. The failure to adequately play politics has alienated him with many in the organization who are tired of looking over their shoulder at a popular and potentially good manager who is passive aggressively campaigning for the managerial position. Other minor league managers and bench coaches want managerial jobs, but are more adept at knowing their place and skillfully putting up a front of loyalty and humility. That’s not Backman. Backman is, “You’re goddamn right I could do a great job as manager.” It won’t endear him to people in the organization who don’t want to know that’s the opinion of their Triple A manager.

If the Mets continue on the trajectory they’re currently on, they cannot possibly bring Collins—in the final year of his contract—back for 2014 when they’re seriously intent on jumping into the fringes of contention if not outright challenging for the division title next year. They could roll the dice on Backman; they could promote one of their own coaches Tim Teufel or Bob Geren; they could bring in an available and competent veteran manager like Jim Tracy; or they could hire another club’s bench coach who’s waiting for a shot like Dave Martinez.

What I believe will happen, though, is this: The Angels are in worse shape than the Mets with a massive payroll and expectations, nine games under .500, going nowhere and in rampant disarray. Angels owner Arte Moreno will not sit quietly after spending all of this money to make the Angels into a World Series contender and being rewarded with a team closer to the woeful Astros than the first place A’s. But manager Mike Scioscia has a contract through 2018 and Moreno only recently hired GM Jerry Dipoto. Scioscia and Dipoto are not on the same page and Scioscia’s style clearly isn’t working anymore with the type of team that Dipoto and Moreno have handed him. Another wrench in making a change is that the Dodgers are likely to be looking for a new manager and Scioscia is a popular former Dodger who is precisely what their fans want and their players need. The last thing Moreno will want to see is Scioscia picking up and going to the Dodgers days after he’s fired from the Angels.

Here’s the solution: Trade Scioscia to the Mets.

If the Mets are looking for a new manager and a name manager, they’d have to give someone established with Scioscia’s resume a 4-5 year deal anyway. Scioscia is already signed through 2018 with an opt-out after 2015. He’d relish the opportunity to enter a new clubhouse in a new city with a load of young talent and none of the drama and onerous financial obligations with nonexistent communication between the front office and the manager that he’s facing in Anaheim. Moreno wouldn’t have to worry about the back of the Los Angeles newspapers screaming about what a great job Scioscia’s doing with the Dodgers as the Angels face an uncertain future and significant retooling. Sending him across the country and getting out from under the contract while acquiring a couple of mediocre minor leaguers to justify it would fill everyone’s needs simultaneously.

Ironically, it was Scioscia who took over as fulltime Angels manager in 2000 after Collins had been fired at mid-season the year before and replaced on an interim basis by Joe Maddon. It could happen again with the Mets and they can only hope that the extended run of success that the Angels enjoyed with Scioscia’s steady leadership is replicated in New York.

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Los Angeles Angels: 2013 Book Excerpt

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The Los Angels Angels have gotten off to a horrific start. Their season, so far, has only been salvaged from an ever worse status by winning two of three against the woeful Astros. They were lucky to win those. What follows is an excerpt of my recently published book Paul Lebowitz’s 2013 Baseball Guide regarding one of the biggest problems the Angels have: a lack of continuity between manager Mike Scioscia and GM Jerry Dipoto.

I’m not going to say that everything in the book is as eerily accurate as this, but at the very least, it’s not a computer generated spitting out of numbers masking its creator with a façade of false expertise; nor is it randomness based on regurgitated stuff I heard elsewhere and pushed on the reader with an underlying and poorly hidden agenda. To be brutally honest, most of the stuff you see from bloggers, self-proclaimed “experts,” and the mainstream media is trash because they don’t know anything and are desperately trying to hide that fact through degrees, supposed credentials, obnoxious pomposity, and formulas that perhaps five people in the world truly understand.

My book has predictions, projections, fantasy picks and breakout candidates based on logic, reason and assessment. There are also players vital statistics and contract status for every key member of the organization. The full season predicted standings can be found here.

What follows is the assessments section on the Angels GM and manager and the pre-season prediction that was written well before the start of the season.

Jerry Dipoto—General Manager

Contract status: Signed through 2014 with club options for 2015 and 2016

When Dipoto took the job, it’s doubtful that he had it in mind that he would: A) be a checkbook GM; and B) would be usurping the longtime manager and most powerful voice in the organization as to the construction of the roster, Mike Scioscia.

Dipoto paid his dues as a baseball executive working in the front offices for the Red Sox, Rockies and Diamondbacks before serving as the interim GM in 2010 when Diamondbacks GM Josh Byrnes was fired and then moved back into an assistant role when Kevin Towers was hired as the permanent replacement. It was Dipoto’s trades of Dan Haren and Edwin Jackson at mid-season that played a large role in the Diamondbacks’ 2011 division title. Towers got the credit for the meal, but Dipoto brought in some of the ingredients and set the table.

The Angels were a disappointment in 2012 and it’s hard to know how much blame has to go to the GM. Did he want to sign Albert Pujols to that contract? Did he want to put a team that was so diametrically opposed to what the Angels have been and was ill-suited to the strategies and desires of the manager? Did he want the manager to begin with?

With everything the Angels have done since firing Tony Reagins as GM, there’s been a sense of collecting names that can’t be criticized from the outside, but don’t work as a cohesive unit when put into practice. The Angels never pursued the Pujols-type of player. In years past, they targeted what they wanted and made a quick strike to get them. There was a positive atmosphere and it was widely known that Scioscia was in command, the players were treated well, everything was kept in-house, and they won.

That’s gone. Pujols’s acquisition changed the template and it fits neither Dipoto or Scioscia. They’re still working together not as two men on the same page but as if Moreno told them that they’re two smart baseball men and they need to work it out.

Those things rarely get worked out.

This past winter it continued. Did Dipoto want to sign Josh Hamilton to a 5-year, $125 million contract, take him out of his comfort zone in Texas and put him in California with the requisite pressure and underlying dysfunction that hasn’t been repaired?

There’s a legitimate question as to who’s in charge with the Angels. In the days of Bill Stoneman as GM and Scioscia as manager, they worked hand-in-hand and all were on the same page. Now it appears as if the stat savvy Dipoto, who was brought up as an executive in situations where money was either secondary or tight, has become the type of GM who is a figurehead and spending money because the owner is telling him to spend money. His other acquisitions—Joe Blanton, Jason Vargas, Ryan Madson—are not slam dunks; nor are they the types of pitchers the Angels have historically pursued.

Is Dipoto in charge? Is this the kind of team he envisioned putting together when he got his opportunity to be a GM? It doesn’t look like it.

Mike Scioscia—Manager

Contract status: Signed through 2018

Scioscia, in the waning days of the 2012 season, had a look on his face like he wanted to be fired. It’s not easy for a man who was in such unwavering command to have his authority stripped from him and parceled to a GM he doesn’t know and thinks differently as to the most effective way to manage a game. That power also shifted to the owner who once treated Scioscia with pure trust and is now having a significant say in the construction of the club not based on what the manager wants and thinks he can win with, but what has sparked a showbiz atmosphere and a TV contract trumping winning.

These are not things that interested the pitching/bullpen/speed/defense/inside game-preferring manager.

Scioscia was unhappy when his longtime hitting coach Mickey Hatcher was fired. The blame for that fell to Pujols. As respected a teammate Pujols is said to be and as much as former Cardinals’ manager Tony LaRussa worships him, I have to wonder how much of LaRussa’s crediting Pujols for his leadership abilities was a placating of the player and the golden rule (whoever has the gold makes the rules). It behooves  the manager of a megastar player to get that player on his side, but that was never a part of Scioscia’s job description. His old-school sensibilities went back to the days before guaranteed long-term contracts and players having the ability to dictate who the coaches are. In Scioscia’s world it’s, “I’m the manager. That’s why.” And Pujols is a player who can resist that style of dictatorship.

The 2012 team was not a Scioscia-style team. They still played good defense, stole bases and bunted, but the tenor was different. The all-for-one dynamic was gone and this is the risk taken when buying mercenaries who don’t fit in to what the manager wants to do.

Scioscia is signed through 2018, but his time with the Angels is coming to a close. It would be better for all parties to split and move on. Dipoto would be free to bring in a manager he prefers (if he’s allowed to), and Scioscia can get another job elsewhere in a situation that more fits his style.

PREDICTION

This season has disaster written all over it. The Angels have abandoned the dignified template they adhered to for so long and chose to take the tack of purchasing mercenaries thinking that the ends—a huge TV contract; the extra Wild Card; buzz—would justify the means. They’ve lost the plot and shunned the reason why the Angels were a consideration for every free agent not because they paid the most or because they won. That was, in part, important, but the Angels organization was respected because the problems were kept in-house and there was uncommon stability in the front office and field staff.

That’s gone.

The second they signed Pujols, that ended. Pujols is not a prototypical troublemaking diva, but if he’s unhappy, he has a way of letting everyone know it. The first salvo against Scioscia to indicate who was really running things now was the hiring of Dipoto. Pujols’s displeasure with Hatcher and the hitting coach’s firing was the second. As the 2012 season moved along, there was speculation that Scioscia would be out as manager because he wanted out and Dipoto wanted him out. It didn’t happen and it was another mistake in a litany of them. The two don’t believe the same things when it comes to strategy and the manager who liked to push the envelope offensively with speed and inside baseball now has no choice but to sit back and wait for the home run. The manager who wanted pitchers who gutted their way through games and gave innings and high pitch counts regardless of what a few bad innings did to their ERAs has been compromised with the injury-prone and pending free agents. The bullpen is not good.

This is not a Scioscia team, but he’s still managing it because they wouldn’t fire him and he didn’t resign.

That problem will be rectified—for him anyway—when he’s fired by May. He’ll take some time off, relax and wait for another job opening. Perhaps he’ll write a book about what went wrong. Pujols will lobby for Tony LaRussa and perhaps his former manager, bored in retirement, will be willing to come back on a short-term deal to save the day. But this team is not good enough for LaRussa to save the day even if he does choose to jump in, take Moreno’s money over the objections of the GM and try to steer the ship in the right direction. LaRussa is the same kind of manager as Sciosica only he’ll have the benefit of the tag, “Pujols Approved” on the inside of his jersey.

Hamilton was a mistake. The pitching is shaky from top-to-bottom. They’re overpaid and don’t appear to like each other very much.

These are not the Angels of a decade ago and this will go down as the latest example of collecting stars and expecting them to join together in harmony just because they’re stars.

It won’t work.

Paul Lebowitz’s 2013 Baseball Guide is now available on Amazon.com, Smashwords, BN and Lulu. Check it out and read a sample.

2013 Book Cover 3

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American League West—2012 Present and 2013 Future

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I examined the AL East here and the AL Central here.

Now let’s look at the AL West

Texas Rangers

The Rangers are heading for the playoffs again and are a legitimate threat to win the World Series. The one question they have is in the same area that cost them the World Series last year, the closer. Historically, Joe Nathan is good during the regular season and struggles during the playoffs, especially against the Yankees.

The roster has playoff experience; the hitters can mash; Josh Hamilton will want to have a big post-season to increase his paycheck as a free agent; their starting pitchers aren’t expecting to be pulled because of an arbitrary pitch count and have the strikeout capability to get out of trouble and pitch confidently with a great defense behind them.

Whether they win the World Series or not, the upcoming off-season could be one of transition for the Rangers. In addition to Hamilton being a free agent, so are Mike Napoli, Mike Adams, and Ryan Dempster. This can be seen as a negative, but it’s also a positive. They have flexibility to do a great many things, the nerve to follow through on them, and the farm system to make it possible.

There’s been talk that they might be willing to trade Elvis Andrus to make room for Jurickson Profar, but I think it’s more likely that they’ll entertain trade offers for Ian Kinsler, play Profar at second base, and try to get Michael Young’s contract off the books in the deal. They’ve had interest in Ike Davis in the past and the Mets are going to be willing to make drastic moves.

They won’t break the bank for Adams and they have starting pitching to let Dempster go. They’ll set a price for Napoli and if another team surpasses it, will let him leave. I think he ultimately stays.

That leaves Hamilton.

The Rangers are not going to give him $200 million. I wouldn’t expect them to want to give him $140 million, nor would they like to commit to him for 6-8 years. The question becomes: Will there be a team that’s willing to pay Hamilton anything close to his asking price?

I don’t know. I certainly wouldn’t. The teams with the money—the Yankees, Red Sox, Dodgers, Phillies, Cubs—either don’t need Hamilton at that price or wouldn’t risk putting him in their towns with his history of substance abuse problems.

The Tigers have been mentioned, but I don’t see that either.

What then?

He won’t get 8 years, but I can see the Rangers going to 5 with an easily reachable set of options if he’s clean off the field and healthy on it to make it a 7-8 year deal. The Rangers have other choices such as B.J. Upton or Shane Victorino or by making a trade. Hamilton doesn’t.

Oakland Athletics

The A’s accumulated a lot of young talent last off-season as they cleared out Trevor Cahill, Gio Gonzalez, and Andrew Bailey—that was known. But no one could’ve predicted that their young pitching would come so far so fast; that Yoenis Cespedes would be the impact bat he’s been; that Josh Reddick would become a 30 homer man; or that they’d be on the cusp of making the playoffs.

The financial and ballpark problems that made it necessary for the A’s to restart their rebuild and make those trades are still present. They need a new ballpark and don’t have a lot of money to spend to bring in players; in spite of their good play, they’re still only 12th in the American League in attendance. With that young pitching and the concession when they hired Bob Melvin to replace the overmatched Bob Geren that not just anyone can manage a big league team and be successful, they have the talent to be at least respectable and possibly very good for years to come.

Stephen Drew and Brandon McCarthy are free agents at the end of the season, but both have a good chance to stay with the A’s.

Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim

They have a chance to salvage 2012 and make it to the Wild Card play in game. With a veteran team loaded with starting pitching and power bats, once they’re in the playoffs they’re a threat.

That doesn’t gloss over the management issues that aren’t going to go away.

Mike Scioscia is not the right manager for a team loaded with power hitting stars. He wants to hit and run, play defense, and rely on his pitching. The front office has a new, stat-based, “my manager will take orders” GM Jerry Dipoto, and an owner Arte Moreno who may be tired of making the playoffs just about every year and losing in large part because of his manager’s stubbornness in doing things his way in spite of talent and reality.

Scioscia is signed through 2018 with an opt-out after 2015, but if he wants to leave or they want to fire him, that’s what will happen. It’s not easy to function when one’s power is essentially taken away and that’s what happened with Scioscia. There’s been talk that he’d be a possible candidate to take over for Bobby Valentine with the Red Sox, but since the Red Sox are going back to their own stat-based roots and have publicly said that Bill James will take a larger role in putting their team together, Scioscia would be in the same situation in Boston that he’s in with the Angels. Forget it.

I have a hard time seeing Scioscia managing the Angels next season no matter what happens this season.

On the field, they owe Vernon Wells $42 million through 2014; Torii Hunter’s contract is expiring; they have a team option on Dan Haren; and Zack Greinke is a free agent.

The Angels will look markedly different in 2013, probably with a new manager who’s more in tune with strategies that fit the roster and what the front office wants.

Seattle Mariners

Getting rid of Ichiro Suzuki was a major step in a positive direction. But years and years of losing is finally taking a toll on their attendance figures. The Mariners fanbase is loyal and ten years ago, they had the highest attendance in the Major Leagues. Now they’re tenth. Until they start winning, that’s not going to improve.

They’re loaded with young pitching and led by a true megastar Felix Hernandez. They have some talented bats like Dustin Ackley and Kyle Seager, but are plain woeful offensively. Once they have some hitters to go along with that pitching, they’ll be a viable threat, but this ineptitude at the plate is going back a decade just like their attendance decline.

Chone Figgins and Franklin Gutierrez are owed a combined $15.5 million in 2013, but if they take a bad contract and some money (Jason Bay?) maybe they can clear those players and try something different. Apart from that, they have money to spend and prospects to trade to pursue bats such as Justin Upton and B.J. Upton; Mike Morse; Justin Morneau; or possibly try to trade for Jacoby Ellsbury.

Unless they find some people who can produce offensively, the results are not going to change.

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Hatcher’s Firing Was Inevitable

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In an unavoidable decision, the Angels fired hitting coach Mickey HatcherESPN Story.

I called it on April 30th in the following clip from this posting.

(Arte Moreno’s) not a quick trigger owner, but if (the Angels are) not hitting by mid-May, Hatcher’s gone. This could expose a rift between manager Mike Scioscia and the front office. Scioscia’s influence has been compromised with the hiring of Jerry Dipoto and if one of his handpicked coaches and friends is fired, a true chasm will be evident. Firings will be shots across the bow of Scioscia and, armed with a contract through 2018 (that he can opt-out of after 2015), if he’s unhappy with the changes he’ll let his feelings be known.

There will be talk that Scioscia’s sway over the organization is on the wane. Hatcher has been a coach on Scioscia’s staff since 2000. Twelve years is a long time. Maybe it’s too long.

Outsider speculation is just that. It’s hard to imaging Scioscia wanting to fire his hitting coach and friend, but there could also be an element of realization and pragmatism that something needed to be done. We don’t know whether Scioscia had a heavy hand in the decried decisions the Angels made in the past such as doling lucrative and wasted contracts on Gary Matthews Jr. and Justin Speier and making disastrous trades for Scott Kazmir and Vernon Wells. Scioscia had significant say-so in the team construction and this current group—on offense at least—is not the type of team that Scioscia generally preferred to have. For better or worse, he’s a National League-style manager who learned his trade under Tom Lasorda. What that means is that he liked having starting pitchers who gave him innings, a deep and diverse bullpen with a hard-throwing closer, a few boppers in the middle of the lineup, speed and defense.

Perhaps the failed decisions listed above were what caused the change in course in the front office from the manager having major input and the mandate to say no, to his opinion being taken under advisement with upper management doing what it wants whether the manager is onboard or not.

That’s pretty much how it is throughout baseball no matter who the manager is.

Following the drastic and uncharacteristic acquisition on Albert Pujols, there’s a lack of definition to this current Angels group.

No manager would say no to Pujols and eventually the rest of baseball is going to pay for what Pujols is going through at the moment. He’s not finished. He’s going to hit. But was it a decision that Scioscia would’ve made? Or would have preferred to spend that money elsewhere on a better bullpen? Another starting pitcher? An infielder who can do it all? Given the template of the Angels and what they needed, Jose Reyes was a better fit for the team than Pujols was, but with the new cable network deal on the way and Moreno’s desire to be the focus of Southern California, he wanted the big fish and got him.

The firing of Hatcher is cosmetic. To suggest that anyone aside from Pujols receives credit or blame for what he does on the field is silly. We can’t judge with any certainty how much a hitting coach influences a player when he steps up to the plate. The media will try to anoint certain coaches a mythical, guru status when, in reality, it’s the hitters themselves who do the dirty work. Many times a hitter simply needs someone with whom he connects regardless of the information he’s receiving. If the coach says good morning to him in the right way or gets in the player’s face when necessary, it will be seen as the “turning point”.

Was it a turning point? Or did the hitter just happen to meet the perfect person to make him feel better mentally to go up to the plate in the state he—as the individual—needed to succeed? That state could be anger, it could be peace or it could be anything. We don’t know.

Did Charlie Lau make George Brett or was Brett going to shine through with or without Lau?

Did Lou Piniella’s adjustments with Don Mattingly convincing Mattingly to try and pull the inside pitches over the short right field wall at Yankee Stadium create Donnie Baseball or would he have done it once he grew comfortable in the big leagues?

Hitting coaches like Rudy Jaramillo have been lauded and hired amid great fanfare and not helped at all in the bottom line.

The hitting coach is a convenient scapegoat to wake up the team, to put forth the pretense of “doing something” and to send a message to the manager.

In the case of the Angels, it’s probably all three.

It might not help, but given the talent on the roster, they certainly can’t be much more of a disappointment than they’ve already been.

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