SPORTS Hitters and Errors

Maybe all the Rangers need is a batting coach.

At this point in the base-ball season, only a base-ball fool would try to write anything more about the Rangers. The Rangers sit teetering on the brink, eight games out of first, as liable to fly as they are to die. Whatever I might say can be used against me in two weeks. And besides, why bother? Hasn’t the Ranger season, particularly its woeful side, been analyzed inside and out, from box score to box score, from barroom to bar-room? Yes. But I’m a baseball fool.

Something has been bothering me all season long. The Ranger season has, we all know, been less than satisfying. Many are the reasons why, and we know all of those too. But there is really only one reason why the Rangers aren’t in first place today, August 8: They haven’t hit the ball. Of the regulars, only four – Oliver, Sundberg, Bonds, and Beniquez – have hit near or above their lifetime averages; all the others have been dismally far below. The stats on August 8: Hargrove, from .303 lifetime to .250 this year; Wills, from .287 to .230; Campaneris, from .262 to .195; Harrah, from .262 to .207; Zisk, from .298 to .260. The team batting average on August 8: .246, worst in the American League. Of the Rangers’ 56 losses to date, 32 have been by one or two runs. It’s impossible to translate batting averages into runs, but you can be sure that a few more hits in each of those games could have won at least a third of them. The Rangers’ record would thus have been 64-45, and they would be sitting atop the Western Division.

What’s been bothering me all season is this: Why don’t the Rangers have a batting coach? Or, in the players’ jargon, why don’t the Rangers have a hitting instructor?

The hitting instructor is a relatively new phenomenon in baseball; that in itself seems remarkable. If Ted Williams was right (and he probably was) when he said that the most difficult thing in sports is to hit a baseball, why has baseball not produced a host of teachers of that art? No team would consider embarking on the long season without a pitching coach planted in the dugout; he’s hired solely to aid the pitcher in beating the hitter. Logically, it would seem that the hitter would benefit from similar assistance. But many ballclubs still balk at the notion. Including the Rangers.

A few teams invite hitting instructors to join them in spring training (like Mickey Mantle for the Yankees) but let them go before season play begins. Several teams now have coaches who, among their other duties, pay special attention to batting instruction, and seem to have done so with success. A few examples: Cincinnati (team batting average .262) has Ted Kluszewski, Boston (.275) has Johnny Pesky, and Los Angeles (.262) has Junior Gilliam.

But there have been few instances of coaches who have been hired to serve exclusively as hitting instructors. The one who has gained the most notoriety (and achieved the most visible success) is Charley Lau of the Kansas City Royals. The Royals’ testimonials on behalf of Lau are nearly worshipful. George Brett, one of Lau’s prize pupils, credits his whole career to Lau. (As the story goes, when Lau was once fired, before being rehired by new manager Whitey Herzog, Brett was so distressed that he picked up a bat, walked into the outfield, and started beating on the right field wall.) Hal McRae, the Royals’ designated hitter, had a lifetime batting average of .257 before he came to the Royals and Charley Lau; since then he has batted .311. Frank White was a gold-en glove second baseman but a worthless hitter until Lau fi-nally got him on track the last half of 1977. This season White is batting a respectable .276. Lau’s latest success story is Pete LaCock; in his five sea-sons with the Cubs, LaCock batted .221; last year, his first with the Royals, he batted .303; this year he’s been up to .328. It goes on and on – Al Cowens, Fred Patek, and Darrell Porter all sing his praises. Even players on other teams, like Joe Rudi and Rod Carew, have credited Lau with helping them.

What’s the secret? What does a hitting coach do?

“My work,” says Charley Lau, “depends to some extent on the individual ballplayers. Some are not as receptive as others to advice. But a large part of it, besides studying films of their swings and working with them on technique, is to study the game while it’s in progress. If I can pick up the pitching pattern, or pick up the pattern of the catcher who’s calling the game – because they do get into patterns – then I can offer advice to the hitter as to what kinds of pitches he’s more likely to see, and when.”

It apparently works. So many times we’ve seen the Royals initially stymied by a starting pitcher, only to get to him later in the game, even though he hasn’t lost his stuff. Any coach can stand by the batting cage and suggest that a hitter choke up on the bat or shorten his stride. But only a coach specialized in hitting instruction has the advantage of viewing the entire game from the hitter’s point of view and making the necessary adjustments.

Why don’t more teams have one? “It seems,” says Lau, “that some of the powers in baseball still don’t believe in the idea of a hitting coach. They say it does more harm than good – that too much instruction can be confusing. I don’t happen to agree. And I think we’re seeing a trend in baseball toward more coaches who specialize in hitting.”

It’s worth speculating on what a hitting coach might do for the Rangers. For example, might not a hitting coach have been able to pay some special attention to Toby Harrah and pull him out of his horrendous season-long slump? Might he not have noted that Richie Zisk couldn’t hit a lick with his damaged thumb and yanked him from the lineup much sooner? Might he not study Bump Wills’s switch-hitting statistics (.307 lefthanded, .236 right-handed last season; .260 lefthanded, .158 righthanded this season) and strongly sug-gest, as Billy Hunter has already intimated, that Wills stay on the left side of the plate? Or figure out what’s wrong from the right side?

Mike Hargrove is as dedicated a student of hitting as anyone on the Rangers; his diligence has paid off in a lifetime average of .303. But this year he’s down 50 points. “Sure,” he says, “I’d like to see a hitting instructor here. I think we all would. There’s a place for a hitting coach on every team. Hitting a baseball is a hard thing to do – it’s a technical art and a lot of things can go wrong. And hitting can be flukey; in football when you make a solid tackle, the man goes down; but when you make solid contact on a base-ball, it’s not necessarily a hit – it might go right at somebody. When it’s pitcher versus batter, the pitcher is always thinking; the batter has to be thinking too. A batting coach can help you with your thinking. The other coaches have more to do than watch the pitches and offer the batter advice. A batting coach can do that. And just as important, a good batting coach can bolster your confidence, convince you that you can hit. That ego buildup can be extremely important. Without a doubt, a hitting instructor would be a tremendous help. Everybody needs one.”

Manager Billy Hunter is not so enthusiastic about the idea. “A hitting coacn is fine if he can accomplish what Charley Lau does. The idea’s good if the guy gets results. But I really think that Charley Lau is the only one – at least in the American League – who has really had any great success with it.” So the Rangers are still not interested? “Well,” he says hesitantly, “we have talked about it. But it would have to be the right person and that’s not so easy to find. . .Actually,” he finally admits, “there’s a possibility the Rangers will have a batting coach pretty soon.”

If the Rangers are to hire a batting coach, one person who will still have to be convinced is general manager Danny O’Brien. “I’m for anything that will improve the ballclub,” he says, “but I’m skeptical. A hitting instructor is only as good as the degree to which the players think they’re being helped – hitting is more mental than it is physical. You have 15 batters on a team who can be helped, and I honestly don’t know if a hitting instructor can make a difference in the team batting percentage. Kansas City with Charley Lau is fifth in team percentage; Cleveland is right behind in sixth and they don’t have a hitting instructor. Hal McRae of the Royals was hitting .332 a couple of seasons ago; right now he’s hitting .272, down 60 points. What happened? I don’t know.”

One can argue the nothing-to-lose theory: With ballplayers making half a million dollars a year and not hitting, why not spend $25,000 on a hitting instructor and see what happens? After all, pitching coaches don’t always help the pitching either, but every team has one. O’Brien is not moved. “If you don’t get the right guy there is something to lose. If a player gets advised on his hitting and it doesn’t work, he’ll start thinking ’Now I’m really screwed up.’ If a hitting instructor can’t gain the players’ confidence, he’s worthless. As for pitching coaches, most baseball people agree that pitching is 80 percent of the game. That’s why we have pitching coaches.”

All arguments aside, if the Rangers are to hire a hitting instructor, the final word, like all final words on the Rangers, will have to come from owner Brad Corbett. If Corbett decides, or is convinced, that he wants a hitting instructor, the Rangers will likely have one. But Corbett isn’t dropping any hints. “That’s entirely up to my managers and coaches. I told them if they can find the right one, fine. But nothing seems to be moving too fast on that. Thanks for calling, podnuh.”

(Postscript: In the week since this column went into production, the Rangersstarted hitting. They also started winning.Nine out of their last ten. Without a batting instructor. Sorry I brought it up. Justa baseball fool.)


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