Sports

Nick Cafardo | Sunday Baseball Notes

Hitting coaches blamed for lack of offense

Dave Hudgens was fired last season by the Mets, but recently hired as Astros’ hitting coach.

Jeff Roberson/Associated Press

Dave Hudgens was fired last season by the Mets, but recently hired as Astros’ hitting coach.

Hitting coach jobs are available in Atlanta, Boston, New York (both teams), and Milwaukee, and the Cubs and Astros fired their hitting coaches then hired new ones (John Mallee in Chicago, Dave Hudgens in Houston). There could be more openings if Dave Magadan leaves Texas or Chili Davis leaves Oakland.

So, what’s the reason for the turnover? We are, after all, entering the post-steroid era. Home runs are down. Offensive production is down. Hitting coaches are now being asked to perform miracles with hitters who have lost their pop.

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They’re being asked to coach hitting with shifts designed to limit offense. What used to be a base hit to right field is now often an out. Batting averages have dropped. Pitchers are throwing 95-plus, from the starting rotation to the bullpen. Players are being rushed to the majors with not enough minor league at-bats, so hitting coaches have to develop inexperienced hitters.

“It’s the toughest pitching I’ve faced since I came into the league,” said David Ortiz. “I used to go out there and face guys who could throw 91-93 out of the bullpen, and now they’re throwing 95-100. That’s quite a difference.”

Shifting is killing baseball and hurting hitting coaches.

“I really believe that all of the advanced data we have in the game now benefits the pitcher,” said Magadan, who has interviewed for “a few” jobs but has a year remaining on his deal with the Rangers. “We faced [Oakland’s] Sonny Gray five times this year and every single time he was a different pitcher. He was a sinker/slider guy one game, threw four-seamers and a changeup the next, a two-seamer/over the top curveball guy the next, and then he threw all four things in another start.”

The job of a hitting coach has become thankless in so many ways. Former Red Sox third baseman Bill Mueller quit as the Cubs’ hitting coach when his assistant, Mike Brumley, was going to be reassigned by Theo Epstein. Mueller was a first-year hitting coach after working for the Dodgers as a special assistant to general manager Ned Colletti. Mueller loved his job with the Cubs but understood the difficulty of it, and Brumley acted as his comfort zone.

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After this season, the Yankees fired Kevin Long. You may never find a more respected hitting coach in the business. Players thought the world of him, but Long was blamed for the lack of uptick in the Yankees’ offense after they acquired Jacoby Ellsbury, Brian McCann, and Carlos Beltran.

Many teams now employ two hitting coaches because the job has become too big for one.

Greg Colbrunn, who resigned recently as Red Sox hitting coach after returning from a brain hemorrhage earlier in the season, was asked to perform miracles with youngsters Jackie Bradley Jr. and Xander Bogaerts, and neither had a good rookie season at the plate. Will Middlebrooks also didn’t make progress in his third season in the majors.

Was that Colbrunn’s fault?

We all know someone will be blamed for a lack of production, be it hitting or pitching. Those two areas seem to be open for the most criticism. Most hitting coaches work their tails off, arriving to the park hours before the game and working with hitters on video and in the batting cage.

“It is a tough job but I love it,” said John Valentin, an assistant hitting coach with the Dodgers. “I love the challenges it brings every day, trying to figure out how to put our hitters in the best situation possible.”

Valentin is the assistant to Mark McGwire. With the Dodgers hiring Andrew Friedman as their president of baseball operations, who knows what changes might take place.

Valentin gets to the ballpark at noon for a 7 p.m. game. He’s there all night and does the same thing every day. “You have to shrink the zone to hit strikes. You have to hit strikes,” said Valentin. “You have to understand what type of hitter you are and make your adjustments accordingly.”

Challenges include younger players being pushed to the majors who don’t have the proper experience. There are also multimillionaire players set in their ways who don’t want to listen to the hitting coach.

The shift is a constant topic. How can you beat it? Valentin cites Dodgers first baseman Adrian Gonzalez as one of the best shift busters because Gonzalez can hit to the opposite field. Valentin doesn’t understand why more hitters don’t bunt to get a free hit and get on base.

“I know that teams feel that if a big power guy is prevented from hitting a double or home run in a big situation it’s a victory,” said Valentin, “but if you can get on base and start a rally, I think that’s very valuable. I’d like to see that more often.”

Magadan has had a brief conversation with the Red Sox and said he would consider a return. “I enjoyed my time in Boston,” he said. Magadan left the Red Sox after 2012 for a lucrative deal with the Rangers. He joined the Red Sox in 2007.

Magadan believes batting averages will continue to plummet because hitters won’t make adjustments.

“I tell my guys all the time, you can continue trying to hit into the shift and come back and complain how much the shift is hurting you,” said Magadan, “or you stay inside a slider and take a shot the other way and get on base more.”

Valentin also thinks pitching is getting better. The power arms have made it tough on hitters. He emphasizes swinging at fastballs early in the count so hitters don’t fall behind so much. There are so many called third strikes because of the grind-it-out approach to hitting that the emphasis seems to be shifting to hitting earlier in the count if you get a fastball down the middle of the plate.

Bottom line: Hitting coaches are getting blamed more for things that are out of their control.

“It’s a results business,” Magadan said. “If you don’t get the results, you’re at risk.”

INTERESTED OBSERVER

Pedroia is impressed with play in playoffs

Dustin Pedroia has been watching the playoffs from his home in Arizona and has been impressed by a few things.

Being from northern California, Pedroia grew up a huge Giants fan, and he has paid special attention to second baseman Joe Panik, who has been a godsend.

“He’s a winning player,” Pedroia said. “He’s young. He’s going to get better and better.”

GM Brian Sabean nearly replaced the injured Marco Scutaro with a veteran he was seeking in a trade. But he didn’t panic, giving Panik a shot.

Panik responded by hitting .305 with a home run and 18 RBIs in 269 regular-season at-bats. He hit only .182 in the National League Championship Series, but one of his hits was a two-run homer in the clinching Game 5 against the Cardinals’ Adam Wainwright.

Pedroia also has been impressed with the Royals.

“The pitching, defense, and speed of the Royals has really put a lot of pressure on the opposing team,” he said. “We had that with Vic [Shane Victorino]. We did it the year before . . . like the infield hit Vic hit in Tampa Bay. You can really make something happen with speed.”

Pedroia was referring to Victorino beating out an infield hit in the seventh inning of the clinching game of the American League Division Series against Tampa Bay.

Rays manager Joe Maddon said at the time, “Victorino really adds a different dimension to that group, and you saw that again tonight. He just drips with intangibles.”

Pedroia has vowed to return stronger than ever after wrist surgery in mid-September. He has heard the criticism and doesn’t believe he’s on the downside of his career.

Apropos of nothing

1. If Clayton Kershaw pitches to his capabilities in the Division Series, are we talking about Andrew Friedman replacing Ned Colletti? Maybe there were discussions even prior to Kershaw’s problems, but how could the Dodgers replace their GM if they made the NLCS and maybe the World Series? Colletti’s mistake, just as it was Dave Dombrowski’s mistake in Detroit, was not obtaining Andrew Miller. Colletti would not give up one of his three top pitching prospects, and neither would Dombrowski.

2. The Curse of J.J.? The Orioles did not win a game after J.J. Hardy signed a three-year extension prior to the start of the ALCS.

3. Is there a better ballpark experience than AT&T Park in San Francisco? Great music, the Panda Bears, the setting. Pretty special. Wonder if the Panda Bears are heading to Boston.

4. If you’re Don Mattingly, you’d better have a good 2015 after Friedman said he’s sticking with you. Why? Joe Maddon is a free agent after 2015, and if he doesn’t sign an extension with Tampa, Maddon, a southern California resident, could go to LA and become the new Tom Lasorda.

5. The Red Sox need a superstar, don’t they? Empty the farm system for Giancarlo Stanton.

6. Don’t forget, the Red Sox’ first-round draft pick is protected. They’ll get the seventh pick in the draft. If they sign a free agent, they’ll have to give up a second-round pick.

7. Don’t know where Jed Lowrie will end up, but it should be to play second base, not shortstop. While he didn’t hit well this season, his bat makes him an attractive target.

8. Red Sox scout Galen Carr is getting eyeballed by the Padres for a high-level position.

9. J.P. Ricciardi is working out an extension with the Mets as a special assistant to GM Sandy Alderson.

Updates on nine

1. Dayton Moore, GM, Royals — Moore will likely be pursued for the Braves’ GM job when the dust clears after the World Series. Will he go back to Atlanta? If Moore wins a World Series in Kansas City, he won’t have to buy any barbecue dinners for a while, but he felt comfortable in Atlanta, according to those who know him well. The Braves also have a little bigger budget. Sometimes it’s tiring to have to fight for every penny.

2. Stan Saleski, scout, Giants — Shocking news of Saleski’s death at the age of 59 in his Baltimore hotel room as he was scouting the Orioles and Royals last week. Saleski grew up in Worcester and had deep New England roots. He was a friend of Giants GM Brian Sabean and Mets special assistant J.P. Ricciardi, also a Worcester native. “Very upsetting,” Ricciardi said. “He was four years ahead of me in high school. We worked together with the Yankees. He did a lot for that organization.”

3. Michael Morse, LF, Giants — Morse, 32, has increased his free agent profile with his dramatic eighth-inning homer in Game 5 of the NLCS. Morse was having a good year before injuring an oblique. He’s now coming off the bench but is likely to DH in the World Series games in Kansas City. Morse’s best year was in 2011 with Washington when he hit .303 with 31 homers and 95 RBIs for a .910 OPS. He hit .279 with 16 homers and 61 RBIs in 131 games for the Giants this season. Morse isn’t the greatest defender and is best suited for DH. Could be a fit for a team like Tampa Bay.

4. Justin Masterson, RHP, free agent — Masterson feels he’s going to be healthy by the time free agency rolls around. He’ll likely be signed to a three-year deal and come off as a bargain. He dealt with three injuries (rib cage, knee, and shoulder impingement) and though he was removed from the rotation for the playoffs by the Cardinals (after a 7.04 ERA), he is recovered from all three injuries with no surgery required. Noted Phoenix-based physical therapist Brett Fischer worked out the scar tissue in his rib cage, which had restricted him. The injuries hurt Masterson’s numbers, but teams such as the Red Sox may take the leap that Masterson, 29, will be very good again.

5. Tyler Glasnow, RHP, Pirates — Considered one of the best young pitchers scouts saw in the Instructional League, the Pirates may have another front-line starter on the radar in the next year or two. He was consistently clocked at 97 miles per hour. Glasnow, 21, a 2011 fifth-round pick out of Hart High School in Santa Clarita, Calif., went 12-5 with a 1.74 ERA for Single A Bradenton. Scouts also liked Red Sox third baseman Rafael Devers and outfielder Manuel Margot.

6. Yoenis Cespedes, OF, Red Sox — Word is spreading that the Red Sox could make Cespedes available. He will earn $10.2 million in the final year of his deal. Cespedes said late in the season that he wasn’t sure whether he’d engage in long-term talks with the Red Sox. Couple that with his desire not to play right field or work on his defense, and that could make him a trade candidate as the Red Sox try to pare their outfield depth and possibly make room for Mookie Betts or add a lefthanded hitter.

7. Nick Markakis, RF, Orioles — The Orioles are expected to decline Markakis’s $17.5 million option and pay him a $2 million buyout, make him a qualifying offer, and then try to reach a long-term deal with him. Markakis loves playing in Baltimore, though he’d likely get a lot of attention on the market. One team to watch for would be the Giants, who though relying heavily on Travis Ishikawa for big hits, would likely not commit to him as an everyday left fielder. But there will be others, such as the Mets, if they can’t get the power hitter (Nelson Cruz?) they’re seeking.

8. Jake Peavy, RHP, Giants — One agent believes Peavy has turned his next contract from a one-year, $7 million deal into a three-year, $36 million deal based on his second half with the Giants. The Giants, who likely won’t re-sign Ryan Vogelsong, will likely have to bite on a Peavy deal, given they don’t have much coming in from Triple A. The Giants also will likely give Yusmeiro Petit a chance to start.

9. Koji Uehara, RHP, Red Sox — There have been preliminary talks with Uehara about staying in Boston but the sides aren’t close to a deal. The Sox probably don’t want to extend a qualifying offer of $15.3 million, but a negotiated deal that might include an option would be preferable. Uehara, even at age 40 next season, will get some notice despite his struggles late in the year.

Extra innings

From the Bill Chuck files — “Only five players this season had at least 500 plate appearances and fewer than 100 hits: Chris Davis (525/88), Adam Dunn (511/94), Mark Teixeira (508/95), Allen Craig (505/99), and Mike Moustakas (500/97) . . . Also, “Casey McGehee led the majors with 77 two-out hits.” . . . And, “Wade Davis had nine wins and allowed just eight runs. The most wins ever to exceed runs.” . . . Happy birthday, Mike Gardiner (49), Keith Foulke (42), and Jason Shiell (38).

Nick Cafardo can be reached at cafardo@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @nickcafardo. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.
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